To celebrate our 75th birthday, we’re presenting exceptional works from Meanjin’s past that have defined and challenged Australian literary culture.
It had become a regular round by now, as predictable as the paperboy’s. Jimmy Watson’s, the Albion, Stewart’s… It varied little from night to night. Sometimes a discotheque later in the evening if she picked up someone who would take her. She tried to restrict it to Friday and Saturday, to keep down her drinking. She was beginning to be worried about her weight. She laughed to herself as she remembered how she had come to be pregnant. She had discovered that the pill made her fat and had gone off it. After that she had put on weight with a vengeance and after four months had had to have an abortion. Her first. Should she have a child? And if so, by whom? She had mentioned it to several of her lovers and without exception they had volunteered for the honour of fatherhood… provided it was anonymous. She decided she would never understand men.
The end of the week was better, too, for pub crawling, because there were more men around that she knew and nearly always a party she could go to, and someone she could bring home to help fill the huge double bed and serve coffee to and shower with in the morning. At least she was still attractive enough at twenty-eight to be able almost to take her pick.
One man she had brought home asked her once how many lovers she thought she had had. She puzzled over it for a few moments.
‘I’m not sure,’ she admitted finally. ‘But over two hundred.’ He had given her a rueful, envious smile. ‘It’s so much easier for attractive women than it is for men, even if the man is really good-looking. I’ve only had forty-one counting you and I’ve had to work like hell even to do that well.’ Although she had read the other day in the paper about the arrival of Hugh Heffner, the czar of Playboy, and the fact that he was reputed to have slept with more than 2000 women.
Saturday night. She had delayed going to the Albion until half-past nine, in order not to get drunk too quickly, but now she regretted it. All the regulars were there, most of them drunk to the eyeballs. Dani, holding court to a group of impressed undergraduates. Sam Brodie, who gave her his usual meditative smile and looked her over with his usual objectivity. She decided suddenly that she disliked Brodie; he was too much a watcher. O’Donohue, smashed as usual and looking bleary-eyed and overweight in a black leather jacket that hung on him like a sack. He was out of the sanatorium or whatever it was at last. She felt depression rise in her again and walked on, out through the main bar and out the door while one or two drinkers inside who had noticed her leaving called ineffectually after her, ‘Hey, Karen, where are you going?’
She sat in her Volkswagen outside the hotel and thought about where she would go. Perhaps visit Philip and Lisa. It was part of her private, empirical code that she never slept with married men; it was a betrayal of her own sex and she was trying hard to relate to women.
Philip was a successful writer. He wrote bitter attacks on the emptiness and materialism of Australian society and lived in North Fitzroy, where he had a terrace house with a large and well-stocked wine cellar. He and Lisa had two children. It was the second marriage for each. Visiting married people, envying their stability, observing the lies they told each other to maintain it, had become almost as disillusioning as the nightly round of the Carlton hotels. They were unlikely to be in on a Saturday night unless they were holding a dinner party; however, a light was on and Philip answered the door. He was in his socks and looked as if he had been asleep.
He seemed pleased as well as surprised to see her. ‘Come in.’ He turned the television off, despite some protests. ‘It was some wretched musical about World War Two, “Something for the Boys” or something. I was only watching it because I drank too much at the football and couldn’t work.’
‘Where’s Lisa?’ she asked.
‘She’s gone away with the kids for the weekend. She won’t be back until lunch time tomorrow.’
They talked pleasantly for an hour or so while she tried to make up her mind about whether or not to go to bed with him. She knew he wanted to but she would have to assist him. Married men ran the risk of collecting a lot of flak if they were rejected so were usually cautious.
‘I’d better go,’ she said finally, to hurry him up. ‘I was looking for a man to go to bed with but there wasn’t anything much offering in the Albion.’
He laughed nervously. ‘If that’s all you want…’ he said. He walked across to her, lifted her jumper and fondled her breasts. She felt nothing. ‘You’d better not do that if you’re not going to do anything about it. It turns me on.’
He laughed uneasily again. ‘Who said I wasn’t going to do anything about it?’
