“Why are you crying?” I lean down and put my arms around her. She is heavily made up and in a short, dark red dress that only she could wear. Her lipstick is smeared and her mascara is gone. She shakes her head and nuzzles into my hug.
“As your all-knowing best friend I will restate my recommendation. You need to forget about him,” I say. She lets out a wail and holds up an envelope. I snap it from her hand and take out the photo inside. It’s Marty. With a girl.
“What? Who is this? Where did you get this?”
“It’s Marty.” She sobs.
“No shit. Who’s the girl with her hands on him?” She just shakes her head, doesn’t know. “Well where did you get it?” I say.
“He sent it to me.”
“Marty sent you a photo of himself and his new girlfriend?”
“But I thought he broke up with you?”
“He did,” she says, defeated. Suddenly I understand how dangerous this game can be.
“Jesus”, I say and take my hands off her, afraid to be too close to this obliteration.
“Can you believe this?” I say, the next day at coffee with Anna. She looks at it and shrugs “So what? They aren’t fucking.”
“But he broke up with her. I could understand if he was trying to get even, you know. But why would he want to hurt her?”
“Because he’s just like the rest of them. This photo is, like… it doesn’t surprise me. They are capable of much worse. Considering they were together for years she should think herself lucky.”
Anna has been like this forever. It’s not like she’s got some sad story, where her boyfriend fell in love with her mother or something. She hasn’t been burnt. She was born this way. She just doesn’t see the point of wasting time with guys.
“You really still believe all this?” I say
“They will do one of two things. They either fuck you, and it can feel good. You might even come. Or they will fuck you, and if you want to know how that feels, go ask Jane.”
“What about Dane? He treats me well. ” I say, and can’t ever imagine him making me feel like Jane. Though I can’t imagine him making me come, either.
“There are no exceptions,” she says, and looks at her coffee.
“There are good guys around. You’re just a cynic. I’d say it was a gimmick if I hadn’t known you for so long.”
A waiter delivers coffee to two old women at the table next to us. He stands to chat for a moment. “Take this guy,” I say “talking to these older women. Cute. You’re marginalizing people like him.”
“That’s Max,” she says, “He got caught with a woman in the bathroom, an older lady, like those ones, while on shift, two, maybe three months ago.”
“What? How do you know?”
“My cousin works here, remember?” I look at the guy. He seems too innocent to be with anyone other than himself.
“So what’s wrong with that? You’ve never had sex anywhere other than a bed?” I say.
“Well,” she says, smiling, and I know already I’ve lost the argument, “at the time he was dating the manager here. She found them.”
”The only reason he kept his job was because she left. She couldn’t be here anymore.”
Then, “Also, this Dane character you’ve been seeing…” she says, as if she hasn’t met him several times in the last few months, “…Elle, it’s a matter of time.”
I go home and know I should study and not watch TV. I decide to go to Dane’s place instead, both because I don’t want to feel guilty about not studying and because I want to know if he is going to break my heart. He takes a while to answer the door and while I stand there and wait I can’t help but imagine him having sex with old ladies. But when the door opens and he smiles and says my name I know Anna is a deluded extremist and Jane just got unlucky.
“So what are you doing?” I ask as I following him into the apartment.
“Ahh…nothing much,” he says as he opens the mail I brought up, pulling open a letter and reading it so intently that I doubt he notices me kissing the back of his neck. I put my hand around him and into his pocket, feeling him, no response.
“Fuck”, he says. “My rent is going up. Twelve dollars a week. That’s, like, hundreds of dollars a year.”
I hug him.
“This is just another hint from the universe that I’ve been at the bar for too long. I need a better job. Jesus, Elle, can you believe you’re with a loser that works a bar and cleans the toilets?”
“You do it with a cool attitude,” I say. “That’s what’s important.”
“Yeah, I know. But I need a better job.”
“Well, you could –”
“Jesus, Elle, let’s not talk about it. I have the same conversation with my mother each week. I just don’t know what I want to do.” He opens the remaining mail and shakes his head.
“I’m sorry, Elle. What were you going to say?”
“Do you want to have sex?” I ask.
“Anyway you want.”
“Nah. I’m kind of tired. Let’s watch TV instead?”
“Okay,” I say. Huh? I think.
He hands me the remote so I can choose what we watch but I just leave it on the first thing that comes on. We eat chips and soon the volume drops out of the TV, as it often does, and the only sound in his apartment is the crunch of the chips. I feel like studying would be a better use of time than watching a silent TV and eating junk food and not talking to a boyfriend that doesn’t want to have sex with me. I think about just leaving, or flashing him a breast and then leaving, but instead I tell him about the photo, and what Anna thought of the photo, and what Anna said about him, how he’d fuck me over.
“The photo is a cheap shot,” he says. “Tell her to send one back of herself, naked, just to remind him of what he’s missing.”
