On Sunday afternoon I go to a queer speed-dating event in Newtown. The event organisers have teamed with a rescue group, and the proceeds are going towards rehoming stray or neglected pets.
I picture huggable puppies with shiny coats and swishing tails but, when I arrive, there are only two rescue dogs in the courtyard: an unaffectionate husky and a brindle bitsa with a scab on his head.
The scab breaks and bleeds. I can’t stop looking.
As I move from table to table at the sound of the bell, clutching my square of pink paper, I smile at strangers I know already I will never see again.
I, too, am looking for a home.
Your body shrinks, coils, shields itself from the everyday shocks and jolts.
When you are lucky, you can hide the surprise on your face, fool everybody.
The Economist has a stand set up in the foyer of my workplace. It is sweltering; blue skies for days. The promotional signs advertise ice-cream and subscriptions to the magazine.
‘How free is the ice-cream?’ I ask.
‘It’s very free,’ the woman behind the stand says. ‘But it comes with insects.’
There’s always a catch, isn’t there?
She tells me insects are sustainable and rich sources of protein. ‘The way of the future,’ she says, lifting the lid to reveal grey-green grubs and grasshoppers.
I want to point out that there is nothing sustainable about the milk mixed in with the bugs, but the women behind the stand, I suspect, are just trying to do their job and do not read the Economist.
I shuffle back to my office empty-handed.
I am wearing a round, peach-coloured ring on my finger. ‘Looks like a butt plug,’ a colleague announces. Later, when we are in the lift together, he scans the top of my head, says, ‘You’ve got a bit of a bald patch.’ I laugh it off. Soon after that we have an argument over a Coles roast chicken—we do not speak for six months.
You know there is no line, no threshold to cross from childhood into adulthood. And yet you keep searching for it. Maybe it’s your next birthday. Maybe the next one. People said you’d feel different at 30. You are now 31, and know they lied. You are still frightened, poor, single. You have no house, no career, no partner. You do not even have a driver’s licence or an electric drill.
I am wearing a new dress and pink lip-gloss, and clutching a frosty glass of rosé. I loop around the sunny courtyard looking for my date—around tables and dogs, people holding schooners—and when I don’t see her, I cross the green partition into the smoking area. There Clara sits in a black fedora, surrounded by her mates and jugs of beer. Was the word ‘date’ ambiguous? Did I misunderstand?
Clara tells me that people misread her all the time because of her (good) looks. Earlier in the evening, she’d told us about skipping queues and getting free drinks at the bar. ‘People think I’m really cool,’ she says, and though I know she thinks she isn’t, I cannot, will not, say, ‘That must be really hard’—because I have never thought of myself as beautiful. (It is also true that she does not buy the drinks that night, or the next night.)
We bump up against each other in the world, reopen each other’s wounds, sometimes on purpose, sometimes by accident. I have hurt more people in my life than I can count on fingers and toes.
I’ve skewered hearts like chicken kebabs.
At the bar Clara asks, ‘What can I get you?’
‘A rosé, please!’
She is pressed against the counter, wallet out.
I smile at the greying man next to me, who is looking at the two of us, at the proximity of our bodies.
‘I’ll grab something for us at the bistro,’ I tell her.
When we meet by the couches, I notice that she is holding two schooners.
She presents me with a beer.
‘Memory fart,’ she says, ‘sorry.’
If you don’t expect much, you can’t be disappointed.
If someone mistreats you, you can explain it away (rationalisation). Isn’t that what all the psychologists you’ve ever seen keep telling you? It’s a defence mechanism, they say, treating you as if you’ve never read Freud.
When I was an undergrad we spent four weeks on psychodynamic theory—on psycho-sexual development, dreams, defence mechanisms, drive, attachment, the superego. The other personality theorists got a lecture each. I still confuse Watson with Skinner.
Over the past few days, the following lines from Plath’s poem ‘Daddy’ keep wandering into my mind: ‘You do not do, you do not do / Any more, black shoe / In which I have lived like a foot’.
