The club is down an alley in the top end of city. It looks like an office building or a hotel. There is a doorman in the foyer and a pale-green velvet couch. A clothing rack filled with designer coats. I am wearing an ankle-length blond fur. My auntie kisses me hello, she comments on the fur in a tone that could equally be admonishment or admiration. My sister, when she first saw the coat, asked if it was made out of guinea pigs.
The women at the club are all blonde or blow-dried brunette with fine auburn highlights. They wear delicate gold jewellery, their faces are taut and shiny. They smile carefully, unwilling to expend elasticity. They are all, very deliberately, thin.
We are served eating-disorder food for dinner. A wedge of white fish with some deflated cherry tomatoes. For dessert, a citrus jelly sitting in a moat of segmented oranges. There is a guest speaker, an Aboriginal woman who talks about her career and it’s difficult to tell whether she is supposed to be motivational or inspirational or aspirational. She says, ‘I find it hard to be here in a club built for wealthy white women.’ She says it more politely than that but that is what she means. The women smile blandly in response.
and what we see is a world
that cannot cherish us
but which we cherish1
I sit at a table with a writer and her husband. He is the only man in the room. I see him, all night, sneaking glances at me when he thinks no-one is looking. We talk about feminism, he tells me how much things have improved for women. He is surprised when I do not agree. Later he tells my auntie he admires how forthright I am. She repeats this to me as though she thinks it is a compliment.
The conversation keeps coming back to liberation of women, to the great strides forward in equality. I cannot keep the fury out of my voice. And then I am quiet because there is no point me saying anything more.
You do not think of setting fire to yourself. Life is too easy to say anything further about here.2
My auntie and I leave. We go to her friend’s bar around the corner, we drink New York Dolls—heavy on the Campari, sweet and bitter—and watch the tides of people wash in and out. I am waiting for a man to reply to a message. It’s been three days. I say it’s not a very good sign and she looks sad and says, ‘No. It isn’t.’
• • •
The first time I get a taxi by myself I am 14. I am not supposed to be in a taxi and I am not supposed to be out. I stand on the corner of Bourke and Elizabeth and stick one arm in the air like I’ve seen my father do. I sit in the back, diagonally opposite the driver, the farthest away I can get—as my mother has taught me.
you not a noplace
The taxi driver asks me if I am Russian—there will be a few years where men will often ask me this and then, as abruptly as they started asking, they will stop. He tells me I am beautiful. He gives me a can of beer another passenger gave to him but that he does not want. He says we should hang out sometime. I tell him to stop the car a whole block away from my house so he won’t know where I live. Is it more terrifying to be alone in the dark or to be in the taxi?
I meet a lawyer on tinder. We talk—text—for two months, trading witticisms. He keeps asking me, sporadically, if I want to come over for a bath and each time I ask him if he is planning to murder me.
In the meantime I go on a date with a chef. I like the chef a lot. I think he likes me too but it turns out I am mistaken. Although the discovery I am mistaken is a slow reveal. Is a matter of interpretation of accumulating days of silence. Until eventually enough days add up to equal complete lack of interest.
who is just
The lawyer comes over on a Saturday night. All I have eaten all day is a connoisseur ice-cream and some collagen powder. So when I start to shake I am unsure if it is nerves or low blood sugar. I chug a glass of orange juice, eat a spoonful of peanut butter, which I drop on my foot. I smear illuminator on my cheekbones and spray perfume in my hair. I start drinking gin in those tall chunky Ikea glasses. Half gin, half flat mineral water.
I roam around around around around acidic yellows, globe oranges burning, slashed cream, huge scarlet flowing anemones, barbaric pink singing, radiant weeping. When will I be loved?5
He is, as I suspected, short. Not much taller than me. The beginnings of a body going to seed. And everything is wrong, which is not his fault but the fault of maybe pheromones or something else intangible. I really try to be attracted to him.
Oh yes I’m the great pretender. Red lays a strip of darkest green on dark. My need is such I pretend too much, I’m wearing. And you’re not listening to a word I say.6
We sit on opposing couches and awkwardly chat for a few hours. I linger by the record player with my back to him so, for a moment, I can let my face relax. I still have not figured out a way to ask a man to leave without being afraid he is going to kill me.
For a while I saw a psychologist. She was forgettable, blonde, with a squeaky voice. Her office was blank, with one window right at the end. She was, typically, unwilling to say anything unequivocal. Endlessly throwing the question back to me: ‘But what do you think?’
I was involved with a man, someone I loved deeply and intensely. I would tell her about what happened between us. She would say, ‘Do you think he’s abusive?’ And I would dodge the question, justify, evade until eventually she said to me, ‘He is abusive.’
