I wake to the unmistakable sound of a man urinating. I must have kicked off the blankets during the night, and when I roll onto the empty side of the bed I see that my bedroom door is wide open. I think about the man whose stream I can hear subsiding, who is probably shaking his penis and leaving coin-sized drips on the bathroom floor and I wonder what my life would be like if I were to marry him.
If I even said the word ‘marriage’ around my sister she’d throw back her head and laugh, making me feel like a silly little girl. Or she’d look at me and smirk, as if she was in on the whole joke of marriage and I wasn’t. That’s mostly why I never tell Amanda anything, but also because Amanda equates sex with intimacy, and I couldn’t bear for her to tell my secrets to the string of men with names like Will or Andrew or Tim who occasionally spend the night at our house.
Brian is different from those other men: he’s brash, passionate. He strolls around the house in his underwear even when he doesn’t know who’s at home. I hear the toilet flush and the sound of heavy, sleep-laden footsteps first on the tiles in the bathroom and then on the floorboards in the hall. His shadow falls across my doorway and I quickly turn over, pulling the sheets around me, and pretend to be asleep. The footsteps continue past the doorway of my room, thudding along evenly until I hear a door being opened then closed, and then I hear squeals of pleasure coming from inside Amanda’s bedroom.
I’ve given up reaching for my headphones every time I hear Brian and Amanda making love in the morning. At first I was embarrassed by it, I could feel myself going red in the face even though I was alone in my bedroom. Then I became used to the noise but was still annoyed that they didn’t even think about me. We are renting together and it’s my place just as much as Amanda’s. I hear Brian finish, making a noise like he’s been punched in the throat, and I get up and close my door, sealing off some space of my own.
I lie in bed awake while Brian and Amanda get up and shower together, filling the bathroom with their noise. I can hear Brian still doing something in there when Amanda comes into my room and sits on the bed, putting her wet legs all over the sheets and flicking me with water as she tosses her long black hair. I rescue my blankets and burrow beneath them.
Amanda stretches out next to me and starts talking about the party she is having at our house tonight. She completely soaks my pillow. In her hushed but excited voice she tells me that at least three of Brian’s single friends will be coming. Amanda speaks to me as if I’m fragile, as if I were the younger sister and she‘s just doing her best to look out for me. She strokes my hair and whispers in my ear, ‘It’s time to move on.’
I’d been pretending to sleep but Amanda knows that I’m awake and annoyed. She goes to hug me but I quickly turn away from her, and then Amanda kind of rolls over the top of me, losing her towel and howling with laughter as she does so.
As soon as I hear the front door slam shut I get out of bed. I tear off the damp sheets and put them in the laundry basket along with the t-shirt I’ve been wearing to bed all week. The morning sun has already warmed the floorboards, and they feel good on my feet. The house is perfectly silent without Amanda, but it doesn’t feel empty. The mirror in the bathroom has steamed over, and there are towels dumped carelessly on the floor. There are two slices of uncooked bread sitting in the toaster, forgotten the moment it occurred to Amanda to take Brian out for breakfast. I tiptoe along to Amanda’s room and find that I am holding my breath, even though I know there is no-one else in the house. I turn the handle and push open the door, reaching in to turn off the light that Amanda has left switched on. Without thinking, I step in and close the door.
Slivers of light seep in through the closed blinds of Amanda’s room and there is a sweaty fug in the air that reminds me of bodies, heat and sex. Amanda’s doona is on the floor and her sheets are crumpled at the end of the mattress. Even in the scattered light I can see stains on the mattress, and a little pile of multi-coloured foil wrappers on her bedside table. I see one of Amanda’s bras on the back of her desk chair and hold it up to my bare chest. I watch myself in the full-length mirror but I look ridiculous wearing Amanda’s ornately stitched black bra, which I can’t even fill, and my own blue cotton undies. When I let the bra fall to the ground I notice the matching black panties, bunched and discarded on the ground. I leave the bra lying where it is but take the panties and leave the room quickly, taking care to switch the light back on before pulling the door closed behind me.
By the time Amanda and Brian return from the café I have showered and dressed and I am sitting on the couch in the living room. I can hear Amanda laughing even before she opens the front door and the low hum of Brian’s voice. I’m reading a book – A Heart So White – and although I think briefly about making a dash for my room and closing the door, I decide to stay in the living room and not even look up when they walk down the hall.
My eyes can’t help darting off the page so I see that Amanda has one hand inside the waistband of Brian’s jeans and that he is holding a white paper bag. Brian calls out to me and says he’s bought some macaroons, because Amanda said I liked them. Without looking up, I tell him to put them in the kitchen. I try to say it in a sort of distracted murmur but it comes out sounding clipped and anticipated. I can hear them kissing and I read the same phrase at least ten times – it’s always the chest of the other person we lean against for support – before I give up and close my book.
