He places his hand on her waist and now they’re dancing, a sped-up version of a waltz that’s completely at odds with the song blaring tinnily out of his phone speakers. Inspired, she takes his hand and spins into him then back away, a bastardised version of the classic ballroom move. Then the pair break apart and give themselves completely to the music; fists pumping in the air, elaborate sways and finger clicks, plus something that could be generously described as the electric slide. It’s daggy, but as a couple they’re now at least seven months past self-consciousness. She jumps up, shaking her mop of dark hair back and forth, then takes a step backwards—forgetting about the half-unpacked box until she finds herself in it, sneakered feet waggling ridiculously in the air.
‘You know, I always used to think the line was “call me out”,’ she says as he peers down at her.
‘I know,’ he replies, with a laugh, now that he knows she isn’t injured. ‘You say that every time.’ He tucks some bubble wrap under his arm and moves towards the door.
By the end of the day they’ve made good progress. The bed is built and their books are piled haphazardly upon the new shelf, though they are still shyly separated into his ’n’ her piles. Bets has stuck a blank piece of paper onto the fridge so they can write down all the kitchen things they need to buy.
She’s half-heartedly digging through a box of too many mugs while he scrolls through his phone. ‘Do you want to keep this?’ she asks, holding up one that says, I’m a corporate executive, I stop exciting things from happening.
‘Mmm,’ he says, looking up briefly. ‘Let’s decide tomorrow. Thai?’
They settled into each other’s ways so quickly that it was hard to believe there’d been a time before. ‘Glasses!’ he’d exclaim whenever he’d find her peering narrowly at a book. ‘And put on a light, squinty!’
‘Racist!’ she’d laugh, turning a page.
‘Sorry,’ he’d reply solemnly. ‘Half squinty.’
The first time he’d brought her to his house it was late. Not wanting to wake his housemates he’d put his hands on her shoulders and steered her down the corridor and towards the stairs; through the gloom she took a quick glance at the kitchen and could see a pot soaking in the sink, dirty plates scattered over the coffee-slash-dining table. ‘Graham,’ he’d muttered with a tsk, following her gaze. ‘He never cleans.
If it gets to two weeks we gather up all his crap and leave it outside his door.’
Her house had a Graham too. Figuratively anyway. Laundry left in the living room for days on end. Plates systematically disappearing from the kitchen, 45-minute showers. The name quickly became shorthand in their couple’s vocabulary.
Running 15 minutes late she’d text: ‘Got Grahamed this morning.’
That first night together, she’d almost screamed at a figure leaning against his doorway as they walked up the stairs. ‘Shush, it’s just a mop.’ Then, feeling her hesitation, quickly added. ‘Always has been, too.’
They’re still calling it the New House even though it’s now six months in. Early morning light leaks through the crooked blinds onto her face, and she watches as the cloud of steam from the bathroom frames his freshly washed shape. He dumps his underpants by the door before scrabbling through the pile of not-quite-clean-but-clean-enough-to-wear clothes next to the bed.
‘I’ll be back this afternoon,’ he announces, giving her a peck on the cheek.
‘Can you get some tomatoes on your way back? I forgot to buy some when I went to the shops.’ He pauses briefly in the doorway. ‘Only if it’s convenient,’ she adds with a spasm of self-consciousness. ‘Thank you!’
‘I’ll try,’ he shouts. ‘Bye!’
Fog is still coming out of the bathroom when she makes her way down the corridor a few minutes later. Sitting on the toilet she takes stock of the curly leg hairs stuck to the side of the bathtub, of the soaked mat on the floor. As she washes her hands, Bets takes care to angle the water at the worst of the globs of shaving cream splattered in the sink. She showers, uses extra conditioner because her hair feels wrong; it’s clumpy and too thick.
Reaching for a towel her back feels oddly stiff, and when she bends over to hang up the bath mat there is a crack and the slight feeling of splintering. Before her brain can properly start to panic, the feeling goes away and she decides that perhaps it had all been in her imagination.
When he comes home and proudly presents her with a punnet of cherry tomatoes she says thanks instead of how does he think I’m going to make sauce with these, because it’s her own fault for not being specific.
She’s supposed to be composing the theme music for a friend’s podcast but the days keep getting away from her; her shifts have been scheduled erratically and she can’t keep her mind clear at home. When the clothes horse breaks the laundry starts to pile up and she begins to have dreams that she’s drowning in cotton dresses and band T-shirts. They laugh together as she mimes being strangled by a pair of leggings and he promises to buy a new one on his next day off, except when that day comes he takes her to an equal-rights rally instead. They stay until the very end, long enough to see the street sweeper arrive in her van. As she kicks the bigger pieces of detritus towards the spinning brooms, Bets swears, just for a second, that she sees a face in the car’s lights and grille. It wasn’t a question, but ‘Pareidolia,’ he explains, putting a hand on her shoulder kindly. ‘It’s just your mind playing tricks.’
The supermarkets put out a press release that they’re going to stop selling all brooms and mops. ‘It just seems insensitive,’ says one of the representatives. ‘We’re worried it might trigger people.’
The Australian Medical Association puts out a statement around the same time. They’re working hard at finding a cure, they say, but in the meantime there’s no point visiting doctors —there’s nothing they can do.
It took two months for her to notice he’d never really bought groceries and was yet to clean the bathroom. It took another before she set a mental deadline counting down to the day she’d (quietly) go on strike. Anyway, it’s got to come from him, she thought.
The first thing they ran out of were paper towels. ‘We’re out of paper towels!’ he said.
‘Mmm,’ she replied, doing a handstand in the next room.
