Smithy meets the girl at the pub one Friday night, when his workmates have all gone home and he’s the only one left at the bar, watching the foam slide down the inside of his glass. She comes to stand beside him and he feels her eyes on him. Her blackness is shocking, out of place in this white man’s pub; a different kind of blackness from that of the Aborigines who occasionally slouch along the bar. Skin like polished night, against which the hot pink of her top looks bright as candy, her breasts provocatively emphasised. When he makes eye contact, she offers him a hesitant but warm smile.
‘Danny?’ She gives the name an American twang.
Wow, he thinks, a real – what do they call themselves now? – African American, just like on television. And so beautiful, so young. But who the hell is Danny? One thing is for sure, it’s not him. And when was the last time anybody smiled at him like that, so hopeful and open, as if he contained so many possibilities? He thinks he’d give just about anything to be this Danny character, the one that smile is meant for. Then, almost as soon as that thought occurs to him, it is chased by another, darker idea, and before he has time to think twice, he turns on his most charming smile, full of all the sincerity he can muster.
‘Hi. Yes, I’m Danny. How are you?’
The doubt evaporates from her face and a wavering smile returns to take full possession of her features. She reveals brilliant white teeth, and inside her cushiony lips, a line of pink like the inside of a conch.
‘Hi! I’m Carla.’ She extends her hand with a charming awkwardness. Her palm is smooth and dry to the touch, pale as if it had been sanded back.
‘Of course,’ he says.
‘It’s so great to meet you!’ She settles on the stool beside him and plonks her handbag on the bar. ‘I wasn’t sure if it was you for a moment – that was such a bad photo you sent.’
‘Yeah, sorry about that,’ Smithy smiles, and signals at the barman.
‘Can I get you something?’
‘Sure. A G&T?’
The barman mixes the drink, and Smithy pushes a tenner over the counter.
‘So,’ he says. ‘How’ve you been?’
‘Okay – oh, you know, bored as ever! You were right: I should never have taken that house so far away from the city. It’s such a hole!’ she laughs. Despite her friendliness, he detects an edge of nerves in the way she latches onto her drink, her slightly gabbling speech.
She launches into a diatribe against the suburb, the house she lives in, the stares she endures buying groceries at the local supermarket – ‘Like they never saw a black person before! It’s so rude!’ – and he thanks his lucky stars she gets talkative when anxious rather than clamming up. He’s quickly able to fill in that she’s a student, studying microbiology or something, here only until the end of the year before she has to go back to the States. She only flew in a month ago. She’s staying in a student flop, with other international students. They live on a main road near an intersection, and each night she hears the diesel trucks lurch away from the lights, shift gears like they’re gulping for air, and roar past her window. It took a week before she could get any sleep. Every time she started to drift off, she’d be jolted awake by the vivid hallucination that they were headed right at her, that her bed had somehow been displaced into the middle of the road.
‘And you?’ she asks him. ‘How are you? How are the kids treating you?’
Kids? For a moment his mind spins in neutral as he tries to compose a response sufficiently vague to cover all possibilities.
‘Oh, the same, you know,’ he says, smiling indulgently as if to say, kids will be kids!
‘I don’t know how you put up with them. I could never be a teacher.’ He shrugs philosophically. ‘Oh well, it’s a job.’
‘Come on, you love it!’
‘I guess… Yeah, you’re right. I do.’ He forces a smile that he hopes looks suitably modest.
Before long, Carla excuses herself to the toilet, leaving her handbag on the bar. As soon as she’s out of sight, Smithy opens it and fishes around amongst her belongings until he finds her mobile. He quickly flicks through her most recent text messages until he finds one with the name ‘Danny’.
Hey Carla. Looking 4wd 2 it. Will b gr8 2 meet u at last.
He thumbs ‘reply’ and taps in a short message, his heart pounding:
Sorry, not coming 2nite. Really sorry, i met someone. Pls dont contact me again. C.
He hits ‘send’, then goes to her sent items and deletes the record of the message. It all takes less than a minute, and he’s sipping his beer casually when she returns, the phone safely tucked away again. Now he just has to hope this Danny character is man enough to take it and won’t send some abusive or pleading reply.
