My friend has just separated from his partner of seven years, for reasons that horrify him because they’re so seemingly mundane. He’s holding together admirably, his ex-partner is too, but yesterday he almost broke down at a medical centre, filling in a form that asked for an emergency contact, when he realised he didn’t know, any more, whom he should nominate. It’s the little things, he says. I’ve got a handle on the big stuff, but the little things still kick me in the guts. I tell him this is always, always how we operate as human beings, that the big things are too abstract, somehow, for us ever really to have to deal with, but the tiny details, the everyday occurrences and injuries are our undoing, as much as they are the things that bring us joy. The small transfers of energy that shock us, sudden and electric.
A colleague and I turn up a bit too early for a comedy show on a Saturday night, and wait in the courtyard, in a line of sorts, behind the theatre. It’s drizzling with rain, and just starting to get bitingly cold. We’re all grouped under a canvas awning and holding our beer bottles by their necks so our hands don’t get too icy. Someone we can’t see is smoking near the fence, and their exhalation drifts vaguely over our heads. My colleague breathes in deeply, sighs. I’ll always miss smoking, she says, always. I loved it so much.
After the show, we walk to a small bar that’s recently opened nearby. The bartenders have made a playlist of 1980s ballads and 1990s hip-hop that’s blaring from the speakers and has everybody singing along. There are fat pieces of chalk on every table and on the bar, which means that there are very detailed sketches of penises on every table and on the bar. A woman in a red paisley dress, with dark hair knotted at the crown of her head and luscious, fierce brown brows, closes her eyes and dances as she waits for her drinks to be poured. A man walks up behind her and she startles when he touches her, then beams unreservedly and sinks her body back against his chest.
I catch a train into the city, in the late afternoon, and hear a young woman’s voice somewhere behind me: ‘It smells of seaweed in here.’
I wake in the middle of the night with Alex clutching at my shoulder as if he is pulling me in, somehow, pulling me back from some kind of blind danger. Are you okay, he asks, and I foggily tell him that I am, though I’m confused; he says I cried out in my sleep. I tell him I’ve been dreaming that I’d held a party in my house, it was late and the lights were low and buttery and I wanted everyone to leave but they just wouldn’t. My guests kept sitting loosely in small groups, talking and enjoying each other’s company and I just wanted to be alone; I can’t stand feeling powerless, beholden. Alex laughs. He laughs, a sound that cuts right through the still and silence of this hour of night, that’s your nightmare, he says, your nightmare is a party? Oh, I don’t say, but it was and it still is.
A middle-aged man in the café I’m working in says to his teenage daughter, ‘I don’t know, there’s a lot of q words on this menu.’
On Anzac Day I organise an afternoon picnic with a small group of friends. I don’t like long weekends; they mean nothing to those of us who freelance and mean one more day without structure for those of us who fizz with the static of anxiety. I don’t like Anzac Day; I hate the overblown nationalistic clamour, the excessive, slurry public drunkenness, the press of bodies throwing away money playing two-up in the pubs. So I gather a few friends in a park tucked away on a backstreet of Erskineville, the ground mossy beneath some spindly, leaf-dropping trees, the light as thick as golden syrup. We chew on oaty biscuits and drink sweet champagne from oversized cups, just enough to get gently tipsy, and as we’re packing up I realise that I’m desperate for the toilet. The closest pub is a few streets away and I’m in pain by the time we get there, I can’t think of anything besides my bladder. I rush inside and I feel like a horse in a stall when I finally get to a cubicle. The relief sweeps my whole body and is gloriously physical.
I walk the long way home with Alex as the sun begins to set; the temperature drops alongside it. I’m wearing a dress and open-toed shoes, and can see my toes turning purplish-blue in protest. Inside, I turn on my ceramic heater for the first time this year, set its thermostat for 35 degrees and hold my hands and feet directly in its blast. My shoulders and spine unfurl deliciously and I think: these two moments of bodily transcendence, of pure pleasure.
Alex invites me to a Passover dinner at his mother’s house, and I go along although I’m terrified by the thought of ritualised eating, of some kind of sacred, symbolic food making me throw up, what it might mean to bodily reject a sacrament. Especially as I’ve never done a meet-the-parents before.
