My time in this town had run out; I was off to a bigger city with new buildings, opportunities and people. I was finally leaving the place I had lived in for five years, longer than anywhere else in the world. Its old grey roads never led you to anything but what yesterday already offered; its cafes, shops, and bars acted as refuge for the same faces with only old stories to tell. It was a place where people moved to start families, to set down roots, because houses were affordable and jobs paid well, because the country is such a wonderful place to raise children. And whether they intended it or not, families stayed; children grew up and often married young or began careers there, finding themselves a permanent part of the landscape, as if the roots they planted years ago had burst from the ground and wrapped around their ankles, entrapping them.
I was one of those alien entrants who were only temporary additions to the map, who saw none of the attraction so many others did. During my entire presence, I knew I would someday leave, knew that this place and these people were not where I belonged. And while five years is but a pinprick in our strange and mysterious existence, it is enough time to meet someone who you will carry with you everyday for the rest of your life, wherever you go, whatever you do. Cam’s face will forever be imprinted on the inside of my skull, his name an unforgettable sound sticking out in people’s conversations as if they screamed it into my ear.
Cam and I lived close to one another in this small yet expanding town: he at the foot of one side of a hill, and I on the other. Every day after high school we climbed the hill, pulling our feet over dying grass and straw-coloured weeds that brushed against our legs and got nettles stuck in our socks. At the top of the hill was a small Christmas-like tree, under which we hid a faded blue football and other useless junk we collected for each other. Often we sat up there for hours, among the dying grass, just two fifteen-year-olds laughing over nonsense. We invented long, impossible stories of shark attacks on jet skis or of driving across Australia in a Mack Truck; once we simply lay on the rough, dry ground and tried to think up all the words that rhymed with wish.
It was an easy friendship, simple and child-like, until one late afternoon on the top of the hill, when the sun began to set behind us, both our navy school jumpers covered in nettles and our shoes covered in dust, when he leaned over and kissed me. And while fate has cruelly made me realise that there could have been something real between us, at the time I did not want it. I wanted things only as they were, simple and easy; I only wanted to be his friend. But instead of telling him this I went along with it, letting him believe I truly felt the same as he, pretending for months I was not interested in one of our other friends instead, until the day I broke his heart with the mess I had made of everything. He always stood by me though, even at the time I least deserved it. Cam was the one I ran to when others hurt me, the one who was there, ready and waiting, his hands tangled in my hair, pulling my head to his chest while I cried into his shirt over boys who would never love me as much as he did.
Three years later though, on the night before I left, the house emptied and car packed, I forgot to even go and say goodbye. But he came to me. And as we sat, legs splayed and backs against the dark panelled walls of my empty bedroom, he gave it to me, my going away present. It was small, the size of my two palms side by side. Smooth and cold, a hollow heart carved and welded out of silver steel. Cam made it for me at work, where he also made the steel backsplash in the kitchen of the house we were leaving behind. If only I could have taken the backsplash with me too. His gift was a crooked, imperfect heart shape with an outline of moulded metal, evidence of the burning welding flame used to put all the pieces together.
He was not completely happy with how it turned out, he said. He wanted to make me a new one, then cut it in half and weld it back together, like a broken heart fixed, a friendship cracked and then patched up. The comment stung at first, but I quickly dismissed it, telling him this one was perfect. But now I wish I had asked for a hundred more steel hearts, ones with cracks and nicks and imperfect shapes, just to touch the cool steel and feel something other than losing him. Just to have more of him, something more than memory, that temporary and evasive snake of smoke that suffocates me when I would sooner forget, then evaporates years later when I desperately try to cling to it.
The steel heart sat on the top shelf in my new room. Surrounded by other trinkets and picture frames, by small statues of Indian elephants and baby photos with fraying corners, it was lost in a sea of memories. Months raced past without Cam and I seeing one another. I was studying my two degrees and travelling to America; Cam was still in the same town, working the same job he had left school early for three years ago. Sometimes he rang me and we talked for hours; somehow I was always too busy to call him back. I ventured back to the country town often, to visit friends and attend birthdays, and realised this place I was so proud to escape had cunningly captured me; I was a temporary resident before and still am today. Cam and I met for lunches and movies and sometimes simply sprawled out on the top of our hill beside the taller Christmas tree. We laughed at our old jokes, connecting and fitting with each other as if no time had passed, no distance divided us.
I soon forgot about the steel heart. Unmoving for three years on the top shelf, a layer of dust covered its shiny metal surface. New trinkets and more important memories blocked it from view. Halfway through the second year, the loss of my dad pushed the heart completely from my mind. In the indescribable pain and heartbreak of my dad’s death, I never even rang Cam to tell him. Any thought of him at that time had been pushed back alongside the heart, hidden away and seemingly unimportant. Months later Cam rang me, as he always did, and asked how my dad was doing. He was not angry or hurt that I never told him; he only cared about whether I was okay. My guilt-ridden heart broke once more that night.
