I’m your average, modern, twenty-something bloke and I’ve been with the same girl for three years now.
The trouble is, I seem to be having some kind of identity crisis. Don’t get me wrong, I love my girlfriend very much. But we live in her house, surrounded by her furniture and her ceramic ducks. And on the rare occasions that we socialise, it’s mostly with her friends. I seem to have gradually lost touch with a lot of my old buddies.
In short, it’s like I’m losing my own sense of self. But I don’t know how to explain this to her. Like I’m gradually shrinking. And I’m afraid that one day I’ll wake up and I won’t exist at all. And who’ll be me then?
Please help. I’m stuck in a rut and life is rushing past me. What can I do?
Dear Diminishing Concerns,
Remember, the only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth. So it’s good you’ve come to me for a bit of a push.
Romantic comedies may depict relationships as being charming and quirky and full of moonlit moments and perfect teeth. But relationships in real life are very different. They can be intense and clammy with lots of fluorescent lighting and weird, uncomfortable moments. Especially when ceramic ducks are involved. This is the real world. It’s been going on for thousands of years. Or at least since the late ’60s. Get used to it.
Regarding the shrinking - you may have to tread carefully as some everyday activities might start to become logistically hazardous. Like going to the toilet. You might need to hold onto a rope or something as you balance on the toilet seat, leaning forward to press the button. Otherwise you could topple in.
And could there possibly be a more depressing snapshot of your life than being stuck in the S-bend as everything flushes past you? Hang on, that sounds like your life already.
With kind regards,
It was one of those awkward, unexpected social encounters. You know, when the other person says “hi” and you say “good thanks” and you both pretend not to notice.
To be honest, I probably shouldn’t have been out in public at all, mixing with other humans. I’d only come up to the shops for some comfort food. I was grumpy, unshaven and wearing track pants and an old t-shirt with sweat rings under the armpits. I thought I’d be safely incognito behind a pair of dark sunnies. I was wrong.
“Hey, Wridgeway!” The familiar nasally voice was coming from right behind me.
I grit my teeth and waited a beat. Could I pretend I hadn’t heard?
He wasn’t giving up. I was busted. I turned around with a phoney grin on my face. “Hey, Travis.”
“I thought it was you, skulking along like that. In your own world as usual. You were miles away, weren’t you?”
It was Travis Watson, an old school buddy. I hadn’t laid eyes on him for ages but he was still wearing mismatched designer clothes a size too small for him.
“Nice trackie daks,” he continued, clearly on a roll. “What, did you find them in an op shop? Oh, by the way this is Mindy.” He indicated a very young, blonde woman who was standing next to him. She was wearing wobbly stilettos and what looked like a petticoat. “Min, this is Gus Wridgeway, who I went to high school with about a hundred years ago.”
I offered the girl a sweaty palm. “Nice to meet you, Mindy.” She had one of those limp, dead fish handshakes usually popular with old ladies. Her eyes, nose and mouth all looked way too big for her face.
Travis was continuing, but now he was looking at Mindy. “We’ve been together for, what… almost three months now?”
“Two and a bit,” said the girl. The sound of her voice made her suddenly seem younger than she looked. I smiled, but a little mechanically. I’d just had the sudden creepy feeling that she might have been only about sixteen.
Travis was frowning. “Isn’t it three months?”
“No, only two. It was the end of November.”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive.” She fiddled with her phone and held it up to him. “See, this was your first text to me.”
He peered at the screen. “Yeah, two months,” he said, turning back to me. He still sounded highly pleased with himself. To be honest, this was probably fair enough. It was practically a record for him. He squeezed her hand. “We met online and just clicked straight away, didn’t we, Min?”
I smiled sardonically, wiggling my right index finger. “Well, relationships that start online usually involve some clicking.”
“You’re a freak, Wridgeway. Hey, I heard that you and Monique split up.”
I suppose I should’ve seen this coming. But part of me was still privately fretting about being busted in public dressed like a bogan.
I nodded slowly. “Yeah, a few weeks ago now. On New Year’s Eve, actually.”
“Shit, I’m really sorry, man. You were together for ages.”
“Yeah. Sure. Fine. It wasn’t a huge drama or anything.” A lump the size of an orange was suddenly lodged in my throat. For a terrifying moment I thought I might burst into tears. “But I think the timing probably helped a bit. You know, a clean break… a new start, and all that. Although it wasn’t much fun at midnight.”
“I’ll bet. Hey, you still writing for… what’s it called again? That newspaper … The Trombone?”
