by NATHAN JOLLY
I can smell vomit. This is a worry, considering I am on my way to meet up with Penelope — a girl I have been in love with for far too long — and I don’t know the exact location of the scent. Is it my hair, is it my jeans or is it just the world around me, illuminated with lights and love and a tangy vomit smell? It could also be blood and bones fertilizer. I have always thought the police should be able to be called around to investigate an olfactory complaint much in the same way they are forced to break up parties full of life and love and cheer, all ended prematurely due to a Thrills record being blasted too loud. Nose pollution. Considering, scientifically speaking, that scent is the sense most intrinsically linked to memory, these people who insist on pouring death upon their garden beds should be judged much more harshly, as they are messing with makeshift moments that shouldn’t be triggered in latter years simply by passing a Steggles factory or an overzealously fertilized lawn.
Either way, I can smell vomit, and it’s making me uneasy, although I have had this stomach-churning feeling for days now. The Penelope situation was starting to unsettle me more than it did all those months ago when I first decided she was The One. I spent the week after first meeting her stuck in a dumb daze: handing my bank card to the librarian; planning dubious ways to see her; replaying conversations that must be misremembered because it was all such a sudden skidding rush; paying no attention to work or traffic; scripting words she was yet to speak — I sketched fairly hopefully in that first week. The reality of her boyfriend as an Actual Entity soon thudded into play, refusing to be shushed into submission.
I thought I could shake her from my mind easily enough by staying away and keeping busy, but every time I find myself with half an excuse to be around her, I make sure I rehearse the other half until it sounds convincing — even to myself. After a month or so we’d stopped awkwardly wrapping our evenings around mutual friend’s picnics or parties or graffiti hung in galleries. By then we were meeting in bars for no other reason but to meet in bars.
I would have happily stayed single for as long as it took me to wrestle Penelope from her boyfriend, except a girl called Mickey made it too easy for me to fall lazily into a casual-but-romantic-but-casual thing. A big part of it was, I’m afraid to say, that she did all the chasing: I wasn’t even aware I was in her sights until she had pulled the trigger and dragged me back to her house, kissing me at the train station in the early hours of the morning, all pixie-dust and pills. This occurred a number of similar ways over a number of similar nights, until we were leaving jumpers at each other’s houses, and calling at four to find out: “What’s happening this evening?” It’s a nice feeling, and Mickey is smart, excitable, sweet — and well out of my league. She leaves me funny phone messages: rhythms borrowed from books, beats plundered from sitcoms. It was fun, and easy, and unearned. And I hated myself for going along with it all so calmly. I liked how Mickey made me feel, which is a terrible reason to be with somebody. With her around I was less restless, less anxious, less insular, less reckless. I liked how Mickey could make me feel less.
I slide into Coopers and sit at the best people-watching booth I can find (so we can either laugh at people or admire their clothes), cornered and cozy. I didn’t tell Mickey about tonight; I never tell Mickey. I never would, because why would I? And anyway how innocent and easy could I make it sound if I was ever caught out? — because a) I never bring Penelope up around Mickey, and b) on paper it is all, sadly, still officially innocent.
Penelope was 15 minutes late. Penelope was often 15 minutes late, sometimes half an hour late. It was okay, I am the same, and she never minds so I never mind. I aim to be annoyingly early, but always wander down the wrong street, or lose my keys, or slop peanut butter or something down my shirt a minute before planning to leave. Deodorant is also an issue. If you spray it on the minute before you leave the house, you may have overdosed, and you’ll be dripping two dark pools that will make you look like an overweight I.T worker who just lost a bundle at the races. So, you need to apply, wait, assess, then leave the house. All of this takes time, and when added to the minefield that is hair placement, shirt-selection and shaving without bleeding like a bullet-riddled banshee, it can leave me running frantically late to an event that I had been dreaming down the hours ‘til for the entire tired day.
Oh, there she is! All cool and cheekbones. Smiling, holding the street press, making some vague drinking motion towards the bar, that I imagine means "Want a drink?" I nod, she comes over, hugs me, kisses me sloppily on the cheek — leaving a lipstick smear that I can feel drying and tightening but leave anyway, and asks me what I want to drink. It’s already cute to me. It’s always cute. I wonder if other people see it. They must. It’s an immovable feast, an undeniable fact, a simple truth. Oh god, she must get attention from guys all day. Every day. Would that be tiring or flattering? Am I just another guy who finds her adorable and fills the loose moments in her life that aren’t taken up by her actual life? Am I a placeholder, a stilted conversation at a bus-stop, a midday movie you watch half of before hopping a bus to the actual movies? This is killing me. What if she finally decides to jump ship, but not to me, to one of the many, many guys that must hit on her every single second of her cute life?
She bought a vodka sunrise. That is cute. She has bought me the beer I wanted, yet put three straws in it. That is cute and funny. She does cute things all the time, and if I can see them, everyone can see them and she must have a string of superior potential-suitors miles long, with hordes of terrible, muscle-men strewn throughout like a red-and-khaki war scene. Tonight has to be the night. Tonight I need to stake my claim, lock this deal down, tonight, tonight. What about Mickey, though? I knew "what" about Mickey already. I had long decided what about Mickey. It’s terrible. I am terrible. I know this, but I still have the "not willing to settle" card so my conscience sits clean, albeit a cloudy kind of clean. Tonight is the night. Everything else is mere detail, to be forgotten and re-ordered and shuffled and softened. It all fits nicely under the banner of "romantic". It’s a future story for our future children, and in the future this will be as all nostalgia is: life with the bad bits cut out.
