Thin air travels slowly into my lungs and stays too briefly. When it leaves I’m dizzy, so squat for a rest. My rucksack slips to the ground and I perch on it to take the weight off, bunching the hem of my silk dress in my lap. My feet work hard to keep the stiletto spikes from sinking into the slushy ground. Jagged snow-capped peaks tower above me, a law unto themselves. The wind smudges the snow from their peaks across the perfect blue.
I realise I’m a mere mortal.
Breathe in, breathe out. That takes all my energy. The dress constricting my waist doesn’t help. It actually feels like the top of the world here; the fuzzy curve of the planet seems only just out of reach. I know there are people who still go around saying the Earth is flat and science is wrong, but they can’t have been up here.
A train rumbles in the distance, just as my eyes blink open halfway and fix on the bedside table. The white Nordli I built with Luke, even though he’d wanted the Malm because it was a third of the price. My brain slowly catches up. It’s morning. I’m in bed, in Redfern.
Nowhere near Nepal.
A wheelie bin is being dragged along the footpath outside. The train. Trekking in a fancy dress is fading fast. An illusion broken by my neighbour Mark’s determination to get his bin out before the council truck does its rounds. Uptight Mrs. Hillbrick in number 12 gave him a showdown last week about sneaking bags into her bin. The downside of living in adjoining terraces: being woken up by other people’s petty shit.
I blink and slowly glance around. First light seeps through the Venetians, casting soft slivers across the wall like the courtroom scene in The Lady from Shanghai, my new favourite film. I feel like Rita Hayworth on trial, and being awake this early is like daylight noir. Rolling over was a mistake. Without Luke here, the bed beyond my body’s groove is cold and expansive. I scrunch into a fetal position, pull the soft covers up over my ears, and tell myself, just twenty more minu…
Tuneless artificial birds startle me awake again. They chirp out of harmony with the lorikeets that make the branches sway across the street. I fumble and tunnel in different directions, under pillows and through sheets and yesterday’s clothes. The vibrating phone feels cold in my cocoon. My eyes blur fully open so my right thumb can kill the birds. I check the vitals: 7:10am, 29 June, reminders I’ve been snoozing: redraft scene for Patti and Joaquin; cancel mortgage meeting; update show reel; selfie to James. Past the home key and passcode, the thumb-sized portals connect me to the world. Their rounded edges are like grandma’s photos from the ’30s, with bright Pantones replacing grayscale. Six apps wave their left hands with urgency. Facebook says 6. Twitter, 15. Whatsapp, 3. Reminders, 4. Instagram, 7. Tinder, 4. They all stretch up, competing to be tapped first. I check Tinder for an update from James, a match from earlier this week. He’s more forthcoming than I’m used to, and we got into a bit of a pic swap over the past few days.
A banner flashes breaking news: Woman fatally shoots boyfriend in YouTube stunt, and my thumb swipes for more. A pregnant teenager shot her boyfriend, the father of her children—living and unborn—while he held a book to his chest as a shield. They wanted more followers on social media, so upped the risk to get people’s attention. Apparently, he talked her into it; he thought the bullet would just bounce off. I sit up a little and lean on my elbow. The comments are scathing. “He deserved it if he’s that stupid” is at the top, with umpteen replies. “The poor spawn of these idiots, having the burden of that IQ” closely follows. Darwin gets a regular mention, which is to be expected. The odd person gets snarky, reminding readers that the couple’s toddler witnessed the incident, so be respectful.
“Murder, or manslaughter?” I wonder out loud. “It’s not a bizarre accident if he asked for it.”
If Luke were here, he’d make a pot of coffee and pretend he was Inspector Morse. With him, most days would start with a rundown of the world’s shortcomings. The latest refugee crisis or Trump scandal would make his cheeks flush, his wild morning hair fitting. The human rights lawyer would be frazzled before leaving bed.
I pull the covers back and slide down to the outstretched mat at the bed’s feet. To get my blood pumping, I stretch up high then fold all the way forward. With hands firmly on the mat, my legs spring back to a high plank, then I chaturanga down to the floor. The floorboards feel cold against my body, motivating me back into a high plank, before shifting back into downward-facing dog. Through my legs, Audrey Hepburn is upside down, seducing the world in her little black dress, with her Tiffany’s jewels and cigarette holder. I wish I was so classy.
