It’s been three years since Roxanne had sex. For the first six months, it had been funny. Sitting with Rita and Linda in cafés on Brunswick Street, in the city, in Collingwood, she’d thrown her arms up in the air and said things like ‘Six months, I mean, what the fuck is that, right?’ And they’d all laughed, as if there was something exciting and even naughty about not having sex in six whole months.
By that August, she was shocked to realise that she’d been making the ‘six months’ joke for a whole year. ‘Twelve months’ just didn’t have the same sound as ‘six months’. At the end of eighteen months, she stopped talking about it altogether. When the topic of sex came up, as it invariably did, she sidestepped, laughed, said ‘not as frequently as I’d like’ or something equally inane, and moved the conversation away from herself.
She wanted to buy something perfect. Something meaningful. Something that would be looked at and admired years down the track for its artistry and its thoughtfulness. But it was hard to choose, surrounded by that orgy of colour. Toys didn’t look the way she remembered them. She felt as if she hardly knew what they were supposed to do. Boxes full of angular wood, stretched and turned so that each piece slid into the other, devouring one another, making something out of nothing. Raucous plastic farm animals assumed regiments along one shelf, straining against each other to escape across the narrow wooden floors. Jagged Lego inside boxes touting the possibility of building new worlds. Lost, she walked up and down the shop, touching things blindly: cheap synthetics, expensive German wood, spindly fairy wings and cold plastic.
The middle-aged woman behind the counter wound up a tin carousel for her and sent its tiny, green and red carriages spinning wildly through the still air. The movement made her nauseous, and she turned away. It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t expensive enough, for a start. But the slowing staccato clicks of the carriages pulled her back to the counter again and again. The shop was too hot, and Roxanne could feel sweat leaking through the wool of her jumper and turning it soggy against her skin. In the end she just snatched up the carousel’s box, jammed her credit card carelessly through the machine, and escaped into the street.
Linda and Jack lived in a rented terrace in Carlton, their back yard awash with broken plastic, makeshift sandpits and the mouldering rugs of last summer’s picnics. Two red balloons were tied to their letterbox, bucking madly in the wind as the taxi drove away.
Inside, everything was muted, as if the close, living smells of the house masked what was actually a place of worship. A couple of Jack’s friends sat in the living room, drinking beer and talking in low voices, out of respect. She walked on through the house, stopping to say hello to people, her sweating fingers starting to soak into the tissue paper around her carousel. Before the kitchen, she turned left into a dim room where Linda sat on a couch, holding a tightly spooled bundle of cotton. The baby’s face, when Linda turned it towards her for inspection, was horribly disfigured, the mashed-up-late-night-cheap-Japanese-horror-film-on-SBS version of what babies should look like.
‘He’s amazing,’ she told Linda in the same low voice of awe that had infected everyone in the house. ‘So amazing.’
Linda smiled beatifically.
Roxanne carried the carousel on into the kitchen, to where her friend Rita was trying to control the madcap capering of Linda and Jack’s other kid, four-year-old Matilda.
‘Put it down, Matilda, it’s sharp,’ Rita was commanding in her best adult voice.
‘Because it’s sharp.’
‘It’s not sharp.’
‘Yes it is. Put it down.’
Matilda, provocative, waved the butter knife, which wasn’t sharp at all, spinning it ineptly like a baton twirler, flicking up her bare heels as she careered around the close kitchen.
‘Put it down or I’ll get your mum.’
‘Mum doesn’t mind, she lets me do this all the time.’
Rita, losing interest, turned and air-kissed Roxanne’s cheek.
‘Promise me you’re never going to procreate,’ she whispered. ‘I couldn’t stand it if I lost you too. I couldn’t stand it if you had one of these.’
Roxanne put the carousel down on the kitchen table in its saggy, splotched paper, where it was instantly lost in the clutter of half-empty trays of sandwiches, torn sheets of wrapping paper and dirty wineglasses.
‘I don’t think there’s much chance of that,’ said Roxanne. Rita patted her back, misunderstanding her.
Rita didn’t know. ‘Good girl,’ she said.
After three years, her body aches. At night she has trouble sleeping, feeling that her bones are tightening, that they won’t stop clenching, ever so slowly, inside her skin. Her bones are noisy, their aching a cacophony of need. During the day the loudness of her bones is there too, but it’s easier to ignore if she just keeps on going, keeps on working, stays out of the house and the quiet and away from the still and silence of her bed. At night she is alone with it and it becomes harder to ignore. She turns over and over. Masturbating, which used to act as such a release, gives her no relief at all. It’s become a reminder, a hollow imitation of what it felt like to have someone else press up against you, run their fingers down the small of your back.
She starts taking sleeping pills, which make her fuzzy in the morning when she wakes back up to her clenching body. But at least she doesn’t dream of being touched.
Even television has become painful. A week ago, sitting on the floor of her house in North Fitzroy after work, she ate dinner and channel-surfed through the soapies. In one of them, a couple lay on the beach, the camera panning across their warm flesh, light grains of sand sticking to the hairs on their shoulders and the fine creases of their joints as they rubbed their skins over each other. Roxanne sat, soup dripping from the spoon that rested in the air somewhere, forgotten on the end of her arm as the bodies moved in front of her.
