The summer was always a disappointing collection of months. I felt a strange tension building up every year in late October – the pressure of unfounded expectations of European romances and days spent reading in the Hamptons. Of course I had never experienced either, but my imagination was known to replicate Hollywood ideals and leave me reeking of reality. It was a high stress time of year, the University exams were looming and the prospect of learning entire law courses felt like a wall too steep to climb, and though I had done it many times before, it had never been graceful. It was more of a frantic breathless thrust of knowledge that I somehow managed to aim correctly. I saw a selection of people around me cramming in the same way, but still I compared myself to the studious ones with the high thresholds for focus. I never studied for long, but I quickly lost track of days and of the number of coffees I’d had. I stacked them on top of each other in the library until the tower fell, empty hollow crashing cardboard echoing the sound of the game they were telling me to play. Just keep passing I told myself, as I ran my mind on caffeine and off intellectual cliffs, drowning under a festering body of law in which I took a slight interest, but no passion. Still, it was a necessary distraction to occupy my restless thoughts.
The University lifestyle altered itself to fit in with our mad rushes – the libraries were now open later than the neighbouring pubs, deliberate timetabling that we easily managed to circumvent. Everyone in our friendship group had studied Masters of Teaching together, but I had lingered across the road stretching out my postgraduate law degree. At 23 I told myself that I had time, though I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted it for. In the evenings we took to South Lawn, staying on campus and importing the cheapest bottles of red wine from Don Tojo – the nearby Japanese takeout place that sold meals for under $10. It was the time of semester when our pockets were lighter than usual, as the wear and tear of the last 12 weeks had seen the holes in them growing, our Hansel and Gretel trails circling the local pubs and cafes, sometimes both in the same day. We drank red wine from the bottle. We were all impatient to get drunk and never remembered to bring enough plastic cups. The wine was passed around the circle as we sang undeniably embarrassing pop songs and old classics, Taylor Swift followed by Paul Kelly. Daryl Braithwaite’s ‘The Horses’ always featured more than once in an evening. The chorus always made me smile like an idiot, our arms around each other as we yelled, “That’s the way it’s gonna be little darling/ You’ll be riding on the horses yeah yeah/ Way up in the sky little darling/ And if you fall I’ll pick you up, pick you up”. But there was always a kind of melancholy underpinning our words and laughter – we knew that this was the tail end of University, and that our large group was about to splinter off across new suburbs and new stomping grounds.
After our wine bottles, subtle flirtations and midnight bike rides around University square, we retired home hugging everyone goodbye and knowing that we would all see each other the next day. During this time I was hitting the law library back to back and staying late into the night, although not all of those hours translated into productivity. This time of year became about convenience, anything that we could fool ourselves into being beneficial for those final exams, attempts, and waning attention spans that were only tested twice a semester, outside of which we let them have free reign over our minds and activities: our Facebook newsfeeds, YouTube clips under 3 minutes, or aimless swiping on Tinder that never led to any conversations. Distractions came easily at the Law Building – hunger, the low battery on my laptop, the wrong colour highlighter for my exam notes, and the mounting stress that was exhaled by other students. And people. People who weren’t even present but had perfected the routes through which to silently creep up on my mind, taking possession of my thoughts when I was at my most vulnerable. Our biannual security guard had returned to his post outside the door and was checking our student cards. As much as we were encouraged to study, the practical hurdles created by the University prevented and contained much of our efforts. I would frequently spend the evening in the Law Building hiding from the security guards and pretending to be one of the few students who had 24-hour access. I liked being in the large space when it was quiet and almost empty. It made me feel calm and safe to be somewhere familiar without the fear of social ambush.