As I stand, a jogger in neon bounces along the footpath. Her ponytail flicks to one side, then the other. “Siri, play Sinéad O’Connor, ‘Nothing Compares 2 U,’” I say. Siri obeys, and Sinéad’s voice haunts the room.
“It’s been seven hours and fif-teen days. Since you took your love away.”
“Uh-uh-uh-uuhh-uuuhhhh,” I croak in solidarity.
The song takes me back to when I first met Luke. Saint Patrick’s Day, 2013. The Rocks area was teeming with people, all up for having a good time. I’m not even Irish but I’d painted a small green shamrock on my left cheek for luck. That’s what they say, don’t they? Well luck appeared, in the shape of a handsome man. Seemingly from out of nowhere, he stood tall in front of me. His green eyes locked onto my hazel. He wore a shirt covered in small watermelons to openly declare his hipster quirk. The cover band played Sinéad and people sang along, badly. A drunk choir. Some swayed in unison, we slow danced. Luke maintained eye contact as he mouthed along with the Sinéad wannabe on stage, so it appeared her voice was coming from him. His lungs, his soul. He built up to crescendo without breaking character, an image and sound clash that was both funny and sexy. The next morning, while we were spoons, he reminded me of his name and told me I was just his type: a creative sort, who was shorter than him, with big dark eyes and a pixie cut. “So specific,” I joked.
I guess you could say that this is our song, but the humour has gone. I start my day with it even though it’s a ghost taunting me. The drums kick in, and the pain screams out uninhibited. She could eat her dinner in a fancy restaurant. She could hug any boy she sees. But it’s all empty. I chime in with the chorus, a bit out of sync, then continue in hums. I never have been much of a singer. If Luke were here, he’d scrunch his forehead and playfully suggest that I mime, like he did the time I tried to seduce him with an Amy Winehouse number. Fair point, Amy is the boss. But what he didn’t understand is that sometimes it’s not about how you sound, but what you express. The attitude. Courtney Love and Johnny Rotten knew this. I guess he never rode the punk-grunge wave.
I find some loose yoga pants from the messy floor and fold my legs into them. A navy tee is draped over the kitsch floral armchair that grandpa used to sit in, drinking whiskey and admonishing the world. It’s a man’s Bonds. The chesty one. A strong cologne stings my nose as I pull down the shirt to sit well below my hips. I have no idea whose it is, but it will do. In the mirror, my reflection looks like a junkie type who stares at you on the train platform, coming at you with erratic movements, all puffy eyed and hair a mess. I run a brush through my tangles, but the full beauty routine can wait ten minutes. Coffee first. With shoes laced, phone and keys in hand, I leave as the song fades out. Thanks Siri.
I grab the white puffer jacket hanging by the front door, fish four bucks from the change bowl, and close the front door behind me. The cool wind off the harbour smacks my face with a salty blast. I jog past the row of terrace houses that huddle to stay warm. Some crumble with age. Ragged sofas outside front doors, faded Tibetan prayer flags draped around the lace-iron balconies, flitting in the breeze. Others sparkle, freshly renovated by yuppies. My property app says they’re all worth a million plus, regardless of the state they’re in. I pass a solitary council-issue recycling bin with #14 spray-painted on the top. Mark’s victory, for the street to see. I wonder if he got the right week.
My phone pings, reminding me to be at the theatre by nine.
Still nothing from James.
As I turn the corner, I try to avert my eyes when approaching the homeless guy’s camp a few doors along. But his cardboard sign catches my attention, I pick up what you put down. It’s changed from yesterday, which was pretty good too:
Blah blah blah money
Blah blah blah food
Blah blah blah
Who listens anyway?
He’s been around for long enough to know that wit gets people’s attention. A woman walking her golden lab adds to the offerings in an upturned Akubra hat that looks as ancient as his people. Her ten and twenty cent pieces crash-land among the scattered coins with a dull clang. He might be the lowest paid copywriter in town. His eyes are usually downcast, staring at nothing much. But today, his matte bronze face beams at passersby. A sparkle in his eye dares them to interact. To say hello. To care, if just for a second. His wiry grey hair is flat where his hat kept him warm through the night. It falls down his body, over the hoodie with holes and grub marks. As I pass, his low Koori drawl catches up with me,
“Eeehhhyyyy ‘ave a good day, sista.” He’s not defeated.
I turn back and muster a smile. It’s the best I can do.
