Selected for Best Australian Stories 2006
IN THE '80s I was in love with Robert Smith. I also hoped against all rumour that Morrisey's croon was for me. Before that it was the boy from our local grocery store, the one who helped shift the crates of sweating milk between the cool room and the fridges, cap pulled low over frantic blonde hair, refusing to look at me whenever I walked past. Once or twice I dropped my school bag and stood right in his path, hands on what was fast becoming a waist. He edged around me like I was just another fridge.
The news about Morrisey, when confirmed in print, hit me and every other girl in 10C hard. That had Mr O'Shaw chuckling to himself. A crush on a homosexual singer! For a day, his chuckle skirted a sneer. After that, it was something else. He'd stare out the window, blue eyes hovering above the car park, and let out these soft Irish noises we'd never heard him make before.
Then Ben transferred to our school. A boy with lyrical understanding and the latest personal compact disc technology. It was the start of the-smaller-the-better. A new era. He was everything my family wasn't: a suburban exotic. We shared earbuds over ham and pickle sandwiches. We listened to the entire Cure library burned on to a plate of shining chrome. He reintroduced me to The Smiths and spoke often of his lust for a Bang and Olufsen stereo with a flat remote control and hidden speakers in every room. He never mentioned his lust for Rosa Mioli, the girl from 11B. She showed me the compilation tape – held it out in front of her two preposterous breasts – proving what she had and that for her he was willing to use old-fashioned technology.
My friend Jane and I turned vegetarian. I followed the Moose-wood prescription: sprouting my own mung-beans for a superior protein; eating tofu as if I liked it. Jane studied for final exams. I hung out at Greville Street Records. The boys who worked there balanced records on their fingertips and polished them like they were the back of a newborn's neck. They took my cash, looking right through me, reluctant to let go of their babies. I bought Bad Brains and Rites of Spring and Bauhaus, all of them on vinyl. I listened to them at home on mum and dad's plywood cabinet turntable. At Nan's house, I'd still watch dinnertime TV and eat roast lamb. She promised not to tell. It was almost time for university anyhow.
JANE AND I enrolled in our BAs in a university as far-flung from our suburb as possible. We moved together into a flat above a cafe. I read Kundera and DeLillo. She read Dworkin and Plath. I worked as a waitress; she cleaned five-star hotel rooms. By then it was the '90s and I was trying different tactics. So when a boy called Daniel showed up in my tutorial, sporting these big brown eyes and a vintage Bowie t-shirt, I acted like nothing had happened. Other girls sat next to him, looked up through their eyelashes and asked him questions about deconstruction; I moved around Daniel as if he were a fridge. One day he cleared his throat and asked me if I had read The Gulf War did not take place. I turned half my face towards him, eyebrows, nose and chin reaching angles Elizabethan. "Yes," I said, "I have," and I turned back to the front.
Daniel asked me to The Lounge to see a band with fringe-type cultural capital. I wasn't sure what to wear and Jane was no help. She'd recently decided that clothes and boys and Lounges were simply aspects of the patriarchal apparatus. I chose archetypal things dyed black and, before I left, revised Baudrillard for Beginners.
Turns out Daniel and I agreed on the big three: Neuromancer, Hunky Dory and Joseph Cornell. It was the era of the incommensurate.
Our meetings escalated. I went to his place – as small and neat as a converted ATM. I'd never before seen books meet top to toe. He arranged them by form rather than content. He had a titanium computer and a turntable. I couldn't beat his arguments and so we shared a couple of hamburgers. We smoked imported cigarettes. And all night long we'd make a gentle kind of sense.
He came to my place and precipitated thought experiments: Jane, attempting to will him to death.
"De Beauvoir," she'd say, slapping overcooked gnocchi into opshop bowls. "Rejected feminism outright when she crawled into the grave with Sartre." We sat and listened to the slapping. She took the pan back to the kitchen and threw it at the sink.
"I'm not so hungry," Daniel would murmur. For a boy, he had a sensitive stomach.
Things could have turned nasty, but Daniel won a scholarship for a year at UCLA. It was a fantastic opportunity, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and something he had to do. It was the first time I'd heard him speak in clichés. I pictured blue skies and inordinate suns. I pictured Californian girls with breasts rounder than Rosa Mioli's. I didn't even know he'd applied.
So. I had other things to do. I had books to read, film festivals to attend, papers to write, music to hunt out, clothes to dye. I had Jane. I had a boy called Simon in my Postmodern Narrative tutorial who was willing to come out and play. I drank macchiatos. Lamented past time. Worked hard to erase history. I was so busy I had to drop down to part-time study. Daniel's aero-grams became mournful, then tragic, then frantic. He wrote in tiny clustered letters, between lines, in margins, around the space for the return address. I refused to get email, paced my replies like Tai Chi. Life is fine, I wrote to him, Let's just be rational, philosophic. I was making the most of my assets.