The sound of their panting over the canned strings became unbearable, and she muted it, putting the spoon down and pushing her dinner away, suddenly nauseated even though minutes before she’d been ravenously hungry. In silence, the two skins pressed and melded against each other, an orgy of touch, almost orange in their brightness but so beautiful and so heart-wrenching that Roxanne felt like screaming. The Home and Away logo scribbled itself across the bottom of the screen, and the entwined bodies disappeared. Roxanne was left in the silent living room with her cooling soup and the blazing red of an advertisement for bargain-basement furniture.
‘You want a drink?’ asked Rita, waving at the bottles lining the kitchen bench.
‘Beer, wine, tequila, what’s your booze of choice, Madame? Let’s get fucked up.’
Roxanne laughed, the idea of tequila striking her as funny, sacrilegious almost, and the sound was out of place in the muted house. Some people on the other side of the kitchen looked over quizzically, and Roxanne caught Jack’s eye as he stood, leaning against the fridge, a bottle of Heineken in one slender hand. He raised it in salute, and Roxanne waved back half-heartedly.
‘Oops,’ said Rita. ‘I actually did bring tequila. Should I be sorry? Is that bad?’
‘I don’t know if we’re supposed to drink tequila in the afternoon now that we’re having babies and stuff. It’s irresponsible.’
‘Linda’s having babies, not us,’ said Rita. ‘Come on, don’t make me feel like I have to apologise for being an alcoholic now, too. I thought that was cultural or something, we’re Aussie, right? Have one too, come outside, and we can have a naughty cigarette.’
Just before this latest kid of Linda’s was born, the three women—Roxanne, Rita, and Linda, huge and unwieldy—sat out the front of Tiamo’s on a still afternoon talking about all the things that had changed in what they wanted from life, about all the things they’d been expecting to happen before they were thirty, and which hadn’t. It was a conversation they had often, as if they could hardly believe they were there, could hardly believe in their own adulthood. As if it was all just a joke, and they were going home to their parents after lunch, not home to their own houses and mortgages and children and studies. Matilda sat under the table, eating the ends of the garlic bread and yanking frequently on the women’s legs.
‘I just thought I’d be more successful by now,’ Roxanne said, shrugging and twirling her napolitana on the end of her fork.
‘You are successful,’ countered Linda, shifting her daughter under the table with one hand, the other one resting on her straining belly. ‘You’re really successful, considering your age and everything. You run a small business. You’re a fashion designer, I mean, isn’t that cool? We would have thought that was so cool when we were twenty. Fashion, design, ooh-ahh.’
‘Exactly, I run a small business. Small.’
‘It takes time,’ said Rita in her singsong voice, a cigarette clenched in her lips and ash hovering over her carbonara. ‘I mean, everything takes longer than you think it will when you’re twenty. When I was twenty I thought I’d have finished my PhD by the time I was twenty-five. I’m nearly thirty now and I’m still only halfway through the fucker. Am I even allowed to say that?’ Rita gestured at the centre of the table, the flick of her bitten fingernails at the dented wood meant to signify the presence of the four-year-old underneath it.
‘Whatever,’ shrugged Linda. ‘I don’t think she really notices the difference if you use it like a normal word. It’s only when you tell her that she’s not allowed to do things that she gets really interested in them.’
‘What about you, Lind?’ asked Roxanne.
‘What do you mean, like, what did I think I’d be doing?’
‘I don’t know. I didn’t think I’d spend so much time worrying about money. I guess that’s weird. I didn’t expect to depend so much on Jack, you know?’
‘He’s your husband. Dependence is sort of expected.’
‘Partner. But it’s not the dependence . . . it’s sort of like his career has turned into mine, you know? No, not that really, it’s more like I want it, I want his stuff. I want to do it, I keep on trying to give him advice, because I want him to be successful, and I think I know how he can do it so I get really frustrated when he doesn’t do the things I think he should, when he doesn’t take on the work I think he should. I feel like if I could just make him understand what I see . . .’ Linda shrugs. ‘Whatever. It doesn’t really matter.’
While Linda talked, Matilda crawled out from under the table and into Roxanne’s lap. She twined her fingers around the back of Roxanne’s neck, her small, hot hands, sticky with butter from the garlic bread, sending shivers across Roxanne’s skin, her bones all of a sudden reacting, singing. The weight of the child against her thighs, the heat of the solid kilos of her body, made Roxanne’s lunch drop heavily down to the base of her spine, pressing against her bowels like longing, like pain. Shocked at her arousal, at the sudden loss of control over her breathing, Roxanne heaved the kid off, setting her heavily down on the seat to her side, then shying away as Matilda, oblivious, reached out again.
‘Don’t annoy Roxanne, Matilda,’ said Linda absently. ‘Don’t be annoying.’
‘It’s okay,’ said Roxanne, ‘I just need to go to the loo.’