At You Bean Grounded, I join the early-bird caffeine addicts. Some talk to invisible people through white earbuds, others stare blankly. The smell of coffee makes the lack of it in our system seem unjust. Beneath the clatter, it’s an ’80s pop-rock celebration led by Bowie’s “Modern Love.” The barista’s hips sway. In his groove, he empties grinds from his filter basket in time with the horn section. His dry banter humours the waiting disciples, while his sidekick delivers the goods. A bit of air guitar creeps in when he’s not handling coffees. I think of them as Batman and Robin: tight suits replaced by tats and beards and overalls. “Latte, extra froth.” Robin places the holy cup into the customer’s hands, gratefully outstretched. Batman’s eyebrows rise. “Morning, Maddy. The usual?”
He looks me up and down, trying to hide his surprise at my makeup-less face and oversized clothes. He’s used to my activewear that shows off my abs and belly ring. I nod and half-smile, drop my change into his hand, and step to the side. My phone is good company. WhatsApp tells me Luke is online and that he read my last message at 5:06am, twelve days ago. Two little blue ticks. I flick to Tinder to check in with the men on the prowl, who swiped right to make me their next conquest. Adrian is up first; a new one. In Arial size 8, he offers tender words of courtship,
Ur hot in that top. Greens ur colour. Wanna show me whats underneath?
“Skim macchiato with two!”
Is Adrian even his real name? From his miniature picture, he looks more like a Giovanni: all trendy facial hair and schmick suit. But it’s a compliment, I’ll take it.
“Cap with one!”
Next is Joe. Joe, with the most amazing smell and eyes. My stomach flutters when I remember his hands urgently grabbing my hips last week. His static profile showcases his sweet side, playing a ukulele with a scruffy puppy fawning at his feet. Whoever took this photo probably didn’t think it would end up as bait for new catches.
Can’t stop thinking about you, little miss m. Time for a sneaky tryst?
In happy shock, I accidentally drop my phone on the bench, making the woman next to me flinch. We almost make eye contact, before she returns to the world in her hand. Mirroring her, I tap my screen back to life. Still no word from James.
I’m up. I reach with both hands to receive the hit of caffeine, bowing my head slightly in jest. But a tall woman in a grey skirt suit with slick hair and lots of papers intercepts.
“I’m sorry,” she’s not, “but I think that’s mine.”
She acknowledges me just enough to show her disdain. Robin confirms by handing it over, flashing me a warm look that says, nearly your turn.
Back to Joe. Staring at his profile, I’m at a loss for words.
Hey sexy, I type, perhaps tonight? Pause.
Where do I go from here? It normally flows.
This is how we have to find our fellas these days: in a tech game or fight it out on The Bachelor. Both demand the right amount of submission and making the right amount of flesh visible. Get the wrong mix and you’re either overbearing or a slut.
If you can…
“Madelaine’s flat white!”
No doubt this time. Robin kisses my hand to reward my patience. I take in the strong aroma and prepare to savour that almighty first sip. Of the whole cup, it’s always the best. Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” shakes the café with harmonica and drums. Batman nods his head back and forth in time, accentuating the drums while frothing milk. He’s a DJ who used to make noise in a little bar in Newtown, before all the fro-yo places dominated King Street. Surely they had to be covering for something harder, because no suburb needs that much frozen yoghurt.
Where was I? My eyes scan over If you can and my thumbs add duck out? How about our special spot for a glass of red? I hover over send.
Our special spot, what am I playing at? We went there once, got halfway through a glass before we ended up fucking in the alleyway. Not my proudest moment, but there was no time to get a hotel: his wife was expecting him home, and Luke thought I was working. A rush hits my stomach that has nothing to do with the coffee. I resist adding the kiss emoji and tap send. A pang of guilt hits.
My phone cries, an ironic ode to the classic Nokia ringtone. It’s the boss man, so I weave through the crowd and swipe to answer as I reach the footpath.
“Maddy. Sorry to call so early. Hope I didn’t wake you?” He’s always slightly anxious.
“No, I’m just grabbing a coffee before heading in,” I try to sound cool, “How’s it going?” He was eyeing Danni up the other day. They worked together on the last show and he’s known for swapping actors as late as final rehearsals.
“Great,” he perks up a bit, “But listen, we’re behind schedule. It took longer than expected to finish the set yesterday. We ended up being here ‘til past midnight and couldn’t get through everything after you and Jake left. Nance had to change things around to get through the kids’ scenes today. Something about, oh, I dunno…”
“Oh, sure, OK.” I tuck my fringe behind my ear. “So, when do you need me back in?”
