Forging friendships

Hannah replied to my Facebook request for friendship by email. Hey Keira, she’d said in the email, what’s it been, one year, two? She was no longer with Thomas, she’d moved interstate and she’d prefer – she wrote – not to use Facebook to maintain contact. She was thinking of closing her account anyway, it had the potential to become a nightmare, she knew way too many people. (The italics were hers). And she hoped I didn’t mind. She hoped she’d see me round the traps. We could catch up. Someplace, sometime. Which to my mind was all just a fancy way of saying: I’ve moved on, now fuck off.

So I wrote back to Hannah: I totally understand, Hannah, thanks so much for finding the time to write back to me, because I do appreciate how precious your time is. I know that you really should have a PA to handle all this Facebook rejecting for you; how horrible it must be to tear yourself away from your food-co-op-agitating and vegan-shoe-buying and film-shit activities just to compose nasty little Facebook rejections designed to make everyone else feel like a piece of crap. I mean, HOW TAXING for you, Hannah.

Switching pages, I see that Xanadu658 is selling a crochet evening purse lined in pale blue silk. It is ‘no longer suitable, due to a change in lifestyle’. What kind of lifestyle precluded the carrying of evening purses? I check the other items Xanadu658 has for sale: three diamante belts (all size XS), red kitten heels (a bit scuffed), a six-pack of baby booties (NWT). What’s her story?

I’m watching a couple of dresses, their prices creeping. I don’t need them, I probably won’t wear them and yet – usually – I hover in the last 15 seconds of an auction and then I press bid. eBay makes me sick.

Hannah has dark brown eyes. We were once friends. Now we are not even ‘friends’, not even FB friends. I have a lot of ‘friends’. Like everyone else, my Facebook listing has created a new kind of nightmare. I mean, we all know or knew or knew of or wish we knew way too many people, don’t we. I’d even found my dad listed on Facebook: the first time I’d seen him since I was eight; he looked fatter, smaller and dumber than I remembered and I did not ask him to be my friend.

What I really wrote to Hannah was this: cool Hann. Give me a call sometime if you’re passing through town and we’ll have a coffee and catch up. Ciao xx

I knew Hannah would never call, that there’d be no coffee, no catch-up, no kiss kiss and what’s it been, one year, two, so how are ya babe?

That saying ‘catch up’ makes me sick. The saying ‘I hope you don’t mind’ makes me sick. Sometimes, people streak so far ahead that there can never be any catch-up, and I do mind, I do fucking mind. Other things that make me sick: hot chocolate, long macchiatos, catching buses, the smell of burning fabric, dark brown eyes.

eBay fuels something frantic, then leaves me gutted. It makes me spastic and insatiable for things just out of sight. Alone, I trawl. Without getting out of bed, with the rhythmic twitch of one finger against the return button on my keyboard, I can have frock after frock. None of which – poured out of their post-packs, caught warm in my fingers – satisfy.

Hannah and I used to meet up in the flesh and walk along a real street and enter real live shops, staffed by fragrant, embodied individuals who – if you reached out and touched them – would feel warm and smooth, as human beings do. In such establishments we would try on clothes that were new and available in most sizes, including ours. And we would choose a frock from a rack and slip it on and spin for each other, our backs to the cool hard mirrors. Then Hannah and I would sit face to face, look across the table into each others’ eyes, and lips, and down into our coffees, slowly stirring the froth in, as we spoke words with pitch and waves that hit each others’ tympanic membranes and sent physical signals of chemico-electric form zinging through each others’ brains. ‘Keira?’ she’d say. ‘Hannah?’ I’d say. And we would answer each other – yes, or yes? – without the use of emoticons or excess punctuation. Without the need to ruminate over the difference in meaning of ‘oooooooo’ and ‘oooooo!!!’ and ‘oooohhhhhhh’. We used gesture and eyes and sounds. We sat face to face, and a single look transmitted the equivalent of 300 posts on Facebook. None of which rendered me sick.

