Psychosexual thriller | Neilma Sidney Prize, runner-up

The Mexican dream went something like this: Talia’s dad is dead, and what’s less like a dead dad than Pina Coladas on the beach, maybe some Mayan ruins, some of the less morbid ones. It was supposed to be just me and Maggie but we needed to get her out of it, her shredded family, the eulogies suggested by every park and school and supermarket. The whole city full of so sorry with Talia in the middle, sitting cross-legged on the kitchen bench among the funeral programs and the flowers, gorging herself on cheeses sent by the sympathetic. There were so many flowers. Rich family friends had decked the house out like a Vogue luncheon, which was wildly inconsiderate considering, Talia said, flowers died. But the food was worse, because it had to be eaten before it rotted, and there was so much of it. She said she felt like a decomposition machine, all the cheese heaving in her guts. Every time someone said I’m so sorry she’d say I’m so constipated.



He got ready too early that night and had to idle on the internet until it was time to leave. There was no point being early because Annabel would be late. He was nervous, and violence glittered at the peripheries of thought. He sort of wished she’d chosen some guy over him so they could punch it out, but she’d picked Maggie instead and that was different kind of threat. Couldn’t be reduced to duel on the plains, a hunting instinct, a fitness test. A threat like a spider. That’s how Maggie looked at him when they bumped into each other at parties, in the two seconds of eye contact involved in that hello, hello. He never knew how much she knew. Probably enough.  He once heard a friend describe sex as like clearing a moose out of a tunnel. He understood the joke to mean it was baffling, in general, but he couldn’t help wandering to the literal, looking at himself in the mirror and seeing a priapic monster, furred and horned, red and white, pickled with freckles and acne scars.

It was joyless, maybe because she was leaving or maybe because they were both thinking about Maggie. All the vigour drained out of him two minutes in and even more so as she said, demanding, not an invitation, harder, she said it over and over and he said, after a while, I might be able to go a bit harder if you’d just stop telling me to.



There was a pirate ship on the horizon. The white resorts had outlines like lego buildings, glowing pink and orange in the sun. Maggie sat on a wicker beach chair. She nursed her mezcal with a surly look, like a toddler at the end of a sugar run. Talia sat two meters in front like a chaperone, staring vacantly at the bodies walking the plank. We could see the colours of their novelty drinks from a hundred meters away. Men passed – pink-skinned midwesterners, businessmen like sea birds, ingrown and outsized, bar-workers and waiters, all looking at us in that cursory manner, lifting us up and dropping us down in the substrate of their pupils, sifting through frizzy hair, damp clothes, weighing the breasts and thighs, asking themselves which one. I would have minded at home but I didn’t here. Maggie made me the butch, shooting drinks she couldn’t fit into her stomach, always having to soothe her about the cockroaches and the open sewage. I was a rough girl a ripper a good time, hello boys, hola hombres, no hablo espanol. Talia held every man’s gaze like she had her hand on his jaw, applying light pressure, threatening like the flash of a butter knife, the way pretty girls are never threatening until they crack it.



Maggie didn’t like Talia from the first time she saw her in Annabel’s living room, splayed out in front of the gas heater. She was close enough to the metal grill that her cardigan gave off an unhealthy smell, like plastic burning. She spoke very loudly over everybody else, which Maggie hated, since it bowled through the complex metrics of attention-seeking that made an evening worthwhile. Talia was dressed in clashing second-hand clothes, as if there was still any cache in throwing things together that other people had discarded, like it was impressive to mix and match the synthetic stain-resistant vagaries of fucking polycotton. She diagnosed her as one of those terrible cool girls and was ready to ignore her until Annabel said, this is my best friend in the whole world, Talia, and Talia this is the woman of my dreams, and from then on she was clinically pleasant in order to continue being the woman of Annabel’s dreams.



Things had started to stick out at him from the arbitrium of the news cycle. There was the obvious sexy death stuff, paedophiles and car crashes, celebrity suicide, rugby scandal, but his eyes kept sticking to unfamiliar headlines —




He read the articles without taking them in. He flicked through photo albums on his desktop and found himself staring at the same picture every time: of Maggie, sitting in an armchair, her posture rigid like a dancer. Annabel was speaking to someone else, angled so that she could watch Maggie from the corner of her eye, a posture he recognised as his own, looking at her.



Nobody wanted to go to the secret convent but Maggie insisted. She’d had a stewing fascination for nuns since their departure, coming to her in a dream texture on the flight while she read the Lonely Planet guidebook, flickers of incorruptible bodies, rosaries, crackling parchment and vellum.

Annabel moaned about it from the door of the house all through the taxi ride, oddly in tune with the jangling grupera on the radio. The convent was special, Maggie explained. These were women choosing a life of the mind and spirit over marriage and endless childbirth, who conquered the body to secure the sanctity of the soul. Annabel said I know but I’m kinda full up on god stuff. Talia sat in silence, staring out the window.