A dog yaps in the background.
“Shush Timmy. Sorry Madelaine. We’ll be back on track tomorrow, and it’ll be spotlight on you and Jake for the rest of the week. I want you both to focus on scenes seven and eight today, they were a bit rusty yesterday.”
“Sure, no worries. Hey, do you still need that rewrite?” I can’t resist slipping it in.
“Look, if you’ve got ideas shoot them to Nance and cc me. It’s not our number one, but happy to see what you’ve got. You’re welcome on set today, but if you’d prefer to practice in the sun, by all means…”
I make a joke about being Ferris Bueller that I instantly regret, say goodbye, and drain my coffee as I wander home the long way.
A chugger stands about ten meters away. She sees me clock her while she slips an unflattering blue tee over a long sleeve, preparing for another day of rejection. A worn folder rests between her feet on the footpath, while she ties her bleached hair back into a messy bun. Bangles jingle. She overlooks my best efforts of ignoring her. I’m her first of the day, and she’s not prepared to miss a chance at commission. Before I enter earshot, she’s trying it on in her best fake genuine, “…iyaaaaa darling, you alright? D’you have a minute to save a child’s life today?”
As if it’s as simple as having a minute.
She’s too chirpy. A lilt in her accent gives off an air of passive aggression. Her whole demeanour is ill-at-ease with the product she’s selling. She’d be better at a cupcake stall. Cupcakes are cheery.
“I’m an actress,” I try not to break pace, “and, you know, things are a bit slow right now.” The first part is true. I wish I’d seen her in time to cross the street, but a cursory glance tells me it wouldn’t have mattered because a male version of her has that side covered. Her chirp quickly gives way to guilt-tripping.
“Just $19.95 a month can make a real difference, y’know?” She leans down to fetch her Bible from the ground, sees my cup on the way back up to eye level, and gives her interpretation of Glengarry Glen Ross. Minus the swearing. “That’s five coffees.”
Her act is transparent. She walks along beside me, hurriedly flashing through laminated pages of little brown and black kids, either in fields or slums that some marketing exec has snapped before abandoning them to sell their plight to Westerners. Or maybe they just Googled them? Pilfered some travellers’ pics from Instagram. She gives it one final swipe.
“Think about it. I’ll be here ‘til 3.”
I don’t bother replying.
A flicker in her eyes tell me she’s moved on. Without another word, she’s off. Retracing her steps to tail another target. A man in a suit.
“You’re looking smart this morning, Sir! Got a minute to save a kid’s life today?”
He keeps walking.
I’m going against the tide, who march out of step towards the station. Phones out in front, furious scrolling, concern across foreheads. I check my jacket pocket for my phone and nestle it in my hand to feel when it buzzes. With my eyes fixed on the ground, I dodge the cracks where roots of fig trees have raised the footpath, preoccupied by taking a selfie for James. And maybe for Joe too, but he’s getting me in person. I check my phone.
In my bedroom, I stare at my reflection for long enough that my face looks like an abstract concept. Each feature seems odd in isolation. I’ve selected my black lace knickers and singlet. Classic sexy. I lean in, widen my eyes and plump up my lashes with Maybelline. With blue sparkly eyeliner I make cat-eyes like I’m heading to the club, not revising lines. I hover over the lippies and go for the deep glossy red I know he likes. I blush my cheekbones and tease volume into my bob, then step back to get a full body shot to remind him my boob to waist to hip ratio is just right. When I’ve found the best angle, I pull my lacy singlet down to tease him with cleavage. Make him respond. It’s been radio silence for two days, when I sent a selfie of me under the face at Luna Park. Maybe I haven’t been keeping him entertained. Goofy might not be his thing. I need to up my game. Left hand on hip, head slightly forward, chest out. I’m not sure how far to take it. I need to stand out from the crowd, but a whole lot of women are out there giving it all up for the shot.
While taking pictures, I get a message from Eduardo, a guy I friend-zoned from the get-go. I tend to do that with guys I meet in real life. Without key-words you don’t know what to expect.
How’re things, Mads? Any good gigs? If no, let’s get our trackpants on and play the pokies at 5 in the morning, with face-crying-with-laughter emoji.
