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Image: Thomas Hawk, Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

‘You’re a failure Anna, everyone thinks so!’ yells Janine.

And Peter says, ‘Pathetic.’

Then Janine adds, ‘Yeah.’

‘You can’t even get a proper job,’ I read from my card. ‘No wonder your husband left you.’

And again Janine adds, ‘Yeah,’ louder this time. I’m unsure if the yeahs are on her cards, or if she’s adlibbing.

Anne-Marie stands to the side grinning, deranged, like a school drama teacher watching proudly as we stumble through Shakespeare. She jots down notes on her clipboard.


I used to think it was because he was nice. He has always been nice. It was the obvious assumption. ‘Gosh he’s a gentleman,’ my mum would say.

And I’d agreed, ‘Gosh isn’t he,’ as though we were prudish old fashioned types who said gosh. Before Mum would visit, Todd always made sure to clean, he even wiped the bathroom mirror. Years into the relationship Mum and I still revelled at niceties like that. Clean mirrors and vases of flowers centred on dustless tables.

I’d thought it was polite, how he’d waited so many weeks to invite me to his room. I’d thought it was respectful, loving, how he’d kissed my forehead; how gently his hands ran over my back; how slowly he undressed me, like a parent might undress a baby, which isn’t sexy I know, but I’d thought it was nice. Gosh darn he was a gentleman.

I remember his arms, legs and torso tensed, like humping me was an abdominal exercise. I’d assumed it was a natural stance, because he went to the gym a lot. He was toned, is toned.

Hot touches of his triceps on my shoulders and him cradling his head into the crook of my neck. I remember taking his face with both my hands and holding him in front of me. I remember how he’d closed his eyes. I’d thought he was savouring it.

I remember his arms, legs and torso tensed, like humping me was an abdominal exercise. I’d assumed it was a natural stance, because he went to the gym a lot. He was toned, is toned.

Because it was never vigorous he never got sweaty and smelly, and I’d appreciated that too, the smell of expensive cologne. Anyone would prefer that to sweat and sex.


‘You’re too old to do that. Obviously.’

‘It’s stupid, don’t even try.’

‘Everyone will laugh when you fail, they’ll say, she was just too old.’

‘Obviously!’ That last part we all yell together.

The exercise is called ‘passengers on a bus’. Each of us has written down our most troubling thoughts, minus suicide or self-harm, and we take turns at being the ‘bus driver’, while the rest of the group sit behind, ‘the passengers’, and shout the driver’s most troubling thoughts at her.

I don’t think Anne-Marie said to shout necessarily, but that’s what we’re doing. Us passengers are supposed to get on and off ‘the bus’ at points, symbolising the coming and going of thoughts; but now the group is enjoying jeering from the back and nobody is getting off ‘the bus’. Peter likes to lean on us, pushing everyone to the side, like we’re playing that game kids play on school buses.

‘Corners!’ he yells.

Anne-Marie doesn’t stop any of these antics, but I notice her note taking each time someone goes off book.

Anne-Marie runs group therapy out of her house – the old redbrick fire station in Fitzroy North. It’s summer at the moment so we’re playing passengers on the bus on the roof. Above us the sky is a cheerful summery blue, like in a children’s cartoon, but the clouds are less quaint – thin and dispersed, like drops of food colouring in water. Not the kind of clouds you could point out shapes in and deduce how fucked up you are depending on if you saw a bunny or Satan.

Us passengers are supposed to get on and off ‘the bus’ at points, symbolising the coming and going of thoughts; but now the group is enjoying jeering from the back and nobody is getting off.

Anne-Marie has a deranged cat that gets on and off the bus too. It’s thin and wild-eyed, not lazed and cuddly like housecats that are lovable. Cee-Cee scampers out from the house and on to ‘the bus’, where she chases her tail for a few seconds then darts back to her position inside, staring at us terrified behind the glass doors.

I like to think of the cat’s coming and going as symbolising the threat of total mania, glimpses of what we could descend into if pretending to ride a bus doesn’t work all this out.

‘Hey old lady!’ says Anna. ‘Did you escape from your nursing home?’

‘Oh no, roundabout!’ yells Peter, forcedly careening his body around.

Anne-Marie writes a note.

I’ve always liked Peter. I like Janine too, but I do think she’s a little too old to go back to uni. Not that I think you can put an age on it, there’s no number, but Janine just is too old. She brings homemade biscuits to group, yo-yos and neenish tarts.

I feel mean saying that.


I’ve narrowed it down to three options – he’s either gay, asexual or he was kiddie-fiddled. Listed in the suspected order, although the latter two switch around sometimes. He seems most repulsed and uncomfortable with my vagina specifically – in the past two years he’s eaten me out once and fingered me twice.

My private therapist disagrees with my list and to be fair, there’s no gay porn, no stories of eyes lingering on men at the gym and no monthly fishing weekends. Anne-Louise says it’s about control. (Both my therapists are Annes.)