It looked like nothing from the outside, a shabby building on a well-swept street, but through the doors was a courtyard glutted with roses and fountains, fringed by the grand arcs of cloisters. They were quiet as they walked through the corridors. Maggie tried hard to feel out the ghostly presences, any spirits still claustrated, sparks of ectoplasm or patches of warm air. She’d dreamed of them streaming in their black and whites through the halls and over the cool stone. She took pictures on her phone of the dark larders, the black wooden shelves on the white walls, the yellow cups, imagining the whole time the patter of feet, the sound of self-flagellation at night, the smell of the barbed thigh bracelets sifting under the skin on a hot day, small hands scoured with lysol, scalding water, the scuttling of mice, quiet prayers whispered like fever nonsense, the thin white linen of bathing dresses, lively bodies succumbing to the passage of years. All this living, folded in on itself, secret existences hidden in the bright folds of the city. And under everything the pungent note of decomposition, the rot of the heat of the tropics.

She stood for a long time in the dining hall, converted to a museum that showcased little bits of needlework and petrified hearts. She stared into the dead face of a Madonna in oils, floating on a bed of rose petals.

Pretty gay, isn’t it, said Annabel over her shoulder.

It’s beautiful, Maggie said. The ritualised suffering. Nobody makes a ritual of suffering anymore. We just pretend we’re enjoying ourselves.

Why would you, Talia said flatly, staring at an enormous pastoral of lambs dressed in habits. Suffer on purpose.

Well, if you’re a nineteenth-century nun, to get away from men, Maggie said.

Pretty sure God’s a man, said Talia, yawning. And what’s the difference between suffering for men and suffering for Jesus.

The difference was they believed in something bigger than themselves, said Maggie.

They were masochists, said Annabel. They’d have to be.



Maggie woke up stuck by her own sweat to the sheets. Talia loomed over her, brushing her teeth, the foam at her mouth threatening to fall. Hello, Maggie said. Talia spat precisely into an empty coffee cup. Sorry I’m in your room, she said, but Annabel’s in the bathroom and there’s no mirror in mine, plus I stepped on my lube in the dark last night and it exploded on the floor, which made my room a low key death trap since it turns out lube is kind of difficult to get off tiles.

That’s fine, said Maggie.

We’re going to see the cathedral today. It got five stars on Trip Advisor which is even more than that tomb we liked.

Okay, said Maggie.

She was too tired for the grandiose architecture, big vaults in the sky and tortured gold, the uniform serenity of the Maria. Talia was regal in chiffon and lace and yellow silk, a thriftstore find, safety-pinned together where the fabric had worn through. Maggie didn’t quite get it, still, what people found so compelling about her. But then, she thought, nascent feminist principles reasserting themselves, the girl couldn’t help being looked at. She just didn’t have to like it so much.




The ruins were great bowls cut into the mountaintop and fortified with limestone, terraces and mounds, shuddering in the eye of the heat. We waited for the guide with a guy called Hans who looked like an amalgam of every backpacker in the universe. Talia’s eyes zipped up and down his sweaty biceps like she was scanning a barcode.

The guide arrived in a sensible broad-brimmed hat and red crocs. He directed us to a line of stone reliefs in the shadow of the steppes.

These are the Danzantes, he said. When the Spanish found them, they thought they were dancers.

They look unhappy, said Hans.

We know now these were prisoners of war. They are being tortured. This one — the guide pointed at the twisted face of a carving — has been genitally mutilated.

Maggie peered at the genitals with a little frown. How have they been —

Is that one giving birth? Talia said, pointing at one of the carvings.

Yes, said the guide. But she is also dead.

Oh, said Talia. Well, that’s very interesting.

With a coy jangle of the pesos in her jacket pocket, as if it was natural, she reached out to touch Hans’ shoulder, threat awareness playing out on his face like spasm.



At Talia’s instruction, we were drunk and on the way to Hans’ hostel. Maggie was dancing, spinning on the cobbles of the street. I tried to make a joke about the Dazantes and mutilated genitals but she couldn’t hear. I looked at her hands and her hair, the pick-up-sticks interruptions of collarbone, shoulderbone, ribcage. Maggie, charming, precocious in that pejorative way, chewing her nails and putting up her hand in the classroom. Maggie put her hand up in all the classrooms of the world. She looked brittle like her bones would crack apart, like a little cooked chicken. I wanted to lick each one of her bottom teeth, tiny teeth, and the pointy end of her tongue. I looked and looked and I couldn’t remember a word she’d ever said, the conversations of a year dropping away like rain sounds. Maggie like the blood-slick feeling at the back of your throat from sickness or smoking. The thing about Maggie, the thing about Maggie is.

Maggie is a worthwhile girl. Maggie my friend as in how’s your friend? with the tremor of decorum. Maggie Maggie Maggie, dancing on the cobblestones, somebody else’s dreamboat.



Bodies thudded together on the roof of the hostel. Maggie and Talia sat with too-sweet margaritas across the table from a Californian surfer. He had a slack face, burly arms and chest, so over-muscled that his body parts were queerly interchangeable.

