The first time I lay eyes on Charlie is at a small bookshop in Newtown. I have just finished a reading from my work on sex and intimacy before a small, and blessedly friendly crowd. Behind the lectern we, the writers, were shy, unapologetic, a little awkward; but now, freed from our engagement, relieved of our nervousness, served alcohol, we are chatty, approachable.
Charlie tells me they’ve recently started taking testosterone treatments. I look at their bushy, light brown hair and bright smile, their plain clothes. They are sparkly and confident, magnetic. They are talking to me, but I am no longer capable of listening; I am doing backstroke in their twinkly eyes, my arms and legs splashing, soaking the bookstore floor. Everything is iridescent. I prop myself up on their eyelid and flick water out of my hair.
The next morning a friend texts to congratulate me on my reading and adds, Any groupies? The person you were talking to when I left was pretty cute.
The last rays of sunshine bounce off the harbour while people hurry between talks and bars, holding disposable coffee cups and tote bags full of books. It’s the last day of the Festival. I bump into Charlie, which seems inevitable, predestined. Not that I believe in such things, but still. They are wearing baggy jeans and a white t-shirt, dressed plainly again, but nothing about them seems ordinary.
Charlie pulls up some extra canvas deck chairs so we can all fit by the water’s edge. This impresses me a great deal. I am helpless in situations that require me to lift, carry, fix. I look at the ground or stand to the side, hoping someone else will take charge.
While I lean forward anxiously in the deck chair and cross my thin, bare legs, Charlie leans back, slouches, spreads out on the stripy canvas. They are not much bigger than me. But they know how to occupy space.
Friends, writers, editors, publishers stop to chat. After a long conversation with an ex-flatmate, I lean across Charlie and squeeze their knee. I would never do this normally. ‘Sorry,’ I say, ‘that must have been really boring for you.’ Soon after, Charlie drops the words ‘my girlfriend’ into the conversation. The words get stuck in their mouth. And the girlfriend is never mentioned again.
I start spending more time with Leonie from my writing class. She wears tailored trousers and black blazers and long, dangly pendants, and has short, grey-flecked hair. I think her stories are funny and exceedingly clever; they are also very, very smutty.
One day, Leonie has a spare ticket to see an experimental film as part of the Festival of Visual Story Telling. We go out for dinner in Elizabeth Bay; she seems nervous, unsettled, which makes me inexplicably calm. I admire her emerald satin jacket, which she tells me is a designer knockoff, a label I haven’t heard of, but I praise her jacket nonetheless.
At the Opera House, the live film score drills into my skull, and the sound seems to be coming from inside my head. We are watching George Lucas’s early film THX 1138 – about a dystopian future where the population is controlled by drugs that suppress emotion and sexual desire. I become afraid that I already occupy this world.
Leonie has connections – she is somebody who knows everybody – and so we are given stick-on nametags and invited to the green room. There, Leonie talks to Matt Groening about art and animation. I can’t follow the logic of their conversation and, eventually, even the words themselves seem to slink away from me. I sway on my high heels, backyards and forwards, away from Matt Groening and then towards him, drunk on the complementary white wine.
Later, I curl up on the carpet in the corridor outside the green room with my head in Leonie’s lap.
The next time we go out for dinner she declares, ‘I’m old enough to be your mother.’
But on the sidewalk outside, still, she kisses me.
On my way home I receive a text, Sorry about that.
Sorry about what? I wonder.
I enlist colleagues and even my manager to participate in a film project whereby I videotape them talking about why I’d make a great date. I am trying to convince my latest love interest, Nat, to give me a chance. I am aware this scheme is grandiose, arrogant, absurd.
Mel tells the camera I do yoga (‘that could mean many things,’ she says). Jess mentions I’m tidy, punctual and good with children then adds, ‘I can let you know that Tanya is not distressed.’ I wonder if she means not disturbed. My manager describes me as ‘very interesting…um…ah…varied, determined person’ who likes shopping and socialising. Not amazing endorsements, but I like to think the fact these people are psychologists adds credence to their testimony.
I text the videos to Nat – and it works, for a while.
She is open and funny and clever and earnest and creative and kind and athletic and social. She reads the paper and goes for swims, attends music festivals, reads books, works in research and nursing, and makes screen prints of antlers on wood blocks and coasters.
At trivia, when a colleague asks me, ‘Do you think you might be idealising her?’ I reply in earnest, ‘Obviously, she’s perfect.’ The table roars with laughter. I laugh too, as if I’m in on the joke.