‘Well?’ she says when she gets back. ‘Shall we get some dinner then?’ Smithy’s grin broadens. ‘I thought you’d never ask. I’m hungry as a wolf.’
And Smithy is hungry. Smithy is ravenous. Because two years ago – can it really be two years? – his wife left him, and he hasn’t had a woman since. Not a kiss, even; barely a glance, when once they couldn’t get enough of him. What? Does his loneliness stink? He gave Melissa ten years, the better part of his youth, and then she left him while he was away on a day trip to the Gold Coast for business. He came back and the house was a shell, doors hanging open (that was how fast she’d run) and the furniture gone. Nothing left except his clothes on the rack and his CDs, which she’d hated. Kids’ rooms empty. In the kitchen, on the floor, he found a butter knife with a bent-tipped blade that she must have dropped when she was packing; in the bedroom, a bra, and in one room the wooden bee on a string that his boy used to drag about when he was two. With the wings that spun and went clacketty clack.
Those three things she left by mistake haunted him. In the end he was convinced there was no mistake, after all. He was sure she planned each one as carefully as the escape itself. Either she plotted it or God did, not that he believed in God. The bee, that was for the kids, of course. The cruellest sting. And what could you do about it? Throw it out? How could you? Smash it? No, you sat on the floor and you drank and you pulled the string, over and over, and the wings turned and went clacketty clack. Then the bra. Well, figure that one out, Einstein. No prizes. It smelled clean, like a bed freshly made before you roll in it. No trace of her scent on it, just the empty cups, negative space.
And then the knife. That was a good one. That was the punch line. Stick it in and twist. He’d hold it in the Venetian striped street light shine in the long, pissed hours, turning the blade to catch the flash of neon strip, and laugh. Thumb the blunt serration where the tip bent from someone’s long-ago effort to prise open a jar of pickles and think, I gotta hand it to you. God damn butter knife. She might have left something sharper.
Two years later he was working again, back in a retail salesroom selling cameras. He’d moved out of the old house into a one bedroom shoebox, gone back to the gym, even signed up on an Internet dating site. But the only women who showed any interest in him were old and used up, and had their own stink of desperation. The worst time was 3am. That was when he’d have the dream, of rooms beyond rooms beyond rooms, and every one of them empty. He’d wake and in that low-tide of the soul, the reefs of his pain – rage and hunger and despair – would stand out bare and jagged and completely unchanged from the last time. The immutable bedrock of his life.
Now they’re sitting on cushions in the plush warmth of a Thai restaurant and Carla has ordered herself Pad Phuk or something, and when he’s talking about how much he loves helping the kids at school, helping them get a better start in life, she reaches out and touches his hand. It looks so white next to hers, garish and old, the hand of a corpse, and he wonders how she can bear to touch it.
‘You’re a good man, Danny,’ she says. ‘That is a rare thing.’
‘No, I’m not,’ he says, but she shakes her head.
‘No, you are,’ she insists. ‘I could tell that from your emails, the kindness in them. You’re gentle and you’re wise. You’re different.’
And what can Smithy say to that?
He finds himself putting up his hand to order a bottle of wine, against his better judgment, which tells him he’ll need his wits about him if he’s going to pull off this delicate deception. He thinks maybe he catches a surprised look from Carla, though she doesn’t say anything. Who knows, maybe in his emails he said he was a teetotaller. He feels a dangerous stab of recklessness, an urge to shock her with some outrageously cynical remark. That acid tongue, that edge of danger, was always part of his attractiveness to women when he was younger. Danny – this cheesy-postcard, kiddie-loving SNAG who probably believes in yoga and fairies and the manifesting power of crystals – is a badly fitting garb. The sudden image of the wolf in ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ makes him grin. What big teeth you have, Danny. He can feel his old savage loquacity gurgling in the rusted pipe of his throat, and all he’d need to do is turn the tap. Then he looks at the smooth dark swell of Carla’s cleavage. Easy does it, big guy. He fills her wine glass close to the brim.
She lifts the glass, holds it out in the air in front of her and he brings his own to meet it, a slightly too solid clink that threatens to upset the finely balanced liquid.
‘To…what?’ he says, allowing just a hint of suggestiveness to slide into the gaze which meets hers.
‘To new friends?’
The word ‘friends’ doesn’t please him, but he nods and takes a gulp.