You are all LA, baby, he said to Talia. Maggie looked at her incredulously.

Wow, said Talia. I feel like the belle of the ball. Then she mime-gagged. So American! she said, and Maggie laughed. The overtures of straight flirting always sounded like they were cobbled together by Hollywood writing teams, balding men going through divorces with Jans and Alisons. Maggie had expected Talia to be more easily charmed, but Talia was uncharmable, maybe because she had always already made up her mind.

So what do you girls do, the surfer asked. Maggie felt an urgency, a dart passing through her, mercurial and horrifying. I go to the bathroom, she said. That’s mostly what I do here. Excuse me, you’ll be fine, won’t you? Talia gave her a quick look, conspiratorial. I’ll be fine, baby, she said.

I’m always fine.

The bathroom lights were at an odd angle so that, in the mirror, only Maggie’s head was illuminated, her face like a ball of wax propped up by magic. She threw herself into a cubicle and voided her bowels to the sound of somebody spewing, feeling, for the first time during the whole trip, a sense of human community. When she emerged, she found Annabel swaying over a plastic basin. You have to come meet this ridiculous man, she said, I think Talia is going to sleep with him. That girl, said Annabel, fixing herself an unsteady look in the mirror, is a sex martyr.

The surfer was unimpressed by their return. What brought three pretty girls to Mexico? he asked, staring steadfastly at Talia.

Talia stared back and said, well, we’re here because my dad died and everybody sent a lot of cheese and I got really constipated. And we thought, you know what’d fix that? Mexico.

The silence extended beyond the four of them and muffled the whole city. Wow, the surfer said, raising his eyebrows. You girls are really something.

Oh yeah, said Talia, a couple of dykes and a dead dad, we’re a Freudian nightmare. Then she raised one darkly-lined eyebrow at Maggie and grinned, like a tomcat.

A couple of what? he said. Lesbians, Annabel yelled, and wrenched Maggie off her seat onto the dance floor. Leave her to it, she said. She’ll be fine.

They kissed and kept kissing. Maggie remembered that kissing Annabel was good and didn’t notice until Annabel pulled away that a girl was laughing at them, swatting her on the shoulder, saying something in Spanish she couldn’t make out. Annabel laughed. She’s asking why don’t you use the mens’ toilet, if you want to be a man so much. Maggie looked at Annabel, her eyeliner wilted in the heat, a cheap mojito swilling in her grip, and couldn’t tell if she was joking.

That’s a very good question! she yelled at the girl’s retreating back.

Let’s go home, Annabel said.



If he was there, they would go to the desert. They would visit remote tequila bars. He would charm the locals with his rudimentary Spanish. No museums, no tourist traps; they would learn to salsa on the cobblestones of the soccalo. Not in the moonlight because that was dangerous. Or, in the moonlight, and they would be mugged on their way home, but he would remain calm and collected throughout, would de-escalate the situation, and afterwards he would wipe the tears from Annabel’s cheeks and kiss her neck. He would fuck her in an alleyway while stray dogs watched. She would fall in love with him and he would let her down gently somewhere over the Caribbean. Maggie, in this scenario, was dead or had never existed.



Talia didn’t really get it herself, what she wanted from these men, what kind of chlamydiascented love affair could soak it all up, pull out the string of barbs that lined her body now. She felt like the climax of her life had disappeared, like there was no romance and no resolution to be had, like whatever was supposed to happen to her had happened before she was born. The frequency she commanded in a room spelled out nobody help me and nobody did. What difference did it make if a man made love to her on a beach as the sun rose and a second man stole her wallet, if a man put a key under her nostril if a man stroked her hair if a man said I like your accent if a man said te amo which worked because he didn’t mean it and to her they were toy words. She needed every single one of them which meant she didn’t need any of them, and nobody understood that was what made her powerful.


Annabel kissed Maggie’s hipbones in the blue light of the room, palms flickering against the blinds. Maggie could make out Talia’s matter-of-fact voice as she packed her overnight bag in the next room, DON’T WORRY I DEFINITELY CAN’T HEAR YOU BYE GUYS SEE YOU TOMORROW PROMISE I’LL BE FINE! the door banging shut behind her. I’ll be fine rang in Maggie’s head like a chant. Valiant Talia, sex martyr, real martyr, Talia who didn’t believe in suffering. I’ll be fine, she said it over and over in her head until it was overpowered by the sluice of vivid half-images that always arrived as she came, like fast-forwarding through a dream — the holy virgin, beata in their ecstasies, the dead stone faces of the dancers, I’ll be fine, a chiffon dress, waves dashing again and again against the rocks to prove they were made of a stronger kind of thing.


Image: Teatro Principal, Puebla / flickr




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Ursula Robinson-Shaw

Ursula Robinson-Shaw is a writer from Aotearoa, living in Narrm/Melbourne. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne and co-director of sick leave, a reading series and journal. Her chapbook Noonday was published by Puncher & Wattmann in 2019.

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