When Nat decides to date someone else, I write a screenplay about her titled ‘Stalker’ in which I am the title character, the star.
I’ve had three crushes in the past six months. This has never happened to me before. I am thirty and in the throes of adolescent agonies. It is exhausting, confusing. Exciting, too
The next time I see Charlie they are wearing loud rainbow pants and a red puffer jacket. They are sitting opposite me, in the courtyard of a local theatre, sipping water while I gulp down wine. ‘Do they have food here?’ they ask. I talk nonstop about the lentil pie (why?).
Charlie doesn’t have enough cash for dinner; their flatmate had an emergency of sorts. I joke that we’ve only met twice but they’re already financially dependent on me. Charlie turns a delightful radish-pink and covers their face with their hands. My heart is stuck in my throat like a fishbone.
Even though it’s about fifteen degrees, they remove their puffer jacket, revealing a skin-hugging black tee. Later, in the context of a conversation about my latest acquisition – an electric blanket – Charlie tells me they no longer get cold at night. I imagine a body lying beside theirs, but later wonder if they’d meant their body temperature has increased because of the hormones.
When we are called to take our seats, Charlie crouches to remove a book I used to prop up the rickety table. The wine doesn’t spill, the book is intact. It is Chris Kraus’s Torpor, which seems appropriate; Kraus is all about abstract romance, about making art out of love and longing. I need only the occasional input from Charlie – a smile, a kind word, and I can do the rest.
When we take our seats for the show, I notice that our shoulders touch, if I wiggle a little.
I take things too far. Just to see how far I can go.
Charlie is writing a memoir. I know it’s grandiose and arrogant to think I might feature in it, but I can’t help it. It is part of my self-absorbed adolescent phase.
In my story, Charlie and I are already living together in Bronte. We have a small flat and a small dog. We’ve rescued Pippy, Poppy or Pammie from the pound and this act of charity has brought us even closer together. When we go to sleep at night, Pippy nestles in between us, resting her snout on the pillow, and we pretend to tell her bedtime stories about brave collies and fussy poodles though we both know the stories are for ourselves. In the mornings, we snuggle and drink coffee out of matching mugs. This is my favourite fantasy. It’s also a little…juvenile. Where is the sex?
I listen to an interview with James Blunt in which he declares that he has no respect for people who play his song, ‘You’re Beautiful’ at their weddings. The song, he says, is about abstract love – a guy high as a kite who admires a stranger on the subway. The guy follows the woman out onto the platform and imagines a life for the two of them together though she’s with another man. It’s creepy, Blunt says.
My friend, who also happens to be Charlie’s editor, tells me to leave Charlie alone. ‘They have a girlfriend,’ she says. ‘I think it’s serious.’ Because my friend has integrity and good sense, she does not let me read the memoir Charlie has been working on. I am thankful for this.
Still, I tell everybody I know that I am in love with Charlie. Apparently, I am not alone. And they are aware of the effect they have on others. One time they tell me, slyly, ‘lesbians flock to me.’ I am not surprised. When I quote this back to them via text, they reply:
They rise up and gravitate.
I write back: Yes well I can see why. You definitely have something going on :)
Charlie writes: Why thank you. Lesbians aren’t really my market but luckily there’s [sic] plenty of other queer women in tow.
I am confused by this statement.
Have I have defined myself too narrowly?
When friends ask, ‘What about Nat?’ I tell them, honestly, I don’t care for her anymore. I have successfully transferred my affections on to Charlie. My crushes are ephemeral like those flimsy umbrellas you buy from the supermarket that barely last a week of rain.
I imagine that if I’d experienced these intense feelings in high school, there’d be time to luxuriate in them, to laze on chenille bedspreads with girlfriends going through the same thing. We’d flick through Dolly and Cosmo, drink sherry smuggled from the kitchen, maybe even have a good cry before a dinner of KFC and an episode of Neighbours. The adults in our lives would shrug their shoulders, roll their eyes, remember.
I wonder from where this eruption of emotion has come from. Only twelve months ago, my psychologist handed me a factsheet listing primary human emotions. Anger. Disgust. Fear. Happiness. Sadness. Surprise. But then also: envy and remorse and love and shame and hope. She was teaching me to identify them, to feel them in my body, to feel them at all.
I’m a child playing with dolls, moving them around in circles, saying this one will marry that one and this here will be their baby. And then, the three of them will move over there, by the blue carpet into that great, big cardboard box.
I want someone to play house with. I am embarrassed.
