My friend, I’ve come to the conclusion, is selfish. She has a new boyfriend. They spend all day in my friend’s room. I hear the vibration of their voices through the wall. Laughter, mostly, and sometimes sounds I wish I didn’t hear.
Before her boyfriend, my friend was depressed. It used to be me who would lie next to her in bed. I would tell her jokes to make her laugh and stories about all the bad luck I’ve had with men.
Sometimes, my friend would tell me about her family and about the time her brother dropped a footstool on her chest while she was lying on the floor watching TV.
‘They should call it windless,’ I’d say after she described the feeling of being winded. ‘Because wind is the last thing you are getting.’ This made my friend feel better and then she’d say she was feeling well enough to leave the house.
We’d walk through the park behind our house to get to the Thai restaurant that cooks six-dollar lunches. On our way, we would see the dog in the orange visor and small, boxy shoes and we’d laugh, because we knew there are people in the world crazier than us.
At the restaurant we’d only order one dish between us, because this was all we could afford. My friend and I lived like uni students, even though we were past the age where this could be considered charming. The dish we ordered was always the same, chilli basil noodles. My friend said that chilli releases adrenalin. This is why people got addicted to spicy food. We spooned more chilli jam onto the plate and pretended we were skydiving.
Now that my friend has a boyfriend, she only orders Thai food to the house. My friend says she is no longer depressed and looks at me with pity when I tell her my stories about all the bad luck I’ve had with men.
It’s partly my fault that my friend has a new boyfriend. It is because of me they met. My friend’s boyfriend is the younger brother of the man I had the worst luck with. This particular man is hard to avoid because he owns an antique shop on the same street where my friend and I live.
One afternoon I went in to buy a mirror and left, days later, with my heart broken. As we lay, tangled in the sheets in his room above the shop, he told me that his wife would be returning from overseas the next morning. He turned away from me and I counted the sunspots on his back, one for each year he had been with her.
When I went home and found my friend in bed, I sat next to her and showed her the green bruises on my inner thighs. We made puns about antiques.
‘You came back with something borrowed and something blue.’
‘It remains to be seen whether we will see each other again.’
‘There is nothing new about this story.’
This one made us sad and we spent the rest of the afternoon sitting together in silence.
Later, when I realised that I’d forgotten my mirror, I made my friend get out of bed so we could walk down to the shop together. I wore my best dress, the one that was cut just low and short enough to make me seem mysterious. My friend agreed that The Man would feel regret when he saw me. My friend pulled on the same outfit she’d worn every day since stealing from the Vinnie’s op shop: a black tank top she was only able to wear without pants.
Out on the footpath, The Man was hunched over an old pine table. He appeared shorter and rounder at the sides then I remembered. He turned to us and smiled and I realised that, in fact, he was not The Man, even though he had the same long nose and thick bottom lip. He looked at my friend for longer than would be normal and I left them and went inside the shop.
The real man was not surprised to see me. ‘Here is your mirror’, he said and passed me the heavy frame from behind the counter. I tried to look for signs of another women and strained to hear footsteps upstairs. I stared at The Man and decided that he was handsome in a way that Dennis Hopper might have been if he was still a painter or a poet.
‘That was the brother of The Man,’ my friend said as we walked home. She didn’t offer to help me carry the mirror. ‘And he asked me out tonight.’
Every night since, my friend and The Man’s brother have been together. When my friend comes out of her room in the morning, I ask her if her new boyfriend should be paying board. She just smiles, takes a cup of coffee and shuffles back into her room. I start to forget what it even looked like in my friend’s room. I imagine that the floor is littered with condom wrappers, dirty undies and empty Thai containers. For some reason, it is the image of the containers that hurts the most.
Sometimes I spend the afternoons slowly showering and drying my hair in the hope that my friend and her boyfriend will invite me out to wherever it is they go. It takes me a long time to find the right way to part my hair, which has happened ever since my friend tried cutting me the same blunt fringe as hers.
