Before I moved in with Chris, I packed everything I owned into two boxes and sold the rest on Gumtree. I hated the idea of getting attached to things. I had Jess to thank for that.
Jess had been the sort of person rules loosened around. Within a month of us living together, they’d moved from smoking outside, to out the window, to a huge mason jar of cigarettes growing yellow and grey next to the bed.
I’d loosened too, in a way. I stopped giving ultimatums about drugs but cried when they did them anyway. I stopped tidying and the house piled with mess: clothes on the couch, stripped wires in the living room, used band-aids stuck to the floor. Dishes piled in the sink until we were hysterical with the stress of who started it.
I started tracking the time Jess and I had been together like a substitute for success. Then, our anniversary rolled around and I realised I alone was counting days. I sat across from them at the kitchen counter, threatening in my silence.
‘Aren’t you scared for me,’ they’d said, voice cracking. ‘I’m forgetting things now.’
And just like that, anger turned to pity. I held their head, placed kisses on their hair, said ‘Don’t worry, it’s just a stupid day,’ until they forgot all about their fear of forgetting too.
When Jess and I broke up, I felt myself loosen entirely.
I moved into the loft study above Chris’ kitchen and brought people back four nights a week. Chris didn’t mind, found it funny even.
‘I’m just glad you’re feeling it again,’ she said, after watching a beefy young man scurry from our living room. Jess and I hadn’t fucked for the last three months of living together.
‘I never feel it,’ I told Chris. ‘I just like the idea of it.’
I’d gotten a bikini wax around the time Jess and I broke up because why not, really? I’d gotten the whole shebang. Hair curled, eyelashes tinted. The beautician, a thick-shouldered blonde, had loomed over me.
‘Tell me if it stings,’ she said, brushing dye against my lashes.
‘It stings,’ I said.
‘Oh. That’s totally normal.’
Afterwards, she had smeared warm wax all over my hairy pussy. I’d lived for the sharp—AH—of her pulling it away, my back sweaty from the pain. She got in close, something warm and wet against my labia and I thought is this what it is to be turned on? until she yanked it away with a velcro-like tcchh.
‘Maybe that’s why I date more men,’ I said to Chris with the air of a joke, ‘At least you can see they want you: front and centre.’
Chris pulled a face like gross. ‘I hate that.’
‘The only times I feel turned on are when I’ve turned someone else on.’
Chris rolled over onto her side, scrunched a pillow under her to prop herself up. We were lying on her bed, where I’d taken to sleeping some nights, just until I got used to the sharp drop then openness of the loft. Chris was ready for bed. It was a near-perpetual state for her in the early months of us living together. Her long, curly hair was pulled up in a bun. She was wrapped in her winter dressing gown.
‘I know what you mean,’ she said, stretching and shifting so the bed bounced. ‘When I was in high school I couldn’t tell the difference between being turned on and needing to piss.’
‘Ugh, too real.’
‘Difference was, I thought I needed to piss all the time.’
‘Maybe I’m dehydrated. Maybe that’s my problem. Too dehydrated to feel thirsty.’
Chris rolled her eyes at me, not unkindly. ‘Was that a dad pun? That was a dad pun.’
Jess had loved a pun. ‘The best type of joke,’ they used to say, ‘because nobody gets hurt.’
I sank back into the covers, looking at the photographs above Chris’ bedside table. One was of Chris and me in Edinburgh gardens, both smoking and trying to hula hoop at the same time. I’d noticed the camera and my face was squished in a laugh. How silly’s this? I seemed to say. Chris was looking at the cigarette in her hand, her long body held tight in concentration.
The other photo was of her and James, from above, both of them lying back on a picnic rug, laughing, eyes shut, hands tangled together. I’d taken that photo with a 90s Nikon camera.
‘You’re such a cliché,’ Chris had teased.
I’d loved it, though. Taking photos, noticing how people changed in front of such a huge device. How they’d lower their eyes, jut their jaws out, hold their lips still. I’d loved how Chris had spoken straight to me, even through the lens.
‘What’s it like with James now, anyway?’ I asked. ‘He still, you know?’
‘Worse, even,’ said Chris. ‘One lick and done.’
‘Sometimes I’m so angry after, I don’t even want him to touch me. Like, he offers to help me but I can’t even look at him. I feel so bad about that. It’s not like it feels good for him, either.’
She paused, slumped down on her pillow.
‘Our anniversary was nice. We went on this hike, threw down a blanket and did it outdoors.’
I laughed. ‘At least you know you can be done in a hurry if anyone comes.’
‘No, actually. The nerves helped. Half-way through though, I realised I’d set up on an ants’ nest—but, get this—I was so happy he was actually lasting that I didn’t even mention it. I just let the ants crawl on me until he was done.’
I felt my face pulling into a caricature of shock: ‘No.’
‘Did you come?’
Chris coughed out a half-gag, ‘Of course not. I had a fucking army of ants on my arse.’
