Puss in Boots

Mardi O'Connor

To celebrate our 75th birthday, we’re presenting exceptional works from Meanjin’s past that have defined and challenged Australian literary culture.


My friend is the ex of an ex of mine. She was defined in these terms—ex marks the spot—by other friends, and also by me. She stood silently at parties; she didn’t bring her own drinks. She broke his heart, everyone said. This happened in Tasmania, but news of it crossed the strait, like my friend did, although she wasn’t my friend then. She was just someone I used to notice across the room, tall and inscrutable as an unlit lighthouse.

Getting to know her took time, and some decoding.

My housemates were uncertain of my friend at first. She spoke in a soft voice that made them crane their necks forwards, squinting slightly; she curled up and slept on the couch like a cat.

My friend has pale skin, translucent enough to show cartilage. This doesn’t make her look fragile, as I had once thought, but spare, pared down for survival, as if her bones are sharp enough to puncture flesh.

My friend was not affectionate at first. She would never actually recoil from me but I would feel her bones close inwards. Sometimes, when drunk, she might give me a little pat.

When we’re out together, men talk to her and not me. If there are two men, they wait till I leave, then they both talk to her. ‘It’s because you have an overt sexuality,’ my friend says, ‘and this scares them.’
My friend scares them later, when she says: ‘Look. I’d like a fuck tonight and clearly you would, too. If you like you can come home with me, although you can’t sleep over.’
Men don’t like this approach as much as they think they might.

My friend comes to my door just before midday. Her face is lined and slightly pouchy; her hair at the back is an areola of fuzz. Her eyes are bright. ‘I’ve been fucking all morning!’ she says. I invite her in for coffee but she says she has to go home and wash the smell of semen off her.
She was seeing a friend of mine at the time, but we all knew it wouldn’t last.

My friend is someone who will walk into the city in the rain to avoid paying for a tram ticket. Although sometimes she will buy me a small and useful gift, or a decorative one.

My friend buys her clothes from Savers, but her shoes from a boutique on Little Collins Street. They are all from Spain—soft crumpled leather, pliant as moleskin. She wears tall boots with leggings, microskirts, hotpants. These are clothes that would make me seem loose and frowsy, but my friend, who is rake- thin, looks lofty and formidable.

‘We need a little pampering,’ my friend says. ‘C’mon, let’s go down to Brazilian Butterfly and I’ll treat you to a little bit of an anal wax.’
Before she sleeps with a man she will rid her body of all its hair. I would judge this in most, but not in her. She thinks body hair is unappealing on most, but not on me. Giggling, we trade in these differences like teenagers. ‘You can get away with it,’ she says, ‘because of your rockin’ cleavage.’
Teenage girls are like this too: flirty in comradeliness, but also in earnest.

My friend is a cat person, but not the indulgent type. Her cat is private, wary and frail; she quivers against my hand. She takes some getting used to.

My friend is someone who will admit, with a calm assurance, that she is attractive. Very few women do this, but it’s the ones who do, you’ll notice, who aren’t grasping or competitive. She thinks too much emphasis is placed on the way women look, but that I should consider my boyfriends’ appearance more seriously.
If my friend approved of a boyfriend of mine I would consider marrying him. The first thing she appraises is the arse. If the arse is acceptable she will move on to other areas, like intellect.
So far none have met these two criteria.

We were with the same man, but she had him first, when he was thinner and had all his hair. And he loved her, of course—that was the main difference. He loved me briefly, for perhaps a week. Then he left me, strenuously, repeatedly and publicly, and I cried in the middle of an art gallery, and later on the street. I was drunk; it was early summer; my head felt bruised and thick and wounded. My friend (who wasn’t my friend then, but my ex’s ex) called me as I reeled through the crowds at Southbank, snuffling into my crooked arm. Her voice was thin and tight as a wire. I had to stop crying to listen to her, so I did.

My friend and I discuss our bodies’ viscera, the quality of our orgasms, the standard of our lovers’ performances. Some things we prefer not to discuss are our adolescent sexual experiences, politics other than feminism, and why we blame our mothers more than our fathers.
My friend filters all her political judgements through an opaque glaze of feminism, and I am unable to articulate satisfactorily why I believe this to be a bad thing.

Neither of us has many female friends.

My friend has a logic that is dismissed as unwieldy by those who don’t know her—and this is most people—but really it runs along smooth and undiverging lines as flat and hard as a rail. Her judgement is clear and cold, like good gin. I would like her to be on my jury. If she deemed me guilty I would know I deserved it.

My friend would never blame the other woman, for example, because this diverts blame from the man. She believes that monogamy is not a natural state, that a happy marriage is one in which both parties pursue other interests, provided it’s not with someone known to their partner.

My friend and I were at a music festival with my boyfriend at the time. She borrowed his keys so she could get food from the car.
‘Will she lose them?’ he said. ‘She’s been gone for ages. When’s she coming back?’ He laughed, ruefully but uneasily. ‘I just don’t trust her with my keys.’
She’s that sort. Her voice is muted and her intentions furry.
After a while we went to look for her. We found her in her tent, eating sardines from the can.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Did you want your keys back?’
‘I’d worry if she was my daughter,’ said my boyfriend.
Waft is the word people use. ‘I can just see her wafting around Africa,’ another boyfriend said, when I told him she was going there on a holiday. But she took measures; she bristled with caution. Be home before dark, wear sunscreen, don’t drink the water. She researched places women shouldn’t go, in case they might be mistaken for prostitutes.
At worst, I thought, she’d suffer from bedbugs, for sleeping in a cheap hotel.
And in fact she met someone: a white Kenyan, a hired bodyguard for visiting dignitaries. He took her touring, and out after dark. He had a face like a cartoon giant, lumpy and amiable. ‘But the body,’ my friend said. ‘He could lift me up with one hand. One hand!’
‘Of course,’ she added, ‘they were the hands of a trained killer.’

My friend is a writer but not a prolific one. Her writing is pure, sharp and certain. I was relieved to discover this.
‘It’s so great that you’re friends,’ said my (our) ex. ‘You’re both writers, and you’re both … awkward. I mean, you’re both smart. You’re … you know. You have so much in common.’
‘We’re friends because of you,’ I said. ‘We bonded in spite.’
‘That’s not true—it’s because you’re writers.’
But it is true. There had to be other things, of course, but we discovered these later.

My friend is handy with a hammer and a saw. She is the type who would survive an apocalypse. Most people think this of themselves but most people are wrong. My friend would hunker down, be guarded, not share too much, not have dependents. She could strip a dead body; she could decide whom to eat first.

My friend comes to stay with me when her grandfather dies. He shot himself in a paddock at the back of his property. She doesn’t want to talk about it. She wants to eat squidgy supermarket cheesecake and watch action films. Something bombastic, or sci-fi, or trashy. Something in which people might die, but not from shotguns. We stay up late watching Sigourney Weaver in Alien.
‘I wouldn’t go back for the cat,’ I say.
‘I would,’ my friend says.
She has a spare key so she can come and go. I wait up for her. It’s a sticky night and I’m gently sweating, lying on the couch in a petticoat, watching the late news. The first thing to enter the door is my friend’s crumpled boot, her long leg in black tights, the denim hot pants that I wear around the house.
She laughs at my lounging pose. ‘If I were a man coming home to that,’ she says, ‘I’d be a happy man.’
I tell her if I were a man I’d be happy to see her legs enter the door. I laugh, too, and swing my hair forward to hide my flushed face. My friend steps out of her boots and leaves them standing, warm and hollow, side by side on the kitchen floor.


Meanjin Volume 71 Issue 2 2012


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