Her hands are all over him. Up his shirt, across his lean body, through his short brown hair, then back down one stubbly cheek. He is smiling, letting her paw him and occasionally kissing her forehead and hair. Amanda can go on like this indefinitely, but between his kisses Brian keeps looking at me and he starts to pull away from Amanda. I am making him uncomfortable. I can only imagine the sort of things he might say about me to Amanda when they are in bed together, or when he goes out with his friends. He probably thinks I am a bit strange, or perhaps that I lust after him. Or maybe he never says anything about me at all.
I get up and begin to hover about the kitchen, making a cup of tea and filling the sink to wash the dishes. The kitchen is too small for three, and Brian begins to ask Amanda about the party, about what time he and his friends should come over. As I let the dishwater scald my hands red I hear the faint disappointment in Amanda’s voice as she realises that Brian is not going to stay all day. After she says goodbye to him at the front door she storms back into the kitchen to blame me for his departure. So I make a cup of tea for Amanda too. She sits on the kitchen bench swinging her thin legs, grubby odd socks poking out the bottom of faded black jeans, and I know she doesn’t really mind. She rifles around in the paper bag and pulls out a green macaroon, which she bites in half before offering the rest to me – pistachio is my favourite. She tells me to leave the drying up for later, and asks me to go with her to the supermarket.
We drive to the supermarket in the old blue hatchback that used to be Nan’s before she died. It’s supposed to belong to both of us now, but I don’t drive, although that’s not because I’m afraid. The sunlight bounces brightly off the scratched CDs sitting on the dashboard, and Amanda begins to sing along to the radio as we turn out of our street. I feel a little anxious and when we arrive at the car park Amanda makes me get out and guide her as she reverses the car. The men who collect the trolleys are standing nearby and they stop what they are doing to laugh at us.
There was a time – not long after what happened with Warren– when I couldn’t be in a supermarket without crying. I would walk down the neat aisles, in the bright white lights, trying to get what I needed off the shelves as quickly as I could before I was overwhelmed by the ritual of buying the same ingredients for the same meals, week after week. It would have been easy to avoid the supermarket, or to buy different things, but I didn’t – I went in there to weep silently in front of strangers over a box of rolled oats.
Now I am calm in the supermarket, where there is something contagious about Amanda’s mood. She is excited about the party, and she seems thrilled to be here, shopping with me. She points out boxes of cereal or muesli bars that we used to have in our school lunches as kids on the farm and makes little jokes, making me feel much more urban and sophisticated now that we buy things like stuffed olives and sundried eggplant. It’s silly really but I feel that in her own roundabout way, Amanda is showing me how we have made a break with the past, but we are still sisters.
Amanda is the type of shopper who doesn’t have a list and goes up and down every single aisle. I’m happy to follow along, occasionally placing something in the trolley but mostly half-listening to her scattered conversation and joining in at times with her bursts of laughter. There’s nothing profound about it, but I realise that I am enjoying shopping with Amanda. When we get to the shelves where they stock the chips and snacks, Amanda stops the trolley dead in the middle of the aisle and grabs my arm suddenly – we have forgotten the avocados.
I tell her I will go back and get them. They will still be hard and green inside that evening when Amanda asks me to make guacamole, but I don’t mind. I’m not in a hurry and I’m feeling good so I take my time, weaving up and down the aisles instead of going directly to the fruit and vegetable section. I walk slowly, brushing my hands against long rows of shampoo bottles then listening to the slight crinkle as I run my fingertips across plastic bags full of pasta shells. I smile at a lady who is filling a shelf with cans of sliced beetroot.
There is a man in a brown leather jacket, with long curly hair and round glasses who I noticed before when I was walking around with Amanda. I’ve seen him in nearly all of the aisles I’ve been in, and for some reason he seems familiar. He doesn’t have a trolley or a basket, just a large packet of ground coffee in one hand. As I pass by I am filled with a sudden urge to look at him, to see what type of coffee he has, to look more carefully at his jacket and his glasses. I get closer and I realise that he looks like a younger version of one of Warren’s favourite authors. When we lived together Warren would tell me everything – everything about what he was reading, everything about what he was thinking. I find myself staring at this stranger in the supermarket, searching his face for something that can link him to the man in the black and white photos on the inside cover of Warren’s favourite books.
There is no way for me to know if he is following as I walk slowly on, no way to tell if he has noticed me too. Barely moving forward at all, I stop awkwardly at the stir-through sauces, scouring the back of the packets as if there might be something essential printed somewhere in the cooking instructions. I don’t dare look up. I feel him approaching. On the edge of my vision I see brown leather against bright white light but then he sweeps past me and all I see are the messy curls on the back of his head. I put the stroganoff sauce back on the shelf and begin to walk directly behind him, making sure my footsteps fall silently.