‘Sure. To new friends.’
Carla sips, regarding him over the edge of her glass. ‘You’re different to how I thought.’
Smithy keeps his voice light. ‘How so?’
‘Just different. Older for starters. How old are you?’
He spontaneously rounds down a few years. ‘Thirty-five. Does it bother you?’
‘No. I don’t believe in age. Everything you said in your emails I could so totally relate to, you know? I made a decision before I even met you that you were…’ She stops, embarrassed.
Her eyes drop, bashfully. ‘I don’t know. Right. For me.’
Smithy fancies he can see the blush, even through her black skin.
He leans forward over his hardening cock. ‘That’s so weird!’ he says. ‘So did I!’
‘Really?’ She looks up, her eyes shining, her wine-wet lips stretching away from the neat, pretty row of teeth.
‘Absolutely. I knew you were it.’
He watches her struggle to moderate her smile, to reshape its childish excitement into something composed and womanly. How old is she, anyway? Surely no older than twenty-two, twenty-three. Yet there is an even younger quality about her, something unformed and naive, and Smithy feels an unwelcome flicker of let-down, as if maybe this is all too easy.
Later he is driving her along the freeway, out into unfamiliar suburbs, the pedestrian bridges above the road adorned with advertisements for airlines and credit cards. It’s late and the suburbs look abandoned, apart from the trucks, the all-night servos, a McDonald’s, empty but still illuminated like a surreal doll’s house; a cloned piece of America planted out here next to the highway.
There’s somewhere she wants to show him, she says. To his annoyance, she won’t tell him what it is – a surprise, she reckons. They drive further, into the ugly desolation beyond the suburbs.
‘Here – see that little turn-off just ahead?’
It’s just a break in the fence that borders the road, only some muddy tyre tracks spreading onto the tarmac indicating there is a turn-off there at all. The headlights spill onto gravel, mud, tufts of stubble. He pulls up, and the lights beam sightlessly into nothingness: a chain-link fence, then an abyss of darkness.
‘What’s this about?’
‘You’ll see. Come on.’ She gets out of the car.
Smithy cuts the engine and gets out after her. It’s cold enough that he can see his breath. Stars, too, despite the dirty smear of light from the city, the rim of flickering suburbs. Surely she didn’t bring him here for this pitiful handful of stars?
‘Carla. What are we doing?’
‘Just be patient.’
‘It’s cold. There’s nothing here.’
‘Just wait, Danny.’
He stifles a pulse of impatience that surges suddenly through his limbs, keeps the smile edgily on his face. ‘Okay. You’re the boss.’
He moves towards her darkened silhouette, wraps his arms around her from behind. Her frizzy curls prickle against his chin like steel wool.
Ahead in the sky, a point of light low on the horizon that he’d taken for Venus is brightening, growing. It’s an aeroplane – he can now see the lights flashing along its wings. At first he watches it idly, then it dawns on him that it’s headed right at them, moving neither up nor down in his field of vision, but growing larger and brighter by the second. It looms exponentially, becomes a jumbo jet, coming in so close and low that for an irrational moment he thinks it’s going to crash right into them. He yelps and lets go of Carla, putting up his hands in a feeble gesture of self-protection as it bears down like a gigantic bird of prey, wheels extending like claws ready to catch him…Then it’s thundering overhead, so close he can see the rivets in its belly, smell the kerosene. The engine roar shakes his teeth. And a moment later it’s gone over the chain-link fence, bouncing onto the runway half a kilometre downwind.
‘See?’ says Carla, excited as a five year old. ‘Isn’t that amazing? Wasn’t that worth it?’
She insists they wait for another one. They sit in the car and Smithy, still worked up, grabs a small bottle of spirits he keeps in the glove compartment. Carla’s profile is outlined faintly by the city lights. Her skin swallows the light, only her eyes shining pale.
Smithy swigs, welcoming the fortifying trickle of fire into his belly.
‘I wish you wouldn’t,’ she says quietly.
‘Drink like that.’
Smithy keeps that smile pinned tightly to his face. ‘Why? I’m not drunk.’
‘I know, Danny. It’s probably just me. I didn’t tell you about my Dad, did I?’
Smithy shakes his head, casually screwing the lid back on the bottle, even though he’d dearly like another swig.