DANIEL CAME BACK at the end of Autumn. Brown, crisp, beautiful. Towing a degree in Cultural Studies and a marijuana habit bigger than Texas. At the time, these attributes were both considered valuable. His eyes went wet when he saw me, and he said he wanted us to share a house. I played it cool, weighed, then promoted, my options. I knew where I'd come from. Jane called me a fool. The Hungarian man who owned the cafe downstairs scratched his stubble, mopped his brow and asked me what a twenty-three-year-old was doing with a boyfriend anyways.
I packed my records into crates and my clothes into garbage bags. A vegan named Rosie moved in with Jane, and they both set about dreading their hair. Daniel and I moved near to the beach. We both kept separate bedroom-cumstudies and chose where we'd sleep each night. That way Daniel got to order things in his particular way, and I could leave my frocks in bags. I was down to one subject a semester and losing momentum fast. Daniel was planning a thesis on Deleuze. He planned all day, sitting on a Deco couch donated by my Nan, rolling paper and herb between his fingers, between splayed knees. He'd inhale hard, then stare at his thesis on the wall. I was right there with him. We were a duo of vague, ambitious staring, listening to Trance-diluted classics. It was the era of nostalgia.
Jane and Rosie invited us to dinner to announce the inevitable. Jane looked a bit thin, but they seemed happy, domestic. After a few mugs of wine, Rosie admitted she liked the French Feminists. Daniel said they were philosophically sound. They discussed the dissolution of binary opposition.
Words like Kristeva and Helene Cixous floated around us like Methode Champenoise. Daniel's finger curled around his chin like a question mark. Rosie gently licked a drop of wine from her wrist. I complimented Jane on the lentils. She sat there looking binary.
Rosie moved out within the month. Almost as if the announcement were the whole thing. Jane started a celery juice diet. She said it was for cleansing her liver. I told her she was the cleanest liver I knew, but her shoulders stayed slumped. We spent our afternoons walking the shore.
"So," I said to her on one of those afternoons, "forgetting sexual politics for a moment ..."
"Now that you've been to the other side ..."
We kicked through dirty sand, our hands in our pockets. She said: "There's nothing else there."
DANIEL'S THESIS SUPERVISOR suggested he commit a few thoughts to paper. Daniel came home and slumped on the Deco. He got up to make a bong out of an apple juice bottle and a length of plastic tubing. Smoke roared from his open lips. There was no music. Nights were days were nights. For two weeks, his focus stopped before it reached the wall. Then it sharpened. He looked at me sideways. When the phone rang, he would bolt to his feet, point between my eyes, tell me not to pick it up. Then he started talking about the unification of fire and water, about rhizomic thought capable of reinstigating the word, of parabolas reversing to make pathways for death. He didn't recognise me. I waved my fingers in front of his face and asked him if he could see. He said: "I don't need to see to see." When his eyes became pinwheels, I called Jane, who called the community mental health team.
A psychiatrist put Daniel in the locked ward of a state psychiatric institution. He said that in his opinion the problem was drug related and most likely temporary. Daniel slurred and dozed, slurred and dozed.
Our flat made me think of reversals carving pathways for death, so I stayed at Nan's house for a month, sleeping in the single bed of my childhood weekends, reading the magic realists, watching dinnertime TV on her new velour armchairs. She made us breakfast and lunch and dinner. She urged me to study more and to wear a bit of lippy.
Daniel made no progress. His eyelids were mauve winter quilts. His parents discussed taking him back to their house.
I went to see Jane. What was left of her smiled at me from the open doorway. Her lips pulled her face behind her ears. She said: "I'll just go for a run before dinner."
Forty-five minutes later she came back and served herself a level cup of baked beans. "They're the perfect food," she said. "Protein and carbohydrate and vegetable, all in one." She shovelled fried rice and Peking duck from plastic containers on to my plate.
"Aren't you vegetarian?" I asked.
"Yes," she said and smiled, "but you're not." I put food in my mouth. Teeth worked, throat refused. I forced the issue, tried not to cough.
"So," she said, eating a neatly quartered bean and making the ghoulish grin again, "How's things?"
I READ THE Aleph just lately and I thought of Borges recruiting young people to read to him. I thought of the blind, and the golden Labradors that lead them. Jane once told me those dogs weren't allowed to bark. She told me they beat the dogs bloody to teach them their silence. She thought the whole thing was wrong. I closed Borges and went online. I looked up the Guide Dogs Association and signed up as a volunteer.