“Trumpet,” I said, relieved. “The City Trumpet. Yeah, I’m a regular contributor now. Feature articles mainly.” I was hoping to Hell he wouldn’t ask about my other job. My real job.
Is that the paper with The Yak?” asked Mindy suddenly.
I nodded. “yeah, that’s the one. Out every Thursday.”
Her over-sized features lit up with apparent delight, making her forehead and chin almost completely disappear. “Oh I love The Yak! He’s so out there! Who is it? Have you ever met them?”
I shook my head as a hot flush crept up my neck like a saucepan boiling over. “The Editor likes to keep the whole thing a bit enigmatic… You know… mysterious.”
Travis asked what articles I’d written lately. I knew he was only being polite as his interests didn’t really extend much beyond the Stock Market. But I was grateful for the conversational change. I rattled off a couple of articles I’d had published lately, but his eyes started to glaze over in about ten seconds. So I wrapped it up quickly. “Anyway, it keeps me off the streets.”
“Except tonight,” said Travis.
He peered into the flimsy plastic shopping bag I’d been trying to hold discretely out of view behind my back. “What’ve you got in here? Corn chips? And what’re these?” He picked out the bag of jelly makes and gave me a smirk. “Dinner?”
“Research,” I said gravely.
Another smirk. “Yeah, right.”
“Seriously. I’m working on an article that explores the connection between junk food and people’s ability to talk crap convincingly. It’s a whole new area of psychological study. Seriously, man. It’s something to do with the reward centres in the brain and the pre-frontal cortex. Anyway it was great seeing you again, man. And nice to meet you, Mindy. But I have some serious research to get started on.”
We said our goodbyes and parted. I continued heading home, the bitter, metallic taste of mild humiliation still stinging inside my mouth.
I first met Monique 10,000 feet above the baking Australian outback. I was in Seat 18D. She was directly behind me in 19D. There are lots of different ways you can meet someone on a five hour domestic flight. But accidentally groping their foot usually isn’t usually one of them.
I’d been in Perth for a mate’s wedding. I was about two hours in to the flight back to Sydney. And I was feeling like crap. I was hungover and bleary-eyed. I’d already asked the flight attendant for some pills.
Anyway, I was sitting in an aisle seat and was flopping my arm down on the outside of the seat, running my hands over it in sheer boredom and misery, tracing a pattern on the metalwork. My fingers found something smooth and loose that I could wiggle back and forth. I’d been doing this idly for a minute or so when I looked down and saw that it wasn’t part of the seat that I’d been fondling, but someone’s foot. The smartly-stilettoed foot of the woman sitting behind me, thrust discretely out into the aisle at the very base of my seat.
It was one of those moments when your brain seems to slow right down. All background sounds seemed to fade out as if someone has just turned the volume down. I remained holding the foot, staring at it with an oddly clinical kind of fascination, noting every detail. It was an attractive foot, neither bony nor chubby. It was attached to a sheer stockinged leg that disappeared out of my line of vision behind the seat. The stiletto encasing the foot was dark red and shiny and had long pointy heels. Just for a moment it was the most alluring thing I’d ever seen.
I blinked. Time started rolling again. The background noises slowly returned to their normal level. Instantly I dropped the foot. I slumped right down in my seat, burning. I think I stopped breathing altogether.
Then I heard a female voice close to my ear. “Are you a reflexologist or something?” it hissed.
And there she was, leaning around the edge of my seat. Monique. My very first view of her. Or second, if you counted the foot. She was wearing almost no make-up and her Buddy Holly style glasses looked large and chunky on her pale oval face. Her dark hair was bobbed to about neck-length and had a deep acrylic sheen.
All I could manage was a pathetic little gurgling noise of apology.
Thankfully though, she smiled. “Sorry for that, but my legs are very long and I have to stretch them out when I’m working on the laptop.”
It seemed odd that she was the one apologising. I attempted another mumbled apology of my own. But she laughed dismissively as if the whole episode was already irrelevant. “I’m Monique.” She held out a smooth, long fingered white hand. “Monique Tierney.”
Last names as well! My embarrassment was crippling. But this girl somehow already had me under some kind of spell. I bravely held out my own clammy hand. “Gus. Wridgeway.”
“Gus. Gus.” She rolled the name around on her tongue like a burning chickpea. “What’s that short for? Angus?”
I reddened. “Augustus.”
“Oh.” Her smile grew broader. “The Magnificent One.”
“Yeah. That’s me. Magnificent.” This was an attempt at wittiness but the words just came out of me in a quiet dribble.