Despite our distractingly busy lives, summer managed to bleed its way into our routines and cover our last weeks of University. Melbourne was about as equipped for summer as I was for my law exams, still, I partied anyway in the heat and the stress, giving the local venues no reason to invest in stronger air-conditioning. The night before my Criminal Law exam the group went out to dinner instead of importing our wine to South Lawn. I found myself sitting with twelve others at Shanghai Dumplings on Tattersalls Lane; none of them had an exam the following day and they were all keen to go out. I was keen to drink. It should have been my sister’s 21st birthday but cancer had taken her away from my family the previous year. I preferred to drink my wine than to mention it. As irony would have it, Shanghai Dumplings had a reputation not only for the cheapest dumplings and wine in town, but also for playing the music to Happy Birthday over the speakers in the event of a customer’s birthday. Everyone at our table thought it was a hilarious joke to sing for a fictional birthday and managed to have the music played twice. They launched into song. I watched the tables around us customarily join in before filtering out. I didn’t sing – I wasn’t sentimental enough to think that the dead were listening. I also wasn’t confident enough to mention my sister to the people around me. I had a tendency to avoid conversations on topics that I didn’t understand. After the singing, and more wine, the conversation headed towards the sexual – the small talk of the tipsy before the intoxicated acted it out. It was the usual banter that we distracted ourselves with, more comfortable to talk about sex than to mention death. Last call from the kitchen. We were two bottles of wine up and they wanted us out. We left with our hands pouring booze down our throats.
We sweated on the floor inside Cherry Bar, buying drinks to keep us cool. Another venue in summer without air conditioning – their business model was working. I sculled my drink and found shelter in the alleyway. Cherry had let us spill into the lane to make room for more $10 cover charges. There were a few milk crates, the people I came with, and Anderson – who had caught onto bringing his own bottles of wine to the laneway. Unfortunately he only had white wine, but we walked to a nearby alley just the same.
I sat on the bluestone steps looking down onto Federation Square, he handed me a bottle, “You take this one, it looks nicer.” I was talking with a guy who liked my eyelashes, though by the end of our encounter he could sense that I wasn’t as interested in him as he wanted me to be. I was using him as a timeout from my group and from my thoughts – an interactive distraction that forced my participation and reduced the chance of me getting lost inside my own intoxicated head.
“So when I text you later, are you going to reply?”
I was thrown, I hadn’t planned on seeing him again, but I thought his candour was commendable, “Yeah I’ll reply, I mean, I’m not rude.”
“If you feel like coming to this house party later, you should.”
“Yeah? Well, let me know what the scenes like. I think everyone’s staying at Cherry, so I’ll probably stick with them. Plus, I’ve got that exam tomorrow.”
“Fair call. I can’t believe you’re only going to reply to me not to be rude.”
I grinned at him, I wasn’t about to throw transparent promises at him to make the situation less awkward, my slightly amused face with its nice eyelashes was all that I was willing to give him.
“You should put this one in your blog, only don’t mention how fast I talk when I get nervous.”
“I’m not sure if this is interesting enough, but we’ll see.”
He laughed at me, or at the situation, or most likely at our entire exchange. We hugged goodbye and I slipped back to the sides of my group, giving them vague answers about where I’d been. I had tasted freedom early, but my focus was always going to be away from the exams on this particular date. Every year I would find a distraction for my alcohol doused brain to chew on. I kept my thoughts and distractions to myself and found my own way home; four hours of sleep would have to be sufficient exam preparation.
It was only a few days later when it all stopped, like it always does. Exams ended. The concept of summer was moved from my imagination into reality and I was left purposeless for three months, still receiving the government benefits of a full time student, but with nothing to study except my own thoughts. Suddenly all of my distractions disappeared. My hunger had dissipated and I often forgot to eat until dinner. There was no reason to go to sleep so I would continue to hold my eyes open as my brain functioned at half speed until 3 or 4am. I had no reason to get out of bed, so the start of my days would stall. Socialising took up some time and my tolerance of people increased. My mother told me to find my joy, my lightness, I scowled at her and questioned why I couldn’t just be my underwhelming self? But she could sense that there was anger simmering underneath my skin. Why didn’t I call her more after I moved away? I wasn’t there enough. I put a stop to the conversation – predictably choosing the safer, less emotional option – I kept my thoughts to myself.