‘He’s an alcoholic, a gambling addict. He was violent towards my mom, but when I was young he never touched me. Then after Mom died I guess I was next in line. That was the main reason I worked so hard to get into college – just to get away from him.’
She starts to say something else, but just then another plane comes down over the car, obliterating her words. It slides down the windshield and he thinks of 9/11, the knife in America’s fat, white belly.
‘How did your mother die?’ he asks, to change the subject. The question seemed safe enough, but she jerks like he’s prodded her with a brand.
‘I told you, Danny! Breast cancer. Don’t you remember? How the priest at my church tried to heal her? I told you all about it! That was why I lost my faith in God. I can’t believe you don’t remember! And what you said made so much sense.’
To Smithy’s horror she starts to cry. He tries not to panic. He was doing so well, and now two fuck-ups in quick succession are threatening to shatter the whole crystal palace of her illusions. He puts his hand soothingly on her thigh.
‘Of course I remember. And I meant what I said, okay? Do you remember what I said?’
She nods, choking on her sobs. ‘About how our beliefs are like skins that we shed when we’re ready…’
She twines her fingers so tightly with his that it hurts. ‘And even if we feel naked, that’s just because we’re not used to the new skin.’
‘Uh huh, that’s right. You see? I remember.’
It’s too dark to read her expression, but her eyes are wide and intense, searchlights scouring the darkness of his face for the gentle man she hopes he is.
‘It’s getting late, I’m tired. I wasn’t thinking,’ he soothes. ‘Come on. Let me take you home.’
At her place he pulls up into a steep, cracked concrete driveway, jerking up the handbrake to hold the car on the incline. They sit awkwardly in silence, bathed in the cold light of the streetlights while the traffic swishes past on the road behind them. Smithy leans across the seat to kiss her, and the feel of her heavy lips is unfamiliar and somehow disturbing, the taste of her mouth different, too. He puts his hands under her top. Her skin is oily and young and springy like rubber. He feels like he is bouncing off her, like there is another layer of clothing on her he can’t get under. He presses a hand into the crotch of her jeans, trying to feel her flesh through the hard material, and they writhe together, colliding and refracting and shocked by the contact of their skins and the confrontation of such intimacy between strangers. Smithy fumbles with her bra strap, tries to reach her nipples.
She breaks away. ‘Wait,’ she says. ‘Wait. Can we go inside?’
He follows her up the steps to the house. She switches on the light in the living room, the jaundiced illumination of a low-watt bulb revealing a boxy old Sanyo television in the corner, a dilapidated couch across which someone has cast a cheap imitation-batik print. Someone’s takeaway containers on the floor.
She takes his hand and leads him to her bedroom. It is small and airless. In the corner her bed: a thin single mattress on the floor, the bedclothes still tangled. Against the wall there’s a small vanity on which she has arranged her beauty things: hairbrush, cosmetics, a few bits of jewellery. She hastily snatches up a tampon wrapper from the floor, a bus ticket, an empty packet of chewing gum. She sits nervously on the mattress. Smithy sits next to her.
‘There’s something you should know. I told you I wasn’t very experienced, right?’
‘No, but I mean, I’m… I haven’t…’ Smithy stares at her.
‘This is my first time, Danny.’ The words come in a rush. ‘I should have told you, I’m sorry, I know. But I want to. At least, I think I do. It’s just… I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel. Or do…’
Smithy and his mates used to boast about laying virgins. The sly smirk: Raised the Japanese flag on the weekend, mate. No bullshit. It was bullshit, though. Of course it was. Now it’s happening for real, but he doesn’t feel like he thought he would. Still, she’s said she wants to.
He puts his hand on her leg and tries to slide it between her thighs like a letter-opener. ‘It’s easy,’ he says. ‘Just relax and I’ll show you what to do.’
But she keeps her legs scissored together. ‘The church I used to be in was very strict about sex, very big on hell and sin and all that. And even though I don’t believe it any more, I still get their voices in my head, you know?’
‘You hear voices?’
‘No, no, nothing crazy or anything. Just the voices of the preacher or my mom or whoever. Voices of the church.’
She looks down, embarrassed.
‘“The fornicators will burn in hell.” That type of thing. I know, it sounds medieval, doesn’t it? But I can’t help it. I’m brainwashed.’
