There’s a Paul Klee sketch hanging in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art titled A Guardian Angel Serves a Small Breakfast. The figure hovers just above the ground, its wings spread. It holds a tray upon which breakfast items, including a kettle, are intertwined with one another, a tangle of gentle lines. Liquid pours from the kettle’s spout, even though it isn’t tilted. Emerging from the angel’s chest is a small love heart in red watercolour. There are many lessons to take from this sketch, one being that it’s good to serve someone a small breakfast.
‘This is hard for me to say,’ Miranda said, ‘but it doesn’t feel right.’
The village forbade streetlights, so I couldn’t make out her expression. ‘I thought you’d say that,’ I said.
We sat in an alcove in the middle of the bridge, walled off from the road behind, high over a river. As my eyes adjusted, the gums lining the water came slowly into focus, the leaves dark green against the night. In the river below there was a sucking splash.
‘Maybe a platypus.’
‘You think?’ she said, her American accent making the two words one.
‘I don’t know.’
I had admitted that I wanted to put my arm around her, that I was beginning to think I cared a lot. I think we should at least try, I’d said.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she said.
‘You have nothing to be sorry about. It’s how you feel.’
‘I mean I’m sorry in the way that I’m sorry your dad is sick.’
‘Thanks, yeah, I know. I appreciate it. I want you to be honest.’
The last two weeks kicked through me. Dad patting me on the back and saying he was flattered that I was sobbing. Waiting for a flight, on the phone to mum, telling her she sounded anxious and that I wanted to know why. Thousands of kilometres away, Miranda holding back tears as I repeated that she’d done nothing wrong and would never need to see that man again.
I punched my leg, trying to summon convincing words, knowing there was no convincing to be done. It was a weightless moment, sapped of momentum. No more decisions to be made. If I just straight up jumped in the river, I wondered, how upset would she be? I decided such a move would be too melodramatic but didn’t know, otherwise, how to measure what Miranda might be feeling.
Through the dark, into our difficult, halting moment, came an organic sound: an obviously human warbling. After maybe a minute the man making the noise crossed the bridge behind us, his wobbly, undulating falsetto unceasing, mocking the cry of a dying animal. Only two plausible explanations occurred: it was a deranged attempt to summon wildlife, or he was unwell. A wandering, unpredictable man in an unlit eco village nestled in the Gold Coast hinterland wasn’t something either of us really wanted to account for, so we awkwardly grinned, consigning the moment to inexplicable weirdness, hoping he would just pass by, which he did.
Miranda and I had once kissed by water, sitting in a park by a Sydney bay. The strange intrusion on that night, months before, had been made by plainclothes cops. In the very early morning they’d driven their sleek black car across the grass to check on us as we walked to my apartment. Sighting us and our innocence (too white? too old?) they’d mumbled something about a break-in nearby and driven off.
The morning after our conversation on the bridge, we mentioned the warbling man to the woman we were staying with. She was unnerved and recalled an email that had gone around a while ago, warning residents of a man photographing children.
The village was mostly comprised of architect-designed homes situated at strategically comfortable distances from their neighbours. Everything was solar powered and ran on tank water. During the day grey kangaroos lounged alongside narrow roads and at sunset dark clouds of fruit bats flew overhead. Most of the locals were families with young kids. They all seemed to know one another. The children played together; they swam together; the adults hosted communal barbecues and went for hikes together. Everyone had even tans and long, thick hair, and looked absolutely nothing like me. After staying two nights, Miranda and I drove on to Sydney.
• • •
The night we were approached by police, about six months earlier, was our first and only date. It had lasted from that evening through to the next afternoon. A few days later Miranda had sent a text politely and carefully explaining that she’d jumped the gun, that this was a bad time for her to get involved with anyone and asked that we remain friends. I felt mildly dejected then got over it; Miranda seemed cool and smart and I was happy to keep hanging out. Having recently arrived in Australia from Texas, she planned to spend two years working and studying up and down the east coast, on a visa that required her to work 88 days above the Tropic of Capricorn.
Over the next few months I showed her some of Sydney, catching up occasionally for a drink or film or walk. It was an excuse to be a tourist in the city I’d lived in for nearly four years. One night, in our third bar of the evening, Miranda and I discussed kids and whether we wanted them. She was working in Sydney as an au pair, spending most of her days corralling two resistant toddlers.
‘Oh, have I told you I was a doula a few years back?’
‘I don’t think so. Really?’