When I am ready, I sit on the end of my bed and wait until I hear my friend’s door slam and listen until the sounds of their voices disappear down the stairwell. I look into the mirror and come to the conclusion that I always look my best when no one is around to see it.
Eventually, I am in the one who becomes depressed. I lie in bed with the covers pulled up to my ears and wish that I was the one who came from a messed-up family. One day I hear the door creep open and I know my friend is standing in the room.
‘It smells like a mouse cage in here,’ she says and I pretend I am asleep so I don’t have to answer.
She sits right beside me on the pillow so that my head rolls down onto her leg. ‘We went out last night with The Man and his wife,’ she says.
‘Tell me she is horrible.’
‘She works for The Conservation and has short hair.’
I groan into the pillow.
‘I’m only telling you this because I think it’s time you moved on,’ my friend says and then leaves the room.
I think about this for a while and decide to stay in bed one more day, in the hope that my friend will come back and crawl into the sheets next to me when she realises how truly depressed I am. She doesn’t, and there is nothing left to do but get up and walk across the park to the Thai restaurant alone.
For some reason, it has become more popular in my absence and the meals are now six dollars and fifty cents. Halfway through my meal the waitress tells me that since they are so busy, I will have to share my table with another customer.
She leaves before I can answer and a man sits opposite me. He is wearing a white shirt and has light hair that falls almost to his eyes. He is handsome in a way that Andrew McCarthy might have been in a John Hughes film. When he goes to spoon more chilli jam onto his plate, I tell him the theory behind spicy food. The man’s name, it turns out, is Henry, but everyone calls him Hank.
The next day I go to the restaurant and find him sitting at the same table. I start to wonder if maybe this is how romance starts, even though every day of the following week I’m always surprised to see him there. Hank doesn’t talk much. He has just returned from Chile and is finding it hard to get used to the Australian way of conversation. I tell him about my friend and he agrees that she does sound selfish.
On the eighth day I take him home. I think that we might sleep together and we do, but only in the operative sense. In the middle of the night I roll over and search for his skin but he quickly stops my hand from moving any further than his waist. I spend the rest of the night pressed up against his back, until his neck becomes hot with my breath.
In the morning Hank touches me for the first time. He runs his hand down my cheek and the ends of his fingers feel rough like the tongue of a cat. He tells me that when he was in Chile, he overdosed on heroin and the people he was with shot cocaine underneath his nails. He says that sometimes now he has trouble using the touch screens at train stations.
As Hank scrapes at my skin he tells me that he is glad we met. That he has been so lonely. I think of something my friend once said. Never get involved with drug addicts or married men. I could cross both off the list now.
The next few nights Hank comes home with me, and each time I reach down past the hairs on his stomach I have my hand turned away by his. I resign to the fact that our physicality has come to a standstill and decide to leave my clothes on when I get into bed with him. I push one socked foot in-between his legs as an act of remission. He pulls me toward him and when I feel his erection on my thigh I have to stop myself from laughing at the foot fetish puns my friend and I would make.
He fucks me on top, with my shirt and pants pulled away to make a circle of flesh for him to hold. I hardly feel him move inside me but he arches his neck back and opens his mouth wide so I can see the line of crooked teeth at the back of his jaw. When he comes, he pulls out suddenly and pushes himself onto my stomach, his head buried behind me ear. It takes me a while to realise he is crying softly, his shoulders shaking in silence. I lie as still as I can, unable to move under his weight.
Afterwards, he doesn’t speak and I stay where I am in bed, watching as he pulls out a pouch of tobacco and rolls a cigarette between his two blunt fingers. My friend would laugh at this, I think. Never get involved with a man who cries when he fucks or smokes afterwards. He blows smoke out the window and I imagine that he is punching holes in stars with the dim glow of the ember. I trace the word ‘ember’ from the pool of cum on my stomach and wait until it becomes tight on my skin.