I once read that we are able to walk down a crowded street without continually colliding into others because we detect subtle movements in the eyes of the people coming towards us – movements that somewhere deep inside our brains we understand as their intended direction and we make the necessary adjustments in our respective trajectories. We make way for each other. Thus we understand and are understood by strangers over and over again. Perhaps this is why it is possible to be comforted by a crowd. Face to face we head towards the same point, our eyes send their signals, and we miss each other, by mutual agreement. Perhaps this is why we feel alone in a crowd. And Hannah? It had not been what, one year, two? It had been twenty-eight months and three weeks and I’d sweated for two whole days about sending you that message through Facebook. And Hannah, I’ve been waiting for you so long I could never catch up.

According to the vendors’ descriptions, every dress on eBay is ‘stunning’. They are stunning with tiny flaws, or stunning and unworn, or they are stunning and would look fabulous with heels and golden eyeshadow or equally so with ballet flats and a leather jacket; they are NWOT and stunning. You don’t need to ask why the vendors are auctioning off their stunning crap because – like a con man – they tell you before you ask. There are three stories: wardrobe clear-out, fluctuation in body weight, change in lifestyle. No-one ever says that they are auctioning their kids’ toys cause they need a carton of fags, a crate of VB, or the bank’s about to foreclose. No-one’s selling their shit to raise funds for a holiday or to build a herb garden or a gazebo or buy a pet dog. No-one’s selling their shit because it’s shit. They all regret horribly the necessity of the sale. And they expect us to look at this detritus and be stunned.

One time with Hannah I bought a pale blue silk dress from the Vintage Clothing Shop. It gripped my tits like a cold fist but made my arse irresistible. Around the neck was a ring of pearlised sequins. It was cut at just the right length, highlighting both the bones of the knee and the curve of the quadriceps, which for some reason always screams vagina. Hannah made me buy it, although its price was such a stunner that I had to pilfer money from my mum’s purse to pay. But I wore that frock dressed-up-with-fish-net-stockings, and down-with-bare-legs, with scarfs and brooches and belts, depending on whether we were going to a club or a show or a cafe. I wore it with jackets on top and skivvies underneath, I wore it with hats and long socks and gold sandals and gloves. I wore that dress with Hannah.

Nothing to lose, I sign in. There are currently seventy-four thousand, five hundred and thirty-one dresses listed for sale. Five thousand, six hundred and twelve of them are pale blue. Seven hundred and forty are pale blue and vintage. I survey the capacity of my room. I turn back to my computer, flip pages. Nothing to lose, I sign in. I have a friend request from Nicky Winch, the guy in grade four who had the set of 72 Derwent pencils in a tin. I wonder if that’s enough to forge a friendship. I wonder about his story. Nothing to lose, I accept, and the face of another stranger joins my library of friends.

Hannah moved from South Africa to my school in Year 11. Something about the end of apartheid and its impact on cattle farming? Her dad – whom she despised yet desperately pined for – went to New Zealand. Hannah and her mum came here.

Her first week at school she caught me smoking by myself, behind the woodwork shed. She asked for a light and told me my tobacco was grown in Zimbabwe. I looked at my burning cigarette (as if for confirmation) then back at Hannah, unsure if she was taking the piss. She lit up, blew smoke out of the corner of her mouth. ‘I’m Hannah,’ she said, as if I didn’t know.

I made no assumptions, but from that moment on she’d find me each lunchtime and peel me away from my book. We’d nibble our crappy sandwiches, make fun of the other students and smoke our guts out. We never hung out on the weekends; she was seeing some older guy named Frank who took up all her time. But in Year 12 they broke up and Hannah and I made the transition from smoking buddies to out-of-school buddies and she started sleeping over at my place.

Weekday, weekend, it made no difference to us, we’d stay awake half the night, gulping hot chocolate and leaning out the bedroom windows to smoke. Hannah’s appetite for hot chocolate was insatiable; we’d go through a litre of milk each night, at least. Hannah’s mum would only allow cocoa made with water and a splash of skim milk, so when she got to my place – where my mum slept heavily and didn’t give a damn what we drank – she’d cut loose, heat the full cream milk in a saucepan until it boiled, add half the box of cocoa and an avalanche of brown sugar. Each week I’d scrawl cocoa and milk on the shopping list notepad on the fridge. ‘The amount of cocoa you girls go through,’ my mum would sigh in her distracted way as she tore the list from the pad and rushed off to the supermarket Friday nights. Hannah’s hot chocolates. Her mother was one of those petite, pointy-nosed women for whom eating nothing was a sign of refinement. The world was a great and mysterious place where nothing was certain except the superiority of a bag of bones. Hannah, who had inherited her father’s large frame and appetites, made her mother look like an icypole stick. And as far as I could tell, Hannah’s mum had spent Hannah’s entire life trying to whittle her into a twig.