‘Yeah, another job I had. I only attended a couple of births, though. At the first one, when the baby was finally born it broke my brain. I was standing like two feet from her vagina. You’re probably built to withstand that a couple of times, to see a human being start. But hundreds of times? I don’t know if people are made for it.’
Extensive time around children and mothers had left her with a deep understanding of the total exhaustion of motherhood, as well as its possibilities. She remained unsure. I struggled to picture my future and my attitude towards becoming a father. Discussing hypothetical intimacies gave me the beginnings of anxiety, a fear I would have no role in Miranda’s future, but I dismissed this as a product of the alcohol, something that would pass when she was gone.
Weeks earlier I had invited her to spend Christmas in Brisbane with me and my parents, knowing she’d be in Queensland by then. Making the invitation, I’d been taken aback by my willingness to have my parents host this new friend I’d seen only a handful of times. However, as the year’s end loomed, I looked forward to it. I wanted to show her my family and make her time in Australia easier, less isolated. It seemed a gesture alive with the spirit of Christmas. I congratulated myself.
The last time we saw each other before she left Sydney, I failed to convince Miranda that Randy Newman was the greatest living American songwriter, and we discussed Outline by Rachel Cusk, a book we’d both recently read.
‘I feel like it was written for us, for people like you and me,’ Miranda said. ‘She becomes so absorbed in the lives of these other people, and it seems to come somehow from a place of self-assurance. But there’s always this feeling of loss and you’re not even sure what she’s lost or is about to lose. Like she’s feeling around in the dark trying to find something that’s just so incredibly important and she doesn’t even know what it is.’
‘You know, I’m going to miss you a lot,’ I responded. I meant it as a recognition of how close we’d become, a familiar, unromantic closeness I wasn’t sure I understood.
‘I appreciate you saying that. I’m going to miss you too.’
This was the first version of an exchange we would have several more times.
• • •
I recounted a dream to my therapist. A tiger cub was chasing me up Oxford Street. I didn’t see it at first, but people were running and telling me to run. So I ran too, wondering whether it wanted to attack me or play. When it became clear that the animal couldn’t be outrun, I decided to take shelter in a bar across the street. As I reached the door, two bouncers prevented me from entering. They said that, in order to avoid the cub, I should lie down and remain as still as possible. As I lay on the ground they towered above, urging me to stay still. I heard the cub approach, felt him nuzzle my side, circle me, and begin to gnaw at my skull. Then he unhinged his jaw and placed it around my scalp, applying the beginnings of hard pressure.
‘What does that make you think of?’ my therapist asked.
I listed various possibilities. He suggested that the animal was a younger version of me.
‘Which direction were you running?’ he asked.
I realised I’d been running towards his office and felt caught out.
Two weeks before she was to arrive in Brisbane, Miranda called. I was staying with a friend on the NSW south coast. She was in Queensland. The man she was staying with had repeatedly crossed boundaries and harassed her. I immediately despised him. We spoke for two hours, and then again for the next two nights, another two hours each time.
One week before Miranda arrived in Brisbane, I sat in an oncology clinic with my parents, across the desk from a doctor who told us that, after nine years, my father’s lymphoma had returned, and he needed to undergo a battery of scans and blood tests in order to determine the nature and severity of the disease. The doctor announced this and the next moment took a call concerning another patient, something to do with kidneys. It went on for minutes. During the call, the feeling in the room was of having been led deep into some tortuous maze, only to have our guide suddenly sprint around a corner and disappear. He finished the call and continued as if there had been no interruption. We were to return on Friday for further test results.
Leaving the office, I passed through the waiting room and into a corridor, placed my head on a wall and sobbed, convulsing. My father, who had followed, placed his hand on my back, chuckled, and told me he was flattered.
That night I called Miranda. It can be a relief to tell a friend about the illness of someone you love but the explanation itself is nearly always dreaded and painful. Miranda was coming to stay, so had to be told, and thus became the only friend who knew.
‘You don’t have to say that,’ she said, when I tried to look for the good in it. ‘This is a bad thing, and that’s okay. It’s okay for it to be shitty.’
We spoke every day until she arrived.
Between 1999 and 2009, when I was aged 10 to 20, my father had two bone marrow transplants, and went in and out of remission more times than I remember. I have always felt guilty for not being better on the detail. I do remember driving home from the hospital with mum and singing a vapid pop song I’d heard on the radio; the refrain went, ‘Do you think you’re better off alone?’ I must have been around 11. She asked that I stop singing, or at least sing something happier. It was hot and our car, a Datsun Sunny crowned with a vestigial, peeling roof rack, had no air conditioning.