At the Thai restaurant, Hank acts as though nothing has changed between us. At one point I reach forward and stroke the skin of his forearm. He flinches like he has been bitten but really I am the one who has been stung. When we walk home together I feel my stomach churn and cramp and wonder if I have eaten too much chilli jam.
Back at the house, the door to my friend’s room is open. I walk through to the kitchen and follow the sounds of machinery until I am out on the balcony. My friend is drilling holes into a metal can, a pile of already crucified tins at her feet.
‘I am working on my next sculpture,’ she says without looking up.
Before her boyfriend, my friend used to be an artist. She would make figures out of wire and fill whole rooms with patterned material. This is the first time in months I have seen her working. I notice that she is using her feet to hold the can steady and that she is wearing my shoes instead of her own. I am about to say something but realise that Hank is standing beside me and that he is staring at my friend for longer than what would be normal. I turn to leave and it is a few minutes before he follows me back into the room.
That night I lie awake while my stomach goes on cramping. When I go to the toilet, the water in the bowl turns crimson and I know then that it is my period and not the chilli jam, although both are similar in colour. In the morning Hank rolls on top of me and prises apart my legs with his. I can feel the wetness seeping between my thighs but don’t say anything. When we finish, I push Hank off and sit upwards to study the patch of blood on the sheets. It looks like a figure eight that has been smeared upwards by somebody’s hand. It makes me think that maybe there is more to what we’re doing, as if it might be of some importance. Hank uses his fingers to wipe away the marks on his stomach before rolling his cigarette.
I knock on my friend’s door to see if she has a tampon and when she doesn’t answer, I push the door open and find her lying face down on the bed. There is no sign of the man’s brother.
‘I’ve got my period.’
She rolls onto her side and I can see she has been crying.
‘The Man’s brother left. He told me he was in love with The Man’s wife.’
Normally this would be the moment I would go and sit next to my friend. I would stroke her hair while she cried until I thought it was the right moment to tell a joke. Instead, I stand in silence.
Eventually she points to her cabinet. ‘Tampons are in the second draw.’
Hank is waiting for me when I get back to the room.
‘What happened?’ he asks, even though it is obvious he has heard us talking through the walls.
‘It seems as though my friend’s boyfriend has left her.’
He nods slowly like he is considering this and takes a drag from his cigarette.
When we are about to leave for the Thai restaurant he stops outside my friend’s room and motions with his head. ‘Shouldn’t we ask if she wants to come?’
‘She is depressed, she won’t want to leave the house,’ I say quickly and walk toward the front door in the hope he will follow.
‘I’ll go and ask,’ he says and leaves me standing by myself, listening to the wind as it howls up the stairwell.
Just as I am about to go into her room, my friend and Hank emerge. Her face is still streaked and pink but she looks as though she has been laughing. She has put on her tank top and a line of red lipstick, which is the only make-up my friend wears when she leaves the house.
‘Let’s go skydiving,’ Hank says as he passes me.
When we arrive, the restaurant is full and we have to wait outside until the waitress tells us a table is free. The meals are now seven dollars fifty.
‘I’m going to order cashew chicken,’ I say when we are seated. ‘Does anyone want to share with me?’
Hank and my friend look at me and then at each other. The waitress comes with her pen and Hank hands her the menus.
‘We will have the chilli basil,’ he says motioning to my friend. ‘And she will have cashew chicken.’
All throughout the meal, I claw at my stomach and push down on the muscles in the hope that it will stop cramping. My friend and Hank speak to each other with ease. She asks him about Chile and nods solemnly when he tells her about the time he overdosed on drugs. I start to regret my outfit choice, a faded stripy shirt I’ve owned for years.
‘There is a party tonight at my friend’s house,’ says Hank. ‘You should come.’
‘What friends? You don’t have any friends,’ I say and realise that I have started to sweat.
Hank ignores me. ‘It’s two suburbs over. We will have to get the train there.’