Tonight wasn’t the night. Slumped in my bed I recall the many moments of the evening — plotted, planned, decoded and relived in glorious, agonizing slowmo what-if-o-vision — and resolutely promise myself over and over that I am going to make this happen, and that it is just a matter of time, so therefore there is no need to rush. Things are going well, there’s no need to overthink it. Of course, I have no choice. Four in the morning is the dead of the night. Without houselights I could be in the deepest, darkest cave, or the saddest Victorian bedsit this side of consumption and rickets. It could be 1890 or 2090. Things matter more at four in the morning, and are able to be mentally resolved, but not actually resolved until the world starts up again in the morning. It’s a nice, peaceful feeling once you have trawled through your fears, decided upon a solution and can now lie under the whirling, purring fan knowing that you have the ways and means to fix this mess, to make your world perfect, and all you need to do now is fall asleep and let the construction begin in the morning…
Mickey wakes me up at 7am, standing over my bed, looking gorgeous in my room. I am annoyed. I am a terrible person, there is nothing that isn’t intrinsically perfect about this scenario, except I am tired and hungover and not chirpy and not a good person. Mickey doesn’t have a key, but I realized long ago that I have a habit of leaving the front door unlocked when I stumble home at all hours. Mickey has the day off, it seems, and thought she would surprise me with this news, and take me to breakfast. It’s so sweet. It’s too sweet. It’s too early; surprises in the morning tend to throw my entire day off track. It’s like a bucket of cold water being thrown on you, and it’s hard to recover from the feeling that someone else is piloting you through the day. All this is running through my head while I flirt and dress and pretend I’m excited and thrilled at the prospect of sitting in the sharp sunshine feigning the ability to digest food this early. It’s all getting to be a heavy weight. Mickey was meant to be a distraction from my depression, not a reminder. Eggs and bacon and coffee, it seems so American. Breakfast eaten anywhere but at home in either pajamas or in a crumpled rush-buttoned shirt and birds-nest hair seems so American to me, pulled from the wrong kind of sitcom.
What Are We Going To Do With Our Day? I wanted to crawl under a blanket and die for a few hours, then roll down a pre-prepared ramp into a bathtub conveniently placed next to my bed, then in turns blast too-cold and too-hot water into it for the rest of the day, adjusting the temperature at the merest whim. Trashy magazine, wine, hot chips, Boy Meets World, glorious recovery, post-hangover high. But there were plans to make, and places to walk to, and Mickey’s boring work friend David to run into and go for coffee with and pretend to know about computers with.
As I quickly blocked out David’s ones and zeroes, the thought struck me that I actually could not think of a way in which I could practically break up with Mickey. I usually forced these things by starting a niggling fight, which elevated into a Serious Fight with yelling and accusations and non-compatibility issues and an end result where a break up occurs in that blurred way where "things just came to a head". Mickey wouldn’t have any of this. I honestly don’t think she can yell, and I don’t think I could be any kind of cruel towards her without wanting to stop and hug her and kiss her and protect her. If I ever saw her beautiful face crumple or her panda eyes tear up I think I would feel sick to my bones. It was soft and sharp: the awful thought that I might actually be falling in love with Mickey.
As the sun went down on that punishing, pointless day, we ended up ducking into one of the many new small bars that pop up like picture books along this street. In this particular one, like most of them, you are somehow always in the way. It was like someone had tried to turn the twisting, narrow corridors of a disused hospital into a hip night spot, and because there was a tacky tiki motif pushing gracelessly against the sterile surrounds, everyone excused the fact that you couldn’t lift your elbows without sloshing a drink over someone, or mildly assaulting a stranger.
Over the past year these small bars have taken over every nook in the city that wasn’t already an art gallery. The state’s strict liquor laws had finally given in to the perpetual march of young people, and this newly-relaxed, divorced-dad manner has now turned Sydney into a painted playground, full of C.S Lewis-like doors, through which you could push and enter (or stumble down three dangerously dark concrete stairs into) a Southern saloon, or a New York speakeasy. This whole strip of the city was heritage listed a decade or so ago, which means that nobody can breach the exterior design of these buildings; necessity had therefore bred these pokey, two-story-high federation fronts which mask hidden worlds. There was even a bar called Dive Bar, which purposefully mirrored some of the shittier ex-bikie bars on forgotten corners ten minutes walk away that sit stagnant while people pay $8 for imported beer in a lazy approximation. It was like setting up one of those Japanese wave-making machines next to Bondi Beach and charging thirty dollars to queue and body-surf on some warm jets and plastic sheeting. I enjoy watching these bars take over and slowly change the city into what it wants to be. It’s a revolution, a daisy chain. But after about an hour of lifting my arms and contouring my torso to let a constant wash of people push past every which way in the vain hope of trying to find a warm corner to settle into, I extracted myself from Mickey and two of her second-rung friends, and left to conquer other lands — or at least find a world at the top of the tree in which I could happily stay, should the world turn.
I spent that evening drunk as death at The Union, a pub that is comforting or depressing on any given night, depending on whether I feel old. Tonight I was a fiddler, a box-car jumper, a charmer, a drifter. I didn’t know anybody there. I don’t really know anyone anywhere, although on this side of the city I’m forever bumping into people who seem to know my face. Tonight I was walking along the side of the highway in the dead of night, willing the cars to swerve and hit me or slow and pick me up and drive me to California, to Calcutta, to the Caribbean, to wherever I can land and wash my hands and start anew. There are no bad decisions that you cannot whitewash with a fresh start. What about Mickey? What about Penelope? It’s a large city. There’s a lot of large cities. So many people could be the one.
Nathan Jolly is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Sydney. He last wrote in these pages about a greater power. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.
Paintings by Will Martyr.
"Last Chance" - Honor by August (mp3)
"Already Yours" - Honor by August (mp3)