In all those years, dad never seemed sad or scared or angry at having to endure what he did. I remember him reading Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward during treatment and speaking about what the novel got right: the waiting, the fatalism. I remember him recording every number, every blood test, every dose, every night in hospital in piles of Spirax notebooks. This was something he’d always done: recording the details of each plane he boarded, each bus he took, noting down daily temperatures and air pressure. When in treatment, he approached his own body as he approached his work as a geologist, mapping and interpreting its topology of haemoglobin and platelets.
And now, again, dad sat at the dining table, confronted by a mess of papers, scrappily annotating the results of his latest blood test. He asked if I’d have time to talk later that morning. I knew he was going to ask that I sit with him so he could explain the family finances, and show me where important documents were kept. Wanting it over with, I told him I was free.
Throughout the process, I kept talking about how sensible it was and thanking him for taking the time to show me these things. He might after all, I said, be hit by a bus tomorrow.
I didn’t attend the Friday appointment and instead caught a bus into town, telling myself and my parents that I had Christmas shopping to do. I did no shopping. I walked to St Stephen’s Cathedral, where I lit two candles and sat in a pew. A bronze Christ on a crucifix hung from the ceiling above the dais, his head cast down, avoiding my gaze. Behind him was a grand wood-panelled organ, its cascading pipes forming a W, echoing the Christ’s sloped arms.
When I lived in Brisbane, I would occasionally visit dad in the city for an extended lunch-break. We would always stop by this church and he would pray with the conviction of a man shaped by a 1950s Catholic education. Once, I asked what his prayer involved. Giving thanks, he told me, never desires or requests. He often spoke of paying respect to one’s guardian angels, figures he could credit with any successes or strokes of luck. I remembered one visit that included a trip to the pleasantly incensed cathedral shop, where he had bought me a prayer card honouring Saint Monica, the patron saint of (among other things) disappointing children. He has always, I thought, been funnier than me.
I checked my phone: a message from mum saying the appointment had been pushed into the afternoon. Leaving the church, I needed a new purpose, so bought sushi and ate it sitting outside City Hall. The combination of my jealousy of the swift-walking business lunch crowd—who, I imagined, were living ordinary anxiety-free days—and the enveloping December heat made me feel repulsed by my own physicality. The rice tasted like plastic pellets and sweat sealed my shirt to my back. Finishing the sushi, I thought about heading to a bookstore, air-conditioned and distracting, but thinking through the prospect of any ordinary task felt like planning a sprint with sandbags strapped to my feet. I was experiencing the consuming uncertainty that I’d forgotten had been a defining feature of my adolescence. This now unavoidable sensation, I realised, was the feeling that so many of my emotional defences had been developed to repress.
Finally, a message from mum saying the doctor had called them in. I caught a train to the hospital, sat on a bench outside the clinic and waited. My parents were on the third floor. After a stretch of time that seemed to herald bad news, mum called. The disease was early stage and not too aggressive. They had a treatment plan in mind. There were reasons to be cautious; there were also reasons to be optimistic.
I buzzed with relief and exhaustion, knowing that at some point in the future—a point I tried to will away—things would be difficult again. But right now a path forward had emerged. All I had wanted was a reason to be hopeful, something to cling to. I messaged Miranda, then entered the building.
The clinic, as my parents and I had known it for nearly two decades, was largely unchanged. A few years earlier it had been rebranded, made shinier, but its layout remained identical, as did many of its personnel. I sat in the waiting room next to a middle-aged woman with a pixie cut searching on her phone for information about a particular tumour, and listened to my parents at the reception counter organising dad’s treatment schedule. The first round of chemo, they were told, would involve MabThera, a word I hadn’t heard in more than a decade. Hearing it as an adult was like encountering a line from a book I’d been read dozens of times in infancy but had long since forgotten. Children are less likely to be attuned to the threatening qualities of medical jargon. Now, no longer confined to the foreign land of childhood, the word welded my past to my present. I was dizzy, probably in shock. Miranda arrived the next day.
On her first night in Brisbane, two days before Christmas, we sat on a suburban hill with a view of my home town’s modest skyscrapers.
‘Do you think we talk too much?’ she asked.
‘Do you know what I mean?’
‘I do,’ I said.
Each evening in Brisbane, we talked as honestly as we could. We slowly became better at describing how we felt, but neither of us knew for sure.
‘Why haven’t you said no yet?’ I asked.
‘This feels like more than a friendship,’ she said, ‘but I’m not sure if it’s a relationship,’ she paused. ‘What about you?’