Married men. She thought of her code but decided that she could make an exception tonight. He was pleasant and harmless enough and she couldn’t see this doing any damage to anyone. And the fact was that unfortunately they usually made better lovers. They were so pleased to be having a change from their wives that they were prepared to go to a great deal of trouble.
In bed she said, ‘I like to have my clitoris massaged for about twenty minutes. I come then and then again when you enter me.’ She sounded as impersonal as if she were describing a medical operation.
He said admiringly, ‘You know what you want, don’t you? Specifications as ordered, Ma’am.’
He made love pleasantly and well, she came twice, breathed a sigh of relief, and they drifted off to sleep. In the morning, though, she could sense his uneasiness at not knowing exactly when his wife would be coming back, though he tried fairly decently to conceal it, and she showered quickly and left.
A few years ago she had had far more relationships with married men. Often they would ask her assistance in shopping for their wives. Though aware of the irony of the situation and inwardly amused she would never allow her feelings to show.
Nights when she had no one beside her she could not sleep, so she sometimes resorted to counting her lovers. She put them in every variety of position imaginable—jumping over fences in turn like sheep, hurtling round an athletics track, batons in hand, at the football to which they had sometimes taken her, drinking cans of nauseatingly cold beer on an icy day—but always naked. They looked so ludicrous with their pigeon chests, puffed out stomachs and comically tiny, wobbling appendages that she would laugh to herself but feel sad as well.
One afternoon, when she had nothing better to do, she had sat down and written out the names of as many as she could remember. She counted fifty-seven in all, with perhaps as many faces again to which she could not put a name. The others had all disappeared, both name and face, as if they had never existed. Especially the truck drivers in Shepparton, where they had gone after her father was a bankrupt, a different one every night she could get away, until word spread right through the Eastern States about the hot little fifteen-year-old blonde and drivers diverted their loads hundreds of miles to come through town. She had finally been ordered to leave by the police after the third and most serious fight about her had broken out among the truckies and one man was almost fatally injured by a broken beer bottle.
At home Karen looked at the Sunday night movies, rejected them all, stared at the army of objects that women who live alone accumulate when they go to bed, cigarettes, matches, ash tray, cup of coffee, glass of water, aspros, tissues, TV Guide, Margaret Drabble paperback (recommended to her by her analyst), pencil, paper in case she had any ideas for a design.
She was tired of separated men, who were mostly what she seemed to meet these days. Karen had had a bad day today. She was involved in the design of four different plays at the moment, and incredibly all four directors had more or less recently separated from their wives. All Carlton was a marital battlefield. She had come to know the pattern well by now. After a half hour of almost perfunctory discussion of her design, something she might have put a passionate week into, the gambit was always the same. ‘Why don’t we have a quiet drink somewhere?’
They all wanted an audience while they talked about their wives and themselves. One was obsessed with what his wife was doing and who she was sleeping with since she had left him. He invariably asked Karen what she had heard and whether she could find out anything. Another was systematically working his way through the female population of Carlton, concentrating with vindictive glee on the self-proclaimed feminists and loudly boasting when he scored. God, men were so boring. Why did they need her to listen to them?
Every Tuesday afternoon Karen saw her analyst Dr Mohr in his offices in Albert Park. He was high up on the eleventh floor of the building, and his suite had a huge plate glass window which looked out onto a great deal of Melbourne’s skyline.
‘The first time I slept with a man I was twelve and a half. We were in Indonesia. I saw little of my parents. They were both following their careers. Mother was a journalist and father a businessman and they were both very ambitious. They went all over the world, wherever there was money to be made.’ She spoke in an even voice, patiently, a little wearily, as if the words had been rehearsed many times before. ‘The door to the bedroom of the house we had in Indonesia had spaces underneath and above and it was easy for me to see inside. I used to watch my father and mother making love. It was the only time they showed any affection for one another—they never kissed in public or held hands, anything like that, I don’t think they ever really liked each other very much—and I think I learned that the only way you could get affection was to make love. I slept with the whole Indonesian household that year, the cook, the gardener and the chauffeur. I made all the advances. I made it impossible for them to refuse.’