It’s like a game of cat and mouse that might be playing out in my head. He stops and fingers something, a jar of vegemite or a packet of crumpets, and then I’m forced to walk past at an even pace until I can stop a few metres down, taking peanut butter or wholemeal bread down from the shelf.
We are running out of aisles. There are maybe two more before I’ll be in front of the avocados, and then I will have to go back and find Amanda. He becomes bolder. While I am looking at a bag of almonds he stops right next to me and takes down some pecans. He doesn’t have his coffee anymore. I can smell him – it’s tobacco and a little bit of sweat, but not unpleasant. He puts the pecans back on the shelf and looks at me squarely. He smiles, not in a seductive way or a strange way but in a knowing way. It is his way of saying I know what you’re doing, I understand it. I almost drop the almonds because all of a sudden I am flustered and I walk off too quickly to the fruit and vegetable section. I try to pull a plastic bag free from the reel but it won’t come easily. I feel like everyone is watching me and I can feel the heat rising to my face.
My hands are shaking while I stuff the bag with avocados. I close my eyes for a moment and when I open them he is standing opposite me, smiling. His skin is pale and he has a dark beard that flows thickly down his neck and into his t-shirt. Behind his round, steel-rimmed glasses his eyes are small and dark. His hair parts more or less naturally in the middle of his head and hangs around his face in dense, dirty curls, trickling down toward his shoulders. I’m not blushing and my hands aren’t shaking. He keeps on smiling and I am almost smiling back but his right hand starts to move and it comes to rest on the fly of his jeans. His eyes are locked with mine and they are telling me to just wait, to just keep quiet. Then I see what he has in his hand and I think I cry out, but I quickly clap a hand over my mouth before dropping the bag of avocados onto the floor. He turns and leaves and I just stand there, hoping no-one has seen what has happened. I look around at the other shoppers but the man in the jacket is gone and I feel dizzy and all I want is to go home.
By the time I find Amanda she has passed through the checkouts and is rolling her eyes at me because I am making her late. She is on the phone to Brian as we walk back to the car and I know better than to try and tell her what happened so I keep perfectly silent and my sister doesn’t even notice. When we get home I tell her I’m not feeling well and I shut myself in my room. I spend the rest of the afternoon reading my book while Amanda fusses around the house, opening and closing the fridge door, dragging couches hard against the walls. With every loud noise I lose my place on the page and hate her a little more.
At around six thirty she bursts through my bedroom door holding her new black skirt and a hair straightener. She dumps them on my lap and goes out to the kitchen, returning straight away with a gin and tonic in each hand. I am doing my best to show her I am annoyed, but she either can’t see it or doesn’t care. She coaxes me over to my dresser, using the same cooing tone she did this morning when she got into my bed all wet and I drink silently and let her do what she wants. Amanda sings softly as she lays out her skirt and a white blouse of mine on the bed and begins to run the straightener through my hair. My hair isn’t dark and smooth like hers – it’s mousy and has a bit of a wave. I am still angry with her but it’s so soothing to have someone touch your hair. She does my eye make-up too, lengthening my eyelashes and coating them with mascara. My hair is framing my face and my eyes look sort of smoky. Amanda kisses the top of my head and says ‘You’re welcome’, then leaves my room, closing the door. I put on the skirt and blouse and look at myself in the mirror, turning my head this way and that. If I look beautiful it’s because I look like Amanda as much as it is possible. From under my bed I take Amanda’s bunched-up black panties and put them on, replacing my own.
For about an hour longer I stay by myself in my room, reading but also listening to the growing noise of the party. I hear several of Amanda’s friends and there are also male voices I don’t recognise. When I come into the living room I see that Amanda has completely transformed it. The table is covered in food and every other flat surface has a lit candle or a tea-light on it. Some of Amanda’s friends from where we grew up recognise me and smile, and I can see her new friends from work gathered around the small table where Amanda’s laptop is connected to the stereo.
Amanda is hanging onto Brian’s arm, and he is wearing a clean white shirt that clings tightly to the muscles on his arms. The front door to the house is open and people are coming in and out, leaving empty bottles on the porch and heading out to the street to smoke. There are people I don’t know sitting on the bed in Amanda’s room. I go into the kitchen to say hi to a girl I recognise from uni and while we are talking I catch Brian’s eye. He smiles and waves me over, and while Amanda places another gin and tonic in my hand, he introduces me to his friend Nathan.
