I trudged up the concrete stairs to my apartment, a week’s worth of groceries for two knocking against my knees. I knew Souki would be asleep, her bedroom door swinging slightly ajar. She crept around the house when I was at work, or at night when I was sleeping. I’d detect little traces of her, evidence that she did still, in fact, live with me – a circle of moisture where her cup of tea had been, the television murmuring to itself, burnt porridge in the bottom of the pan. It was like living with mice you never saw: you’d wake finding their messes, smelling their stink.
I am not your mother, I’d think, as I set to scraping out the saucepan (it was my saucepan), but I may as well have been. Souki treated me like her mother, with her dark sulking silence and her moody expectation that food would appear in the cupboards, that the vacuum would be pulled across the floor on Saturday mornings. To her I was the invisible one – just a pair of hands, shopping and scrubbing and putting away.
As I scraped my key in the lock I pictured her, scuttling back to her shadows and sourness. How long had it been since she’d washed her sheets? The smell of her was beginning to emanate through the apartment. She showered occasionally, though. Once, in the bathroom, I saw a footprint and knew how Robinson Crusoe must have felt. I am not alone.
This was supposed to be a shared adventure: the flat, the grocery shopping, scraping the saucepan. We’d moved together from our parents’ homes in a midlands bypass town slowly sinking into the centre of Tasmania to Melbourne! That wondrous jewelled city, gleaming across the strait.
We had crossed that body of water and left the island of childhood and adolescence behind, arriving breathlessly on the mainland of our adult lives. Now she’d made a sort of island of our flat. Which was why I kept scrubbing and shopping and going to work: I, too, could feel the tidal pull, the one she’d already surrendered to, that threatened to drag me kicking and screaming back into the body of my teenage self, washed up on the brown velveteen modular couch in my mother’s house, watching a lifetime’s worth of daytime TV.
I stood in her doorway. Souki rolled over to face me, her eye poking out of the folds of her doona, a tangled mess of hair spilling over her pillow.
‘I don’t know what to wear,’ I said.
Her voice was muff led by the blankets.
‘Where are you going?’ Her voice was plaintive, childlike.
‘I told you. I’ve got a date.’
‘I thought you might be staying in.’
As though it mattered to her whether I was here, a passing shade, as I made the lonely walk from the kitchen to the bathroom.
‘You’re always out,’ she said.
‘I go to work.’
‘And yoga. And Friday night drinks. There’s always something on.’
‘You can come with me,’ I said. ‘I mean not tonight, of course, but those other times.’
‘I don’t have any money.’
‘I’ll pay. You can pay me back when you get a job.’
‘Thanks.’ She said it to the ceiling.
‘Can I wear something of yours?’
‘Go for it.’ Her voice was hollow, like she was at the bottom of a well.
I knew the dress I wanted, but I went to the wardrobe and rifled through the other dresses that hung in there anyway. I wanted an excuse to linger. I was looking for the Souki I remembered among her dresses. These dresses were almost empty, puffed up with just a little air, skins she’d worn that remembered the shape of her. I stroked them, those poor neglected animals.
I found the little black dress I wanted – understated, classy. She’d bought it at a garage sale and we’d run through our usual repartee:
‘Dress it up, dress it down, daywear, nightwear.’ Playing at being grown ups. We thought we were hilarious. But with this dress it was true. You could wear it to the beach with thongs, then pin up your hair, slip on your good shoes and ta-da ! Like magic.
I held the dress against me for size, even though I’d worn it before, probably as many times as she had. She could be generous.
‘It’ll look nice on you,’ Souki said from the bed.
‘It looks awesome on you.’ She was the pretty one. We had always agreed about that.
‘You can keep it if you like.’
‘I don’t want to keep it,’ I said, a little frightened at her indifference. What did it mean if she gave her dresses away? Besides, part of the power of this dress was that it was owned by Souki. ‘I just want to wear it.’
‘Whatever.’ Souki sat up in bed. ‘Who is this guy anyway?’
‘He’s from work.’
‘What’s he after?’ I couldn’t answer.
I walked up the bristling, wintry Fitzroy streets, watched by my imaginary movie audience, the one who wanted me to live an interesting life. They had tuned in soon after I moved to the city, after I’d bought new clothes, dyed my hair, and learned how to sway to the rhythm of my own hips. They would be impressed, I knew, by my date with Marcus. This was the plot development they’d been waiting for.
I crossed over Alexandra Parade at the corner of Smith Street, and was stranded on the traffic island while other, braver souls ran the f lashing lights. I stood there watching cars stream past, dazzled by their headlights. This city never got really dark, not the kind of dark where you can’t see your own hands.
What’s he after?
What was any male after? But there was always the off-chance it might turn into love. It had to sometime, didn’t it?
I walked through the Gardens. There were still children on the swings, squawking at their parents to push them higher, higher into the evening sky. At this time my home town would be deserted, the streets empty; everyone would be tucked up on their couches with their dinners on their knees, heaters blasting, watching Masterchef. In Melbourne there was no such break between the end of daytime activity and the beginning of a night out, it all blurred into one.