‘Every relationship is about controlling someone,’ she said in our first meeting. I think she meant to say every dysfunctional relationship is about controlling someone, but she hadn’t paused before continuing. ‘It’s just control in different ways – money, who works, who stays home with kids, sex. Sex is a classic,’ she said. ‘A classic way to control.’

People have always described me as classically beautiful.

‘Every relationship is about controlling someone,’ she said in our first meeting. ‘It’s just control in different ways. Sex is a classic.’

I like Anne-Louise. She’s only in her forties, but her olive skin is heavily wrinkled. She wears dark lipstick on her thickly creviced lips. I attribute this to heavy wine drinking, which is the most obvious assumption, but the right one I think because she wears maroon kaftans and because when I told her about how I’d started drinking heavily she said, ‘Nobody could blame you.’

There’s a framed photo of Anne-Louise in her office – in her kaftan, standing in front of some mountain somewhere, picturesque. I wonder if she’s single or if she does have a partner and thinks it would be impolite to have photos of a happy couple on display for all the miserable people who come to see her. Todd and I have lots of photos in front of scenery; we wear puffer-vests, backpacks and smiles. We both have great teeth and are photogenic.

I’ve invited Todd to therapy. Encouraged him to get his own personal therapist. He always says he will. Says he’ll ask his doctor for a recommendation and then he kisses me on the forehead and goes to the gym.

‘Why don’t you go down on me?’ I asked two years ago when we were living in different states and would have sex once over each monthly three-day visit.

‘I didn’t think you liked it,’ he’d said, and he got out of bed to have a shower. The showers after the occasional sex, that’s more proof, albeit of any one of my hypotheses.

‘I do,’ I called out over the running water. When he returned to the bedroom clothed and patting a towel on his wet hair I said it again, ‘I like it.’

‘Honestly, it just didn’t seem as though you did.’

‘I do,’ I’d said, and I tried to look him in the eye, but the towel was covering his face.

I’ve written him several letters about the kiddie-fiddling. I’d understand if he had trouble talking about that.

‘It can be hard for young men, the media portrays them as constantly sex hungry, which isn’t true. That pressure can be off-putting.’ Anne-Louise had said at the beginning.

‘I used to tell myself that all the time,’ I’d said.

I used to tell myself that all the time.


‘Just one more drink, it won’t hurt.’

‘Come on, Pete. You haven’t gotten boring have you?’

‘Yeeeah!’ Janine and Anna punch each other’s shoulders and put their arms around one another, pretending to be lads, even though Pete is sixty-six and wears Birkenstock sandals, so I’m doubtful he has lad friends or that his inner voice is laddish.

Janine takes a sip of an imaginary beer, she even pretends to crush the imaginary can, and Pete is actually pretending to drive the imaginary bus. One arm held in front of him moving side-to-side in bouncy half circles. If he were actually driving a bus he’d be swerving and taking out everyone on the road.

The cat skits around like she’s chasing an imaginary piece of string. I watch her and wish for a moment that all of this fails and that I descend into a delusion where I’m convinced my life is a game show or that I live on Mars. The real deal, not the sad-lady-at-the-kitchen-sink problems that brought me here.

I’m pretty quiet for this bus ride, but Janine and Anna are making up for it. ‘Scull, scull, scull!’ they chant, and I wonder if they’re releasing some pent-up frustration, if there’s a little truth in their taunts.

Every week after group we go to the Parkview Hotel a few doors down from Anne-Marie’s place and get completely wasted. Pete drinks pub squash and I always think, it’s four-dollar pints Pete, unheard of in Melbourne except for the Parkview – just have one. Janine, Anna and I have four four-dollar pints each.

We’re silent for the first one or two. Rarely do we bother with the dull kinds of conversations we’d have if we knew each other in a different context. Once we’re mildly sauced we rehash group, exaggerated and embarrassingly more honest.

I wish for a moment that all of this fails and that I descend into a delusion where I’m convinced my life is a game show or that I live on Mars.

‘One more pint in me and I’d take you to bed myself,’ Janine slurred last week, and then whispered, ‘and I’m not even a lesbian.’ Janine always whispers when she says ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’ or ‘oral sex’.

‘And I’d let you!’ I’d yelled, beer spilling as I chinked her glass.

‘I would right now.’ An older man seated at the bar gave me a wink and a long stare.

I wonder if one day, eventually, I’ll be enticed by one of the older guys in denim that are forever seated at the Parkview.

‘Go away, she has pubic lice!’ Janine had yelled loudly. The men thought she was joking and continued to leer.

Anna turned to me, knocking her almost empty pint glass over as she did. ‘So if you’re not getting laid then tell me – how did you get crabs?’

That week I’d arrived at group complaining of painful ‘cramps’. I’d wondered at Anna’s expression of polite-surprise at such a banal complaint.

Anna and Janine were watching me, sloppily eager, like the men at the other end of the bar. I envisaged myself for a moment as some flippant woman who has unprotected sex and unashamedly proclaims her STDs and I didn’t correct them.

