by NATHAN JOLLY
Recently I have been coming up with different ways for Steve to die. The first sees him wander, drunk on some overpriced local beer, in front of an ambulance. It is instant and public, voyeurs spilling onto the sidewalk, a few strangers crying from the terrible, sudden shock of it all. The second involves him crumpling his car into a power line, coming in from the west side of the city on a wet night. All the deaths involve traffic accidents: this form of death being both realistic and instant. I have always been aware that at any moment a car could come veering over the sidewalk and engulf me, so this completely reasonable fear entered into all my scenarios. I bet it doesn’t hurt a bit; you would pass out the minute you heard yourself scraping across the road. One flash and you are erased.
Steve is Penelope’s lumbering, hulking, philandering [citation pending] boyfriend. A mere footnote in her dating life prior to her seeing through the ruse. He enters my life far too often; first as a leech attached to Penelope at the traffic lights near King Street — which threw me to the extent that I literally hid behind a poster pole for a minute like the little cartoon character that I feel like whenever he is around — then in odd, impossible places, sneaking up on me like a phantom: in the line at the post office, standing on the corner outside Coopers (where fantasy death number one is set in my head; the blocking getting more and more precise as time goes on), even in a fucking pet store! It is always unsettling, like being caught readjusting yourself, and I am always hyperaware of how robotic my moments are during these brief windows when I can feel his eyes burning through my body, mockingly. He doesn’t know I exist. I know this. I imagine Penelope loosely refers to hanging out with ‘friends’ when she arranges to meet me; the illicit thrill I get from the knowledge that she keeps me hidden, and the implied meaning behind this, makes me feel like I have a greater level of power than I do on paper.
Penelope was different from all the other girls. For one, I didn't need to try. She was a whirlwind of non-sequiturs, questions to which she was interested in finding the answers, witty, straight-faced jokes and a superb stream of pop culture references that made me fall in love with her almost instantly. Not real love, mind — rather, a form of giddy infatuation that had me marching her down the aisle in my head and learning how to cook to impress her. And of course, she had a boyfriend, a fact she dropped in at the start of every conversation as a brief disclaimer, before launching into a flirtatious diatribe that made me wish terrible things: that Steve would cheat on her, grab her wrist too hard one evening when she went to walk away from him after some fight that started because he was insensitive and she was “mouthy”. She was all porcelain and lace, and I bet she easily bruises when he pushes her against the door.
Sydney is secretly aware it is the cultural center of the world and that once everyone else catches on, this era will be inundated with forensic journalists combing for revisionist rubbish until everything is stripped to its basic elements. Style matters, looks matter, but documenting it all matters more. Street press matters. Photographs matter. Records matter. We are kids at bars: California in the ‘50s, London in ’66, New York in ’77 – only geography gracelessly sloshed us half a world away. Sydney is full of girls who hide their self-consciousness in a multitude of ways: by brash heels and red lips; by jokes and sass; by miniskirts and Cosby sweaters. But sometimes the guards go to sleep, and the comments ring too true. I must admit I am drawn to these scared/swaggering Sydney girls, because they are always the most interesting.
Charlotte was one of these. Stripped to the bone within a week of knowing her, she had told me all her secrets, through cryptic asides, through her record collection, through her refusal to let me watch her get dressed after we first slept together, and through a number of other day-to-day rituals and comments that would go unnoticed by anybody who wasn't momentarily entranced by her. But as we slid out of courtship (if you call it courtship, life’s like a Bronte novel, you see?) and into an easy friendship I realized I was collecting postcards of Charlotte rather than actually relishing spending any real romantic time with her. Charlotte’s appeal was better understood in shoebox-photos of her dressed like a junkie Mickey Mouse Club kid; in videos of us at the pub waiting in the front room for the terrible bands to stop playing in the back room; in that stoned conversation we taped on my Dictaphone one evening in a townhouse that had never seen bed frames. Charlotte always dressed up in case somebody took her photo.
When me and Penelope collide on evenings like this, I feel that this is romance as it is meant to be played out. Not a chance meeting in a group of friends, where boredom and proximity pairs people off in a male, female, male, female march, but rather a table, a bottle of wine (each) and the knowledge that whatever twisted web we have weaved ourselves into with other lovers — who we love because we have woken up to find another year has passed and the clock now says this is a long-term, Serious Relationship with joint invitations, the meeting of mothers, and the melding of social groups until it all becomes such a blur that you can't even think of climbing out of without feeing the weight of it all — this here, with a table and a jukebox and a bottle of wine (each), is how things are meant to be, and how things Are Right Now. All the rest is just a full-time distraction, the formalities and paperwork of life, the boxes that need to be ticked in order to shuffle through your twenties.
Now is the age where you are meant to get serious about things; even if the ducks aren't all in a row, there is a loud ticking that can quite easily accent the sound of slowly-closing doors which, up until you actually thought about it, seemed wide open. All these things run through my mind, and yet, I have never actually met Steve, the subject of her hasty disclaimer (this time tossed into a rudimentary sentence surrounded by a jumble of jokes and nonsense), never seen their interplay. I don’t exist in his world. He is a major character in mine. I try hard not to watch her lips as she speaks, as I am aware this is distracting. Luckily she is leaning far too close to notice.
We shared a seat in a crowded bar one evening. I was seeing “a girl named Charlotte” as I referred to her to my friends in the months before she had become intrinsically linked to each of them. She wasn’t out the evening I first meet Penelope, because by this stage it had become apparent that we’d rather watch Wonder Years in bed than do anything else. We were sliding out of a warm drug into a warm hug. So I was out with my friends and open to any possibility — in retrospect at least. I was seated a good meter or two from Penelope at first, but as our respective friends bordered the table, starting at each end and slowly marching closer as others came in off the street, we were soon the intimately-squashed meeting point, where the forest meets the sea. From that moment on, our friends were mere auxiliary brackets, adding to the buzz, buzz, buzz of voices and glasses, the background din to Penelope’s thousand-mile-an-hour dialogue and my gin-soaked smile and attempt to keep afloat.
I love that feeling that comes when you sense you are hurtling unchecked towards someone or something. Running to something, as opposed to away from it. I had never scrambled to keep up before; I usually edit the obscurities and extremities out of most conversations, a thesaurus turning over and over in my brain, a red pen sub-editing my thoughts until I realise I am limboing too low and hop over the bar, burn the winners sash and catch a late night bus home, alone. A giddy rush or a tragic crush — it’s all the same. Falling for someone can be such a relief, despite the mess that floats around it. If we close our eyes, maybe they can’t see us.
Images by Andrew Stevovich.
"The Radio" - Pamela Hute (mp3)
"Running Away" - Pamela Hute (mp3)