I feel battered, blistered. My whole body—my head and limbs and torso—wedged into a size eight shoe.
At least once a week I walk past the pro-lifers stationed on Devonshire Street. Rain or shine, the ragtag group is stationed outside the clinic doors, ready to accost women, coming and going, sometimes on the arms of men. I stare their leader down when today, as always, he says, brightly, ‘Good morning, miss!’
At Glebe markets, as I’m setting up the stall, a man approaches, asks if I’m selling any jewellery. I point to a woven basket on the table. He buys a two-dollar brooch and in the minutes after he leaves I realise he has pinched my most expensive item: a pair of antique pearl earrings.
‘We are not sellers,’ my father tells me on a drive. ‘No-one in the family is good at business.’ (The stolen earrings are my fault—I had the nerve to set up a market stall.)
I discover an expensive brand of rosé low in sulphites that does not give me hangovers. I drink a bottle a night for the next three days. I am of small stature.
When I was a child, I could never assemble the toy—the car, the seesaw, the elephant—inside the Kinder Surprise, no matter how hard I studied the diagrams. Now, as an adult, I have the same trouble with IKEA furniture. I sometimes think I don’t know how anything fits together.
In the house where I live it is impossible to say with certainty where the ironing board, broom or clothes pegs might be found. Everyday objects disappear, every day.
I have a panic attack and find myself on the grimy floor among the bar stools. Clara assumes I’m drunk. She leans over me with her camera phone, photographs me, captions it and shares it on Snapchat.
I laugh it off, of course I do. ‘One too many drinks,’ I tell her.
But, later, when I get home, I think: if my date ended up on the floor, for whatever reason, even if I assumed she were drunk, I would get off my fucking bar stool, kneel down and check in: Are you okay? What’s going on? Do you need water, a cab?
A friend tells me I have high standards when it comes to dating. I wonder if that’s true.
In Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson reflects on her feelings of anger:
There are people who could never commit murder. I am not one of those people.
It is better to know it. Better to know who you are, and what lies in you, what you could do, might do, under extreme provocation.
I am not capable of murder but I could in an instant, without a fuss, turn my back on everyone I know. That, I have in me.
I have always felt like an outlier on the bell curve.
In yoga, there is a pose called ‘happy baby’ where, lying on your back, you hold your feet in your hands and pull your knees towards you. A new teacher instructs us to straighten one leg then the other then both: ‘This one,’ she says, laughing, ‘is called happy husband pose.’
Surprise is one of six basic emotions identified by psychologist Paul Ekman.
You spend an evening with a friend—you are kind, attentive—only to realise with a jolt, on your way home, that she did not enquire after you.
On a tree-lined street an old, hunched woman sweeps the dead leaves off her porch.
A man with an eye patch plays a huge aluminium pipe while reading a paperback. I pass him on the footpath, and I look back twice, just to confirm the vision.
After shooting off an angry text message to Clara (it’s over), I bump into her fixing her hair in a club bathroom. She looks uncomfortable, but not surprised; she spotted me earlier in the night. She stoops to pick up her beer up from under the sink, says, ‘I have another drama to deal with out there.’ She has toilet paper stuck to her shoe.
Winterson: ‘I needed lessons in love. I still do because nothing could be simpler, nothing could be harder, than love.’
A stranger in a pink bikini knocks into us, spilling beer down the side of my friend’s face and clothes and my clothes and straight into my ankle boot. We are too shocked to say anything, the woman turns back and smirks.
On our first date, at the second pub, the Jenga tower topples with a swipe of Clara’s hand. ‘Let the bartender clean it up,’ she says (the bartender was rude). I watch the Jenga pieces knock and clack across the low table, drop at our feet.
On my way home from the coffee shop, I pass an ageing cattle dog, the fur on his back so sparse that you can see pink raw skin. I watch him contemplate the curb and, mustering all of his might, put one paw up then the other.
