Jerry is washing the dishes in his particular way: the soft sounds of water and soap, a dull thud as a rinsed plate touches the rubber-coated dish rack or the washcloth laid over the tiled counter. His hands, sheathed in bright pink gloves, never allow a piece of cutlery to hit another, two pots to clang. It's a noiseless hive of activity.
From this vantage point, Jerry can see outside to the narrow space that runs up alongside of his modest house to the fence dividing his yard from the neighbour's -- the lazy ones next door who he can't quite figure out as opposed to the nice, elderly couple on the other side whom he asks to collect his mail if he's out of town. The fence is painted a dull red -- fire engine, he supposes, when it was new, but now that it is peeling and worn, he's not sure what to call it. He remembers being unimpressed with his last visit to the hardware store to find paint for the bathroom. How many names do they have for off-white? Isn't the colour itself more important?
He looks at the fence with disgust. He's watched it for weeks. Any time that it's light enough to see, he can see ants crawling along the scored surface of the fence-posts. What are they after? Where did they come from? While he's rather partial to nature documentaries, nothing he's watched has given him insight into this.
He'd really been disgusted at the trail of ants marching out of a tiny gap in the window to a row of canisters filled with flour, sugar, and pasta. They'd reached the sugar -- which he threw out reluctantly -- but nothing else. Good. Jerry had swept the tiny animals into the sink in one motion, and then as an afterthought, turned the water to a scalding temperature to wash them down the drain. He wiped the rest of the area with a bit of vinegar and bleach. Then what? He wet a paper towel, folded it, opened the window, put the towel where he thought the gap was, and shut the window tight.
That was the start of it: the war against the ants, but also, the deterioration of this living-together arrangement with Mick. He had foreseen it not working out anyway, but if Mick didn't do something soon, really, this was the end.
It was never a very good idea. Jerry had been living on his own since the break-up with Joe three years ago in a house that still half-belonged to each of them. And now he'd gotten used to it. Mick was unexpected. Jerry wasn't interested at all in dating and relationships. How could you ever replace something that was twelve years long? Why would you bother?
They hadn't even talked much the first times they met. Sure, the restaurant that Mick had suggested (after two meetings in bars) had been more formal than Jerry had expected, but they still hadn't really talked. The conversation that was happening was mostly in bed: lively, not one-sided, a bit of jousting. Not a bad thing.
Unfortunately, to Jerry, it felt like someone was watching them speak. It wasn't exactly as if Joe, Jerry's ex, was in the room, but his presence was there: a photo of the two of them on the bedside table, the mirror in which Jerry admired the shape of Mick's arse -- a gift from Joe's sister, the condoms which were Joe's favourite brand and then favoured by both of them.
Mick hadn't seemed to notice.
There didn't seem to be similar evidence in Mick's small apartment in what Jerry thought was an ugly, utilitarian building. But maybe Mick didn't have time to leave his mark on the space. From what Jerry had gathered, he'd had a much nicer apartment before, until his business partner had ripped him off and left him in debt with his apartment mortgaged, legal proceedings underway, and an outstanding bill which the lawyer was letting him pay in installments. Mick had borrowed money from his brother, re-opened a smaller shop, and moved into the apartment, one he hadn't spent much time thinking about whether he liked it or not, he just needed somewhere to stay.
"So, how's lighting?"
"Bright. How are mobiles?"
That was their routine for their second month of dating -- their first, they seldom talked about their jobs. But as the details were exchanged, Jerry was impressed by the entrepreneurship of the small businessman, in Mick's case, a shop that sold lamps and lighting. And Mick was impressed with Jerry's ability to deal with the machinations of a customer service branch of a large mobile phone company.
At the same time, Jerry was impatient with Mick's long hours, and his involvement in details that Jerry was sure could be handled by someone more junior at the shop. And Mick, proud to be his own boss, could not comprehend how Jerry could take orders from a young hotshot of thirty years old.