After a couple more minutes of awkward conversation the guy sitting next to Monique offered to swap seats with me so that she and I could talk more comfortably. I wondered how long he’d been listening, waiting to jump into the conversation. I had some reservations about this seat shuffle, as I was still feeling a bit vomity and anti social. But I was hypnotised by this girl’s shrewd green cat’s eyes as they bored in to me and before I knew what was happening I was sitting next to her.
She had no hesitation in offering me the most personal details of her life. She was 28 (three years older than me), was establishing her own consultancy business, lived in an inner city terrace with rising damp and already had a messy divorce behind her, which gave her a shop-soiled, used goods kind of attraction.
By the time the plane touched down onto the runway with an exhausted screech, Monique’s stockinged knee had been pressing gently but firmly against mine for over an hour, sending little shock waves of electricity up into my groin and leaving my clothes clammy against my skin, oiled with hot, carnal sweat.
While we were waiting by the luggage carousel she handed me her business card, a cryptic little white oblong, trimmed with gold and displaying the words: Monique Tierney, Opportunity Specialist in a minimalist, no nonsense corporate font.
“So what does an Opportunity Specialist do?” I asked.
“Call me,” she said, tracing her tongue against her lower lip with feline precision. “And I’ll show you.”
Then she turned and strode away, her stilettos clicking sharply against the tiled floor, the leather carrier containing her laptop slung over one shoulder. It was my first view of her from behind, her straight back and pert, heart-shaped arse. The prospect of seeing that lean greyhound body and those small proud breasts naked was something I found completely irresistible.
I called her first thing the next morning. Unfortunately I hadn’t given a thought to where we might actually go, but luckily Monique had two spare tickets to the theatre.
After the play, we went back to Monique’s place for coffee. Her house had thirteen-foot ceilings, squeaky floorboards and was chock full of her grandmother’s over-sized, mahogany furniture. There was also a set of three ceramic wall ducks, soaring operatically, mid-flap, above the mantelpiece.
There were large glossy film noir posters tacked to every wall, including one above the toilet, which I studied dispassionately while I was taking a leak. When I returned to the kitchen, I found Monique quietly preparing the coffee, but now completely naked except for those shiny red stilettos. She turned and caressed me with a calm stare as I gasped for breath in the kitchen doorway. She looked like something out of a porno. “Milk?” she asked, holding up the carton.
That was the first of many dates with a similar porn movie type of ending. I moved out of Mum and Dad’s place in the suburbs and in with Monique and the ducks about six months later.
I’d always thought the biggest drawback of being in a relationship (especially at the beginning) was that you had to hold in your farts.
But not with Monique. To my delight she turned out to be as proud a farter as I was. She had impeccable control of course, but when she did let rip, she did it with as much pride and delight as any bloke.
I was surprised at how seamlessly I slipped into Monique’s life. During the week, her killer work schedule meant there wasn’t time for much more than dinner, a bit of a canoodle on the lounge followed by some hurried sex before Monique fell asleep, exhausted. But weekends were lazy and languid. Monique liked to spend all morning reading the Sunday papers over several cups of strong black coffee. Then we’d go indoor rock climbing, which was sometimes followed by a movie.
Monique loved movies and fortunately had very broad tastes. She’d enjoy a schlocky B-grade horror flick (one of my fave genres) as much as those boring artsy foreign films with subtitles which she occasionally dragged me to. And in spite of her practical, businesslike mind, her favourite movie of all time was The Wizard of Oz. Go figure.
I didn’t have Monique all to myself. I had to share her with Cleo, her overindulged and overweight cat. Cleo’s coat was ‘tortoiseshell’, but to me it always seemed to have a subtle greenish tinge, like the colour of white pepper. So that’s what I nicknamed her. The name seemed so right that even Monique started calling her that.
White Pepper was a pretty thing, but one of the dumbest cats I’d ever known. She often seemed to forget what room she was in, and her favourite pastime was spending hours staring down the plughole in the shower. Sometimes at night I’d wake up to find her sitting on top of us, curled on top of the doona like a large fuzzy green cushion, blinking at me, obviously cold but looking as though she’d forgotten how to get under the covers. This sometimes happened in reverse. She could spend the whole day as an almost motionless lump under the sheets and I’m sure it was because she’d forgotten how to get out. Sometimes I’d try to help her along by climbing into bed and farting under the covers. But even that didn’t seem to jog her memory much. Although she did once take an open-clawed swipe at my genitals.