My legs were so interlaced with yours I began to think I could never use them on my own again.7
It still seems like a word I don’t have a right to, as if everything he did wasn’t enough.
• • •
Some years are distinguished by my constant nausea. Years when I often vomited and drank a lot and ate a little and constantly thought I was pregnant—both hopeful and frightened. I was never pregnant and it takes me a long time to realise that the perpetual nausea was actually fear.
She listens to the blank space where
his consciousness is, moving towards her8
Eventually I leave him. I immediately start dating someone new. I start seeing a psychiatrist. He tells me my ex has psychopathic tendencies. He tells me my current boyfriend is a sociopath, he says this while he’s staring out the window to the street—watching my boyfriend idling by the curb in my parents’ Mercedes-Benz.
• • •
For a long time I am stuck on the evocation of my 18-year-old self. I picture her and it’s almost impossible to breathe because I can’t save her, I can’t stop any of it. I spend a long time trapped in this immovable time loop.
Oh, all right, I say
I’ll save myself.9
I realise I have been trying to find my way back to the earlier time. I have been waiting to be 22 again, for none of this to have happened yet.
After I break up with the sociopath, or, rather, after he breaks up with me (he is depressed; he has a drug problem; he loves me but he needs to be alone) I move back in with my parents because I don’t have anywhere else to live and my contract at work has ended and I am out of options.
Time to give, time
to give it up10
It’s been only a few months but I worry I’ll never leave again. All my belongings remain in boxes. I stay in the spare room. I am uneasy and so grateful to be home. It is the first time in years the four of us—my parents, my sister and I—have lived together and we, all of us, regress. So I have found my way back to my 18-year-old self after all.
There is a while when it’s all I can talk about. Those lost years, those dead years. And then I don’t want to talk about it any more.
I go to Japan. Me and three couples. I’ve always travelled alone. I book a series of hotels to stay in by myself and then I cancel them all for the sake of camaraderie, for the sake of disguising my churlishness. We are, all of us, in this together. Except of course we are not. We catch trains from Tokyo to Kyoto to Hiroshima to Nara to Naoshima and they all sit together in little couplets—one, two, three down the ribs of the carriage.
We visit art galleries. We drink litres of sake. We go to restaurants and tell them to bring us their three best dishes. We play cards. We eat ice-cream. We buy onigiri from the 7-Eleven. One of my friends goes for a walk early one morning, she thinks she is being followed, she runs back to the hotel in a panic. She tells us over breakfast and is distressed and can’t quite get the story out and all I can think is, so what?
I knew there was no god there were only ever
We go to karaoke in Akihabara. The night ends with me sitting on the floor in a dark corridor and everyone else is still in the room, still trying to figure out how to pay the bill and who owes what and who ordered coke, how much of a discount do you get if it’s your birthday but it was also your idea to come to karaoke in the first place.
I am sitting on the floor listening and not listening and then the Swede comes to find me and in a rare display of empathy asks, ‘Are you okay?’ And I say, not really. And I sob for a while and he rubs my back and I say, I’m going to vomit,’ and then everyone else comes barrelling out into the corridor and I turn away, blotting my eyes with my palms, and am both relieved and annoyed when none of them notice.
And yet we place all our hope in
As touching, gathering, happens
in the most difficult places at the
most difficult times.12
• • •
So how do you go about missing someone you wish had never existed? How do you couple together longing and anger and come up with anything that makes sense? Can someone explain to me how to do that?
I am in a taxi and the driver thinks my first name is Rice and I don’t bother to correct him. It is late. I am on my way to the airport, speeding away from a town I can’t bear to be in any more. There is a sound, a bang on the door, and the car jolts. The driver turns his head sharply and sucks air through his teeth: ‘Teenagers throwing rocks.’ He gets out to check and it turns out it was only an egg. ‘Direct hit,’ he says.
He is chattier when he gets back into the car. Now we have both experienced the egg-rock-missile. He tells me I need a good husband to do all the cooking and cleaning for me. He asks me why I don’t have a husband, asks if I am looking. Tells me I’ll never find him if I don’t look. That my husband would be looking but I wouldn’t see him. Tells me I should move to this town and within a week I’d have five, six men all over me. Maybe more.
My advice to you is, don’t get lost too deep in need, unless you’re going to join the witches.13
‘It’s the military bases,’ he says. And the gas plant. And all the women leave. The men stay because they want to hang out with their mates. But the women, they don’t care about that. ‘How many men visit you each week in Melbourne,’ he says.
