Joseph Earp is a Sydney-based film and music critic, and an author of short fiction. He tweets at @TheUnderlook.
One morning, spooning out instant coffee into a chipped mug, the woman realised that the phrase I just thought you should see this filled her with instant, unavoidable dread. The revelation was so sudden she had to sit down. The kettle, temporarily ignored, stopped humming and clicked once as its light went off. Her hands felt around for the cigarettes on the counter, but they were not there. And anyway, she was quitting. And anyway, she was sick of the room smelling like smoke. And anyway I just thought you should see this was still rattling around her head, and she felt numb.
She tried to remember the last time she had heard someone say it to her, under what circumstances. But she came up with nothing. She had no idea where the sentence had come from in the first place (I just thought you should see this) or why it terrified her. Maybe not terror. Just a kind of sadness, anxiety, that collected in the pit of her stomach and made her want to spit.
She stood up and poured the hot water into the mug. The sound of the water pouring relaxed her a little. But there was still something there, rattling around her. She was worried. She picked up the phone and called her brother.
“Hullo?” He said, hoarse. He sounded like he’d just woken up.
“Oh. Hi. What time is it?”
“I don’t know. Early.”
“What are you up to?”
She looked over at the coffee.
“Is all okay?”
“I don’t know.”
“I said, I’m not sure.”
“Just want to chat?”
“Okay. About what?”
“I don’t know.”
There was a pause.
“You don’t know?”
“Alright. Okay. How’s work?”
He went quiet. She sat back down in the kitchen, folding her legs and picking absently at the Tattoo on her ankle.
“How about you?” He said.
I don’t know. Alright, I guess”
“Okay,” he said, quickly. “Okay.” He rolled the words around his mouth. “I reckon I’ve got to go.”
“Why? What are you doing?”
“I’ve got to get up.” He paused for a moment. Perhaps he was testing the potential impact of what he wanted to say – trying to figure out how to inflict the least possible harm – and then he relented and said it anyway. “And I don’t know why you’re calling.”
She moved her head from side to side before she realised he couldn’t see her.
She hung up the phone. But there it was, again, pulsing in her head. I just thought you should see this. It was clearer now, stronger, and she said it aloud, just once. But it made her feel uncomfortable.
“I just thought you should see this.”
It made her think lots of things at once, none of which she could name, and it made her want to cry.
She shook a little. She touched a finger to her cheeks. They were still dry, but she left her hand there, waiting for something to happen.
Maybe it was some fucked up Freudian thing. Something in her past. She started thinking silly things, and as soon as she did, she laughed, as though she could scare the words away with noise, like they were little sparrows hopping into her house on hard little feet.
It was raining outside. In the apartment next door, someone was waking up, moving around, boiling the kettle. She liked to imagine that the person was a mirror image of herself. Maybe her double. The same hair. Same skin. Wore the same clothes, and lipstick and perfume, and was now standing in the kitchen with her lips screwed up trying very hard not to think about the sentence I just thought you should see this.
But she knew who lived next door. It was a young guy, skinny, with long hair that tipped across his face and almost covered his eyes. She had even been into his apartment once, when he had invited her to a party, probably because he thought she was lonely. It was a disappointment. His apartment smelt strange. Not unpleasant, just unlike how she had expected. Beads hung from the ceiling, and he spent a drunken half hour telling her about this band that was really fucken awesome, stretching out each of the words slowly. She had left early. Come home. Listened to the partygoers make noise next door.
She walked over to the window. She really wanted to have a cigarette. She hadn’t smoked in so long, but now the desire to do something with her hands came back to her, uncontrollably. She noticed after a moment that her fingers were balled up into a fist.
“I just thought you should see this,” she said it to herself, slowly, and felt as though she was about to collapse.
The phone rang again. She jumped, then picked it up after a few rings.
“Hullo.” It was her brother
“Hi. What’s up?”
“Sorry if I sounded rude before,” he mumbled.
“What? No, don’t worry about it.”
“I was just confused.”
“Yeah, it’s a little silly.”
“I just thought about something. And it made me sad. And kinda scared.”
“Oh,” he said, and his “oh” was filled with the kind of quiet meaning that let her know he was thinking about the wrong thing.
“It’s not like that,” she blurted.
“Are you still… Are things still hard?” her brother went on, still wrong.
“No, it’s not him.”
“You can talk to me.”
“Really. I don’t want to.”
“You don’t have to be alone in this.”
“I’m not.” She shook her head. “I wasn’t thinking about Mark. I was thinking about…” She drew a breath. “I was thinking about the sentence ‘I just thought you should see this.’ And it made me sad.”
The phone line went silent. After a moment, her brother made a wet sound in the back of his throat.
“That’s weird,” he managed.
“Yeah. I suppose.”
They talked for a little while longer, awkwardly, without direction, and then she hung up. But she was angry. People had tried to console her using the same sentiment many times before – You don’t have to be alone in this – and they were always wrong. What a dumb thing to say. Everyone’s always alone in Grief (the word had a capital G even in her head). And she wasn’t even Grieving anymore. Wasn’t sad at all. Hadn’t thought about Mark all day.
Actually, that wasn’t true. When the sentence first came to her she had tried to remember if he had ever said that to her (“I just thought you should see this”: maybe taking her to a cafe he had found, or an art exhibition, or something.) But it didn’t make her sad to think about Mark anymore. When she did it now it was casual, like playing with something on the side of the road. Rolling a coin between her fingers. She could even think about That Night (mentally capitalised in the same way as Grief, The Ocean, Love, Tattoo, and a few others. But not suicide. Nothing like the word suicide; suicide didn’t have a capital letter, didn’t need one, deserve one) without getting too worked up.
There had even been lovers since Mark. No one permanent. Maybe the first few had been a way to unwrap the bandages, to say to people “see, see. Didn’t even leave a scar” but there had been people after that who she had genuinely been attracted to. Made love to. Without thinking about Mark at all.
Her mind was moving faster now, and because it was, and because she was thinking to herself “look, I’m fine, I’m not even sad” she realised she really was sad, and started trying to remember why, and then found it again.
The long haired boy in the room next door was talking. She could hear him. His voice was low, and the words were incoherent. There was the sound of a bottle being opened.
She walked through to the living room, sat down, pulled up a notebook and a pen. She looked down at the Tattoo on her ankle. It was ridiculous: this crude black star, printed onto her skin, already bleeding out like pen marks on tissue paper. She had gotten it when she was young, sixteen, because it looked cool, and made her feel rebellious. She was already hating it when she first met Mark, the soft-spoken guy with the dark hair and a Tattoo almost identical to hers on his hip. He hated his too. And they talked about it, what jerks they had been when they were younger. And they laughed.
She looked at her Tattoo and it made her think about Mark’s. Still printed on his body. Underground. Her mind went places she did not want it to go. Maybe it wasn’t there anymore, she suddenly thought. Maybe it had already started to –
She pressed the pen down to paper. “I just thought you should see this”, she wrote. It looked even worse on the page. She took a breath. The phone rang. She didn’t answer it. Next door the sound of a door closing. Footsteps.
Read another short story, ‘Mr Lewis‘ by Richard Hill.