This cozy life of domestic bliss with Monique and White Pepper lasted for well over a year – quite a long honeymoon period, I suppose. The trouble started when I quit my boring number-crunching desk job to become a stay-at-home writer. This was at Monique’s suggestion (and my mother’s intense disapproval). My writing mostly involved articles and stuff for The City Trumpet with my novel-in-progress on the side; a Stephen King-inspired psychological thriller about some very nasty goings-on at a remote property on the edge of the Australian outback. I was convinced this blood-chilling opus would be my big breakthrough as a writer. It would be my Carrie.
This stay-at-home arrangement might sound like every writer’s dream, but there were some hidden drawbacks. Principally, Monique liked to go through whatever I’d written during the day and offer “constructive criticism”. About five percent of this was useful. Monique was great with spelling, grammar and sentence structure, but drowned quickly when it came to imagination and abstract ideas. Plus, I didn’t want the story to read like the CEO’s message in the annual report of a multinational mining company.
But my biggest issue was isolation. Sitting at home alone for hours at a time with no-one but White Pepper to talk to really started to do my head in. I tried to explain to Monique that I needed to be out in the workforce again, mixing with the human race, and that the need to work was a deep and primal “guy” thing. In retrospect, this probably wasn’t the best thing to say to an ambitious career woman with strong feminist leanings.
As if to make fun of what Monique called my “beer coaster psychology”, fate landed me a job driving the trackless train around the Royal Botanic Gardens. The gig was basically that of a tour guide, pointing out the various attractions, dispensing snippets of local history, plus the Latin name of about every plant in the Gardens. The train’s three dinky little carriages offered cramped seating for 30 people, who paid $12.00 each for the experience. And I had to wear a uniform too, which was exactly the same cheerful shade of pink as the carriages’ festive little canopies, right down to the little peaked cap bearing my name. When I told Monique about the job, all she said was that she hoped it would make me feel like a man again.
The end of the relationship, when it finally came, arrived with a whimper rather than a bang. I suppose it’d be more interesting if there’d been lots of raised voices, tears, slammed doors and even some smashed crockery. But there was none of that.
I’m still not sure exactly what went wrong. I suppose lots of little tensions just grew between us. Monique claimed I was becoming too co-dependent. She also started to object to the amount of porn I was watching. But with her libido reduced to a slow drip, what else was I supposed to do? We had more and more long talks about where the relationship was headed. The final one of these talks took place on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve and ended with a decision for us to call it quits and for me to move out and establish some independence.
That night, Monique went out to a New Year’s Eve party with friends, (although at least she had the decency to shed a few tears over the demise of our relationship before she left). At midnight as fireworks were exploding over a delirious city, I was sitting alone at home, browsing real estate agents’ websites for a new place to live.
Of course my mother was insistent that I should return to the family home in the suburbs and thought I was being “financially irresponsible” by staying in the city. It’s true it was a much more expensive decision, but Mum’s disapproval only served to strengthen my resolve to make a go of it on my own.
I found a little studio apartment in a ’70s style brick building the colour of stale bread crust, and moved out of Monique’s house less than a week later. As I owned almost no furniture, all this involved was one trip in my beat-up little Madza with three cardboard boxes containing my clothes, books and laptop (plus one of Monique’s red stilettos which got accidentally scooped up in the process).
The very next day was my twenty-eighth birthday, the age Monique had been when we first met. To mark the dismal occasion I spent the night watching some second-rate porn and bonding with my other present to myself - a bottle of premium, eight year old Wild Turkey Kentucky bourbon – the best that money can buy. You should always save the good stuff for moments of pain.
My new home consisted of just three rooms – bathroom, kitchen and combined lounge/bedroom, all with the synthetic tang of cheap, newly-laid carpet. The walls were “freshly-painted” too - a seedy, mottled yellow as ugly as it was depressing – the colour of a hangover. There was no balcony, and the laundry was a shared one; a dusty concrete outhouse containing three ancient coin-operated washing machines that were clearly in the autumn of their careers.
As my flat was so small, my almost complete lack of furniture turned out to be an advantage. I really only needed a mattress and a fridge. I picked up a squashy king-sized futon from a discount bedding place. The fridge I acquired second hand for the grand sum of $45. It was a large, cranky old thing covered with old-ladyish wallpaper and barely fit into its alcove in the kitchen. It wheezed and gurgled so loudly I had to keep the kitchen door closed at night.
