Sarah started having strange fits. Every couple of weeks, she’d explode over nothing and lay into me, fists and all. I went to my psychology tutor. ‘My girlfriend’s going crazy,’ I said. She just looked at me and asked if I was doing drugs. Shit, she called it. ‘Your pupils are dilated.’
I spoke to Micky about it when we were sitting at the kitchen table one lecture-free afternoon. Micky didn’t know anything. ‘You should try and talk to her,’ he said. ‘It’s a cry for help.’ He was rolling a joint. He kept wetting his bottom lip with his tongue.
‘How do my pupils look?’ I said. ‘Do they look big to you?’
Sarah was wearing a T-shirt and knickers and lying on our bed watching the portable black-and-white TV. She sighed a few times while pretending to watch a documentary about the migration of birds. I sipped the beer I’d opened and gave her leg a squeeze now and then but this only made her sigh more. There was a band night waiting at uni. We should have been there. The others—Micky, Dav and Lil—were there already. Nothing was going to make me ask what was wrong but I knew for sure. It was Deniliquin.
Two months earlier, Sarah and I had been to a friend’s twenty-first near Deniliquin. Sarah drove and I drank beer with my arm out the window, elbow aimed at the flat, brown fields. The beer got warm quickly but things were pretty good. Sarah laughed hysterically when we stopped for me to have a piss and a ute came out of nowhere, horn honking. I held my can up in the air, tried to turn my back and ended up pissing all over my bare feet.
‘Watch out for jacks.’
‘Three-cornered jacks—go right through your foot.’ She revved the engine and made like she was going to drive off.
The clutch on my HQ died about ten kilometres from the little scout hall we were heading towards and we swapped places. I had to crunch drive it while Sarah drank beer, her bare feet up on the dashboard. At the party, we both got drunk and slept in the HQ, made love in the back seat with a white moon hovering overhead.
‘Sarah,’ I said, ‘you’re better looking than Chrissie Amphlett.’
‘Yeah.’ She sat up and examined her toenails.
‘Sarah.’ I slid in behind her and started massaging her shoulders. She leant back into me but kept hold of herself. What’s going on in her mind? I wanted to know. What’s in her brain that makes her who she is?
‘You shouldn’t have stopped,’ she said.
The father of the birthday boy, a gruff mechanic, fixed the clutch the next day and we took off back to Melbourne laughing at our good fortune.
‘Luckily he wasn’t a doctor,’ I said.
‘Or a lawyer,’ Sarah added and we started listing useless occupations to be in when your car’s fucked.
I was driving. The straight road cut its way through a stand of gum trees. Sarah saw the car before I did, parked with its bonnet up, the driver leaning in over the engine.
‘Don’t pull over,’ she said quickly.
‘What?’ I was already slowing down, the tyres of the HQ whirring on the gravel verge. Someone needed help, why wouldn’t I stop? We were a hundred metres past him. I started reversing, Sarah pulling at my arm. ‘You don’t know who it is,’ she was saying. ‘You know nothing about cars.’
I got out and walked round to where the guy was standing, head still over the engine. I glanced back at Sarah who was on her knees peering through the rear window. She looked like a frightened child and for a moment her fear infected me. I shook it off. You’ve played plenty of footy, I thought, you can handle yourself.
He looked up at me and nodded. He had a shifter in one hand and a rag in the other. He was probably forty, unshaven, wiry. His hair curled out the back of a blue baseball cap. ‘Engine cut out, no tools,’ he said and glanced in Sarah’s direction. ‘You kids goin’ t’ Melbourne?’
‘Yeah. You need a lift somewhere?’
‘Bout ten miles.’ He pointed the shifter over my shoulder. ‘No worries,’ I said, ‘happy to help.’
Sarah changed the channel and lay back down. I arranged myself alongside her, propped up on one elbow so that I could see the screen. I looked down at her in profile. ‘C’mon.’
‘Why did you stop?’
‘Shit, Sarah, we gave the guy a lift.’
‘He had a spanner.’
‘A shifter. We dropped him off. He got out of the car and we kept driving. That’s all that happened.’
We’d had this conversation a dozen times since we got back. Each time it seemed more certain to Sarah that the guy had wanted to kill us both, rape her first. It was almost as if he had.
‘We didn’t drive up that track, Sarah. He got out, said he’d walk. He didn’t hit us with the shifter. He said thanks, told us to have a safe trip.’ I was sitting on the bed now. I reached over and switched off the TV. ‘Shit, Sarah. Nothing happened. Nothing.’