“No way. That’s how your parents and boss end up seeing you naked after he makes a thousand copies and plasters them on every telegraph pole in a five kilometer radius.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
“What do you think of what Anna said? About how you’re going to break my heart, because that’s just what guys naturally do, like growing facial hair.” I straighten up and face him, needing to be assured, needing him to promise he’ll never do it. But he just shrugs and says “Anna is bulimic.”
“Anna wasn’t making a personal attack on you.”
“And I’m not making a personal attack on her. I’m just saying, you sure you want to be taking advice from someone who has a psychological disorder? It’s like this time I got talked into seeing this band that I’d never heard of. This guy, he worked at the bar for a few months, he told me how he’d been really depressed, and, you know, suicidal, and how his doctor recommended he check into this place, basically a mental institution, and he did but had to check out two days later when he found out his health insurance wouldn’t cover it, and I knew all this about him but nonetheless I spent my money and went to see this band. And you know what, it was a wannabe eighties glam metal band with two synths hidden at the back of the stage. I mean. Elle, it was terrible. That’s when I truly understood how sick this guy was. But too late, I was there and I stood through the whole ninety minutes of it.
“That’s a long bow to draw,” I say, “associating Anna, who, yeah, vomits food, with some depraved freak who should be under close monitoring at a mental health care facility.”
He laughs, “Still, he was a nice guy.”
“Will you say that after the guy takes a gun to my uni campus and starts shooting the place up?”
“I think he’d rather use a knife.”
“Is bulimia even that bad?” I say, “I mean, I know girls, and boys, party people, who drink so much that they vomit two, three, four times a week. And usually they are in such a state of intoxication that they vomit on themselves or other people, or in the middle of clubs, or in taxi’s, unlike Anna, who I am sure is very civil about the whole thing. She’d be clean and hygienic and always flush the toilet immediately after. Should we be looking at it as a valid weight loss strategy in our increasingly obese society?”
“Elle, the vomit isn’t the issue. Yeah, stomach acid will strip the lining of your throat and stain your teeth, but breathing in carbon dioxide is bad for you, and staring at a computer screen for hours doing a uni assignment actually kills brain cells, so everyone is always ruining themselves. It comes down to the fact that it’s a psychological disease. So I would say, yeah, bulimia is a negative.”
The television sound suddenly fills the room and it’s a woman moaning, reaching climax. It’s an actress who became famous from a home sex tape scandal and it’s an ironic case of art imitating life imitating art. It makes me wonder again why we aren’t having sex and then I realize that he hasn’t assured me or promised me anything and all I’ve got out of him is that Anna’s problem is wrecking her really nice teeth that her parents paid thousands of dollars in orthodontic work for.
“I’ve just realized I need to be studying,” I say. “Walk me to the door?”
He opens the door and leans down and kisses me goodbye, tells me I have beautiful eyes and it makes me ask “Why aren’t we having sex?”
His eyes grow wide and he ducks his head out the door, checking the hallway. “Jesus, Elle.”
“Well, is something wrong?”
“Then why didn’t you want to have sex?”
It’s the first time I’ve seen him embarrassed.
“I, um… because I jerked off just before you arrived. Sorry.”
“Oh. Okay.” I smile. “Bye.”
The door closes behind me and I feel like skipping down the hallway but don’t. I constrain myself like a grown up would, but grin like a maniac all the way to my car.
“Have you ever spoken to someone,” Jamie says and the edge of his lips curve into a smirk, “and the next day they kill themselves?”
“Eww. Jamie, I came to look at your paintings, not hear about your weird fetishes.”
“Elle, your such a prude.”
“Maybe compared to you.” The paintings he has shown me are bad, but I tell him they’re good. I’ve known Jamie for as long as I can remember because our parents went to pre-natal classes together. Now his mom is gone and he hates his dad so I guess he feels like I’m the only family he has left.
“Do you, like, get it?” he asks. We’re in the middle of his empty apartment and looking at a series of three works leaning against a wall. Dark greens, purples and grey smeared on what Jamie says is the best canvas you can buy. Standing here it seems like a bit of a waste.
“Well? Do you get it?” he demands. When I don’t respond he leans his head over in my direction as if I might have a different view. “Of course you don’t get it. You’re not arty.”
“You’re as arty as an ‘I love my job’ accountant who plays Sudoku all weekend and watches The History Channel.”
“No, I’m arty in the way I live my life. I have my own creative interpretation of life. Some would even say that I’m a great thinker, maybe even cool.” I laugh
“Well then, what am I supposed to be getting? Enlighten me.” He turns to walk into the kitchen, shaking his head.
“You shouldn’t laugh” he says, “It’s not a joke. I’m serious.”