The apartment block was old and drab, but seemed to be fairly well maintained. In the foyer there were a couple of notices printed on A4 paper, telling residents about trash and recycling days and the number to call for major emergencies like burst water pipes. I found this background caretaking oddly reassuring, like an invisible benevolent force that was looking after us all (although the word ‘residents’ was misspelt, which just goes to show that even invisible benevolent forces don’t always use Spell Check).
I scarcely got a chance to meet any of my new neighbours, as they seemed to come and go at odd times and mostly kept to themselves. A young Indian couple lived directly below me, and every day at about 5.30pm the most mouth watering fragrant aromas wafted up from their open kitchen window. I vowed to myself that I’d get off my lazy arse and start doing some home cooking myself.
Next door to me was a crabby silver-haired older bloke who liked to play a badly-tuned electric guitar very loudly during the day. This was often accompanied by loud screeching singing. He was very defensive when I knocked at his door and politely asked him to lower the levels a bit. He was 54 years old, newly-divorced and finally chasing his boyhood dream of being a famous country and western singer. I probably should’ve felt humbled and honoured to be in proximity to such greatness. But he was telling me all of this at his front door as I stood on his doormat wearing singlet and trackie daks, and I really just wanted to get back to my porn.
The only one of my neighbours that I really got to know was the little stray cat that hung out near the laundry and who I nicknamed (not very imaginatively)… Cat. She was a skinny, moth-eaten old thing with half an ear missing and white fur that had turned the colour of dirty dishwater. She liked to sun herself on the little brick wall by the clotheslines, and was never too shy to engage in conversation. I started giving her scraps of food and the occasional saucer of milk, for which she was so grateful I couldn’t bring myself to stop doing it.
I also made good on my vow to explore my culinary side. Inspired by my Indian neighbours, I found a simple Dahl recipe online, then raced out energetically to buy all the ingredients. I imbued the cooking of this meal with all the ceremony and occasion of a special event, somehow convincing myself in the process that the path to redemption and maturity was through the frying pan.
What I hadn’t counted on discovering, unfortunately, was that cooking the meal wasn’t really the hurdle – eating it was. As I stared at the steaming plate of Dahl (greyer and gluggier than in the photo), something inside me seemed to wither and die. It all suddenly seemed so pointless. With a heavy heart, I scraped the food into a plastic container and banished it to the back of the fridge.
I returned to it hours later when I was woken from a deep, dreamless sleep by gnawing hunger pains that felt like my stomach was trying to turn itself inside out. I ended up eating it cold, straight from the fridge at 2am, racked by a profound sense of anti climax. I washed it all down with an orange juice chaser, drinking straight from the carton. For a moment I even seriously considered cracking open a beer.
I returned to bed and draped myself, spreadeagled, on the damp sheets. It was a sweltering night with not a breath of air. On a sudden impulse I threw on a pair of boxers and a tank top, and padded down the stairs with my orange juice into the marginally cooler stillness of the courtyard. The cement was still surprisingly warm under my bare feet as I slipped across to the little brick wall near the clotheslines. A single bathroom towel was hanging perfectly motionless, alone and forgotten. It struck me as being the loneliness thing I’d ever seen.
I perched myself on the bricks and took a swig from the carton. Then I spent a few moments staring up at the velvety night sky. These moments were always the hardest. The quietness and stillness would somehow remind me all over again of everything that was lost. And then the grief would come, flooding all through me like a tidal surge, saturating every cell. I stared at the moon, a shining, chunky fingernail floating in the velvet. Somewhere, not all that far away, Monique was sleeping under that same moon. With White Pepper and an empty space next to her.
The moon went blurry.
I jumped as something furry brushed against my hand. But it was only Cat, sniffing leisurely at my fingers, investigating this unexpected nocturnal visitor. She spent a few minutes industriously licking her paws, then looked up at me expectantly and meowed. Her flinty eyes were remarkably pearly and luminous in the moonlight.
“Couldn’t sleep,” I replied, giving her a smile.
She nodded, then busied herself with some more grooming. The courtyard was so silent, her licking seemed louder than ever. After a while she had a good stretch, then comfortably nestled against my leg so closely that I could feel the slow, gentle vibrato of her purring.
We sat a silent vigil for a few minutes, listening. I couldn’t remember ever feeling so alone with another living thing before.
Eventually she looked up at me with another meow. Forceful and direct this time, with no upward lilt at the end, so I knew it wasn’t a question, but a statement.
I reached out and stroked her on the back, feeling the bony mountain ridge of her spine beneath the thin, course fur. “I know,” I said with a quiet sigh. “Me too.”