I covered my face with my hands, rolled towards Chris with a groan. I’d never gotten the whole Chris and James thing but she was mad about him. Loved his tangling beard, his thick, broad height, his tangy, sweaty teen smell.
Chris spent two nights of the week at James’ place and he spent one at ours. He was a stand-up, always right on the brink of something big.
‘I’m filming with Aunty Donna next weekend,’ he told me, while Chris was taking a shower.
‘Who’s she?’ I asked and he laughed.
It turned out I didn’t know anything about comedy, not even the big names, though it was impossible to keep up. When someone was big enough that I’d heard of them, everyone hated them. They were past it, a sell-out. There was a sweet spot I could never get right, where an act was just big enough to know, but cool enough to slip under the radar.
‘Congrats,’ I said to James about the Aunty Donna thing. ‘You must be stoked.’
James opened our fridge and pulled out a can of Furphy. He kept a stash at our place, in case he came over before a gig. He never noticed when I pinched a few.
Chris came out of the shower, all wet and wrapped in towels. ‘Almost ready, almost ready.’ She held her arms out to us, as though we were angry bulls she needed to placate, though neither of us minded her lateness.
‘Don’t stress so much, cutie,’ James said. It wasn’t weird he called her cutie. Lots of people called her that. Her last name was Checuti.
Chris rushed into her bedroom and closed the door. James kept staring, even after Chris had disappeared. I rolled my eyes.
‘You’re so smitten.’
‘Who wouldn’t be?’
The thought fuck you hit me out of nowhere. In that moment I hated James, deeply and rightly.
‘Cute,’ I said.
He took another sip of his beer and the slurp disgusted me. I couldn’t think of anything more to say to James. I climbed the steps to the loft and left him to his beer. I could still hear his dumb fingers tapping against our kitchen bench as he waited for Chris to dry and dress herself. I pulled out a book, curled up on my bed and tried to read. Later, when Chris was ready, their chatter poured upwards towards me, into the void of my loft, loud enough that their voices seemed to curl up next to me. I put my book down and pulled a pillow over my head.
Eventually the door clicked shut behind them and they were gone for the night. I was alone. Still, the sounds rumbled around like an echo. The walls seemed alive. Scratching, echoing, little clucks of disapproval. I twisted my body around my bed and searched my bedside drawer for Ambien, Valium — whatever. It was empty except for a few Paracetamol Pluses I’d saved from before the codeine ban. I swallowed them dry and tried to sleep.
Upstairs at Yah Yahs was playing the same five songs on loop.
‘Who is this DJ?’ Chris asked, rolling not just her eyes, but her whole head too.
‘DJ?’ I said and she scoffed.
Hey Yah came on for the third time. Even though Chris hated the music, her body was still dancing, sliding back and forth in a repetitive two-step. Her arms flew in front of her—a sweep to the hey but back before the yah. She leaned toward my ear and I could feel the heat of her, sticky and close.
‘Downstairs?’ She flung her long, messy hair up with a tie from around her wrist. Most people started the night with their hair up so they could let it down once they were wasted. I liked that Chris was different.
We’d come from a poetry reading in a dimly-lit gallery off Bourke. A woman had read a poem about lying on a bed, eating fruit and waiting to be fucked. She kept saying the word fuckable so it rolled down my spine like ice. I saw myself stretched across that bed, wrapped in tangerine sheets. I was a lady of leisure, an animal, a permitted sloth. Eating, fucking, sleeping.
‘That was amazing,’ I’d said, flicking my head towards the stage.
Chris had hummed: ‘It was very accessible.’
The blood had swooshed between my ears, I’d felt myself balloon in place. The whole night had been off since.
Downstairs they were playing 90s RnB. Chris paused, wobbled her palm like a see-saw, then settled on a no. We went outside. The music muted to a throb, replaced with voices in the muggy night, shouting, laughing.
‘I’m over it,’ Chris said, squeezing through the smokers.
‘You sure?’ I said. ‘It’s barely one.’
Chris shrugged, dangled her loose blazer off her shoulders.
‘I can tell when I’m not feeling something.’
‘Yeah you can,’ she said. ‘You just tell yourself you’re enjoying it anyway.’
‘That’s not true.’
Behind Chris, sitting in the gutter, was a young blonde woman gasping at a cigarette, her eyes rimmed with liner. A man had his arm around her, rubbing her shoulders. The movement made his earrings jingle and bounce. They reminded me of little cat toys.
‘I know when to call it,’ I said.
Chris was looking away, down Smith Street. Half her face was caught in a red neon glow.
‘I’d kill for an ice cream right now,’ she said.
I followed her across the street—no cars except the Ubers—and into the dingy kebab place. When Jess and I first started dating, we’d spent half the night in that kebab place, sucking back icy pole after icy pole, telling each other secrets I can’t remember.