If I didn’t feel sorry for him already I do when he says, “Each piece stands alone to tell a story but together they convey the tales of lost souls, ever searching for truth and meaning in a world that has given up on them.”
“Oh,” I say. “Cool.”
“Yeah,” he says, “that’s generally the response.”
“So people like it?”
“No. Its sucks, doesn’t it?”
“No. Well maybe a little. Maybe try focusing on something a little simpler.”
“I don’t know. Things that other artists focus on. Love?”
“You think that’s simple?”
“I guess not.”
“Jesus. How the fuck would I paint love?”
I sit on a beanbag at the edge of the room and notice a hole smashed in the window. A chipped piece of brick is lying in front of me. Broken glass is scattered across the floor and I guess Jamie has just been walking around it. He probably thinks it’s artistic. I don’t mention the photo because Jamie and Jane never got on so well. The last time I brought her here she said, “Just because mummy and daddy aren’t home doesn’t mean you can smear shit on the wall.” It got her banned from all of Jamie’s future art exhibitions. I watch him gaze at his works, wondering where he went wrong. Jamie wouldn’t hurt anyone, other than himself.
“So, have you ever seen someone smiling and the next day they kill themselves?” he asks and I roll my eyes.
“Oh, I’ve just heard it’s a bit of a trip.”
I speak to my mum that night because she likes to hear about Jamie. I tell her how he has dedicated his life to a painting and that his paintings are terrible.
“The last thing that boy needs is another disappointment. After what happened between his mother and father.”
“Well he was talking about suicide,” I say, and smile to myself as my mother begins ranting about young people and drugs and death.
“I know, I know,” I say to her, “I told him just to keep it simple. Paint Love.”
“How on earth could he do that?”
“I don’t know. I’m not the painter.”
“Elle, you might have rose tinted glasses about love now, but it’s not what you think.”
“So I’ve been told.”
“Honey, love is mathematical. If you want to search for true love in seven billion people, you’ll be looking all your life. You’ll know you’ve found the right partner when you determine that the expected quality of all previous and future matches is lower than your current partner, based on an analysis of personal traits and lifestyle preferences. Taste and money matters more than all this nonsense about soul mates.”
“Oh. But that’s so…cold.” I can’t believe what I’m hearing from my own mother. She used to write poetry. I wonder if it’s because of what happened with Dad. I say I’m tired and that I’ve got to go and she says something about “love and war” as I hang up. All I can think about is that I don’t like mushrooms, which are Dane’s favourite food. Fucking mushrooms.
I see Marty the following day.
“Elle, how are you?”
“Well, I’m about to get my heart broken over mushrooms, and you’re a dick.”
His eyes widen and he suddenly looks like a little boy, incapable of the destruction of my friend. “Let’s get some coffee?” he offers.
“Okay.” I say, “You’re buying.”
We find a shop and order.
“So why’d you do it?” I say, good friend, bad cop. I fold my arms.
“I’m sorry that Jane is sad, of course I am, but Elle, it’s like what Bob Dylan said, when something’s not right it’s wrong. I didn’t feel like there was a reason for us to be together anymore. Maybe I could have treated her a little better toward the end there, like that night where I told her I didn’t think she was as smart as me, and that all the books and music and films she likes are made from a formula designed for fourteen year olds with too much pocket money. But it was over a long time ago. Why waste anymore time? And it’s not like she was innocent. She tried to convince me my grandfather was gay, and that if we were to ever have kids we couldn’t let him see them. I mean, what the fuck? The night she got really high she told me she dreams of her ex-boyfriends all the time. She told me she was bored with sex but then refused to try any new positions. The list goes on. I’ve been over it all in my head. It had to end.”
“So you sent her that photo because she wouldn’t try new sex positions?”
I dig it out of my bag and place it in front of him. “The photo you used to destroy my friend. You might as well have paid Mike Tyson to take a swing at her. It would have hurt less.”
“The fuck is this?” he says.
“Like you don’t know.”
“That’s not my photo. It was taken at the zoo. On Abby’s camera.”
“Who is Abby?” I ask and he points at the girl in the photo. He becomes tense and I don’t want to say anything.
“Abby sent this to Jane?” he stares at the photo in disbelief.
“I’m sorry, Marty,” I say.
“For what?” he snaps. “The fact that Jane is hurt and that I’m being charged as a sociopath, or that my girlfriend is the sociopath?” It’s strange hearing him say ‘my girlfriend’ and not be referring to Jane. “Why would she do that?”
“Marking her territory,” I offer, and I realise Marty, and Dane and Jamie all need to be afraid too, not just us girls.
He slumps back in his chair and sighs, “You think you know someone. Shit.”
“Yeah,” I say, and wonder what Dane is doing. I chew my nails. “It’s like, you know when you see someone smiling and the next day they kill themselves?”
And he says “Yes.”
And I say “Oh.”