The man I was involved with, the one with psychopathic tendencies, works with my uncle. It is a small company, just the two of them in a shared office space in Fitzroy. My sister works in the office space too, not with them but near them.
We should meet in another life, we should meet in air,
Me and you.14
At Christmas the office has a staff dinner at my auntie and uncle’s house. Everyone brings a plate. My sister asks for my recipe for upside-down cake. The way I make it is with plums and walnuts, a little bit of cardamom stirred into the batter. I send her a recipe I find online.
I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.15
Sometimes I think I imagined it.
I go to Perth, I go to Hobart, I go to New York, I go to Darwin. I move house and then again. I start a degree. I start a new job and then another, another, another. I stop having nightmares, stop flinching at loud noises, I start to wear the kind of clothes I used to—bright, tailored, vintage—instead of dressing to disappear. Everyone tells me I need to start dating again. They tell me it’s weird I haven’t started dating again.
I am at work putting together fact sheets for a research project. The research project is about perpetrators of domestic violence. There is a checklist of questions for women to answer so they can discover if they’re being abused. Without thinking I start answering the questions. I tick yes to most of them.
I go whole days without thinking about him. Then weeks. I start to write again. I remember how to be funny. I forget the specifics of the things he said. The timelines become blurred. It begins to feel very far away and almost inconceivable. I laugh more than I used to.
believing in a thousand
fragile and unprovable things16
I am running late for a massage. I am rushing and I skid in the bathroom with wet feet. Grab on to the tap to stop myself but I’m slipping too fast and my arm ricochets down the bathroom cabinet and I fall, hard, on my back. I end up with a bruise stretching from my armpit to my elbow. It hurts for days. It is a spectacular bruise. I take photographs of it, I show everyone. And I think what I often think when I’m injured—I wish he had done this. I wish what he’d done to me had been visible.
So in some ways there is no escape, in some ways I will always be trapped in this immovable time loop.
I spend an entire Saturday alone. I walk to Carlton and buy a friend’s book. I go to my favourite bar and drink gin after gin. I eat a bowlful of nuts cooked in chili and brown sugar. I eat Sicilian green olives. Carrot custard out of an eggshell with parmesan crisps. I am becoming more and more singular.
and in my plan to be myself
I become someone else17
I am at a party in Brisbane. The music is loud. So loud it makes my heart beat faster. It makes my ears feel hollow. It turns space liquid. Biggie starts calling ‘I love it when you call me Big Poppa.’ And I am 15 again. I am young and covered in sweat and I am dancing and dancing like that’s the only thing I’ve got to do and nothing has been ruined yet, nothing has filled me with tar and anger and bitterness. Here I am in the earlier time. Here I am perfectly untouched. And over and over I start shouting in my head, fuck you fuck you fuck you … And, for a moment, it is absolution enough.
Free of chronology and awaiting the right words18 •
- Mary Oliver, ‘Coming Home’, Dream Work, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986.
- Mairéad Byrne, ‘Life Is too Easy’, out of everywhere 2, Reality Street, 2015.
- Lucille Clifton, ‘What the mirror said’, The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965–2010, BOA Editions, 2012.
- Rae Armantrout, ‘Crossing’, out of everywhere, Reality Street, 1996.
- Denise Riley, ‘Lure, 1963’, out of everywhere, Reality Street, 1996.
- Riley, ‘Lure, 1963’.
- Rosemarie Waldrop, ‘The Perplexing Habit of Falling, the Attraction of the Ground’, out of everywhere, Reality Street, 1996.
- Ann Carson, Autobiography of Red, Vintage Books, 1998.
- Anne Sexton, ‘Letters Written on a Ferry while Crossing Long Island Sound’, selected poems of anne sexton, Mariner Books, 2000.
- Maggie Nelson, ‘What It Is’, Something Bright, Then Holes, Soft Skull Press, 2007.
- Sharon Olds, ‘The Worst Thing’, Stag’s Leap, Random House, 2012.
- Juliana Spahr, ‘Switching’, Fuck you-Aloha-I Love You, Wesleyan University Press, 2001.
- Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, ‘I Love Artists’, out of everywhere 2, Reality Street, 2015.
- Sylvia Plath, ‘Lesbos’, Ariel, Harper & Row, 1966.
- Maggie Nelson, Bluets, Wave Books, 2009.
- Oliver, ‘Coming Home’.
- Lisa Jarnot, ‘Brooklyn Anchorage’ out of everywhere 2, Reality Street, 2015.
- Lyn Hejinian, ‘A Broader Comedy, 56’, out of everywhere, Reality Street, 1996.