‘You’re so beautiful,’ Jess had said, their huge pupils full of adoration, ‘the most beautiful girl in the world.’
‘That’s objectively not true,’ I’d said.
‘Well, it’s true for me,’ they’d said, and I’d found it sweet. Later, it seemed that everything they said about me could be plucked up and thrown on anyone else.
‘Icy poles?’ asked Chris.
The man behind the counter shook his head, said they hadn’t stocked any icy poles in almost a year.
‘Let’s just go home. I’ve got Zooper Doopers.’
Chris let out a loud breath, pulled her blazer back up and wrapped it tight around her body.
‘Fine,’ she said, and we set off walking. I told her about Jess and the icy poles and her face squished up like she’d had a bad taste.
‘I know, right. I can’t believe it was only a year ago that we were mad in love.’
‘You were never into them,’ she said, ‘I could tell.’
I said nothing, pressed my tongue against the back of my teeth.
When we got home, Chris opened all the cupboards in the kitchen one by one and shut them again afterwards. She sat on the couch, slumped back, and stared at the ceiling.
‘You okay?’ I asked.
‘Yeah, just… off.’
‘Wanna sit outside?
I opened up the balcony and Chris followed, leaning over the railing. I rolled her a cigarette, then one for myself, too. Her hands were shaking.
‘Anything happen?’ She shook her head.
‘Just James stuff,’ she said. ‘He’s being all spacey.’
‘What a dick.’
‘He’s allowed space,’ she said, clear and sharp.
‘You’re right,’ I said, like a dog gone belly up. ‘I’m projecting. I just miss them, you know.’
‘It’s funny,’ she said, ‘I’ve never wanted to get back with any of my exes.’
‘Well good for you, hey.’
Chris was quiet, raised her eyebrows like I was out of line. I lit up and looked out over the street. We must have been only three or so metres off the ground but the edge of the balcony loomed. The pavement hummed. The streetlights glowed, hazy and bright. I wanted to tell Chris it wasn’t just a break-up, that it was more, that it was special. I wanted to shake her, touch her, kiss her. I wanted to shock her into feeling what I felt. I wanted her to be the same.
‘This is a lot,’ I said, gesturing to the lights below.
‘Yeah. I was gonna say.’
We butted our cigarettes on the balcony’s metal railing. Sparks flew from the end and my stomach dropped with them.
When Jess and I had first broken up but were still living together, I’d spent a night in their bed. I’d stretched and shifted against them, let our faces linger until I could feel their breath against my cheek. I’d wanted them so bad, knew I couldn’t have them. Everything had been too hot. I’d felt the knots of my spine unravel until my entire body fell open.
I’d leaned into them, wanting to fuck, wanting to be fucked.
‘I want you,’ I’d said, whined even, like a brat.
They’d been rigid and I’d pressed harder, harder. Then—they touched back, leaned into my desire.
‘Okay,’ they’d said. I dropped cold.
I’d wanted nothing from them but to know they wanted me.
‘Thanks for coming back with me,’ said Chris after a while. We’d curled up on the couch, pressed against one another. I shrugged to mean no problem. ‘I’m glad we did this. You know, living together. It could have gone really badly.’
‘It was never going to go badly.’
‘Sometimes I think that if James had just said yes, I would have missed out on all this.’
‘Do y’ever wish he’d said yes?’ I asked, and for once I didn’t feel like I was fishing for information to hurt myself with. I would have been fine with any answer. Nothing Chris said could have hurt me. I was in a bubble, floating above, seeing the bigger picture: her love for someone else wasn’t a lack of love for me.
Chris flopped her head against the side of the couch.
‘I don’t wish he’d moved in,’ she said, ‘but I wish he’d wanted to. You know what I mean?’
‘Kinda,’ I said. ‘Men just don’t think about that stuff.’
Chris shifted back on the couch and pulled her legs up so we were no longer touching.
‘Maybe. I know you’re not supposed to say this but I kinda think women are just as bad. If we didn’t have these romantic fantasies we wouldn’t end up feeling shitty and let down all the time. Like, it’s not normal I want him to want to drop everything and just be with me.’
Chris made bunny ears around the word ‘normal’. She couldn’t stand the word to go by uncomplicated.
‘Sometimes I think I’m just a bad person,’ I said.
‘Nah,’ she said, like an impulse. Then: ‘You’re just lazy.’
I laughed because it felt true.
‘Shit. I forgot the Zooper Doopers.’
She stood to grab them from the freezer, purple for me and orange for her. I watched her snip the orange one open and slurp the end before any could run out.
‘Hey, cutie’ I said. ‘You’re the most beautiful girl in the world.’
She looked up at me then, with an honest expression of what the fuck, before remembering and laughing.
‘To beauty,’ she said, holding the Zooper Dooper up in a toast.
I slept in Chris’s bed again that night, and the night after. James came around a few more times, until he didn’t anymore. It was just Chris and me, then, for a while, and that was good for us, I suppose.