The New Year didn’t really bring about any changes. I hadn’t been expecting it to; I’d given up on making resolutions years ago when my cynicism had won out. Over January I watched ‘yarn bombing’ expand from Sydney Road to the city as I caught packed trams to St Kilda bars, finishing my drinks before the ice could melt. I was suppressing my guilt and on a crusade to ignore my thoughts. I hung out with the group from Uni frequently – this far into summer we had all become accustomed to day drinking. By now we were friends, at least I believe that’s what they called us – people who spent a lot of time together and enjoyed it. We visited South Lawn again, this time littering it with not just ourselves, but also our sports and picnic equipment. The group thinned by the early evening but the tides of people coming in and out had been constant throughout the afternoon. The weather was still hot at 7pm and the tennis balls were still making contact with the plastic bat. All the bottles were empty. Most of us supported sunburnt arms along with our inner city dress codes. I watched my arm change colour and the freckles multiple. My body had been paying attention when I hadn’t, we weren’t meant for summer days.
Dehydration slowly crept up but we had been students long enough to know how to keep going. With drying mouths we pushed on and planned our night. The party was set to really begin at 10pm in front of a Smith Street stage. Home grade amps and instruments, met with garage perfected talent. We said our “cya soons” with rare literal meaning and took our moving public seats home after touching on. It was half time when I got home and took a break with my housemate on our carpeted floor with a tube of moisturizing cream between us. We let our greedy red skin drink, absorbing the cool instead of its usual diet of perfumes, soap, and fake tan. My lips were just as sunburnt, but between foundation and lipstick no one could tell that night. We didn’t even think to take jackets. My housemate and I held hands as we shared another drink. I rarely opened up to her anymore, but I felt safe when we were together. The past year was probably the closest we’d ever been, and still I kept my thoughts to myself and away from her. I squeezed her hand, “I love you,” she squeezed back and smiled, passing me the vodka.
We took the stairs up to the band room of the Grace Darling Hotel and managed to avoid the cover charge as the doorman had disappeared. Everyone was there but I was closed – arms folded across my chest, drink clutched in hand, and a vacant expression on my painted face, which easily changed to a smile when noticed. I could turn it all on if I needed to, play the role of the confident attractive young woman, dance, make eyes at men and flirt, make my girlfriends laugh and gush about the colour of their lipstick. It wasn’t shallow – I genuinely liked their lipstick – but when I forced all of that energy out of myself, I too was fooled into thinking it was natural. I liked being that young woman, but it never felt right. When I stood still and alone for a moment I’d remember the voice running, banging, convulsing inside my head, the ear aching screams. You are not good enough; you don’t deserve to be here.
Regardless of our taste in music that inherent crowd mentality ensured that we still moved – people would let their bodies join in as their eyes searched for someone to rest on. And then it hits you.
Just like that.
You’re standing on Smith Street watching a band singing about lost loves with their long hair and suits.
How Beatles of them.
And you’re dancing.
With your long hair, hair that’s been died blonde and probably needs a wash. Your womanly frame moves in requisite time. Drink in hand.
But then you think of her.
You’ve seen a woman’s shaved head.
She didn’t have eyelashes by the end of it. She didn’t hold the strength to dance. She never set foot on Smith Street.
And for a minute or two, I forgot to block out my thoughts.
Every time I didn’t call. Every time I told her to get out of my room and wouldn’t let her hang out with my friends because we were older and thought we were cooler. Every time I called her a retard when I was 14 and obnoxious. Every time I didn’t go back to Perth to visit her because of some boy that I wanted to spend my holidays with. Every time I was jealous of her because she was skinny and pretty – and I never told her. I let her compare herself to me and think that she was dumb just because I did well in high school. She was so brave. I can’t remember if I told her that. Every time I ate the best part of the ice cream. Or finished the juice in the fridge. When I moved to Melbourne and left her in Perth. I wasn’t there for her year 12 ball. For her graduation. To give her advice when she started seeing her first boyfriend. When she lay in the bed next to me crying, and I didn’t know what to say to her. When they’d stopped the treatment and we all knew she was dying and I didn’t know how to say goodbye.
