A pile of rumpled clothes, a damp smell, the room signals heartache or, at the very least, regret. Carly stretches a lazy arm out of bed towards the bottle – misses. Tries again, this time just catching it. She takes a greedy gulp, wine dribbling down her chin, and savours the last of the velvet drop.
She blows her nose, sighs and sits up, places the mementos in her lap. She thinks of setting fire to them: a crinkled map from their first trip east; the pegs and string from a secret campsite; the rusty nail they pulled out of her foot; a twist tie from an early gift, everything saved and bundled. And for what?
The nail winks in her palm. How easy it is to pierce the skin, to let the inside seep out. Taryn drove her straight to the clinic that time and held her hand as the nurse prepped the sharp needle. It won’t hurt love, just don’t look, she’d said.
The phone’s answered by a familiar voice.
Lou’s Pizza, you’re speaking with Matt.
Oh hey Matt, it’s Carly from Simmons Street.
Hey Car! What’s up?
Not much, mate. Can I get half Hawaiian, half Seafood Supreme?
Taryn was a vegetarian so Carly could never order what she really wanted; freshly caught snapper, crayfish, oysters. It wasn’t a big deal though. She liked that Taryn cared about living things: rock wallabies, orange wattle, bluegrass, all of it.
They’d met at Callum’s birthday party, got drunk, went home together. Carly had thought it was casual and then, all of a sudden, they were celebrating their two year anniversary. Packing the van full of camping gear and two-minute noodles (Taryn also insisting on apples and cashews and crackers) off they sped towards Adelaide.
They slept in sleeping bags on the side of the road and when it got cold Carly crawled in with Taryn who stroked her hair, untangling the golden strands under the moon.
When the sun rose, Taryn made instant coffee on the gas cooker.
Car, want some? she asked.
Mmm, Carly wriggled out of her sleeping bag and traded a kiss for a chipped mug. Like a tabby, she stretched out in the sun, idle – and happy. Her lover flipped through campaign files, scribbled notes, made lists.
No rest for the wicked, she joked.
They spent three days driving, stopping, camping. Carly was good company on the road, keeping her lover awake with stories about her family, old flames, odd jobs, whatever happened to pop into her head. She picked CDs and passed the water bottle across the gear stick, and reminded Taryn to Stop Revive Survive. For her part, Taryn covered hundreds of kilometres of flat, monotonous road.
Carly was happy or thought she was and didn’t those two things amount to the same thing? She felt calm and light, the sun warming her neck and bare shoulder through the half-open window.
Joni Mitchell’s husky voice enveloped the two lovers, promising something big, maybe, if they were lucky.
Carly stubs her toe on the way back from the bathroom. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Hopping and cursing, she rummages in her dresser for a Band-Aid, finding instead Taryn’s lipstick. Fuck. She pulls the cap off and paints her lips mauve, remembering how she loved the colour on Taryn, the pale purple radiant against brown skin. A quick glance in the mirror reveals an imposter.
Her big toe bleeds freely. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she paints patterns with her toenail on the hardwood floor. Up, down, across, little flecks of red. Normally she hates the sight of blood, but tonight she is a masochistic drunk. She wonders, What am I doing here? What the hell am I doing?
They were at a neighbour’s barbeque two weeks ago. The Chins were celebrating their new status as Australian citizens and invited the whole street round. Mrs Chin served sweet and sour pork, noodles and little parcels wrapped in bamboo she called Zongzi. Her husband and another neighbour, Dave, the local bailiff, were getting the barby going.
Taryn and Carly had wandered off from the two dozen or so people, and stood in the corner of the yard.
But, what do you like? Taryn continued.
Lazing about in the sun, the ol’ gumtree, comedies.
Somethin that will pay?
The café job suits me.
And twenty years from now?
They’d had this conversation many times before. Carly thought same old story and stalked off towards the esky for another beer. So what if I’m not ambitious? she thought, so what?
Carly’s mother had taught her daughter that life was tough; there are no freebies, darling, not in my books, she’d say. From a young age Carly cleaned tables and counted change. She liked many of her regulars. There was the young woman with her septum pierced; she always ordered a bowl of pasta with ‘double sauce’ and left a small tip. And the silent husband and wife who sat at the same outdoor table every Saturday morning, reading thrillers over big breakfasts, two wiry terriers dozing at their feet.