‘I’m having a hard time separating how I feel from all the circumstances of this,’ I said, gesturing vaguely.
On Christmas night we watched Gremlins on Miranda’s recommendation on a laptop on my parents’ deck. I had to keep upping the volume to compete with the pounding white noise of a rainstorm on the corrugated-iron roof.
• • •
After Christmas Miranda and I drove south to Currumbin. The woman who hosted us was renovating her house, and we stayed two nights in exchange for helping out. On the first full day we painted the rooms of her son and daughter, and in the evening we lay on the grass and watched hordes of fruit bats beginning their days, marvellously silent. That night we had our conversation on the bridge and, despite it making me feel emptied of reasons for hope, I slept well. Having become accustomed to the awkwardness of our shared ambiguity, the awkwardness of our diverging certainties seemed, if not welcome, at least manageable. Again, we would remain friends. The next day Miranda and I assembled an IKEA child’s bunk bed. The room smelled of fresh paint and I could half-close my eyes and imagine this as a fragment of some future with a different past.
‘Let’s group these nails by size.’
‘Of all the things we could be doing,’ I said.
Miranda paused and looked at me. ‘It’s unbelievable,’ she said. ‘Hilarious.’
We left the next morning at seven, aiming to make it to Sydney by night. On the drive, I played Miranda my favourite podcast, and she compared the experience to having her mind scraped with a cheese grater. She played me the entirety of Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark, which I liked and overanalysed. I played her ‘Nikes’, the first track on Frank Ocean’s Blonde. We agreed that it was beautiful and kept returning to it.
Miranda was a long way from home, she missed her friends. She missed the easy complications of a group of people who had loved and hated and fucked one another for a long time in a knowable geography. I had lived in Sydney for four years, and many of my friends had left or were about to leave. She worried she couldn’t return to the past. I was anxious that there were no available futures, or that I wouldn’t be brave enough to do anything with them when they arrived.
During the drive, I kept thinking about Ben Lerner’s 10:04, a novel in which the insufferable male narrator is attracted to his female best friend, and can only seem to deal with the unreturned feelings by making them literary, distancing himself from responsibility. When we reached my apartment in Sydney, I opened the book to find a line I knew I’d underlined, a line I’d often worried was applicable to me: ‘I felt a jealous anger rising within me, a desire for her to desire me, the only kind of desire, Alex had once told me during a fight, I was able to sustain.’
Tired from the drive, we skipped dinner. Miranda spent the night on an inflatable mattress in my room. There was a span of mutually acknowledged weirdness, as if ghosts were passing through us, and then things were okay. We decided that it would be silly not to spend her final days together before she headed north once more, in order to complete her 88 days.
• • •
Walking through Manly towards the ferry terminal, Miranda asked if she could read me something, the lyrics of a James Blake song. I responded by reading her Auden’s elegy ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’. A woman in activewear walked close behind as I read and I failed in my attempt to imagine what she might have made of us. We passed my phone back and forth, mostly reading each other the lyrics of love songs. I also read the poem ‘Preparation’ by Czesław Miłosz, knowing that, at this point, nothing beyond friendship was likely. Otherwise, that particular poem would have been a little much.
That evening Miranda again slept on the inflatable mattress. She had been beautiful when we first met. When we met for the second time, as friends, I was able to stop thinking about her particular beauty. I liked her laugh and the way, in moments of revelation, she’d widen her eyes and move her head, but I assigned my affection for these traits to being part of the landscape of getting to know someone. Now she’d become beautiful again. This time, it was in the way people do when you understand how the arrangement of their face is an expression of their character, a model of their care and attention. I’d decided it was permissible to watch her sleeping because I’d told myself there was nowhere else to look, that this was a perfectly natural thing to do. Realising that this was not the case, I looked away.
The next day, we were walking to meet some friends of mine for dinner and passed two backpackers sitting on the footpath, sharing a joint.
‘You can always tell,’ Miranda said, ‘when a man’s going to look at you as soon as you’ve walked by. They don’t look until they’re out of your sight. And then you feel the sensation of being watched without permission. You know it’s going to happen and there’s nothing you can do.’
On the final night, Miranda showed me how to make a vegetarian version of pozole, a Mexican soup. I watched her prepare the broth, regularly tasting the balance of onion, lime, pureed chipotle in adobo, hominy, beans and stock. I prepared the raw ingredients, chopping cabbage, feta, coriander, radish and avocado. We mixed these cold in bowls, and, when it was ready, poured in the broth. Miranda took large handfuls of corn chips and crumbled them over the top. The spice rushed to the back of my throat.