One morning towards the end of the school year we were walking to the bus stop when Hannah told me that I held her in my sleep. I would – she said – wrap my arms around her waist, press my head into her chest or her back and hold on tight. She said she didn’t mind, but wondered if I was aware that I did it. No, I told her, I was not aware. Then I said: Jesus Christ, how embarrassing, I’m sorry. She said not to worry about it, she didn’t much mind. She sort of liked it, found it sweet, she said.

So the dress was sleeveless. And the unravelling started under the armholes, at the part they call a gusset. I sewed the edges together, but I’m not much good with a needle and thread, and a gusset is a triangle of reinforcement that can only bear so much reinforcing. And then I ran out of pale blue thread, used up all my white, moved on to pale green etc. until the underarms of the dress looked like psychedelic spider webs. At special events or where the light was quite bright, I tried to keep my arms pinned to my sides. Someone might flick a glance at my armpit during conversation and this served as a reminder for me to clamp the arm back down. Hannah told me to relax. She said the mass of threads was scary-beautiful. Those were her words: scary, beautiful. Then, a few weeks later she said the mending seemed desperate and overly optimistic. Those were her words: desperate, overly optimistic. When one of her collection of striped tops was ruined – and I had seen two of them ruined: one by blue-black hair dye; one by a nail sticking out of the fence behind the bus stop – she simply threw it in the bin, as if it had ceased to exist, as if it was nothing.

There are three hundred and seventy-three pale blue, vintage, sleeveless dresses for sale on eBay. Forty-four are ‘Buy it now’. The rest are up for auction, with bidding ending between one minute and eight days from now.

The plan was that we’d both do nursing and then volunteer as aid workers abroad. We enrolled – and then spent the summer around town, me in that dress, Hannah in hoop earrings, red lipstick and one of her many striped tops. We talked about moving into a flat together when we got part-time jobs; meantime she stayed over at my place. I held her at night. Sometimes, I was only pretending to sleep.

I log in, compelled by the old ‘What If?’ Nicky Winch has sent me a message. This was unusual. Normally you simply accumulated these artefacts from the past and never once exchanged a word; you just read their inane daily updates (‘traffic sucks’ or ‘Sooooo happy Masterchef’s back!’) with a dull voyeurism or with frank despair. But here was a message, just for me, and for a second it felt like the lips on one of those tiny faces in a crowded school photo had suddenly become animated and started calling out. Tiny little lips, calling across years. Kieiria (he’d spelt my name wrong) wots up? Remember the day you fell from the monkey bars landed on me and stuffed my knee my knee still kills me and I might need an op. Work in a sign shop which is pretty shit. Usual stuff, 2 kids, don’t have much contact tho. How goes?

I did not remember that monkey bars incident. Then I did remember that incident and the attending ambulance and the fact that it was a girl called Sonya Murne, the netball champion of the school, who had landed on his knee, not me. I hated the monkey bars; I liked coloured pencils in tins, and books. How could he confuse me with Sonya?

That summer between school and uni, bisexual emerged as the new normal, and so Hannah and I had certainly discussed the issue. In theory, she’d said, she could love a woman; love was love after all. And it was me she was sitting with as she said it; me she was looking right at. Then she’d added, ‘It avoids all those problematics of feminine submission that go along with penetrative sex and the prescribed male/female dynamic, you know?’ I nodded, heart thumping, palms sweating, although I actually had no idea what she was talking about. All I knew about penetrative sex I had learned through a short relationship with a laconic boy called Jason Campbell when I was fifteen. We’d exchanged a dozen words max – and a few buckets of bodily fluids, mostly mouth-to-mouth – our entire four weekends together. He penetrated me (if pressed, I’d say it was neither pleasant nor unpleasant) and I lay there thinking: ‘This is penetration. I’m being penetrated. He is penetrating me.’ Maybe I thought the word ‘fucking’ instead of ‘penetration’, but you get the picture. However, I was thrilled to be able to agree with Hannah on the question of loving a woman. By then I had a pretty good idea what that was like.