Dr Mohr looked slightly petulant, as if her percipience about her own situation had rendered him redundant. ‘Did you ever tell your parents about that?’
She yawned. ‘Oh, it all came out in Shepparton, after the cops came and told my father about what had been happening in the all-night truckie stand.’
‘What was their reaction?’
‘Mother was horrified, but sympathetic. The usual thing—’Why didn’t you tell us we didn’t give you enough love? We would have spent more time with you if we’d known.’ As if it wasn’t obvious. After that we moved back to Melbourne, and I did Matric. and then an Arts course at Melbourne Uni.’
‘Did you ever have a stable relationship with a man?’ The psychiatrist stared out the window as he asked the question, his voice as impersonal as hers. She had a rare feeling of pleasure in sensing his puzzlement with her and was tempted to commence lying. She decided it would not be fair. She would play by the rules and see if he ever came to know her half as well as she knew herself.
‘My most stable relationship was with my husband. I was married at nineteen and that lasted almost six years. I told him a fair bit about myself, though I didn’t tell him everything. Then when we became engaged I still had three or four lovers. He knew about some of it and it hurt him but he told me he’d love me whatever I did and try to understand. So we married. Then funnily enough when we were married I was faithful to him until a few months before the end, when it was all going to pieces anyway. It was a pity we split in a way. He was one of the nicest men I ever met and a very good lover. I still try to go to bed with him whenever I see him. I had him very well trained. He used to massage my clitoris for twenty minutes and I’d come, and then I’d come again as soon as he went inside me.’
‘Why did you split?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. I think he bored me after a while. Stability bores me. But instability frightens me.’
At a mid-week dinner for artists and writers in the Cliveden Room at the Chevron Hilton Karen met a young novelist who was already famous, not only for her confessional fiction but for a book she had written on the oppression of women in Australia. She was bisexual, and lived with three lesbians in a house in South Melbourne. Somehow after the dinner and several cocktails Karen found herself back there with a man who had been at the dinner, a minor poet who had published one mediocre collection of verse boasting of his many conquests of women. The girls really turned it on for him. They didn’t make a pass at her, although they necked ostentatiously and proudly at the kitchen table in front of her.
‘Do you think we’re abnormal?’ Sally asked.
She grinned and shook her head. She thought they were quite normal and very likeable, although a little childish in their exhibitionism.
‘Well, this is supposed to be the heaviest butch dyke scene in Melbourne,’ Sally said defiantly. Karen tried to look impressed. Sally and her girl friend Leslie returned to making passionate love, mainly for the poet’s benefit, while he looked uncomfortable and tried to talk to Karen. Karen pretended to be lesbian too and the poet drank all the harder. She liked women and was trying hard to like them more, but sex with another female was something she had never wanted.
‘Did you know that a penis can’t give a woman an orgasm?’, Sally said to the poet. ‘It’s only clitoral manipulation that can make a woman come.’
‘They’ve come with me, baby, plenty of times,’ the poet tried to joke.
The three of them stared at him in contemptuous silence and he took another deep swallow of his beer, while perspiration broke out on his forehead. Even Karen, who hated his book, began to feel sorry for him. Then about half an hour later Sally pushed Leslie amiably off her lap and stood up.
‘Come on,’ she said to the bewildered writer. She unzipped her dress and slipped out of it. Underneath she wore a pair of briefs. ‘We’re going to bed.’ She led him meekly off to her bedroom. Karen pondered. It looked as if pricks were necessary after all.
At home, alone, Karen resumed the Margaret Drabble novel but found that once again it bored her, and she put it aside. Perhaps she couldn’t feel all the things that women are apparently supposed to feel about themselves. She went to the bathroom cabinet, pulled out the bottle of tiny white pills and then, as she had every evening for the last three years or more now, counted them. Still thirty-seven. The number had never changed. She went back to the bedroom and picked up the novel again.
Meanjin Volume 38 Issue 2 1979