There was the tired-looking mother with two cross-eyed girls who shared a strawberry shake. As soon as they sat down, Carly would bring over colouring pencils and paper to give their mum a well-deserved break. The owner was a decent lady too and, after close, Carly and Martha would sit on the back steps and share a ciggie, both women trying desperately to quit already. Martha had bruises on her arms and confided that she thought of leaving her mad bastard of a husband. Carly hoped to God she would.
The waitress had a smile for everyone and the customers at Martha’s Coffee Shoppe responded to her. There’s something really special about you, they’d say. And, sometimes, they’d even leave a tip.
Carly wipes her nose on her sleeve and looks out the window. It’s starting to cool down a little, the sky turning a brilliant orange. She pulls the sheets from her bed and, using the saved pegs, the camping
souvenirs, makes a cubby house under the desk. Kicking the wastepaper basket out of the way with her good foot, she throws her floor cushions in and nestles close to the wall. It’s cool and cosy.
Occasionally, she emerges for another slug of wine. Wonders where the pizza’s at. She picks at her orange nail polish, traces the veins on her arm, pinches herself, grows bored. Can’t think or rest, her brain a swamp where everything is lost. She drinks some more.
You have amazin nipples, Carly.
They’re very sensitive.
Yes I know! Taryn had said as she pinched the little raspberries. Carly didn’t mind sex. She thought of it simply as something couples did – like watering the plants or buying the weekly groceries; a normal though tedious part of their routine. She liked the feeling of closeness that sex brought, though that
too could be accomplished in other ways.
You’re never in the mood, Carly.
Can we talk ‘bout it?
What can I say?
Tell me what you’re thinkin, Car.
Carly opted to simply give in rather than have this conversation again. For what could she say anyway, that would make sense? She smiled and kissed Taryn on the mouth, and pulled her lover’s faded singlet over her head. We’re on, she thought.
Her lover wondered whether it was the medication.
Afterwards they sat on the front porch in the shade of the gum, drinking Coopers and staring straight ahead, black cockatoos screeching and looping on Julia’s lawn.
I’m scared of been shut out, Carly.
Am I shutting you out?
Not on purpose. But I don’t know what you thinking or feeling ‘alf the time.
Carly picked at the itchy scab on her elbow.
Did you hear me? asked Taryn.
The cockatoos seemed to be laughing at her. Carly slid down onto the dusty floor. Her lover opened two more beers, handed Carly one. She picked a twig out of Carly’s hair and flicked it over the
Carly sighed, closed her eyes. She remembered sitting on the porch of her mum’s weatherboard home, drinking lemonade and making vegemite worms with SAOs. One summer her big sister Beth got a bike for Christmas and did wheelies in the drive, laughing, showing off; then, suddenly, she flew backwards, came off the darn thing, her arm catching under the yellow handlebars. Carly howled for
her mama to come quick and jumped down the stairs two at a time to reach Beth.They must have been eight and ten then, the summer before dad left town.
Taryn slid down to the floor and wrapped her brown arms around Carly. They stayed like that as the plum-sky darkened, watching the neighbours hurry past on their way home.
The Lambert kids ran past, kicking their new ball and hollering, the younger ones not standing a chance against the older boys. Carly wanted badly to join them. Mike Lambert was fast as lightening.
The sweat gathered under her knees, a reminder that summer was long from over. She felt strangely sad, sitting like that, Taryn’s arms around her.
Carly finds another bottle of red and takes it upstairs to her room. She pairs it with a Xanax and gradually finds herself looking through frosted glass. It’s a welcome sensation, everything out of focus; her quilt, the corner of her desk, the art deco lamp she inherited from her gran. Everything softened. Carly turns on the lamp and flops down on her bed. The ceiling rose signifies something, though Carly in her state can’t think what, though she knows it’s important.
When they broke up, Taryn asked her if she would have done anything differently.
Do you mean have I learnt any lessons? she asked.
Taryn said, no, forget I said anything.
Carly thought, how dare you.