Plath again: ‘There’s a stake in your fat black heart / And the villagers never liked you. / They are dancing and stamping on you.’
Even my meltdowns (and yours) are inauthentic, literary, theatrical. We parrot what we’ve witnessed in childhood, and the scenes in books and poems, TV shows.
My tantrums are a mixture of my mother and the petulant princess in The Frog King, in the version where she flings the frog against a wall, thereby breaking the spell (and the frog).
If I did disappear up north somewhere, I’d probably come back after realising I couldn’t survive in a room above a pub on Fantastic Noodles.
‘Do you think I’m self-absorbed?’ Clara asks me, after reflecting at length on her childhood (it is our first date).
A neighbour tells me he knows another lesbian (might we get on?). A woman with long hair beneath a wizard’s hat and the longest arms he’s ever seen. ‘A real character,’ he says. I picture knuckles scraping pavement and a wand tucked inside her coat.
My friend Ida brings out two steaming bowls of soup and sets them down on the outdoor table. She tells me I’m treating Clara like she’s the last woman on earth. ‘But don’t you see,’ I say, ‘she is to me.’ They all are, these women, because I don’t know any other lesbians.
The worst of it is this: I do not charm Clara, but I make quite an impression on her friend, the middle-aged man who chaperoned our date, followed us to the next bar, saw us get cosy and drunk. When I arrive at work on Tuesday, I am startled to find an email in my work inbox with the subject heading, ‘Hello from Tony’. He wants to take me out to dinner.
I do not know how he tracked me down.
And extremes—whether of dullness or fury—successfully prevent feeling. I know our feelings can be so unbearable that we employ ingenious strategies—unconscious strategies—to keep those feelings away. We do a feelings-swap, where we avoid feeling sad or lonely or afraid or inadequate, and feel angry instead.
It is so, so easy to rage.
I have buried Clara, tossed flowers on her grave. I have raved and raged, written poetry—this.
I find myself thinking about the speed-dating event, about the bitsa with the scab on his head. When I asked about it, the organiser told me he’d gotten into a fight with another dog at the shelter. Throughout the night, she announces he is available for adoption.
My very capable friend Kate drives me to IKEA on Wednesday. Nearing the checkout, I realise I’ve forgotten the bath towels. I race back through the warehouse, take shortcuts through heavy grey doors, while closing announcements play overhead, towards the bathroom section. Clutching the two towels in ultraviolet, the Pantone colour of the year, I race back to the checkout where Kate notices that one of them is stained: a big brown smudge. We are stunned. How could white, pristine, orderly IKEA have damaged goods on display?
On the rug of my living room, I assemble two IKEA stools with the help of a high school D&T teacher. The Allen key slips out of my fingers, but I keep going, determined to have places for bottoms to perch.
As I’m charring the broccoli in the pan, the lid comes off the chilli jar—a plume of chilli flakes. I start coughing then Ida starts coughing then Jimmy starts coughing then Beth then Lex, our throats dry and ragged. Ida sticks her head out the window. ‘You’ve capsicum-sprayed us,’ Beth says.
I sleep with a bright and clever woman, a friend of a friend. Her knickers are silk pistachio. When I can’t slip off her bra, we laugh like loons. Afterwards, when I text her, I do not receive a reply. I guess I don’t do casual very well, I throw all my chips on the table.
I text: I think it’s best if we leave it here. Lady luck isn’t on our side.
Clara: No worries! Take care xx
I make a trip to Mitre 10 and buy a roll of double-sided tape to hang a mirror. I talk to a nice young man about buying some outdoor lights for my balcony.
She spreads her palms as if to say, you can’t blame me for this.
(I know, I throw around blame like confetti.)
The problem is me (and you). •
Tanya Vavilova is an emerging writer preoccupied with liminal spaces and outsider perspectives—by life on the margins. Her debut collection of essays, We Are Speaking in Code, is forthcoming from Brio in early 2020.