Both Brian and Nathan are looking at me with the same kind of hungry eyes as the man in the supermarket. I am pleased at the attention from Nathan, who seems nervous but interested to meet me. It is obvious that Brian is trying to set me up with him, but there is something else in Brian’s behaviour that is a little odd – he keeps cutting Nathan off. He lingers for a while, saying things he thinks might make me laugh, until Amanda comes over and guides him away, leaving me in the corner with Nathan, who is talking about a film festival he went to in Spain.
Nathan has high cheekbones and a big nose. He isn’t ugly but he isn’t as handsome as Brian. He keeps blustering through stories that he thinks might interest me, and I think Brian must have told him that I read a lot. Nathan has a funny way of messing up the stories he tells, either giving too much information at the start, or not enough at the end, so that each time he finishes talking there is a slightly awkward pause before I smile or laugh or ask him a question. He speaks with his hands and his curls bounce when he gesticulates. A group of people rush past us through the hallway as two taxis stop in the street. Nathan pulls me back out of their way, letting his hand linger on the small of my back after they have gone. I’m standing close to him as he joins one story to another until Brian comes over to us with more drinks, finally interrupting the flow of Nathan’s telling and I give him my cup and excuse myself while I go to the toilet.
In the bathroom I sit down quickly and pull Amanda’s underwear down around my ankles. As I pee I shake them down off my feet and look at them, lying there on the floor. I think again about the supermarket, and wonder what would have happened if I had screamed. I could imagine the man with his leather jacket and dirty curls standing in my living room, drinking beer out of a can and laughing at Brian’s jokes. When I stand up and flush the toilet, I pick up Amanda’s panties and instead of putting them back on, I open the bathroom window and throw them out into the garden.
When I come back from the bathroom I see that the living room is already mostly empty, and that people are sitting on the couches in small groups and there isn’t anyone out the front anymore. I realise that I must have been talking with Nathan for quite a while. I sit down on the couch next to him, and he seems relieved to hand back my drink so he can use his hands to talk with Brian. Nathan looks at me and says that it is a choice, that to fall in love is the decision to share everything completely with someone else. He calls it willing abandonment, but even though I’ve only just met him it doesn’t seem like Nathan talking, it’s like he’s repeating something he’s read or heard in a song, but no-one else seems to notice. And then Brian begins to speak, in the same strange way. His voice is strong and clear and he looks at all of us when he says that we only truly fall in love with someone once, early in our adult lives. He says that we keep on searching for that same person, even though all we can find are lesser versions of them, until finally we just give up and settle for what we have. There is a silence, and both Nathan and Brian nod into their beers, then drink from them.
Amanda has been hovering on the edge of the conversation, one hand on the back of Brian’s neck. She begins to speak and her mouth is twisted ugly with scorn. She is slurring, almost spitting on Brian and Nathan, saying that what they call love is just a desperate scramble that happens when people pair off because it’s easier than being alone or because they’re in the same place at the same time. I finish my gin and tonic and I have to watch Amanda’s mouth closely to understand what she’s saying. Her voice is barely a whisper as she says that you’d have to be an idiot to think that there is anyone out there who will love you for any other reason than the fact that you’ll promise to love them back. She gets up and stumbles in her high heels and Brian catches her and tries to lead her out of the room. They begin to yell at each other as they tussle down the hallway and into Amanda’s room, where the door slams and the yelling gives way, after a while, to a loud and physical reconciliation.
Most of the candles have burnt out and when the music comes to the end of the playlist the last of the guests has left and it is just Nathan and I sitting on the couch, empty glasses in our hands. He helps me clear away the plastic cups and beer bottles and when everything is done, he lingers hesitantly in our living room. I get a blanket from the cupboard in the hall and tell him he can stay on the couch if he wants, and he looks at me, unsure where this leaves us. I turn out the lights and walk down the hall to my room, but I feel Nathan’s eyes following me, and then I hear his footsteps.
When I reach my doorway I turn around and face him. He steps towards me, putting his hands on my hips. I think he is going to kiss me, but he just leans in close. He whispers in my ear and at the same time runs his hands down my thighs. He tells me that Brian has told him everything and that he understands. He tells me to take a chance. As he places his hands underneath the fabric of my skirt and slides them upwards I do nothing to stop him. When he discovers I’m not wearing any underwear he breathes out sharply, and he hikes the skirt up around my waist and I am naked.
I push him away gently and step back into my room, closing the door. It isn’t about Nathan, or Brian, or even Warren, and that’s when I realise that it will be fine if there isn’t anybody at all for a very long time. I undress by the window, leaving the curtains open so that the sun will wake me in the morning, and fall into bed. There are still no sheets, but that doesn’t matter. I take my book from on top of the pillow and throw it across the room. As I lie there waiting for sleep, I hear Nathan’s footsteps disappearing down the hallway and I close my eyes and don’t think about anything at all.