Roxanne set her fork and spoon down in the congealing red sauce, slid off the bench, and forced her way through the crowded restaurant and upstairs to the bathroom. Closing the door behind her, she crouched against the toilet bowl and tried to control her breathing. Her mouth was salivating wildly, like it does just before you throw up, and she spat out a stream of clear saliva into the bowl. She hiked up her thick winter skirt. Shitting was a relief, emptying, calm. As if it gave her back control, restored to her a body she could be sure she still owned.
Rita and Roxanne sat on seats under the Hills Hoist in the falling afternoon light of Linda and Jack’s back yard, smoking.
‘I hate children,’ said Rita.
‘Come on . . .’
‘No, it’s true, I really do.’
‘You were a kid once.’
‘I never felt like one though.’
‘Well they probably don’t either.’
‘I can’t relate to them. I don’t get them.’
‘I’m sure you will when you have your own.’
‘I’m not going to have my own.’
‘Yes, you will.’
‘I’m not that woman.’
They were silent for a moment, looking at the lilting back of Jack and Linda’s house and the wet sheen of evening dew settling on the rusting bike frames leaning against the flywire screen door.
Then Rita said, ‘I’m fucking a Scientologist.’
‘But you hate religious people.’
‘I know. The contempt makes the sex even better. It’s awesome. Sometimes, I make him talk about how the human spirit exists and how you have to fix your spirit up and shit before we go to bed, just to warm us up. He’s going to have me take one of those personality tests.’
‘No, just spirit. What bollocks. But I want to know what it says anyway. Hopefully it’s real serious so he can fix me some more.’
‘I know. But I’m happy with it.’
It had started because of the Lego. Barefoot, tipsy in the warm summer night, Roxanne had stepped down hard on a piece of Lego out of a princess castle construction box that someone had—inappropriately—given Matilda earlier that day in celebration of her very first birthday.
Through the raucous crowd, the barbecue smoke, the fading light, Jack had seen her bending and cursing, kicking the piece away. He’d made his way over to her, led her into the quiet bathroom inside, taken some ice from the esky beside the back door and wrapped it in a ragged, pale blue facewasher. She sat on the closed lid of the toilet. He sat opposite, bringing her foot to the warm denim of his thigh. She yelled because of the cold ice and he laughed and said she would wake Matilda up and then she closed the bathroom door and in that moment, as the door clicked closed on the world outside, something changed between them. Or maybe it was something that had always been there, but which chose that moment to reveal itself, for no particular reason at all. His hand on her ankle. All her body existing in that stretch of fingers and in the cold point, rapidly numbing, where he held the ice to her skin. For long seconds, neither of them spoke, just sat there in the half-light. And every moment that passed one of them could have gotten up, could have said something, anything, could have walked back out into the party and the evening and the rest of the world. They didn’t. They just sat, and the longer they sat the more inevitable it became, and then Jack slid his hand further up her ankle, to her calf, his long hands under her thighs and they were pulling towards each other, and the moment when they could have stopped was behind them.
Slightly tipsy, Rita and Roxanne cleared the kitchen as people left. Without the adult bodies, the smell of babies and children and mess in the house was clearer, a persistent, acrid tinge under the lingering wine, beer and sausage rolls.
‘What should I do with all the unopened presents?’ Rita asked Jack as he came into the kitchen with two fists full of empties, which he deposited in a cardboard box with a crash. Roxanne flinched, glancing down the hallway to the dim silence coming out of the room where Linda sat with the baby.
‘Just put them in a box, or maybe give them to Linda,’ said Jack absently, wandering back down the hall to the living room where a few of his illustrator friends still lingered. ‘Thanks, guys.’
‘Why do people even bother with presents for newborns?’ Rita asked the kitchen as she piled up the presents. ‘What’s the kid going to do with it? How many do-dads and jiggety-bobs does a barely functioning blob of flesh with no motor skills and no concept of self really need? I mean, you’re really giving the presents to the parents, aren’t you? It’s a big competition to see who can give the most extravagant, meaningless gift. Wouldn’t giving them nappies be better?’
Since it was obscured by a vase full of lopsided chrysanthemums, Rita couldn’t see the wilting tissue-wrapped box with the carousel inside it. When she left the room, Roxanne scooped it off the table, wrapped it hurriedly in a plastic bag, and put it back in her handbag.
Roxanne walks home.
The night is cold and clear, cars begin to frost over in the stillness. The streetlights are orange beacons in the darkness, drawing her on and on. The carousel rattles in her bag, and in her head its little carriages spin out and out. In each one sit two tiny tin people, a man and a woman, welded to their carriage seats. Two people per carriage: red man, green woman.
Before going home she walks under the railway and down to where the bike bridge crosses the Merri Creek. A late train out of the city pulls in behind her, its empty windows glowing. No-one gets off. After it’s gone, Roxanne is alone with the cacophony of her bones and the wet, dank smell rising off the Merri far below. Unwrapping the carousel she puts the empty box and the damp tissue back in her bag, and then she flings the carousel out into the darkness. After a moment she hears a subdued splash, and in her head she sees the carriages sinking to the bottom of the creek, the perpetual smiles of their occupants coming to rest against the claggy silt.
Her bones are needy, loud in the cold Melbourne night, and she takes them home and closes the front door, tight, to keep them from waking up the whole town with their howling.