I kept listening to the music and felt my heart lower and my head begin to race – simmering anger – what gives you the right to be here? You are not enough. My privileged, purposeless, expensive, expiry-dated life. I was using it to drink. I was using it to “better” myself. To explore myself. And the more I did, the less I could feel about any of it. The further through my list of goals I got, the less I wanted them.
“Did you guys want a lift? I assume he’s staying at yours.” He was referring to a mutual friend of ours that I sporadically slept with amongst awkward text messages and subtle nods of acknowledgement.
“Yeah, cool. Whatever’s easiest.”
The next morning I woke up hung over. My headache wouldn’t let me sleep any more. I was living in the days of smashed avocado brunches with savoury granola, burnt fig jam and bacon steaks – no trendy breakfast could help my unsettled stomach, so I didn’t eat. My housemate and I threw makeup on our faces and sunscreen into a bag, along with some cider, a bottle of vodka, and mixers.
“It’s going to taste like shit.”
“Someone will bring ice.”
“And a radio?”
“Yeah they said they’d have speakers for the Hottest 100.”
We watched a protest as we waited at the tram stop. It marched by us as we sat in silence. Both affected, both unwilling to talk about it. Australia Day was also known as Invasion Day and by ignoring the tension on that day I guess in some way we felt as though we were unwillingly condoning our colonial history. We went to an oval and played touch cricket with little skill. An English game that was transferred to this land the same way our ancestors were. There were two games of baseball being played either side of us. Our new influence was over powering the old.
I managed to down two ciders, collide with a fielder and skin my knee within the first hour. By my third cider the stinging had subsided and my hangover was fading to a dull headache. The cricket game was slow – I took a timeout. People walked passed me as I sat by myself and asked if I was okay, asked what I was doing. I smiled, “Yeah, I’m just having some space for a while. I’ll be back.” They nodded sympathetically at me.
As I lay naked next to a man that I’d met less than an hour before hand, he asked, his body still pressed on top of mine, if he could see me again. His nervous energy forced him to keep speaking, “I don’t want this to be just a one time thing. You’re beautiful. I mean look at you. I don’t know why I’m still talking.” I wasn’t putting him at ease with my closed lips. Eventually I nodded, though I still wasn’t sure. “Yeah, we can do this again.” He kissed me softly, he was good at it. At all of it. I hadn’t felt pressured by him, and he had maintained a good balance of control and tenderness that I appreciated and hadn’t expected from a stranger. There was a kind of freedom in the lack of feelings, which for some reason I was normally unable to separate from sex. Though historically the feelings had usually been negative they had still arisen, but for now I felt empty, and in a strange way empowered by that. This was easy. He had messaged me that afternoon on Tinder and joked a few times about coming over to help me clean the house. I knew that he wasn’t serious about the cleaning part, but I wasn’t sure if he was actually going to come over.
He asked for my suburb.
My phone number.
He called me.
He made it clear.
“See you in 20 minutes.”
I met him at the College Lawn, the closest bar to my apartment. I had raced out of my pyjamas and into a casually low cut summer dress, via a shower and a few shots of vodka. What the fuck am I doing? I was half way down the street by the time I asked that question and I didn’t have time to answer it.
He bought me a drink to start with. An easy opening. Decent.
“For the nervous girl,” I smiled at him and repurposed my fiddling hands. He didn’t come across as too smooth, in hindsight he was nervous, but I didn’t know him well enough to pick up on that initially. He kept the conversation moving and elaborated more than I did. He was 29, owned a house outright, and worked for some wine distribution company. He had a meeting later that afternoon.
“Should we go for a walk? I don’t feel like sitting down anymore.”
I nodded, and made a final attempt at my drink seeking to touch the melted ice to my lips with its reminisce of vodka.
“You weren’t what I expected.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well you look exactly like your photo for a start, I didn’t expect you to be, well, all this.”
I didn’t respond. I assumed that we were walking back to my apartment even though neither of us had said anything about the prospect. I guess we didn’t need to – it was why we were both there, wasn’t it?