‘Relax Carla. You’ll be fine.’ He caresses her cheek. ‘You trust me, don’t you?’
She looks at him, and Smithy sees that close up she’s not as pretty as he thought. Her skin is coarse with the pores of a recent adolescence, her cheeks a little puffy. ‘I think so,’ she says.
‘You think so?’
She’s about to answer when there’s a buzzing in her handbag. She reaches for it.
‘Don’t!’ Smithy yelps. It comes out loud, much too harsh. She stops, looking at him quizzically.
‘Just don’t. Not now.’
‘Okay…’ She puts the bag back down again carefully, looks at him.
‘What do you want me to do?’
‘Just lie down,’ he says.
She does, stiffly, on her back like a toy soldier someone knocked over. Smithy gets up and goes back to switch off the light. Now it’s pitch black, except for a faint glow through the gauzy curtains that illuminates nothing. The girl breathes in the dark, and Smithy goes to her, lies down beside her. He can smell her sweat. There’s not enough room, and he’s half on the carpet. He puts out his hand and feels her there, the tight rise and fall of her belly.
‘Danny?’ Her voice is little and frightened, and he knows he should stop, but as his hand moves over her warm, yielding skin, he finds he can’t anymore. He has her now, under his fingers: her breasts, her thighs, her neck beneath his fervid lips, her blackness in the blackness like a double negation, like an absence made flesh, and he’s full of a great, morbid longing. He’s swollen, aching, bursting with it. He finds the edge of her jeans, pops the button. The zip parts like a ripping fruit, and he slides his hand in deep, all the way to the pulp. He’s devouring that incarnate darkness like a fire, and words – dirty, reckless words – are coming up that rusty pipe now, whether he likes it or not, but he doesn’t care. He’s going to gush it all into her. At last, at last.
Then she seizes his wrist. ‘Stop! Stop! Wait.’
‘What? What is it?’
Smithy’s heart pounds in the silence like a bass amp below the threshold of hearing. And then she says: ‘I want to pick up that message.’ A cold rush of fear: she suspects. Both their bodies are frozen in position, poised in an electric stillness like two wild animals that have stumbled upon one another, in the moment before predator or prey explodes into action.
He tries to pull himself back to a place of control, to make his voice nice. ‘Come on, Carla. Not now. I want to be with you.’ He fumbles again between her legs, trying to arouse her.
‘No! I want to see who it’s from.’ She wrenches his hand from her pants, twists her body away.
‘No, Carla!’ He tries to grab hold of her in the dark, manages to get his arms around her legs as she hauls herself to her feet.
‘Let go of me!’ she pushes him and he stumbles, disoriented in the alcoholic dark, falling forward and cracking his face hard against the edge of her dressing table. A stunned numbness and pain and a gush of warmth down his lip. The slick, rusty tang of blood. He clutches his face. ‘Oh fuck! Oh Jesus! I think I’ve broken my nose!’
Carla’s already across the room. She hits the light. Smithy is crouched on the floor holding his face, the blood running between the webs of his fingers. But she doesn’t care. She has her phone out, she’s looking at the screen. When she looks up again, her eyes are wide.
‘Who… who…’ she stammers. ‘Who are you?’
Smithy stumbles to his feet. He comes towards her and she shrinks from him. In her eyes, naked fear. And disgust, horror, revulsion. Her face is curdled and twisted with it.
‘Greg,’ he says flatly, through the bloody mess of his nose. ‘Greg Smith.’
Her eyes are wild with incomprehension. ‘But, but…who’s that?’ He gives a mirthless snort. ‘Nothing,’ he says. ‘Nobody. Don’t worry about it.’
The front door is open, and the sound of the trucks comes through clear with the chilling air, and for just a moment Smithy is sure it’s a dream: the staring girl and the taste of shock and the great whispering indifference of the city. He’s standing in the same desolate dream that he’s lived again and again, and he has the strangest sensation that something important comes next, that everything is stacked to collapse in some portentous way. The girl’s lips are moving and starting to form words, and Smithy thinks maybe this is it – maybe she’s going to tell me. Then he blinks and it’s gone, and the girl is screaming and shrieking, like a wild thing, a crazy person, and nothing she’s saying makes any sense at all.