Still, they respected each other in an adult way, a distant way, when they talked of each other's professions or personal lives. It was a different relationship than what Jerry was used to. He and Joe had been best friends and brothers and lovers and every other category rolled into one. But Mick didn't seem to be used to anything. He was one of those gay men who'd been married for years - eight, in his case resulting in two children, now adult, who he saw regularly. He'd had one or two relationships of three or four years long in his thirties. The last one crossed over into his forties. It was almost the inverse of Jerry, who had a few longish but not long relationships before meeting Joe at thirty-five and guessing that they'd spend the rest of their lives together.
Jerry is still wiping the counters of the kitchen when Mick emerges from the shower, his towel wrapped around his waist, but his hair and torso still wet. He looks up in surprise.
"Phone call. I promised Maire that I'd call her at exactly seven and it's seven now." He grabs the telephone off the wall from its holder.
"Finish your shower. You're dripping on the floor."
"No, she doesn't have a mobile, she has to leave soon and... Never mind, I'll explain later." Mick dials the number and turns his back to Jerry as he listens to the ring tone.
Jerry looks at Mick's back: lean and long. There is a perfect twin crevasse on either side of his spine and beads of water from the shower cling there like a string of pearls. Jerry presses himself gently against Mick's back, feeling the moisture come off onto his dress-shirt. Mick continues talking with Maire but reaches back absently with his left hand to touch Jerry's thigh. Jerry, holding Mick lightly around the waist, leans away with his upper body to watch his lover's back dry completely in the air.
Mick finishes the call and goes to put clothes on. He has surprisingly few possessions, or so it seems to Jerry though Mick has explained that there are various boxes and pieces of furniture with his brother. When he left his wife, Jerry had explained, he'd felt so guilty that he'd taken nothing with him. It was a pattern that he still carried with him. How much does one need to live with anyway?
Still, Jerry wonders if he wouldn't be more comfortable with a few more things of Mick's around. He doesn't want it to feel like Mick is a border. They sleep in the same bed, but so far, Mick's clothes are in the spare room: some of them hung up, some of them still laid across the bed. Should he invite him into his closet too, as well as his home?
Jerry was the one who'd made the suggestion: a combination of utility (typical of Jerry) and spontaneity (very unusual).
"How are you going to find time to find an apartment?" he'd asked. It was meant in earnest since Mick was spending long hours trying to get the new shop running smoothly.
"I'll find time," replied Mick but detected something odd in Jerry's voice.
"But I've not seen you a lot the last two weeks."
"Your work hasn't been any less busy."
"I don't have much of a choice. You know it was a short-term lease. Maire's got a friend who finds good rental units, and I'm hoping I can promote the new boy at the shop to assistant manager."
"Maybe you should try to find somewhere close to me."
"How about really close?"
"How close do you mean?"
"I've got that extra room, and there's more than enough space in the house. It doesn't have to be permanent." Jerry tapped his chin with his finger twice. "But I think it would be sensible."
"Are you asking me to move in with you?"
"No. Not really. I guess, technically yes. But it would make things easier for you. And us..."
"Only lesbians move in together so quickly," replied Mick.
Jerry, a trace of a smile, thinking, not speaking: what have I done?
"Mick, did you get something for the ants? I thought you said you'd get it this week."
"Oh. Sorry." He hits his head with his palm in a comic gesture. "I keep forgetting."
"You know how forgetful I am."
Not really, thinks Jerry. Mick notices the expression on Jerry's face as he is thinking it and matches it with one of equal incomprehension.
The incident stays with Jerry, but Mick offers a different excuse the next week. "A delivery was late and..."
What is wrong with him? It doesn't make sense for Jerry to get whatever it is that needs getting: Mick has the head for mechanical-hardware sorts of things and there are no hardware stores or supermarkets around where Jerry works in the city. And really, it's one of the only things that Jerry has specifically asked Mick to do, and he's going to stick with it. They are living together after all.
"Is everything OK?" asks Mick after a session of lovemaking -- satisfactory, but missing something.
"Yes. Fine." Jerry answers a little too quickly.