There are a few non-Jewish guests at the table, and one, a beautifully soft-eyed Vietnamese girl, asks if Passover or Yom Kippur is the more important holiday, and Alex’s brother starts debating this with his friend, before saying, ‘Yom Kippur is a fast, which is a pain in the neck, and Passover’s a feast, which is way easier.’ I almost choke because the words seem so incongruous to me, sitting on a heavy chair at a formal table, feeling so unequipped for what is set to follow.
Alex and his brother make wisecracks at each of the small ceremonies that accrue to make the ritual. We eat flat crackers that get called ‘the bread of affliction’ and I know it’s awful to find poetic resonance in this but I can’t help it.
Alex’s mother clearly adores his brother’s girlfriend, a medical registrar with a mane of loose curls and a warm and toothy smile that I find myself responding to whenever it leaps across her face. She’s from Sri Lanka originally, and calls Alex’s mother aunty and it’s endearing and adorable. When Alex’s mother distributes a set of coloured masks, representing the ten biblical plagues that were called down upon Pharaoh, she gives Mihiri the mask labelled death of the firstborn, the final plague, the most prestigious and important one of all. The affection between them is beautiful to see. I drink a lot of sacramental wine, which is sweet and sticky and strong and I throw up my dinner painfully and suddenly, although nobody notices but Alex.
Alex’s dog steals my socks one night, takes them downstairs to gnaw on, and when we figure out where they’ve disappeared to, it’s hilarious. The next night it’s my bra, and this is far less funny.
A tiny woman in an oversized shirt that reads ‘Survive now, cry later’ grins at me as we cross the road together.
Alex and I go away for the weekend; I’m 32 years old, and it’s the first time I’ve ever done this, had a holiday weekend with someone I am dating. Alex is still teasing me about the caption on a photo taken at a recent awards night that I dragged him to, in order that I wouldn’t feel so nervous. It read ‘Fiona Wright and Partner’ and the moment he saw it on Facebook, he’d texted i’m partner and I’d replied nice knowing you bye; he keeps dropping the word into sentences the whole time we drive to rile me up.
At dusk on the first day we sit on a small balcony and watch a mob of kangaroos foraging along a row of olive trees. I’d just that morning read a description of a kangaroo’s face as ‘part dog and part deer’ and I can’t help but think of this, though Alex calls them Australian meerkats for the way they spring upright when they hear us talking, their front paws tucked in and ears swivelling in our direction. Moving slowly through the orchard like this, they look cumbersome, their long hind legs mismatched to their small front claws, but when they bound away from our car the next morning, in full and rapid flight, they are all sinew and speed, and almost frightening in their grace.
We have breakfast in a country café, at a table underneath a blood-red spider grevillea. A young couple sits nearby, and their two children, a tow-headed boy and his long-limbed older sister, start dragging out toys from a box we hadn’t noticed beside the kitchen door. The girl makes a tower from small blocks of lacquered wood, and when her brother doesn’t help her, cries out, ‘Why won’t you do what I want you to?’
When the couple goes inside to pay for their meal, the boy pulls off his clothes and starts pissing in the middle of the garden.
My niece has a pet rabbit, black with a white nose, as she likes to describe it, and when I see it for the first time, I’m surprised by how big it is, how solid-looking. The rabbit, Blackie, won’t let me come close, but scurries under furniture the moment it sees me move. I think he’s scared of me because I’m big, I say, and my niece looks at me with the full force of her five-year-old disdain: ‘Aunty Fi, you’re actually a little bit small.’
I’m walking across campus and pass a dark-haired woman in a black jumper that says, in cursive script, ‘je suis petite’. I want to grab her and say don’t be petite, be grande but then I realise I’m wearing a T-shirt that I bought in Cotton On Kids.
I’m taking part in a clinical trial run by my university, and in a strange and awful coincidence, held in the very room that used to be my office. When I worked here, I was at my sickest, etoliated and emaciated and sucking back bottles of Diet Coke as I tried and failed to concentrate on the page proofs spread across my desk. One of the women in the group, a soft-skinned 19-year-old in a pale pink hijab, begins crying. ‘I’m a fat person, I can’t help it. I’m a fat person, a disgusting fat person and my arms, my stomach, everything about my body is wrong.’ She is beautiful, with long lashes, chocolatey eyes and two-toned outfits that always match exactly, and she is gentle and generous and kind (she says things like, there are so many hectic things that happen in your life, and, it just kills me). Something like this always happens, has happened always, in all of the groups I’ve attended. I’ve never thought that I was ugly, I know I cannot understand.