In July, Carly was rocked by bad dreams. She was stirring a pot of noodles that slowly wove themselves into human skeletons – rib cages, gangly arms and legs. She put the metal colander in the sink and gently drained the human bodies, instinctively recognising her lover’s shape. Carly separated this skeleton from the rest and laid it out carefully on the marble bench. She made a little coffin out of
Tupperware, lining it with paper towel in lieu of satin and placed her lover inside. She knew she should say a few words. But, what? Nothing came to mind.
I think I loved her. But not in the way either of us wanted. Still, there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do for her. I will miss…already miss her wavy hair and crooked teeth. I’m sorry she’s gone. She deserved so much better.
Eulogy over, Carly closed the plastic lid and placed the coffin gently under the sink, next to the others. There was Mira and Maddy and Stace. All of them, dead before their time.
Carly gets up to wee and glances at her puffy face in the hallway mirror. Why is she upset now? She couldn’t summon a nugget of emotion but grinned like an idiot as Taryn enumerated the things that were ‘wrong’ with their relationship. She said ‘wrong’ in inverted commas as if there was no ‘right’ or
‘wrong’ though of course there was, for if there wasn’t, why was Taryn leaving?
On Thursday morning, Martha rang Carly.
Hey Car, it’s Martha, do me a favour?
You need me to come in today?
If you don’t mind, love? I’m not feeling up to it…
Is everything OK?
What’s Jim done now?
I got a black eye, Car.
Shit, Martha. I’m coming to grab the keys.
Carly was reminded of her own once-bruised-skin. How hard it was to leave.
Carly spreads out the map of Western Australia on her bedroom floor, smoothing out the corners. It had been her job to navigate when Taryn drove. Left, right, left…the other left. Turn, no not yet. Now. She still needed to rotate the map this way and that, but they rarely got lost these days. Tracing the route of their last trip east, Carly starts to cry.
Not in today, Jim.
Carly was weaving through the tables with a handful of salt and pepper shakers.
Where the hell is she?
Jim picked up supplies for the café: flowers, laundered tablecloths, that sort of thing. Carly wished he would bugger off. Why did Jim have to throw his weight around here?
What a bludger, ha-ha-ha.
Jim, do you want to order something?
Nah, thanks Carly.
I’ll tell Martha you called. Carly turned her back on Jim and strode back inside to polish the glasses.
The sky crackles and pops like rice bubbles when you add milk. Is that an odd thing to say? Carly wonders. She loves the sound of thunder.
She had sat in the passenger seat biting her nails to little stubs. Wearing a sensible shift and leather sandals, she had a basket of cherries in her lap. From everything she’d gleaned, Taryn’s mum, Leslie, sounded all right, a gentle hippie-turned-teacher living in Bunbury. It was where Taryn and her three sisters had grown up, they’d found jobs there, settled down for good.
Leslie was standing on the sagging porch, waving hello. Taryn called out and Carly
It’s nice to meet you, love. I’ve heard so much about you. Leslie smiled.
Lovely to meet you, too…these are for you. We picked them in Donnybrook.
Thank you, darlings. Just look at these plump little beauties, will you?
Leslie seemed genuinely pleased with the offering, as if no one had ever been so
thoughtful or generous.
After unpacking, the three of them carried out the casserole, salads and drinks to the front porch. Taryn lit a citronella candle in the centre of the much loved, pockmarked table.
Ma, do you remember the time the power went off when we were kids? We lit candles and I knocked one down and set Em’s room on fire?
How could I forget?
Carly – Taryn wasn’t allowed to touch matches for a year after that. No candles, cooking, no campfires.
They were so comfortable with each other, mother and daughter. Both women had an easy-going manner, neither held back. Like open books. Leslie was a great listener and sympathiser, someone you’d want on your team. Carly imagined her beating up schoolboys who dared tease her little girl…
Taryn tells me you paint. Leslie’s blue-grey eyes landed on Carly.
Carly laughed. Hardly.
What do you paint, dear?
Do you paint people you know?
Sometimes. Carly looked at her nails.
You know, dear, I used to paint a little before the kids came along…
Carly strained to smile and listen, the wine muddling her good sense. After her third or fourth glass, she stopped caring about making a good impression, took her shoes off and contributed little to the conversation.
What the hell’s wrong with you?
What do you mean what?