‘It could’ve.’ She got off the bed suddenly, pulled on a pair of jeans. ‘C’mon. I know you wanna perve on Chrissie,’ she said and started putting on her make-up.
There was nothing I could do. What could I do? I got up and went out into the kitchen. I rolled a joint with Micky’s dope. I opened another beer.
The support band was ordinary. We stood up the back drinking and smoking. Micky had rolled about a hundred joints and packed them in a lozenge tin. Lil was off talking with some friends from uni and Sarah reckoned she went to school with someone in the support band—a guitarist with a stupid haircut. She made her way up the front. Dav sat on the esky. I was feeling good. Sarah had relaxed when she spotted her school mate hunched over his guitar and had even taken a beer with her to the stage. Maybe she’ll fire up, I thought. Maybe she’ll be like she was. I imagined the two of us driving in my car down the Great Ocean Road. I could see us in a caravan together surrounded by trees.
The support act stopped playing and the sound of hundreds of people talking all at once fell upon the room like rain. Dav was signalling to me with his cupped hand. He reached into the esky and fished around. The ice made a shushing noise. ‘You’re stoned,’ I said to myself. Eventually, Dav pulled out a beer. I already had one so I put it in my back pocket. I took a couple of steps backwards. What’s behind me? I wondered. Maybe there’s nothing. I imagined turning round, seeing that the room had been cut away, nothing there but a gaping hole and me standing on the precipice. I stayed where I was, rocking, edging my foot back slightly, feeling for an end to the solid floor. That’s when Lil arrived, suddenly there like she had been born ten metres in front of me. She grabbed my hand and took my beer, drank deeply. A thrill travelled up my arm. There was a connection between Lil and me.
‘I just had the most amazing conversation.’ She laughed and scrunched up her eyes. Something had changed between us and it felt great holding her hand there with my back to the precipice. I pulled Dav’s surplus can out of my back pocket but I didn’t dare let go of her hand to open it. Lil was reading me, craning her neck slightly. I was smiling like an idiot. She let go of my hand and I reached behind her head. I thought I was going to tell her something, maybe a joke, anything to keep her there. Instead, I kissed her. When it was over, she touched my cheek and laughed with her scrunched-up eyes. I reached out to her but she turned and disappeared among the people.
Later, I was walking back home with Sarah and we were waiting to cross Wellington Road. I was salty from my own sweat. Some guys in a car blew their horn as they went past us. I gave them the finger. Sarah pushed the button again to make the lights change.
‘You only need to push it once,’ I said
She looked up at me and smiled. ‘I saw you.’
‘What?’ We started walking across the road.
‘I wasn’t kissing Lil.’
‘You were kissing her. You had your hand in her hair.’
‘It wasn’t kissing. Not really kissing.’ How could I explain it? Lil’s sudden appearance like something out of water, catching the light and throwing it out. It was a convergence of moments. Not something you can control. ‘Sorry,’ I said.
We kept walking past Mannix College. Sarah’s arms were hanging straight. Hanging like they were useless, not even able to swing to help her walk. There were lights on in most of the Mannix rooms. We used to live there, I said to myself. We met there. My room was on the bottom floor. We used to sleep in a single bed and go down to breakfast together, eat the salty bacon and rubbery toast. We had sex all the time, morning, lunch, between lectures, the early afternoon—I loved those times most with the cut grass just outside the window. We’d sleep afterwards and miss dinner, get pasta from Il Mondo.
Sarah’s limp arms followed her as she walked. She was a step ahead of me. She stopped on the footpath opposite the entrance to Bottom West. ‘Why don’t you go in there?’
‘Why don’t you go in there? Find someone to fuck.’ She said it slowly, coldly.
‘Go fuck …’ Her fists were clenched now and her arms were moving again. I saw the life travel up them. She struck out at me with both fists and I had to dance back to avoid being hit. Her mouth was spread wide and I could see her clenched teeth. She backed away from me then turned on her heels and continued walking, this time with her arms driving her, those fists banging an invisible drum. I glanced at the entrance to Bottom West, imagined walking the corridors there.
I followed Sarah; stayed a safe distance away. ‘Fuck off,’ she kept saying, throwing her arms behind her as if they might be able to reach me. We crossed Dandenong Road; there were no cars. Shepherd her back, I said to myself. Just get her back. A truck thundered by when I hit the service road. I turned to look and tripped on the curb.