Later another woman, older, and visibly gaunt, tells a story about walking through a shopping centre in her cowboy boots, the boots that always make her feel sexy, and then catching a glimpse of herself in a shop window. ‘I looked like a grasshopper in wafflestompers,’ she says.
I drive to Parramatta to tutor journalism students on a morning when my ribs feel like they’re knitting together inside my chest and I cannot figure out why I feel this pressurised. I start my second tutorial 15 minutes late because I’m hit with a sudden fist of panic and have to lock myself in a toilet cubicle, sitting on the folded-down toilet lid with my knees tucked up and my hands at the base of my throat, forcing myself to breathe. This breathlessness, this panic, happens three more times this day and cumulatively I’m left exhausted and shaky and furtively wide-eyed.
I force myself to read at a poetry launch that night, even though I know that if I were physically this sick I would let myself stay home. I don’t talk much before the proceedings and I’m the last person to read; afterwards, someone from the audience asks me to sign his copy of the journal and says ‘You are a sparkler’ and I smile and thank him; another man approaches and says, ‘I’ve come to see you from Slovenia, Slovenia is the only country in the world with l-o-v-e in it,’ and I smile again because I am a woman and I still think I should be nice.
I walk home in the dark, with my whole body taut and twanging, and when I lie down on my bed I realise I’ve been scratching my left hand, without noticing, the whole way. I’ve torn the skin, though it’s not bleeding, and I’m terrified. I’ve never done this before.
My aunt keeps offering me old tupperware and glass platters from my grandmother’s house, saying it’s retro, it’s very retro. I’m helping, although not well, pack up the house a few weeks after her death, her good death, swift and surrounded by family; I feel superfluous, but know I’m needed, somehow, for this ritual. The wardrobes and cupboards of my grandparents’ house are stacked meticulously with unused crockery and gadgetry, all of it still packed in its boxes. My aunt offers me a vertical grill, a thing I didn’t even know existed. She says, ‘It’s like a toaster for your meat.’ Why anyone would toast a steak is, obviously, beyond my comprehension.
One of Alex’s friends tries to goad me into having a tequila shot on Saturday night, after a show at the Enmore Theatre. I have a rule, I say, I am too short to shoot. His response is to suggest we do it proportionally—to figure out equivalents based on body weight—and we calculate that he is just under four times my size. I’m still not interested, so he escalates—if I have two shots, he’ll have eight, proportionally. Something in me is excited by this idea, but Alex eyes me sideways with his better judgement and his friend is drunk enough already to be easily distracted, so we slip away before he can remember his terrible idea.
I wash some of my canvas tote bags, because they’re grubby at the bottom, flecked with broken-off nubs of broccoli and papery slivers of onion skin. They wrinkle as they dry, despite the care I took in stretching them as I pegged them out along the line. I want to iron them, but I don’t want to be the kind of woman who irons tote bags.
Alex lives directly opposite a primary school, on one of the old main roads that winds through the inner west. Some mornings, if we sleep late, I wake to the sound of the school bell, which is not a bell but a roaring electronic alarm that sounds like a fire siren. Some mornings, this is followed by an announcement on the PA; and one morning the announcement crackles: ‘Fiona, come to the principal’s office, Fiona, to the principal’s office’; I bolt upright straight from sleep with my heart squeezing in my throat.
The scratches on my hand keep happening, I know I must be making them but never notice until the red welts appear there; they harden into thin, yellow scabs that, ironically, itch like crazy as they heal. Alex takes my right hand during the night and pulls it towards him, away from where I had been scraping at my skin, and the next day I visit a cheap manicurist on King Street inexplicably called USA Nails. I ask the woman who attends to me to cut my nails down to the quick and file them smooth and I’m thrilled this time to have outsmarted my own mind. When my mother asks about the damage on my hand a few days later, I tell her I’ve been gardening but can’t tell if she believes me.
I need to vacuum my room but I hate the noise the vacuum cleaner makes. I read once that sensitivity to loud noises is common in the undernourished, but I know too that this runs in my family: my niece hates the sound of car horns and electric mixers, my mother is always turning the TV and radio down. One day, I say to my housemate, someone will invent a vacuum cleaner that doesn’t suck, and it takes me several seconds to realise why she’s laughing so whole-heartedly.