“So how come a girl like you is online talking to losers like me?”
“Losers? Is there something I should know about you?”
“You’re quick, I like that. I like that I can have a conversation with you.”
I walked up to my door, unlocked it and he followed me in.
“You want a drink: water, vodka, milk? That’s about all we’ve got.”
“No I’m okay.”
I poured myself the perfect drink – strong enough to relax me into the situation, but not so strong that I gagged when I swallowed it. I didn’t give him a tour, just gestured towards my room and he went in.
“Yeah. Aren’t you?”
He cupped my face and kissed me instead of answering. He then took the glass from my hand, placed it safely on the desk and returned to my mouth.
We didn’t bother with removing each other’s clothes; none of this was about the foreplay. As his mouth smudged away my make-up and our sweat intertwined with my foundation, I wondered if he saw my sunburnt nose. The nearing purple circles underneath my eyes. My imperfect skin. I wondered if he saw my flaws. But he didn’t. He wasn’t even looking, we were fucking, and then, he was getting ready to fuck again. He wasn’t looking at me at all, but at a woman whose body was still firmed by youth. Even without the makeup acting as my armour – he didn’t see me. After he finished a second time I lay too close to him and made the mistake of stroking his hair back from his sweaty forehead. I made the mistake of lightly kissing his collarbone and the side of his neck. He started to open up to me, telling me about his sisters’ divorce and how her and her two infant children had just moved into the house with him. I didn’t want him to get attached to me or to his idea of me. He was lonely but I knew that I couldn’t help him. I listened vaguely to his words without reciprocating, all I was willing to give up was the body for which I was responsible, a body so sexualised that I hardly recognised it as my own but rather as society’s play thing – and so I used it too, just as I’d been taught. He was equally using me. Even if he didn’t realise it yet. With ease we both slipped into role playing, using one another and fooling even ourselves.
After he left for his meeting, I stayed home in my pajamas. I made scrambled eggs for dinner and watched bad movies that reminded me how useless the human endeavor to live was. The movies weren’t aiming for this reaction in the audience, I was just lucky. I ignored the messages on my phone from several different friends telling me to come out into the city. I felt hollow from the moment I saw them – I didn’t know how to talk to my own friends. I spent the evening looking at old photos; they were taken only a few months prior but they felt old. I looked happy. I was smiling; I loved looking at photos of myself smiling. Maybe I was self absorbed, I probably was in a number of ways, but looking at these photos I was able to rewrite my memory and convince myself of a previous joy and happiness that I had never actually felt. I took photos obsessively to funnel images into my head of what my life looked like from the outside. The young confident woman who was ambitious and studying law and wasn’t terrified to her core. But when I thought back to the events that the photos came from I remembered that the person I was and the life I was living in those photos was no different, nor happier than me now.
The deeper I fell into my head, the less control I had. I felt that familiar warm tingling stretching through my body – simmering anger – making my limbs feel similar to when I’m drunk. A racing heart, a body filled with energy. But this time it’s anxious energy. You’re not enough. Building, lowering, making me frozen in position. Legs firmly crossed, tightening muscles protecting myself – trying to protect my body from the words and images inside my head. You never helped her. The heating energy makes me want to throw up. I picture myself yelling. I can’t hear it but I can see the anger on my face. The effort, the flushing of my skin, wrinkling of my neck as my jaw opens wider to let more pain out. I can’t hear it because it reverbs inside my head, bouncing inside my skull. I picture myself yelling but I can’t let it out.
The summer was a disappointing collection of months but it followed the script and gave way to another semester of University. Another semester of timetables, exams, essays, coffees, cramming, drinks, stress, anything to distract me from myself. When I was younger time had seemed like an infinite concept. There was always more of it. The weeks had dragged on and it seemed as though the school holidays would never arrive, I sometimes thought that my sister and I would be waiting for them forever. But as I grew up, I found myself at an equal height to time – staring it straight in the eye as it tested me. You’re still here, it taunted. You’re still playing by my rules, it gloated. And all I could do was watch it pass.