‘Sarah,’ I said. She was twenty metres ahead of me and ready to turn into our street. ‘Sarah.’
The corner streetlight flashed on her blonde head. A line of silver trailed out behind her. My lungs hurt and my mouth was dry. I started running. ‘Sarah!’
Sarah picked up her pace and sprinted the last fifty metres to the house. She could run, Sarah, she was a good runner. She went round the back to our room and I followed.
She slid the door shut on my hand. It hurt but I wedged my arm and shoulder in. I forced the door open. She retreated from me towards the bed and I threw myself on top of her. It was a football tackle. I had her round the waist from behind. She flung out an elbow and cauliflowered my ear. I pushed her with my weight onto the bed but she struggled and turned herself so that she was facing me and started hitting at the sides of my head with her fists.
‘Sarah.’ I yelled it this time.
She kicked out some more, arching her back, bucking like a trussed animal, grinding her teeth, lifting her knees in an effort to throw me off. I got hold of her arms and pinned them to the bed. I held her this way until she started sobbing. I wished I could see into her. The kiss with Lil wasn’t the problem. It was something else but I didn’t know what. It wasn’t something I knew anything about.
When she was asleep, I went out into the lounge. Micky was slumped in an armchair smoking a joint. He offered me some. I took a couple of drags and it made my head spin. I offered it back to him but he waved it away. I didn’t feel like sitting there with Micky. I needed air. The front door was wide open. From the concrete porch, I could see a strip of sky. A dark tumble of clouds sat heavy above me. I smoked some more of the joint. The thought of going back in there and lying down beside Sarah was terrifying. I butted out the joint on the jade tree in the garden. My hands and feet felt big. I stared at my palms, opened and closed my fists.
I got in my car. Put on the seat belt. Wound down the window, wound it up again. Checked my seatbelt. Felt my pockets for my keys. ‘Where are my keys?’ Found them in the ignition. Wound down the window. Started the car, backed out onto the quiet street. Had to slip the clutch a couple of times to get it into first.
My headlights were on high beam, so I put my foot on the dimmer. I accidentally flicked it twice so I had to do it again to get low beam. A car coming the other way flashed its lights. ‘I hope it’s not police. It better not be police.’ The engine chugged and the dash shuddered as I drove, barely fast enough for second gear. I pulled out onto Dandenong Road, crawled to the first intersection. I rehearsed what to say if I was pulled over. ‘I’ve done a clutch, have to crunch drive it. On my way home.’ I waited at the lights with the other cars. People stared at me through their windows. I wound mine up and looked straight ahead. It was cold. The heater wasn’t warming me. There were some blankets in the back for when Sarah and I slept in the car. The lights changed and I drove with the other cars towards the next red light. ‘I might just pull over for a bit,’ I said to myself. ‘I might as well just warm up.’ I stopped in the service lane and got into the back seat. I lay down with a blanket wrapped around me. Cars raced by on Dandenong Road, heading into the city or heading out. I wished I had blinds on my windows; there was too much light spilling in.
I woke thinking about Deniliquin. I’d been dreaming about the straight roads and the wide sun-scarred fields. I got back into the front seat, drove home. There was no-one else on the road. Everything looked wet even though it hadn’t been raining. The lounge light was still on. I went and lay beside Sarah. There was enough light to see her. I didn’t get undressed.
‘Sarah,’ I whispered and pushed her hair behind her ear. ‘Sarah.’ The light was creeping round us. She looked pale and it was difficult to recognise her. Maybe it wasn’t Sarah. Something felt wrong in my head. It could be Sarah. It might not be. ‘Sarah?’
She murmured something and rolled onto her back, half-opened her eyes. ‘Sarah?’ I was hoping I’d be able to rouse her.
She said nothing. Her eyes were open but she was looking past me. I waved my hand across her face. She didn’t move. She made no sign that she knew it was me.
It was cold. I kicked off my shoes and got into bed. I pressed myself against Sarah. She didn’t move. I had the impression that she was waiting for something to happen. I wanted her to roll onto her side so that we could nestle against each other. I nudged her gently and she turned. I held onto her from behind. Her buttocks were cold. I imagined she was dead. She was gone, except there was a chance that I could bring her back. If only I could hold onto her tight enough. If I whispered her name over and over while the sun quietly crept into being.