I sat on a towel on the floor while my friend had a bath. We were talking about public transport and mykis. She never used one. I, anxiously, kept mine on me at all times, and would scan passengers suspiciously to see if they looked tram inspectors. I imagined them stopping and asking to check my card, and not being able to find it. I’d have to dig, frantically in my bag, and the back of my eyes would start to hurt and my throat would get thick and everyone would stare. She told me I was ridiculous. The air was humid. We’d forgotten to turn the fan on and I was sweating in my pyjamas. Her hair stuck to her skin.
She turned her head and for a flicker she was fifty years old, and her face was cool and wise. I saw her maternal, standing on a verandah in a long dress while the wind whipped her hair and she bitched about the heat. Then she moved back and the moment went.
‘The problem,’ she said, ‘is that myki inspectors are class traitors’. She waited for me to laugh. I nodded and smiled. I couldn’t speak. She was so beautiful, and I felt ashamed to look and to be seen by her.
I had to keep it so careful, so light. The space between her, the space between me.
Once, the tips of our shoes touched, and I was so awake with the knowledge that, between the walls of leather, our feet were just there, that I imagined your breath on my neck.
Once I played my grandfather a recording of my school choir and he cried, without comment. We sat in the no smoking area of the hospital garden and he lit another cigarette and his hand shook. There were red flowers growing but I couldn’t smell them over the smoke. He told me he loved me before he told anyone else and I told the nurse we didn’t see the sign.
Once, I cut her hair and got upset because I couldn’t do it right and she turned off the music and held me on the bed till I could breathe normally.
Once I went to meet her at the station and she’d forgotten all about it. I walked to Southern Cross and was so embarrassed I had to be sick, because I’d worn my new top and put on lipstick and everyone could see.
What I felt was the ache, the cry inside. It thrills through you and hollows you out and hangs you up in the wardrobe by your collar, next to the red dress and the school blazer. A loneliness that you swear people can smell on you.
I would be lazy and louche, sticky with my own boredom. He would make the house nice and I would straighten the tablecloth and spill the vase and he would clean it up. I would kiss his shoelaces and brush his eyelashes to make them long. I would shudder when he leaves and pop to the shops when he asks for me to wait. I would wipe toothpaste off his mouth. I would wash myself in the bathroom sink. I would keep a secret under my dress. I would show strangers my bare shoulders. I would dissolve our words down to do’s and don’ts and be humiliated by happiness. And in the afternoons I’d grow ugly and argumentative, and in the evenings, I’d leave my hands in other people’s laps and be unable to hold him when I came home. And he would rub dirt in my face and on my hands and then clean it out from under my fingernails for me.
In my head I see us, thirty and married and cardboard. I refused to have kids, and it hurt him but he let it go because he loves me. We eat ratatouille for dinner. The vegetables look so bright on the white plates his mother gave us. I made it but didn’t add enough salt. He talks about his day and I talk about mine, and maybe I sigh and he touches my hand, with just his finger, but it’s enough.
And the time comes to wash the dishes and I want to scald my hands with the water and breathe the dish soap in and slip into the suds and out the frosted window square. But he won’t leave me alone. He wants to help, even though he knows I love to wash the dishes, need to wash them, must wash them, because if I don’t what else can I do for us. But if he doesn’t he will feel bad and so I let him take my use away. I want to make him feel better. And he sees me with those soft sad eyes. And he asks what he’s done wrong, and all I can say is, nothing, nothing.
With him, I will always be the bad one. Not because I want to be, but because he won’t be.
Mud on the hem of my dress. River banks and early morning grass, and air warm and heavy with dew. I crawled, just then, out of a split in the earth, bedraggled and dragging. Under my skin there are prickles, leaves and thorns which push up. Will it hurt, I wonder, when they finally break through? Will I bleed? Will she even cry? It is still, this morning. It is quiet. You speak. My body floats and flows. I am wisps, a happy cloud blown apart by the rising notes of your voice. Where do the particles, atoms of my body go, where do they waft to? They swirl and reform into different wonderful shapes.
How many ways can you say I love you? When you bend to tie my shoelace. When you brush my hair, my cheek, or my lips. When you touch the small of my back like the first time, the first time, and I expand. You said sorry even though you didn’t understand why I was crying, and wouldn’t let me say it back, even though I was the one scratching us out.
I walk home in a purple night through my suburb. I walk usually on the side opposite to the church, to avoid the alley, but now I cross the street to pause under the trees. I can smell jasmine from here. The air is cool and expectant. I stand still. I breathe. I ache.
Bridie Noonan is a writer from a Naarm/ Melbourne with an interest in the small and the strange. Her previous work includes co producing and performing in Melbourne Fringe show Where We Are Now, which was nominated for Best in Words and Ideas.