Out of these three people, I sleep with one. We don’t see each other again.
We are making out on her couch downstairs, tumblers of gin sparkling on the coffee table. After we’ve been at it for some time she says,
‘Do you want to take it upstairs or…um to the courtyard?’
‘What would we do in the courtyard?’ I ask, teasing.
She blushes. ‘I just wanted to give you options.’
And so, we carry our tumblers upstairs.
The Nationals – her favourite band, are playing their sombre notes from the speaker on the stairs. It makes me feel sad and weird, these songs about lost love.
I rest my strawberry Chapstick and tumbler at the foot of a great big neon letter ‘N’ – which she tells me is salvaged from Reverse Garbage. The bright, white glow illuminates the bed.
‘It’s really hot,’ she says, taking off her jumper. She’s wearing nothing but a black bra underneath.
I laugh at the move that she denies is a move. ‘It’s hot’ she says, covering her chest. Then, laughing: ‘Don’t look.’
I spend the night awake or tumbling through half-dreams, listening to the rain patter against the tin can on her porch.
‘How did you sleep?’ I ask in the morning.
‘Really well,’ she says, smiling. ‘You?’
She packs the leftover Thai in a plastic bag and kisses me goodbye in the lobby.
On a cab ride home one Sunday, my flatmate observes that I’m attracted to a certain type of woman these days. More ‘manly’ types, she says. And then, there’s Charlie.
I worry that I want to recreate traditional gender roles within a queer relationship. As if I lack the imagination to think up alternatives. I’m embarrassed.
I have tickets to the same party as Charlie. I plan to act cool, to say hello and then slink away to the bar to spend the night with my friend Rebecca drinking cocktails and pretending to have a good time.
In the end I don’t go.
I come home after seeing a movie, and drink tea with Sarah and Tom in my draughty old kitchen. Sarah has spent the day moving out of her old place, sorting through records and appliances, deciding what to take, what to let her ex-partner keep. Tom is tired; a week in Sydney to write and teach before flying back to Perth for a show.
These are my people.
Why, when I hate parties, did I think I’d want to go to this one, tonight?
The only reason would have been to catch a glimpse of Charlie. I would tell them my feelings, my plan to raise a chihuahua together – and then they might just punch me in the face. And then, I could write about it.
So instead I stay home.
I send Charlie a text saying I have two spare tickets if they would like to pass them on to some mates. They reply twelve hours later with: Oh babe, I wad [sic] neck deep in glitter when you sent this. Oh well. Next time. See you soon :)
The finality of the message is obvious. But, of course, I text back anyway.
My heart feels soggy – like cereal left in the bowl too long.
The queer folk of Sydney are tipsy three hundred metres above the twinkling city. I trace Hyde Park and Oxford Street with my finger, and work out the shortest route home.
I’m with two straight friends at Centrepoint Tower. The music’s loud and monotonous, the windows are foggy, the premixed drinks too sweet.
We are watching Charlie and a woman we presume to be their girlfriend make out. Like really make out. They are standing right in front of us, no else is about – we are too far from the dancefloor.
Charlie is wearing a naval jacket, open at the front, their breasts held in place by invisible forces, a strip of glitter under each eye as if to reduce glare. Their girlfriend sports a red leotard and a halo of blonde hair. (My friends and I are dressed in unobtrusive, unremarkable, invisible black.)
Though there is plenty of room, they choose a space near us, again and again, and clamp their lips like suction cups.
‘Wow, they’re still going,’ I remark (before storming off).
But what did I expect? I knew there was someone in Charlie’s life; I just didn’t know the circumstances. Or that she’d be here, tonight.
I pray Charlie doesn’t see that I’ve traced their name in the glass.
On Sunday night, we celebrate a friend’s birthday at Petersham RSL. We order overpriced food and under-priced drinks, and sit at the plastic table wearing party hats. I wear mine a little off to the side because I think it looks better that way.
I talk about Charlie. And Nat, about that time I came close to turning up at her Meet Up group.
A friend asks another, ‘Have you ever stalked someone…or been stalked?’
Her friend pauses. ‘I’ve been on both sides.’
‘And which are you most comfortable with?’
The table erupts in laughter.
‘Like, which one sits with you better?’
She says, ‘Being the stalker, of course. It’s awful being stalked.’
We agree and turn sombre.
Later, we weave through the rows of pokies, the unlucky punters staring at bright screens while a man with a metal trolley gives out ‘free’ mini pies and sausage rolls. Sometimes it’s hard to walk away from disaster.
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