Once upon a time, during a windy Melbourne afternoon, a man and a woman arranged to meet in a bar. The bar was indecisive, a Libra perhaps – it was partly underground, half-buried within a monstrous gothic building in the middle of the grey city. The windows were on eye-level with the sidewalk; the view a flurry of woolen ankles and leather shoes.
‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ said she. She had black hair and red lips, and eyes that looked weary as though they’d been forced shut for days. ‘But we must,’ said the man, who looked nervous in his seat and his suit. There was a plate of broken-up bread in between them and two glasses of red wine, like a modern day Last Supper for two. It was a late Friday afternoon, and the bar was taking deep breaths in the silence, readying itself for the swarm of after-hours mess.
The man and the woman were afraid of what lay beyond the murder of their so-called love affair. She had just found out that he had slept with an 18-year old brunette bartender on the night of their one-year anniversary. He was interstate for work, and he was saturated with apologies for being away for the occasion. ‘You know I’d rather be there celebrating with you,’ he said on the phone when he called to say Happy Anniversary. ‘I’d give my right toe to be there. I’m just about to head out and have a quiet meal with a mate. I’m so sorry my darling.’ His voice so lovely and warm. ‘I’ll call you tomorrow. I’ll make it up to you when I get back, I promise.’
The girl with the black hair picked him up at the airport the following evening, a little pouty but excited. He arrived like the Sultan of Brunei, tanned and smiling and sparkly-eyed, bearing gifts of jewels, dresses and books she knew she’d never read. She accepted them freely as they were offerings of apology and she thought it rude to reject gifts of any shape or form, especially if they were justified. She did not know then how far this silent apology went.
In fact, there were too many gifts, also too many answers to questions that were hasty and flippant. Too many muffled phone calls and hidden text messages. And an abundance of affection, more so than ever before. She had watched enough movies to see the signs of betrayal and guilt. She was, after all, an imposter-writer and writers are trained to sniff other people’s unwashed lives; study what makes people do what they do. Writers, she thought, embellish all that with poetry, obsess over acts of grief and punishment, how people succumb to temptation, and how they arrive at their decisions.
She was known to be devotedly stubborn, and it was this fanatical perseverance that saved her during that week. She was determined to ignore the heavy feeling in the pit of her stomach, so determined that she booked dinner at a very expensive, very new restaurant she’d been dying to go to – a belated anniversary dinner – and even bought herself a lovely red dress and killer heels to match. She drank too much champagne and it was a lovely, blur of an evening. They toasted and toasted ‘for many more to come.’
The girl with the red lips had asked him that very morning, snakelike and blatant – is there something you should be telling me? It sounded somewhat like a scolding, she could almost see herself standing over him with her hands on her waist, one eyebrow raised, reprimanding his petulance. And it was the realisation that she was right that winded her, and for once she had nothing to say.
His barely audible recounting of events hardly made its way into her ear. It hung in the abyss of phone lines and electricity, like the white dots you see when you close your eyes. She sat cross-legged on her bed, in her empty apartment overlooking the very building they were in now. She sat there in silence, cradling the phone in one hand, her weary, angry heart in the other.
Now here they were, sharing a meal half-underground, attempting to band-aid the damage with red wine. The sound of the thread snapping, the thread that connected them, was ringing loud in her ear. The only thing clear that wintery afternoon was the murkiness of what they would do after. ‘I can’t even look at you right now’, she hissed. ‘You can get it all out of your system if you like, if that would make you feel like a better person.’ The man loosened his tie and emptied his glass in two gulps.
Like everything to do with affairs that end badly within that stretch of time before you find true love, there is a staining that must occur in the human heart. She knew the lesson that had to be learnt, and knew that every woman has to sort through the shit to get to the prize. Which is why she admits the best writing she’d ever done were out of anger, and why she calls Wuthering Heights ‘a romance novel’. And why she studies with piercing concentration the face creams her mother had told her to buy, in the privacy of her immaculately clean bathroom. Lord knows she may have a good decade of shit-sorting ahead of her until she finally gets to The One. We can also go as far as to say, the girl almost feels a tingly sort of pleasure from the drama that begins and ends with heartache. It makes her feel alive, like when you’re laughing so hard your stomach hurts and you’re fighting for breath.
She looked up from the plate of bread and sad-looking dips and out the window, feeling the cold beginning of an ending in the air. The dirty teeth and stained lips after red wine. The punishment for not being beautiful enough. The jumping into the wrong relationships to avoid being alone. This is an inevitable thing, and for her, it began early. ‘No, dear, its just because you fall in love with all the wrong men’, her mother once said, waving her right hand in front of her face, bursting the lazy trail of smoke from the cigarette in her mouth. ‘You follow your heart too much, and not your pretty head.’ And yet the punishment was for something far more obscure than a simple failure to be more beautiful. And the punishment laid the groundwork for what she wanted and what she didn’t ever want, out of men, about herself, out of love. It was a lose and wobbly see-saw of losing and learning.
The girl had the sudden urge to climb up on top of the couch and reach out the window. She wanted to grab an ankle or two, drag the person attached to them through the hole on the wall, and make them sit in this dungeon of a bar bruised and bewildered. She’d pin their arms down, force their jaw towards this man’s face, telling them – look! Look at this creature trying to break my heart.
The man lifted an arm to wave the waiter over for another drink, and she snapped out of it and stood up. She noticed then how his arms were too tight for his suit jacket, how his hair was thinning from the crown. He was staring up at her expectedly, a little surprised and a little scared it seemed, like a puppy left out in the rain. This made her feel sorry for him. He was waiting for a drilling of some sort, a spray of female emotions: public tears, long, loud, painful breaths. She was sure her silence confused him, and it was delicious and annoying at the same time.
She put on her coat and walked away, up the cold flight of stairs and out into the bustling street full of people breaking free from office buildings. She walked past the window of the bar and realised that if they were in a movie, he’d be watching her walk away, in slow motion perhaps, she looking wonderful from behind with the wind through her hair.
Instead, he had looked up and out the window. He watched the flurry of feet, left to right, right to left, trying to get from one place to another.
He had no idea what shoes she was wearing.