I study the eBay pictures one after the other with an attitude forensic. Not one of the three hundred and seventy-three pale blue vintage sleeveless dresses resembles in the slightest my lost dress.

Then one day Hannah and I were in Degraves Street, drinking black and white double macchiatos because we liked the way they made us look – those little glasses filled with a kind of sophisticated ink beneath a layer of dense milk foam. We were drinking them even though we would have preferred a couple of massive mugs of sweet Vienna chocolate, cocoa, cream, a half a litre of milk, and a boy called Thomas Devonport (and what sort of a name is that anyway?) comes over to our table and goes ‘Hannah?’ To which the only possible answer was, ‘Yes?’ And then he asks if she recognises him. And she does recognise him: he’s a guy from her high school in South Africa. A great looking guy, with flopping-in-his-eyes soft hair and you-are-the-only-person-in-the-world-Hannah eyes. He pulls up a stool and we start exchanging relevant demographic data – me feeling increasingly uncomfortable, then left out, then grumpy – and when Hannah says the word ‘nursing’, Thomas’s face expands in surprise, then contracts, and what’s left of his eyeballs direct their suspicion at me. Then he turns back to Hannah, ‘But you were so … artistic. And so clever.’

Call it the beginning of the end, if you will.

When an auction has less than a minute to close, the timer switches to red-coloured numerals and you can watch the count down in real-time. This never fails to scramble my mind and shrink my world. I am held in a 59-second fist where I am without past or future, where I really have no idea what the fuck I should do. But with Facebook I usually know what to do and needless to say, upon reading his message, I immediately deleted Nicky Winch from my list of friends. I am Keira, not Sonya, not Kieiria. I am Keira.

We’d been meeting less frequently and Hannah would say things like, ‘Oh Keira, you’re so …’ and finishing off with adjectives and declarations that sounded a bit South African male to me. South African male with floppy hair and an eye for the particular. This ‘you’re so …’ never failed to make me feel disappointing and simple and helpless and small. And when someone starts to point out to you what-you’re-like in a dismissive tone of voice, it’s a sure sign that it’s the middle of the end. That you are receding into a face in an old photo in an old album that can be closed. That soon the act of misrecognition will be complete.

Things I had not contemplated: nursing without Hannah, developing nations without Hannah, flats without Hannah, summertime without Hannah. What can you do when you witness a catastrophe in real-time, your body being sucked backwards, major arteries flinging your blood around inside you like an untethered hose, your mouth moving but not making words? You do what anyone would do. You just force your lips closed, say something small and inane that later you can never quite recall, and then you flee. ‘We can still hang out!’ she said, grinning fluoro, after she informed me that she’d landed a job at the food co-op, was switching from nursing to film studies and moving into Thomas’ sharehouse (‘I’ll have my own room though’).

eBay. Facebook. Twitter and chat. I’ll comment on your post from the comfort of my loungeroom, though I wouldn’t cross the street to say a single word hello. I’ll buy stuff that would repulse me face to face. Things that are not acts will pretend to be acts; they will take the place of acts. I will watch and I will trawl and I will never ever catch you, I will never be caught.

What I did then was walk home, into the house of my childhood, into my bedroom and close the door. I lay still on my bed for a long time. I peed once, in a crusty mug abandoned on the windowsill. My mum knocked once, said my name with a question mark and then went away. The sun rose and set twice. Soon after the second setting, I had a small thought. Call it a plan. I stood up, went to the kitchen, gathered a glass of lemon cordial and a cigarette, my blue dress and a lighter. I opened the back door, stepped out into the cool night-time breeze; I sat cross-legged in the backyard and watched the threads smoulder.

I have read that every life has only one story, and that single story just gets repeated in cycles of varying length with a series of understudies stepping into the lead roles.

So, my story is this: I once had a dress that held my chest in its fist, and when it started to unravel I chose to incinerate the remains. Make way for the new! you might say. Let’s just get the new cycle started, you might say. But – I log in, check the new pale blue listings – it seems you can’t always tell, and you certainly can’t dictate – I log in, check if anyone wants to catch up – where your story will end.

Karen Hitchcock

More by Karen Hitchcock ›

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