He likes joking about how we became friends, on the set of a casino ad. It was a weird job. The ad men were called in and no costs spared to make the casino seem glitzy, perhaps to secure its place in high-rollers’ hearts as competition looms from the construction site across the water. We were dressed to the nines with absolutely nowhere to go, sitting around gaming tables at 4am, telling jokes in between takes to fend off sleep. The No Phones On Set rule drew us together. On “Action!” we gave all our pretend gloss. Feigned elation at all the imaginary money. We oohed and aahed at the showgirls wandering among us. All like it was a regular day. The actual patrons could never promote this place. “Cut!” was always welcome because our overzealousness could dissipate into slumps and blank expressions, with another gag to get us through reset, then “Action!” again. And again. And again.
No time for pokies! I’m in an indie play at the Old Fitzroy! Come to opening night on 12th. Insta tells me you’re doing a film? I add #excitingtimes and then backspace over it because it feels a bit over the top.
Back to James.
I scroll through the photos to find one that says I will fuck you, but I won’t cook you breakfast. After adding a filter that evens out my skin tone, I send it and feel a wave of adrenaline. I scroll back through his messages. He’s into sending explicit pics of his body and begs for mine like it’s his life-force. When we were matched last month, I was trying to keep up a façade of being dedicated to Luke, but had been fooling around for a few months. I don’t know exactly when it started, or even why. In intimate moments, Luke kept saying he wanted to make an honest woman of me. Or words to that effect. I secretly think he planned to propose next February, for my birthday. Maybe the idea of us growing old together, to the exclusion of all others, subconsciously made me panic a bit. The dry spell at work probably contributed. But there’s something addictive about hearing praise from hot guys. It makes me feel good about myself, for a short while. I put in a solid effort to make Luke think I was keeping up my end of the monogamy bargain, so he wouldn’t guess he was one of a few. Granted, my favourite, but not my only. Not with all this choice. I wouldn’t be a modern woman if I didn’t consider my options.
The way I see it, the career wives of yesteryear fought hard so millennials aren’t tied to one person for life. Lovers are interchangeable, like jobs. Or something like that. My eyes sting when I think too much about it. Of how I made a mess of us. I thought that if random guys boosted my confidence, it would spice things up with Luke. My single friends talked about their revolving door of dating, and something about it sounded enticing. It didn’t take long to feel hooked because most of the time it doesn’t even feel real. Not every little picture and text exchange turns into a real person, and even when they do it’s never for long. But the buzz is hot.
In grandpa’s chair I flick to scene seven, the diner scene:
Patti: When did he tell you?
Patti: Don’t play games with me. You know exactly what I mean.
My phone pings as Tinder flashes a new red.
It’s Dave, a guy I swiped past midnight. In all honesty I didn’t think he’d bite. Everything about him screams he is a man of plentitude. That he beds any woman he pleases, perhaps multiple at once. His main photo was snapped in an elevator mirror with no shirt on.
Phwoar, look at you! Do you fancy brunch on Saturday? If he says “fancy,” he’s probably British.
Saturday is prime real estate, but today is Tuesday and anything could change between now and then.
How about now? I type, too fast, throwing in a wink emoji. I blame FOMO. I consider adding that I’m working Saturday but have today off, sort of, but he doesn’t need to know that. A bouncing ellipsis shows up immediately.
You sound like trouble. I like it. Gizelle’s in 30? Do you know it?
Of course I do. It’s the perfect place for sneaky dates. Open 24/7, with secluded areas.
My thumbs respond, See you soon. I hesitate. X. Heck, why not?
I leave my makeup and search for something to wear over my lacy singlet. Dark blue skinny jeans and a sheer off-white top. Let him see what’s on offer. I leave a few buttons undone to make it easier for him. His profile pic tells me he’s not shy, so why should I be?
I give my tattered script a glance, thrust it into my handbag, and head back out the door, texting Jake as I walk to see if we’ll run lines later. They don’t learn themselves, says every drama teacher ever. The road is all messed up while the tram tracks are being laid. The guys in hi-vis vests and hardhats give me a little wave as I navigate the pedestrian labyrinth they’ve made thick with cigarette smoke. James Brown screams from my pocket.
Jake says, Patti and Joaquin will hold each other to account. We’ll ace scene seven. JB.
I’m Patti and he’s Joaquin. At some point during rehearsals, Jake made James Brown’s scream his personal notification on my phone. In his head he is James Brown, same initials and everything. A second scream follows, this time with a panoramic pic gone awry. It’s better than the long cat one I sent him the other day. This is grotesque. The face is spliced in two, each part splaying off into pixelated blurs. Eyes have chosen one side, mouth the other, nose has vanished altogether. It’s like a digital Picasso. I giggle and make a mental note to reply later.