Wanting crabs – wow.

As always Pete was in the next room, passing the time alongside other desperate people watching fruits and diamonds and bubble-letter numbers endlessly whizzing in front of them, trying to reclaim some sanity or peace and calm or their mortgage payments. Later he walked us three drunken ladies home.

One week Anne-Marie came with us to the Parkview. Without discussing it we collectively agreed not to get hammered in her presence. I don’t think anybody wants to know Anne-Marie’s unfiltered opinion of our problems. That week we had just one pint each and then we all hit the slots. I won enough money to buy one more pint and Anne-Marie cleaned up.


Not long after I started all of this, all the therapy, I was cleaning the shelves in our linen cupboard and found a magazine under some towels. Fresh-looking, not many pages dogged, tits everywhere. Lacy push-up bras that held them up to look like melons. Belly-button rings and evenly curved hips.

I sat on the toilet in the corner of the bathroom browsing the tits and thinking about the time six months earlier when Todd had joined me in the shower.

He’d joined me.

Anne-Louise’s out-of-hours number was dialled and I had my phone in hand ready to call her, but I didn’t. I just sat on the toilet wailing like a drunk girl at a party.

In our next appointment I told Anne-Louise what I’d found and she said, ‘Maybe he is gay,’ thoughtfully.

‘But the tits,’ I’d said.

And Anne-Louise had nodded her head, ‘The tits indeed.’

The thing that had convinced me my hypotheses were wrong was the thing that made her think that maybe I was right, which made me think that psychology is both legit and that it’s a crock of shit.

Anne-Louise told me to check the date on the magazine, try to figure out when Todd had bought it. She also suggested I lay off him for a while, stop asking him to go down on me or if he was kiddie-fiddled.

‘Just see what happens.’ She nodded and took some notes.

I checked for the magazine as soon as I got home and it was gone. Not in the linen cupboard, under the basin, not in our bedroom or inside the covers of any of the art books.

The thing that had convinced me my hypotheses were wrong was the thing that made her think that maybe I was right, which made me think that psychology is both legit and that it’s a crock of shit.

That night I watched reality TV while Todd worked on his thesis in the armchair opposite me. He finds it peaceful to study with a backdrop of mindlessness, he’s always said so. Hot girls in bikinis were on TV for almost an hour – the tits indeed.

I stared at him staring at his computer, not one glimpse up from his screen for the entire episode. When the program finished and the news came on I started touching myself on the couch. It wasn’t until I started moaning that he looked over to me.

‘What are you doing?’ he asked.

‘I’ll let you know if I need a hug,’ I said, looking him in the eye. He looked tired and sad. Then he closed his laptop, stood, took my hand from my vagina and walked me to the bedroom.

Slow, controlled, face buried – you get the picture.


Everyone is quiet, as though it’s the start of a play and I’ve forgotten my lines. I sit squarely, knees and feet together, hands placed close to my thighs, like I’m seated in a doctor’s office, not like I’m driving a bus or pretending to drive a bus.

‘And.’ Anne-Marie nods to the group seated behind me, like a director saying action.

‘Because you don’t bleach your arsehole, it’s sick,’ Janine reads, confidently at first, but she becomes stilted toward the end of her card. ‘There’s at least seven hairs on it.’

‘It’s because your vagina tastes bad!’ Pete chimes in.

‘And it smells bad too!’ Janine adds, recovering from her stumble.

‘It’s because you’re ugly and you have pubes!’ yells Anna. And then they all yell, ‘Ew. Pubes!’ And they giggle.

Amid the giggling, Janine screams, ‘Cellulite!’

And Pete echoes her, ‘Cellulite!’ the way he usually yells, ‘Corners!’ and he starts thrashing around in the back. And then it’s raucous; the laughter of actual maniacs. It grows louder and louder, as though Anne-Marie is turning up a volume dial. Impossibly loud, I think.

I stand from my driver’s position and walk to the edge of the rooftop and peek my head over. I look down to the street, but can only see a few people walking dogs and riding bikes – nobody is stopped, looking up to us and pointing and laughing. But I can hear it, it’s deafening.

I sit back down and arrange my feet – left firmly planted, right foot positioned forward. Hands at ten and two. And then I’m driving. I’m honking my horn and circling the wheel with one palm, while my other hand straightens my bus driver’s hat. In the back everyone is laughing and occasionally I can hear words like, ‘Pussy’, or ‘Porn’. And I can hear Anne-Marie’s scribbling on paper; she can’t seem to get the notes down fast enough.

And I hear my laughter. I realise I am laughing. I am what is so loud, because I’m cracking up. But, oh god, I better keep my eyes on the road. I gotta concentrate on driving. At some point somebody asks me where we’re going, I think they ask me, or maybe they just screamed ‘Pussy’, but either way, I turn back to the passengers, ‘We’re headed straight to Mars! You all got your seat belts on back there?’

And Peter yells, ‘Of course not!’ And they all fall over laughing.