Over a year later I found myself back in the growing country town, still familiar with every potholed road and old face. I was there to celebrate my twenty-first birthday with high-school friends. I hadn’t spoken to Cam for months, and forgot to tell him I was coming. The night before my birthday I was out celebrating at one of the town’s popular pubs. Smothered in the crowded mass of people dancing and drinking inside, their carefree faces bathed in a deep purple spotlight, I pushed through the glass exit doors for some air, and saw Cam at once. Standing around a high table with some of our mutual friends, his eyes found mine just as quickly. The look of shock and pure joy that overtook his face mimicked my own. I had not thought about him once since I drove past the forest green ‘welcome’ sign at the dusty edge of town, but seeing him, seeing his white t-shirt and messy blonde head, it was as if this was suddenly my sole intention in coming.
In our mutual states of light-headedness and delight we sat, sunken in one of the pub’s low leather couches, and reminisced, revisiting every old story and stupid joke, tears at the corners of our eyes and stitches in our sides. Cam seemed so happy, a beer in his hand, a little gel in his hair and a wide smile on his face. We laughed, shouted, knocked knees and clutched at one another’s arms, alone in our own little world within the faded black leather.
For a short moment Cam fell silent. And then suddenly his voice cracked and his mouth moved faster than I could keep up with, words spilling from him, desperate and frantic. His job was going nowhere. He felt trapped. His relationships weren’t working. He wanted to escape this stupid country town. Is this all his life was going to be? And I could see the pain, worry and fear etched across his face. But almost as quickly as he started, he stopped, his mouth falling slack and arms dropping to his knees, all wide-eyed as he apologised.
“I’m so sorry,” he kept repeating. “I shouldn’t be telling you all this.”
And sitting there, shocked and confused, the music and laughter of others simply a muffled hum in my ear, I could only stare and tell him it was fine. Then Cam’s smile returned and he changed the subject, and I let him. I let him forget and pretend it did not happen. I let him go on making jokes. And as my glass emptied and my eyelids grew heavier, I started to forget too. I said goodbye to him later, leaving him back at the high table where I found him. And in failing to find one of my friends before we went home, I ran into him again, just beside the bar.
“One more,” he said, opening his long arms and smiling widely, waiting for a hug. I laughed and stumbled into him, and he squeezed my ribs, picking me up off the floor.
By the next night I had completely forgotten about that moment on the black leather couch, about the way Cam’s lip shook and the look of desperation in his eyes. The excitement of my birthday pushed it far from my mind, just as the steel heart was pushed to the back of the top shelf. I had a wonderful birthday. But the next morning, after all the candles were blown out and all the presents opened, my phone rang and I heard Cam’s best friend’s broken voice in my ear.
“Cam killed himself,” he whispered, voice too hoarse to speak any louder. “He hung himself last night.” I could barely take in enough air to respond; my chest crashed in on my lungs, as if Cam was still hugging me, and I struggled to breathe. My mind could barely string anything together; all I could see was his smiling face. It could not be true. I saw him the night before. I held his hand and bought him a beer. Then a jolt hit my heart as the memory of that night surfaced, every cracked syllable and shaking hand and the way Cam’s eyes stared at the ground while it all came pouring out of him. And I had ignored it, acted as if it was nothing, let him apologise for his feelings and disregard the possible meaning behind it all. I let him hide behind jokes.
I overstayed my visit in town to attend Cam’s funeral. It had somehow managed to ensnare me again; I will never be able to truly leave this place now. Two days after the funeral, I finally arrived home, numb and exhausted. There were no more tears; I was empty. Lying on my bed, waiting for sleep to steal me away from reality, I saw it. A glimpse of silver steel peeking from behind photos of my dad on the top shelf. I reached for it, feeling the thick skin of dust, and clutched it to my chest as I collapsed back into bed.
Today is my twenty-second birthday. Today it has been a year since I lost him, since that entire town lost him. I have not ventured back for almost a year; I’m not sure I ever will again. Our Christmas tree might still grow atop that dry grassy hill, but the blue football must be long gone. I still don’t know why he did it, but I cannot question his decision. Cam opened his heart to me on that very last night, in the pub’s sunken leather couch, and I ignored it. The night before I left town Cam gave me his steel heart, and all I gave him in return was a kiss on the cheek. And sitting here now, wondering pointlessly what could have been, I realise that even a heart fused from steel can be broken.