To block out the street, I stick in my white buds and tap play on Beck. “Black Tambourine” blares and my head can’t fight the rhythm. When I hit Bourke Street, a small group of people are sticking colourful signs to lamp posts: Change the date – 26 Jan = invasion day. First Fleet were criminals. We are Australians. Someone has a boombox. One mouth moves, then all the others move in unison, but under Beck, I can’t make out the chant.
As I climb the steps to Gizelle’s, I’m intercepted by a waitress who looks like she’s bunking off school to make some coin.
“Hi,” she smiles, “table for one?” She’s wholesome. Tasmanian, perhaps.
“Two, actually,” I correct her, looking around, “I’m waiting for someone.”
“Sure, follow me.”
She grabs another menu from the stack and leads the way, between the cluster of shabby chic tables, towards the windows overlooking the street. I survey the passing tables for a successful, testosterone-fueled type in his thirties, to match the tiny image on Dave’s profile. No sign, unless his picture is a decade old, which wouldn’t be a first.
The Tasmanian turns her head, “Are you happy by the window?”
“Actually,” I stop walking, “perhaps out back, if there’s space?”
“Sure,” a wry grin, “plenty of space.”
People’s eyes follow my retraced steps, as if I’m already doing a walk of shame. The back is down a long hallway and once upon a time would have housed family dinners by the open fire. My hostess throws out some chit chat—Isn’t it a beautiful clear sky for winter? My jeans look great, where did I get them?—before announcing a table for two with outstretched arms, “This more like it?”
A quick glance declares this a more discreet spot. There’s a student type engrossed in a book and a couple of couples. No one walking past any windows.
“Ideal, thanks.” I ease into a wooden chair.
“Can I get you a coffee to start?”
“Ah, no thanks,” I don’t want to look too settled when he arrives, “My friend should, ah, be here any minute.”
She leaves me with the two worn menus. Next to me is a basket with board games, the old classics: Boggle, Chess, Scrabble. Next to that, a Victorian fireplace stacked with second-hand books with the usual offerings: international bestsellers, obscure theoretical manifestos, the odd travel guide. A young couple sit to my right, in silence. He stares at the Frida-Kahlo-and-her-monkey print fixed above his partner’s head, while she stares at her phone. His meal is reduced to crumbs, cutlery intertwined in the plate’s centre. A full quiche sits between her forearms, untouched as she scrolls and taps. I touch up my lippy while pretending to study the menu, but just take in random words: mushroom, ricotta, zucchini, burnt fig, Colombian roast. I hold the two together, a decoy for the untrained eyes surrounding me. While Dave is invisible, so is his menu. Conversation starters run through my mind. Hobbies, ask about hobbies. Avoid job. His profession is on his profile, but it’s protocol to act sort of surprised. The silence between my neighbours amplifies my thoughts. Sometimes, being around an awkward date is worse than being on one. Where is he? He said thirty minutes.
Edith Piaf exudes sophistication from hidden speakers. Music is like time travel, and this song catapults me back to a time I’d rather forget. Before Luke. A night with a friend of a friend after a party. Turns out we had wildly different ideas of what we meant to each other. In my dopamine daze, I asked him to spend the night, but his trousers were already on. As he tightened his belt, he mumbled something about having to return home to his wife and baby.
Wife and baby. The words lingered.
It was the first time he’d mentioned them, and with no ring I was clueless. And naive. It was before the “wife” situation would become almost par for the course. A slight discolouration on the ring finger as they try to remove their spouse for an evening with someone else. Lots of bored married people are online. Like Joe. He’s getting a divorce, apparently. But baby? That was too much. I heard his pillow-talk, “you’re so beautiful, how could you be single?” in a new light. In his mind, perhaps if we were both doing the wrong thing by somebody it wouldn’t be so blatant that he needed a quick fuck to stroke his ego while his wife doted on their newborn.
The waitress checks in, and I find myself uttering the words green smoothie under pressure. Luke would have ordered that. “Hipster! Just eat your veggies like the rest of us,” I used to tease him on our early dates when we unashamedly broke PDA codes. Everything that surrounded us was out of focus, unimportant. A deep smile would creep into the corners of his mouth as he gently twirled a clump of my hair around his fingers. His gaze flickered lovingly from my eyes to his hand holding my hair and back again. We agreed the twins would be Amber and Ethan, or Lucie and Sebastian. All gender combinations covered. He’s my soulmate.