• • •
Miranda lay in a tent an hour north of Rockhampton. I had worried about her being alone and a long way from home. I wanted to make her feel closer to being okay, and I did. Looking at the rain radar, I explained that the weather was settling in. She told me that when it rains heavily, you mustn’t let anything touch the walls of your tent, or the water begins to soak through. We spoke for around four hours. ‘This is unsustainable,’ she said, and I agreed. ‘At the moment,’ I said, ‘the emotional cost for me is manageable.’
Miranda was sitting in a hostel common room in Townsville.
‘Have you had that feeling,’ I said, ‘when you go out on a night where you know that you’re going to have to confront some stuff and then the night is terrible and you get too drunk and you don’t get home until three and the next morning everything is inflamed, it feels like you’ll be sad forever.’
‘God, yes,’ she said, delighted.
‘That’s how I felt this morning. It was probably the sleeping pill.’
‘You should write that sentence down.’
It was the sentiment she wanted transcribed, rather than the sentence; the sentence was only okay.
‘Why do you want to talk to me every day? You know why I want to talk to you every day.’
‘That’s a totally fair question,’ Miranda paused, and I wondered whether vocalising this judgement was her way of testing its plausibility. ‘Nobody else understands the precise context of my experience right now. You understand the context in a way even my friends back home don’t. But you know that’s only half of it.’
Several days later, calling from Cairns, Miranda told a story about her people back in Austin, how her best friend was now dating a guy she’d recently dated, a guy she’d not expected to sleep with her best friend.
‘Just a quick aside,’ I said. ‘That’s the only name that hurts.’
‘That’s understandable, I can pretty easily steer clear of that one.’
‘You don’t have to,’ I said.
‘It’s okay. Thank you for telling me.’
Jealousy may be the clearest emotional warning that you are on a trajectory ending in catastrophe.
‘It won’t be forever,’ I said.
Each time she said his name I felt it physically; angry that he had hurt her, that I would never be able to do anything about it, that she’d felt this way about someone who had hurt her. Men struggle to understand why women don’t love them, and my feeling risked transforming into the conviction that leads men to become their worst selves: believing we deserve love even when it comes at women’s expense. It’s a childhood fury: your mother laughing with a friend on the phone while you tug at her dress. In children it’s a way of learning separation. In adults it’s a tedious and cruel resentment.
‘I keep expecting you to end this,’ Miranda said, later in the conversation. ‘To turn around and say you want to stop talking.’
I paused. ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I think it will happen naturally.’
I was calling my parents twice a day. It was difficult to hear dad, fatigued as he was from treatment but not generally unwell. Mum would tell me everything was okay. When I asked her if I could explain how things were difficult for me she began to cry, and apologised for feeling useless.
‘I feel like I’m alone at the coalface,’ she said, ‘and that I just have to make sure everything’s okay here. Day to day. I can’t get off the phone and worry about you.’
‘Everything is fine, I’m really okay,’ I said. I meant it.
What I had wanted from that conversation was for her to know I wasn’t absent. Just because I was in Sydney, far away, that didn’t mean I wasn’t thinking about them. I was always thinking about them. And, of course, I wanted to make my mother share some of my hurt. I hated that I wanted this, but mothers are forever vessels for their children’s pain, and children learn to use this.
On Miranda’s final night in Sydney, after we’d eaten the pozole, we sat in a park and talked. I told her that I was genuinely hopeful for a future in which we would, uncomplicatedly, be friends. I would repeat this sentiment later. She told me that she had trouble talking frankly about our friendship, about how she felt, because it seemed unfair to express affection for me given how I felt for her.
In the dark we looked at one another.
I write about what happened and send it to Miranda.
‘It was cathartic,’ I explain in the accompanying message. ‘I hope it doesn’t freak you out.’
She writes back an hour later: ‘I read it and I liked it and I’m not freaked out at all.’
I say I won’t publish the piece unless she’s okay with it. So, that weekend, I sit in a park in Paddington as the sun sets and the air cools, watching dogs chase balls and one another, while speaking to Miranda with my laptop balanced on my knees.
‘Men always write women in this particular way,’ she says, ‘and it’s like they’re not quite real. I can’t explain it. It’s a flatness, they’re a little too angelic. It’s probably inevitable, but it’s weird to read myself transformed into …’ she hesitates, ‘a character.’
I rewrite dialogue, reading it to her as I go.
‘I just wouldn’t say it like that,’ Miranda laughs. •
Dan Dixon is a writer and academic living in Sydney.