You barely said anythin at dinner. Mum was tryin to talk to you and you gave her nothin. Absolutely nothin, mate.
Leslie had given the girls a pretty ceramic bowl of cherries to take up to their room and Carly’s fingers were stained red.
I’m sorry, Taryn. I was nervous and I drank and I fucked up.
What’s new, then?
They fucked and made up, the radio turned up for a little privacy. Taryn came twice. Rolling over, she brushed Carly’s fringe out of her eyes and smiled. Her lover tried to smile back.
Afterwards, Carly hopped up and unlatched the window, the sound of cicadas and rustling leaves washing over her bare skin. Looking around at the faded posters of Tori Amos, the dusty CDs, the lumpy sports gear, Carly felt a twinge of loss. She loved this teenage girl’s bedroom, this happy childhood.
Finally it rains.
In primary school, Carly’s best friend lived a few streets down. Kim was a freckly, frizzy-haired thing, well liked by kids and teachers. The two girls were inseparable, playing dress-ups on weekends, setting up lemonade stalls in the drive, going to netball practice together. Carly loved afternoons at Kim’s place, especially when it was hot; they’d lie on their backs on the kitchen tiles, sucking on frozen peas to keep cool.
One afternoon, they found a stack of mags, Girlfriend and Dolly and Cosmopolitan, in the house. Giggling over sex tips and love advice, the girls read articles with titles like 6 Naughty Bedroom Games He’ll Love. 8 Good Reasons to Sleep with Him. 10 Things Women Do that Turn Men Off.
There was an article about lesbians and they both agreed lesbians were gross. Thank god, they weren’t like that. Unfortunately, Carly discovered that she was like that. And Kim did not
want to be friends anymore.
You have the hots for me, Kim had said.
I do not.
Look, my second cousin is a dyke and I got nothing against that. But we can’t be friends, OK?
Carly pretended to like boys for a very long time and then, in the end, didn’t like anyone much.
Carly pulls the curtain aside and looks out the window. She'll talk to Martha about leaving Jim, again. There’s a refuge not far from town, she’ll make enquiries tomorrow.
Two days ago, Taryn was sitting on the edge of the bed, fumbling through a break up Carly knew was coming, in the way that gulls can predict a storm.
It’s not workin out, she said. I think you feel the same way, Car.
I don’t know what to say.
Tell me you want me to stay, mate.
I can’t convince you of my worth.
Carly, I don’t know what in God’s name I’m doin here. I don’t know how you feel about me, what you want, what you think this is. Even after two years, I don’t have a goddamn clue what I mean to you.
Did you hear me, Carly?
I don’t know what to say, sighed Carly. Her fingernails were chewed to little half-moons, eyes dry as the desert.
She said, you can come back if you change your mind.
What the hell does that mean, Car? Do people normally come back for more?
Fuck, Taryn. That’s exactly what I meant. People can’t get enough of this!
Please sit down. Taryn sweeps her arm around the room, let’s not end it like this.
But they do, of course. The whole time Carly feels nothing but weary. So long then, she thinks. Just go, she begs silently. Leave me alone. She says, I’m sorry it didn’t work out and holds open the door.
The doorbell rings. Carly throws her box of mementos in the bin and hurries down the stairs. The delivery boy is young and cheerful. Carly thinks of inviting him in. What would be the harm in that? She’d pour him some wine or crack open the beers. Delivery boys dream about this happening all the time, don’t they?
Instead, she says thank you and gives him a twenty.
Keep the change, she says. Have a nice night.
Carly sits on the front porch under the old gum and watches the boy ride away to his next delivery, or back to Lou’s. She listens to the black cockatoos fly overhead, her favourite mug filled with wine, pizza box leaving greasy flowers on her dress. She’s beyond caring about stains and spills or what the neighbours think.
Her mind drifts from Taryn to Martha then back to Taryn. She picks up another slice. The stringy cheese stretches her away from here, away from adult cares. She sighs and takes another slug.
Tanya Vavilova works with university students from all walks of life as a case manager and program coordinator. She is currently studying creative writing at the University of Technology Sydney. Her bedside table is forever stacked with true crime, memoir and novels about middle-class loners. She has been published in Seizure Online, Archer and Nerve.
You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org