Charlie recalled first meeting Claudia in Biology at the end of year twelve. They had been lab partners and were doing basic titrations. Claudia had done most of the work, following the procedure exactly as the lab had been designed. Claudia had delegated Charlie the task of recording their results, which he had done, though Claudia had thought Charlie’s handwriting a bit sloppy, so she had rubbed his writing out and filled it in with her own. They had received top marks. Later, after school, Claudia had invited Charlie to her house for dinner, which had confused Charlie because it had sounded like a date. He had not known what to wear and, at home, had deliberated between a business shirt and tie, polo shirt and t-shirt. When he arrived, Claudia had taken one look at his white t-shirt, rolled her eyes and led him upstairs. ‘Daddy won’t see you in this,’ she had said. They had walked into a room filled with clothes, and Claudia had picked out a white business shirt, tie and blazer. ‘Whose clothes are these?’ Charlie had said. ‘My brother’s,’ Claudia had said, and then, ‘you’re going to need some pants.’ She had pushed Charlie by the shoulders and he had fallen onto the bed. Claudia took off his shoes and had begun pulling at his pants. No-one had pulled Charlie’s pants off before and for a second he was filled with terror. He had felt himself stiffening and had made an effort to sit up, to push his erection against his stomach and hide it beneath his shirt. Claudia had found some pants. ‘Stand up,’ she had said, and Charlie had shaken his head. ‘Stand up,’ she had said again, ‘we need to see what these look like.’ Charlie had remained on the bed, alternating glances between the ceiling, the light and the floor. ‘Oh for God’s sake,’ Claudia had said as she walked towards Charlie. She had lifted his shirt to reveal his penis and, grabbing it with one hand, had tugged up and down four times before Charlie ejaculated mostly on the carpet. Dinner had been an intense grilling of Charlie’s life goals and expectations and, over rhubarb pie, half an hour of hypotheticals. For example, Claudia’s dad had asked, ‘If you were at Ikea and Claudia wanted a new TIVED LED table lamp, but Claudia was saying she was hungry and really wanted a hotdog, and it was a Saturday at 11.30am, what would you do?’ Still quite flushed in the face, Charlie had said, ‘Umm, Claudia could get her hotdog and I could get the lamp?’ Throughout the dinner they had been listening to Missy Higgins, but following Charlie’s response the CD had come to an end, which only punctuated Claudia’s dad’s response further: ‘Excuse me?’ Charlie had shifted awkwardly in his chair. ‘Umm, I mean, we could do both, get both things done at the same time.’ ‘Are you a bloody socialist?’ ‘No sir.’ ‘Are you a bloody socialist misogynist?’ Charlie looked at his plate. ‘Listen here,’ Claudia’s dad said. ‘You bloody well ask her what she wants to do. Okay?’ ‘Okay,’ Charlie said. And so Claudia and Charlie began dating, and continued dating, not because Charlie liked Claudia but because Charlie was terrified of Claudia’s dad, of confrontation and, eventually, of Claudia herself. Five years passed. Claudia, as predicted, became a biologist and Charlie worked at an IT firm. They had sex at 9.30pm every Monday, Thursday and Saturday, ~95% of the time in the missionary position and ~5% of the time they did it doggy style, something Claudia only allowed if she was a bit drunk, even though she seemed to enjoy it more. And, leaning against the wall, Charlie had the sudden realisation that the past ten years had passed in a way he couldn’t account for, as if he had been tied behind a boat and just dragged along, never quite drowning, but almost drowning, sometimes stopping for food but mostly just being dragged along.
Charlie looked at Mavis and thought, ‘I don’t want to do this. I don’t know who I am anymore.’
‘What?’ Mavis said.
Charlie felt alarmed and then terribly embarrassed. ‘Umm,’ he said, ‘nothing.’
Mavis read his name-tag. ‘Charlie,’ she said.
‘So you’re the one marrying Claudia?’
Charlie shifted on each foot. ‘That sounds like me,’ was all he said.
‘Do you want to?’
‘Listen man, you either fucking do, or you fucking don’t,’ Mavis said, blowing smoke out in a way that Charlie had seen people do in the movies, confidently, and in rings.
‘Yeah, well, it’s like, I think I mostly do but then there’s this small part of me that’s saying, this probably isn’t a good idea, but when I think about that too long I just freeze up and the world keeps moving around me anyway,’ Charlie said, aware he wasn’t making much sense, especially since he’d drunk more than his allowed three beers for the evening, and also because Mavis had moved closer, and if he was honest with himself he liked the way her skin was tan, and how her hair was dark and slightly rough looking, like a bush plant.
‘I think you should make a decision right now.’
Charlie stared at Mavis’ tanned shoulder, wanted to touch it, thought about her naked again, which caused him significant anxiety, because he had never thought about other girls in this way, though there had been this one time at Coffee Club when the barista had smiled at him, had said, ‘How many sugars,’ and he had said, ‘None,’ even though he normally had two, and she had looked at him in a way that meant, I know you’re serious about coffee and I like that, except, after a short burst of dopamine, the barista’s face had changed into Claudia’s dad’s face, which had caused him to inwardly scream and immediately turn on his heels and leave without his coffee. But, now, this wasn’t happening and when Mavis offered him a cigarette, he accepted, the first one of his entire life. When he put it between his lips there was a damp sweat on the cigarette from where he had held it, his entire hand sort of sweaty either from the heat or from being nervous.
‘There should be a test or something,’ Mavis said, looking intensely at the sign “Strange Circumstances”. ‘Do you know what I mean? Like a litmus test. Someone should invent that. A strip that you drag along your tongue and it tells you “yes” or “no”.’
‘Wouldn’t that just tell you how acidic or basic someone was?’
‘Exactly, just like a basic test that tells you everything.’
Charlie lit the cigarette and began coughing a lot.
‘What the fuck is with that sign?’ Mavis said.
The surfy looking guy said, ‘It’s totally post-ironic.’
‘What does that mean?’ Mavis said.
The surfy looking guy began grinning and said, ‘So, you like music?’
Charlie kept coughing.
Mavis turned back to Charlie and placed her hand on his back. ‘Virgin lungs,’ she said.
Charlie nodded, remembering how Claudia had made him join one of those Virgin gyms, sort of like a McDonalds⎯ordered, predictable, where the “menu”, different workout stations, was laid out before you and lots of people sat pretending to do glute exercises while watching Ellen DeGeneres instead.
Mavis looked at Charlie like she had forgotten something but then had remembered what she was going to say. ‘But the fact is there is no test and there will probably never be a test,’ Mavis said in a passionate way. ‘So what you should do is imagine your life with her in five years. Right now. I’ll wait.’
Charlie imagined his life in five years. This is what he imagined: they would live in St Lucia or Graceville or Sherwood and their house would be nice. It would have white walls and wooden floors. There would veggies in the fridge. There would be no dust on the skirting boards. He would go for his half an hour run every night after work and be home for dinner and then they would have babies, two of them because Claudia wanted two, and he would be mostly happy, or not happy but content, or not content but not unhappy, probably.
‘What did you imagine?’ Mavis said.
Charlie opened his mouth to speak but didn’t speak.
‘Do you want to go bowling?’ Charlie said.
‘You mean right now?’
‘Okay,’ she said.
So they walked to Strike Bowling on Queen Street.