My friend agrees that a party sounds like a good idea. This way she could take her mind off The Man’s brother. Usually she would say that parties were for boring people, who don’t know how to be alone.
As we walk back through the park, my stomach tightens and rises up to my throat. I run ahead to the house and collapse in front of the toilet bowl. Blobs of undigested chicken float on the surface like shipwrecked boats.
‘I think you are too sick to come,’ Hank says behind me in the doorway.
‘It’s just my period,’ I say in-between breaths, before throwing up a second time.
My friend is waiting for me in the room. I feel cold and start to shake, so I crawl into bed. She pulls the covers up to my chin and wipes at my forehead with the back of her hand.
‘Must have been the chicken,’ she murmurs.
When I wake, the room is dark. I stumble out into the kitchen and drink a glass of water. It is cold. Metallic. I have an image of my friend and Hank at the party, holding cups of cheap wine. Hank would be sitting on the couch, watching as my friend fiddled with the songs on the stereo.
‘Stevie Nicks is my favourite,’ she would say and they would sing along to Tusk, even though I am the one who makes her laugh when I mime along to Mick Fleetwood’s drum solo.
I spend the rest of the night in fitful sleep, half awake, half in feverish dreams. In one my friend is sitting with me, a damp cloth held to my cheek. ‘You’re on fire,’ she says, her voice coming through the haze of sleep and I realise then that it is not a dream. She is on the bed next to me and I fall asleep soundly, knowing she is there.
When I wake in the morning my fever has passed. I reach for my phone and call Hank’s number. The line is faint and for a minute it seems as though I have gone though to his voicemail.
‘I’m going back to Chile,’ he says.
‘I was about to leave a message.’
‘There is no culture here.’
‘I thought you might ask me to come back with you,’ I manage to creak.
There is a long drawn out sigh at the end of the line. ‘Not until you learn what loneliness is.’
I think that I could tell him a thing or two about loneliness, but stop and wonder if this is the kind of thing my friend’s boyfriend said to her before he left. For a while I lie with the phone to my ear until I can no longer tell if what I am hearing is Hank’s breath or dead air. I come to the conclusion that I only have something profound to say when no one is around to hear it.
I find my friend in her room and tell her what has happened. She smiles and says that it is time we stopped being depressed about our bad luck with men. My friend takes me out shopping and we buy matching high-soled shoes that we change into inside the shops. We laugh as we walk down the street, even though people don’t treat us any different. We are still the ones moving to make room for others.
In the afternoon my friend and I drink a cocktail in the courtyard of a café. We are still wearing our matching shoes.
‘Who would be the worst person to walk through that door?’ my friend asks, gesturing to the arched entrance of the courtyard.
‘The Man’s brother!’
We stop and look at each other. ‘The Man’s wife!’ We scream and decide that if any of them came though right then, we would get up in our high-soled shoes and walk out. They would all feel regret. My friend smiles at me and I think that everything would be easier if friends were lovers too.
The next day I find a note in my friend’s room telling me that she has gone away to Chile with Hank. She knows I will understand, she writes. At the bottom of the paper is a poem in squashed handwriting, which I eventually realise are just lyrics she has taken from a Fleetwood Mac song. I don’t cry, although something inside me tells me I should.
Since my friend has left, the days have started getting longer. There is more sun in the afternoons, although it still gets cold when the shadows begin to take over. When there is nothing left to do, I decide to walk down the street and find a new Thai restaurant. One where the meals are still only six dollars.
Without my friend next to me in hers, my new shoes no longer look good. They are boxy and square, like the dog in the park with the orange visor. As I’m studying my feet, heavy trees cast silhouettes across the footpath. It is a bit like looking down at a river, everything caught beneath the surface.
I walk past The Man’s shop and stop to catch a glimpse of him through the window. He is behind the counter, staring into the shop. I come to the conclusion he looks sadder but it is only fleeting. He moves suddenly to rearrange the small animal skulls in the cabinet. There is only so much sadness a man working in an antique store can show before it starts to get old.