"If you want me to pay more rent, I've already offered."
"Don't be silly."
"I know I've been busy. Let's go to a movie this week."
"I'd prefer going out to dinner."
Jerry doesn't know why he's so snappy lately. He doesn't think it's like him, though his co-workers would say that he's like this some weeks. But it's been going on for a while. It's not as if he's invested a lot in this relationship. He'd basically given up on finding someone. He hardly met anyone his own age, and younger men were fine for sex, but not relationships. He'd been living long enough in Sydney that he seemed to know most of the men in the bars anyway, if not by name, by face. Mick showing up at the backyard BBQ of someone Jerry didn't even know that well, the fact that they seemed to hit it off not only on a physical level, and that they'd successfully arranged a date for afterwards was, looking back at it, a bit improbable.
"You didn't have to do that." Mick points to the bedside table.
Jerry asks absent-mindedly, "Do what?"
"You've put away the photo of you and Joe." The absent space on the table. "If you want to do that, that's OK, but you don't have to do that for me."
"I just thought it would be..." Jerry's not quite sure what the end of the sentence is. He'd never put away the photo before. Even when he'd planned for someone to spend the evening, he'd considered it a point of pride to keep the photo there and explain later, if asked, "That's my ex. We were together twelve years." Come to think of it, he'd perhaps said this to Mick the first time they'd had sex. Maybe this was why Mick was pointing it out.
"You were together for a long time, Jerry. It's natural to have reminders."
As if the bed, mirror, house weren't reminders enough. As if Mick were the type of person to carry around reminders, Jerry thinks with sarcasm. "Yeah," he answers out loud. A flush of blood hits the lower parts of his body and he awkwardly tackles Mick back into bed.
"Hey, hey... Mmmmm... ," replies Mick.
Things go smoothly, and then not so smoothly, according to Jerry. They're coming up to three months living together, which makes it nearly nine months since they met. Gestation. How did older men like themselves manage to do something that younger and inexperienced men do, like move in together so quickly? Mick doesn't seem fussed by it. Is he like this all the time: natural when alone, natural when together? He glides in and out of the house. They make time for each other, sometimes successfully, other times not. He sees his own friends, but they've met some, if not all, of each other's inner circles. Jerry's friends seem to like Mick; Mick's are happy that Mick is happy.
"He's a bit uptight sometimes," Mick tells his oldest friend, Maire, "but I like that. He reminds me of my mother."
"Eww. You're dating your mother?" is Maire's response though she quite likes Jerry herself.
"You did move in together a bit suddenly," counsels Brett, Jerry's oldest friend. "He's nice." Lets that hang in the air. "And sexy."
Jerry says nothing. He's trying to decide whether he really minds that Mick put his toenail clippings into the pot plants in the back garden. And seems to leave water to pool around the edges of the bathroom sink without wiping it up. And couldn't he do the dishes just a bit more often instead of just the drying? Maybe what it really comes down to is the toothpaste tube being squeezed from the middle. Surely he must notice that Jerry squeezes it from the end each time. So that the tube is full and unblemished, no matter how much paste is left. And what about those ants?
"I don't remember you having problems living together with Joe," Brett comments.
On the anniversary of the break-up of Jerry and Joe, Jerry is preparing steak, something thick and formerly bloody, something to cook through until it's well-done though he'll leave Mick's a bit rarer, how he likes it. Jerry's managed to leave work early, unusually. He shut down his computer, swept his briefcase up into his left arm, and walked out before anyone could notice. He'd been avoiding talking to people all day anyway. On the way home, he uses his mobile phone to call Mick, to tell him he'll cook tonight, can he be home by 7 PM?
"Where's the wine?" He looks up at Mick from the plum tomatoes he's slicing up for a salad.
"Sorry, I didn't bring any," answers Mick. "You didn't ask."
"Well, we don't have any. Can you run back out to the bottle shop?"
"Sure." Mick throws his jacket on a chair and reverses direction. He senses that it's not the right time to say he's certain there's wine in the house, but he's equally perplexed at this flawlessly spoken lie.