A little girl was sobbing by the fence of the playground. Her father was trying to console her. I couldn’t hear his words, only his tone. ‘You never push me high enough,’ she sobbed, and I felt sorry for her.
Older girls commandeered the swings, thrusting themselves forward and back until they took flight. All that effort, but what a reward.
‘Do you remember,’ Souki had once said to me, soon after we had arrived in Melbourne, ‘being twelve, and standing in front of the mirror, feeling so alone in the world? You know, twiddling your hair, trying to sort out what you were going to do for the rest of your life with your hideous fringe?’
‘I never had a fringe,’ I had told her. ‘Just this forehead.’
She’d looked at my forehead critically. ‘I never noticed how high it is before.’ Her eyes had flicked back to herself. It was before she began to diminish, and her face was round, her shoulders solid, shoulders to lean on when I’d had too much to drink. ‘But do you remember? Trying on lipstick and kissing it off again? Poking out your eyes with a mascara wand? Squeezing your non-existent boosies together?’
Mine were still non-existent. She had reached into her bra and adjusted hers.
‘Did you make those endless trips to the toilet,’ she said, ‘to check if your periods had started?’
I did remember that. The almost unendurable wait for my period to come. Every time I’d gone to the toilet, I had peered closely to see if I could find even the faintest trace of blood. When it finally did come I was taken by surprise: by the spectacle of it, the viscosity, the mess.
‘But at the same time,’ Souki had said, ‘you’d be running to the swings as soon as you could, and kicking off against the sky, as free as you like.’
I knew what she had meant. That time when we were not quite one thing or another, but something in between.
I walked through the Gardens and back up the street, trams skating down their tracks against the grainy dusk, the skeletons of winter trees.
What had Souki said?
What’s he after?
I had taken Marcus by surprise. We’d been in the break room at work, standing by the unused ping-pong table under the big screen TV, eating slices of free pizza couriered in on bicycles. I was one of the masses in customer service. He was something in marketing.
‘Where do you find a tortoise with no legs?’ I had asked him between bites.
He looked at me and blinked seriously. ‘Where do you find a tortoise with no legs?’ he repeated.
‘Where you left it.’
That’s what you do with men, Souki had taught me, let them think they’ve discovered you; like a lost city, like water on the moon.
‘Say one thing to make them laugh and one thing to make them think. And then they see you, as if for the first time.’
‘What did the Zen Buddhist say to the hotdog vendor?’ I’d asked. Marcus had raised his eyebrows and lowered his pizza slice.
‘Make me one with everything,’ I said. He laughed once, a single ha.
I have to say, Souki’s advice never took me far. But it took me far enough.
Marcus had a phone, not quite brand new but still a prized toy. He shined the screen on his knee as if polishing an apple. It wasn’t just a phone, he told me. It had an ocarina on it. You could actually blow into the end of the phone and make music.
We watched an illuminated globe as someone in Israel (a glowing dot on the map) played a faltering but recognisable rendition of the theme from the Harry Potter films. ‘Isn’t it amazing?’ he said.
‘Amazing,’ I echoed.
Marcus showed me the novel he was reading on the small screen. He swished his finger across the screen to turn the page. He showed me fish in a pond, and I could see the water rippling. He gave the phone a little shake and fish food dropped in. ‘Touch it,’ he told me and when I rested my finger on the screen the fish swarmed up to me, and buzz: I felt them against my skin.
Amazing, amazing, we said.
There was a little girl in his phone too, about four or five, and still round in the face, with the same grey eyes as Marcus. In most of the photos she was running away from the camera in a blur of colour. But in one startling shot she stared straight into the camera’s eye, unsmiling. He enthused about the quality of the photographs. The colours were realer than real, like an advertisement for life.
I didn’t know he had a daughter. I looked carefully into each photograph, the green worlds of parks and playgrounds, the muted light of interior shots. In one photo the girl had been caught in the exact moment of looking away, her head and face a blur, the white space of an empty room billowing behind her. She was as improbable as the rippling surface on the fishpond, as the ocarina player in Israel, a phantom of light and air.
We got drunk. Or I did. The sourness of the wine made me grimace, but Marcus seemed to be drinking himself sober. He looked sad when he smiled. By the time we finished our shared dessert – a milk-poached meringue dissolving on the tips of our tongues – I knew he wasn’t going to kiss me.
We said goodbye outside the restaurant, without touching. He still held the phone in his hand. I thought about the flat world trapped under the glass, vivid with colour and motion, but lifeless all the same.
Souki wasn’t in bed when I got home. She was sitting on the floor, her back against the couch. The lights and the television were off. She was crying, heaving great wracking sobs. I wanted to shout at her. I wanted to shake her until her teeth rattled in her head. I’ll give you something to cry about. I slid down next to her and wrapped my arms around her body. She was so perilously thin.
‘It’s okay,’ I said, and rocked her. ‘It’s okay. I’m here. I’m here.’