A tall glass of green is placed in front of me. I sip the sludge.
Was my soulmate.
A man walks into my stare.
“You must be Maddy?” No British accent.
“Dave?” I check, slowly finding words. I shift in my seat and manage a small hello. Time alone in my head has ruined me. Snap out of it.
“Sorry I’m late,” he’s too smooth. “You been waiting long?”
He pulls his wallet and phone from his back pocket and places them on the table, then slowly sits down across from me. He feels too close.
“No,” I lie.
He glances at the glass in front of me. “Thirsty, are we?” A double entendre that would only occur to a hookup champion.
“Oh, it must have been there before,” I lie, again.
“So,” his tone shifts, no time to waste on pleasantries, “you wanted to see me right away?”
He looks like he was carved during the Renaissance. Classically handsome, and unashamedly metrosexual. A freshly pressed shirt tucked into smart blue jeans. Expensive belt. Statement watch. Loafers. Just an hour ago, the idea of him seemed like the Ultimate Catch. A conquest to boast about, even if just to myself. But now that he’s here, I just want to run.
“Well,” I back-peddle, “it’s just, I’m busy on Saturday, but had a bit of time, so, ah, thought you’d like a quick coffee.” My hands fidget with a napkin. “One of your pictures shows you rowing…” I’m flailing.
“Coffee isn’t high on my priority list,” he reaches a hand across the table to stroke one of mine. “I’ve actually been thinking of getting you naked since you matched with a mate of mine the other week…”
“Um,” I can only manage a small voice. “What?”
“Yeah,” the memory makes him chuckle, “so he was swiping while we were havin’ a beer and you caught his eye and he showed me and I thought, jeez I wouldn’t mind a piece of her.”
A frown creases across my hard stare.
“Lucky for me,” he smirks, “you’re even better in person.”
He brushes the menu aside and reaches for my other hand.
“Listen, my assistant’s covering for the next hour, so, ah, you wanna head off? I’ve got a place around the corner,” his eyes slide down to my chest, where they stay for too long while he prepares his proposition, “we could even broadcast on my webcam, if that turns you on? You said you’re an actress, so I imagined you’d like an audience?”
I feel queasy. This was a mistake. I’m out of my depth. But not entirely innocent either.
“I’ll just use the men’s, and we can head off, hey?” His big hand brushes my shoulder as he walks past.
How many times a week does this happen? The choice of place starts to make sense. He’s not the board game type. No one from his regular life would suspect him here. I grab my bag and jacket and walk quickly up the hall, scrambling in pockets for ten dollars. I check that he’s not behind me as I press a note into the hand of someone wearing an apron, muttering something about table 8 and keeping the change.
I turn a corner into a laneway and rest my back against a cold brick wall. My hands are clammy. My heart pounds. My tummy whirls. I block Dave and delete the app from my phone. Forget James. Forget Joe. Forget them all. Remove the temptation. The clutch. I close my eyes and stand still.
Under my lids, a mountain appears. I imagine myself picking up my rucksack and starting upwards towards the summit.
I glide across the stage, invincible, lines flowing out at the right time and with the right emotion. Graceful, confident. Just like Audrey.
A recurring memory appears. Luke and I, in our bedroom. My bedroom, now. Night time. The streetlight lands on his crumpled tee, next to the bed. The grainy image of Mick Jagger is hidden, but “…he’s a Rainb…” shows, in multicoloured ’80s bubble writing under a cartoon rainbow. I got it for him in Bangkok as a joke. He ruffles my hair, strokes my back, and lovingly calls me his rainbow. Then, he drapes his big paw over my waist so that as I drift off to sleep I know I’m his.
I open my eyes and focus on the concrete underneath my feet.
As I walk home slowly through the back streets, James Brown screams in my pocket.
It’s true, the lines won’t learn themselves.
Keira Sinclair is an emerging writer based in Sydney, Australia. She is working to bring a narrative nonfiction manuscript to life; a blend of travel writing and memoir, exploring her place in the Irish diaspora and the legacy of rebelliousness in Irish politics and literature. Keira is a graduate of English and anthropology from the University of Sydney, and is completing a master’s degree in creative writing. This is her first work of fiction. Visit her website at www.keirasinclair.com.
Cagibi Issue 6