When Mick returns a few minutes later, the steaks are laid out on plates, the salad in a bowl between them, wine glasses and cutlery in place. "Thanks. Looks great," he says grimly. They begin to eat.
Mick carves up his meat; Jerry stabs a tomato slice from the bowl.
"Is there some occasion?" asks Mick.
"Tonight?" It's meant to sound like a question, but the last syllable gets stuck somewhere and doesn't rise high enough. Mick notices too, and immediately starts racking his brain: had Jerry said anything today? A birthday? The anniversary of someone's death? "No," Jerry finally says. What was he thinking? How did he fall into this strange ceremony? How does he get himself out of it?
It's during some instant of that silence that Mick understands. There's no reason for him to do so and neither does he have a particular memory for dates. But he guessed: something to do with Jerry's ex; something to do with the break-up. Oh.
Mick looks down at his plate. "The salad looks good. What dressing did you put on it?"
Jerry's ninety per cent sure that Mick doesn't want to hear another story about Joe leaving him; and wages fifty-fifty as to whether Mick knows what's going on. It's not something that they'll ever bring up again. "Oh, just a little olive oil. And some balsamic vinegar. Nothing much."
This is it. He's told Mick a dozen times to do something about this, and he's sure that Mick's heard him. Their local supermarket is certain to have something, and there's a hardware store not a far distance away either. Jerry even left a curt note on the counter as he'd left for a swim:
PLEASE DO SOMETHING ABOUT THE ANTS TODAY!!
The paper was gone by the time he returned, as was Mick. Had he forgotten that Jerry had an out-of-work-hours meeting with his colleague Mona today? Jerry had come home and then had to leave for the meeting before Mick had returned -- from shopping, Jerry hoped, though he might have snuck in a workout at the gym.
Days like these were funny. How can you live with someone and not see him the whole day long? It was like tag-team wrestling and neither one of the pair could be inside the ring at the same time as the other. Jerry stops at a traffic light, the last one before reaching home. If Mick hasn't done anything about the ants, Jerry will sit him down for a talk this week. He won't mention the ants, oh no, but he will talk about a number of other things that aren't working, and ask if they have really thought things through before Mick moved in? Maybe they jumped the gun. Maybe this just wasn't working.
Before Jerry enters his home, he takes a quick, deep breath, and perks himself up to walk inside with determination and energy. He knows right away though that Mick isn't there, an absence of his sounds and smell. So, he drops his shoulders and changes his step to a lazy stride. He rounds the corner to the kitchen and sees a note on the table. "Had to return a video-tape to Maire. Back at 7:30." How long does it take to return a videotape? Maire just lives ten minutes away. Jerry thinks, I'm too old for this.
There are grocery bags still on the kitchen counter. He doesn't see one that looks like it's from the hardware store. The perishables are all put away, and Jerry opens the refrigerator door just to check. Eggs. Milk. Margarine. He steals a glance at the window though he knows he'll need to stand right in front of the sink to see properly.
Would he have gotten some sort of ant-poison? A spray or a powder? He must have done it. How would he have the gall to not do it after being asked so many times? This is it. I'm looking. He steps across the kitchen. One-two-three. His arms on the counter, braced, as if expecting an earthquake.
There isn't one, though there's a strange shock as Jerry's vision focuses and sees ants. More ants than before but not in their usual lines, instead a horizontal slightly tilted mass. What did he... How did he... Jerry scans the countertop and knows that the new shape has been left out on purpose. It's even got a smile on it, this grinning, plastic, bear-shaped container with a yellow twist nozzle on top. Honey.
Jerry looks in amazement. Written in sweet, liquid lines on the fence in surprisingly neat block letters, connected to each other with the tiniest lines is:
I LOVE YO
That's all it says for now though there seems to be an "I" in the making, which might just transform into the proper letter, a pulsating many-legged symbol made of bee's labour and the spent fertility of wildflowers.
Jerry will look back later to see if the rest of the word has filled in.