I lead a writing workshop early one Saturday, and walk to the venue, tucked away behind Circular Quay, all the way from Newtown. I love walking like this, especially on mornings like this, bitingly crisp but warm in the sun, even as I know my body can’t afford the hour-long exercise. There are so few people out yet that it feels like the city is still and new and mine alone and I feel my muscles working, each one alive. When I arrive at the building, the coordinator goes to shake my hand and I say my hands are cold as death, I shouldn’t touch you. She laughs and says, ‘I’m tough, try me,’ and so I do and she leaps back and hisses, ‘Jesus Christ, you weren’t kidding, were you?’
I ask the workshop group to write about a memory and the place where it occurred; afterwards, one of the participants asks how many people wrote about something painful, and every member of the group, bar one, raises a hand. I say I think it’s harder, sometimes, to write about the things that make us happy, that joy is so large and expansive an emotion that it’s often more difficult to confront or attempt to contain. Later, as I’m walking back along the city’s spine, I wonder precisely what kind of person it is who is afraid of the largeness of joy.
A few weeks later I’m sitting in the same café, where I met with my newly single friend, and a man who looks uncannily like him, just older, and a bit scragglier, sits at the next table with his pig-tailed daughter. I think she must be four or five—she’s in her school uniform, but the shorts are so long on her, the backpack so comically large that she looks like she’s playing dress-ups, the way most kindergarteners do. She shows me a patch on her inner elbow where she’d had a needle, explains that her bravery levels have hit this high, gesturing at the middle of her chest. With the next needle, she explains, her bravery levels will be as high as her neck, and then her nose, and then she’ll almost be full up. I act suitably impressed, and she runs back to her table to stir marshmallows into her hot chocolate and chatter away with her father, who even shares some mannerisms—a raised eyebrow when he tells a joke, a way of pushing his glasses back up his nose—with my friend. I can’t look away at this, the imagined future that my friend decided he didn’t want, the way this man and girl are so intently enclosed in their own world. It’s only later that I wonder what might make someone so small need so many injections and this hits me in the stomach like a fist.
I run into my friend Matt in the tearoom at uni; he shuffles over to the couch I’m sitting on and groans as he bends to join me. He says he has herniated a disc in his spine, that he did it lifting weights, and I can’t help but laugh—Matt’s research is about masculinity, and its continual slippages between toughness and shame. I tell him he has an auto-ethnographic injury and we both chuckle at how clever we are. Matt says it only hurts when we walks or drives or does anything but sit still and I’m struck, suddenly, about how poorly I would cope with such restriction, how important to me movement, any movement, is: walking in order to think and decompress and hinge myself; how many problems in my writing, too, unravel as I move.
I’m writing at my desk one morning, and it’s one of those times that the process, as it so rarely does, feels joyous and easy, as if the right words are exactly where I need them for a change. My window faces the street—in every house I’ve lived in, I’ve set up my desk to do this, so I can watch the people walking past, the light shifting, across the day. Two young men in bright green shirts walk to my door, and when I don’t immediately respond to the doorbell, one of them waves at me throw the window, a too-toothy grin on his face. I open the door, and they’re selling subscriptions to a meal delivery service, one that sends you the ingredients to cook your own ‘healthy, varied and convenient dinners—everything but the chef!’ one of them says. I tell them I’m not interested, and he asks why, and because he has interrupted my writing and because I’m not feeling particularly well this day, I give him the full list of foods that I cannot and otherwise will not eat and I don’t think either young man was especially prepared to hear it.
I walk past a mannequin in a shop window, headless, dressed in a jumper that says ‘bad nerd’. I consider buying it, but I’m not sure if I’m a bad nerd or a good nerd, or another kind of nerd entirely.
I’m sick in a café one morning, it comes on quickly, and I leap out of my seat and to the bathroom without giving Alex any warning. I’m rattled, because this happened the night before too, and I can’t help but get scared when I throw up sequentially; I know I’ll feel it in my body, a haziness, later in the day. When I’m back at the table, Alex slides around to sit beside me and squeezes my shoulder as I explain that I’m afraid. When I get back home, he texts me ‘I wish I knew more ways to help you through this’ and the kindness of that just makes me cry. You do so much already, I want to say, and each of these things are so small but so important that I’m not sure he notices.