It didn’t work. He just started using toilet paper instead. ‘We’re almost out of toilet paper!’ he piped up a week later.
‘Mmm,’ replied Bets, feeling the stiffening in her back again. On the way home from work she stopped in at the shops, but tried to claw back some semblance of a victory by leaving the bags unpacked on the counter.
He looks around at the sparkling benches, the freshly stocked cupboards, and the lunches she’s prepared for the next few days. ‘Thank you!’ he exclaims, pulling her into a kiss. ‘You’re amazing.’ Running his thumb over his bottom lip, he pauses. ‘Huh. But you taste of Windex.’
‘I’ll be back this afternoon,’ he says, pecking her on the cheek as usual. ‘Got a white one!’ he laughs, taking a closer look at her hair before tucking it behind her ear.
After he leaves she wanders into the bathroom and uses her hand to wipe the condensation from the mirror. He wasn’t wrong—though it isn’t just one—it’s an entire curl, spiralling down from her temple, stark white.
She jumps in the shower and as she washes her hair, she flicks the scouring pad into the tub and for a moment they become one, cleaning the grease and footprints as she cleans herself.
By now she knows better than to try to lean down to tie off the bin bag—her back doesn’t bend like that anymore; it’s stiff all the time. So she squats, using her hand to brush some errant dust off the counter on her way down. After an hour of clearing, tidying and washing she finally sits down at the keyboard, managing a few tentative notes before remembering the laundry.
‘Hey, got any dirty clothes?’ he’d asked last night when he got home. ‘I’m putting a load in.’ He’d set the machine for an hour then sat down, just for a minute, at his computer. ‘Bets, have you seen this?’ he called out from the next room. ‘Just a sec, I’ll put it on my wall.’
‘Women fly off the handle’, read the headline. It had a thick red line drawn through it. ‘There, I’ve fixed it for you’, his accompanying status read. Underneath, in a different font he’d written ‘Women get (rightfully) angry about domestic curse’. The picture was of a 30-something lady with a wooden face, sitting in a broom closet. The rest of the evening was lost as he monitored the stream of comments that immediately flowed. She’d lain on the floor, listening for every new ding, and thinking about the dust and dirt getting into her hair.
‘I think it’s happening to me,’ she’d whispered as they curled up in bed.
‘Shush,’ he’d mumbled, nuzzling into her neck. ‘That only happens to women with bad men.’
The laundry is still sitting in the machine, and she twists her body the only way her now-fused back will allow as she gathers up the damp and musty clothes. She notices for the first time that it’s getting more difficult to lift her arms whenever she goes to hang something up. They’re drawn back to her sides, almost as though pulled by a magnetic force.
She’s sitting in a coffee shop writing out a few lines of music, but knows that the work is mediocre at best. Her hair is completely white now, but the internet said that it’s a normal side effect, so she’s not really bothered. Buy eggs, she writes absently at the top of the sheet music.
As she looks out the window she peers at the faces of all the women passing by. Most look smooth and natural, but every so often she catches a hint of grain. Makeup doesn’t do much to cover it; wood is porous and even the best foundation will start to absorb in after a couple of hours. Over the road she sees a man holding a broom the wrong way round, bristles pointing at the sky. His hands are wrapped tenderly around the handle, and she watches as they walk slowly down the street.
‘Have you ever seen the film clip for “Call Me Al”?’ She’s varnishing her hands after taking the bins out. ‘Chevy Chase lip synchs all the lyrics while Paul Simon sits to one side looking disgruntled and occasionally playing instruments to yank back power and credit for his work. It’s interesting.’
‘Calm down, American Psycho,’ he says.
He cooks them both dinner and spills some pasta sauce on the floor. Even though he wipes at it with a dry paper towel, there is a sticky patch that squarnches her slipper every time she walks over it. She hopes he will notice and clean it properly, but instead he piles the dishes into the sink, runs the tap for a second, then heads over to the couch. Something inside her hardens.
When her slipper squarnches again that’s it. She puts her head under the tap, squirts some detergent onto her curls then flips into a perfect handstand, mopping the floor with her tresses.
‘Hey, when you’re done, do you want to watch Brooklyn Nine Nine?’ he calls from the other side of the room.
She spends more time in the cupboard than out of it now. They didn’t really discuss it, but it seems like the best option. Bets isn’t sure when her arms stopped moving exactly—it was probably around the same time her legs fused, and her skin started smelling like pine. She prefers it in here.
One night he spills a drink and she hears the stream of damn its get louder before the fluorescent light splashes across her. He gives her a look, then grabs the cloth hanging on the wall before softly shutting the door behind him. He’s learning, at least, she thinks with a twinge of pride.
When she’s alone in the dark she leans against the wall and thinks. Sometimes he brings her cups of tea even though she can’t drink them, then reads the latest medical breakthroughs and theories aloud as they sit together in the cramped space. Over time the line between experimental treatment and superstition starts to blur; the house is now always clean, almost clinically, religiously so, and he keeps a jar of detergent on the windowsill. Every day she hears then smells him lighting an incense stick next to it.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says one day, and she thinks, maybe, something softens inside her.
Once a week he’ll come to the door and take her gently by what should be the waist. He leans his head against her handle, and in her mind she can still hear the music; the upbeat notes, the lyrics with her name. As they slowly make their way through the house she loses herself completely. In the cupboard, despite his best efforts, her whites are turning to dirty grey and her grain has grown splintery. But in these moments they’re dancing again and it’s almost like before. They go round and round, her tresses streaming, leaving a trail of water and soap. •
Elizabeth Flux is editor-at-large for the Melbourne City of Literature Office and an award-winning writer whose fiction and nonfiction work has been widely published.