By the time I texted her, I’d forgotten what she looked like. Amelia, I mean. That girl from the party. I could put the individual facts of her appearance together—her accurate hair, her collarbones, legs, that straight mouth—but I couldn’t assemble her in my mind.
Pete gave me her number. Asking him to get it for me was a little session of torture. We were watching cricket. “Pete?” I said.
“Can you get me Amelia’s number?”
“Amelia. From that party. You said you could.”
“That party last year? Symphony’s mate?”
“Fuck,” he said, and stared at the TV. So did I.
“So?” I said.
“What do you want her number for? What precisely are you going to do with it?”
“Oh, really?” He was going to go on, I think, but began yelling at the cricket instead. The Sri Lankan captain was caught at second slip. It was a relief for me too, the wicket and the interruption. And then, suddenly, Pete rose from the couch, announced, “I’m going to the gym,” and left, leaving his phone on the cushion and a dead sausage on a plate.
I was alone with the TV. A Bunnings ad came on, with a narrative as follows: If you shop at Bunnings you save money therefore you can buy more stuff therefore you can get more done therefore your wife will love you more. I got caught up in it for a second—I found myself threaded into its twisted logic, tiptoeing along its haltering non sequitur. I felt a surge of panic. But I don’t have a wife, I thought.
A few days later Pete left a note for me, stuck to the kitchen bench with a plug of bacon grease. It said, Wade, go get her, with a phone number written on the bottom.
So I texted her. It was quite long. It said, hi amelia its wade we met at a party last year I used to know symphony who used to go out with a friend of mine, and actually I still know symphony, I am the guy who told the story about the rats, was wondering whats up and maybe we could catch up for a coffee or something but only if you’re not too busy let me know cheers wade
After I sent it, I deleted the message from my sent items to remove the agonising possibility of reading it again, and then immediately retrieved it from my trash folder and restored it to my sent items. I reread the message. Rats? Jesus. Nothing more memorable about me than the rats? Then, for fun, I panicked about my use of apostrophes.
Amelia replied about two minutes later. Her text said, Call me later. At work now.
It was a Thursday, that day when I texted her, and I was alone in the flat. First day of the second test match. Sri Lanka were mashing our faces into the dirt. It was humiliating.
Another Bunnings ad came on. Surely, surely, one day, surely one day everything that needs to be DIYed is going to have already been DIYed, and then Bunnings is going to be right in the shit. Home improvement cannot be an inexhaustible resource. What’s the long-term value proposition?
Pete got home around 3pm. He was on fire, like he gets sometimes. He stormed in and yelled, “Worms!”
“Those little segmented bastards. Mouth at one end, arse at the other, and a straight-through tube for turning mud to food.” He thrust his arm straight out and tilted his hand vertical when he said “straight-through”. He held this gesture while he pivoted and pointed towards the fridge. He opened the fridge and found a sausage. He took a bite of it, then shook the remainder at me. “They’ve got whatever sex parts you might want. It’s all on for man and beast. Take it as it comes and any which way, loose as you like for my dirty tubular purple wormy buddies.”
“Worms! Holy shit!”
He walked back to the fridge, grabbed a beer and opened it. He came back into the lounge flipping the bottle top like a coin, shaking his head. “Those little hermaphroditic bastards. Good on them. Good on them.” He walked around the lounge for a bit, thinking about worms no doubt, then sat down beside me to look at the TV. “Oh fucking hell.”
“I know,” I said.
“Those Sri Lankan pricks.”
“I know,” I said.
Pete said, “You see I got you Amelia’s number?”
“Did you call her, sausage?” Pete sometimes calls me whatever he’s eating at the time. It’s weirdly intimate.
I didn’t feel much like talking about Amelia to him. I was ruffled by the rant about worms. So I just stared at the cricket, thinking about puking because of the cricket and also because of my overly long text messages and the state of my life.
“Wade, mate?” said Pete.
“I texted her.”
“She texted back and told me to call her later.” Pete turned to me with a serious look on his face like he was going to tell me that maybe he had terminal prostate cancer, and said, “High-five,” and put his palm towards me. Despite my terror of high-fiving, I went through with it.
“I’ve been thinking about her, Wade, and am ready to give you my opinion. Stand by.” He went to get a beer. On his way to the fridge he accidentally kicked the wheel of his bike that was leaning against the kitchen bench. He didn’t make a sound but pulled an outrageous face, like a cartoon character in silent, indescribable pain.
The sad thing was, I was nervous about what he was going to say. Instant anxiety. And even worse, he knew it. He got the beer, then walked with an exaggerated limp back to the couch, and waited, I guess to elevate the tension, I guess to stretch out my anxiety. He used a beer burp to focus my attention, like a judge uses a gavel, then said, “Therefore, be advised: she’s a honey.”
“A honey. Okay.”
“Aaaaa-ffirmative.” He saluted.
“I’m so glad,” I said, with heavy sarcasm that I didn’t feel. I was relieved, even against my desire not to care what he thought. It must have been that relief, that feeling of mateship you get when you get another guy’s approval, because before I even had a chance to stop myself I blurted, “I like her collarbones.”
This comment filled the room. No-one moved. The atmosphere grew heavy and still, the air mouldering. Then, after exhaling through his nose, Pete said to himself, “Collarbones,” and got up off the couch. “I’m going for a shower.” He stopped before he left the room though, turned and said, “Wade, you’re not a hermaphrodite are you?” and then, abruptly, “Don’t answer that!”
The front of our flat faced south, which is why it was always dark, and the back of the flat faced north, so that’s where the sun was and that’s where the landlords had built a small balcony. From there, Mt Eden Road ran narrow and busy through the village.
Pete took a sack of Mad Butcher sausages out of the freezer. Pete mostly ate sausages. You wouldn’t know, because he was so buff, but it’s a fact. He cooked them in bulk, straight from the freezer, and they lasted a few days, sometimes a week, depending on how many he cooked. I followed him out to the balcony where the BBQ leaned against the rail. He put forty sausages on the BBQ, in four rows of ten, and stood, prodding.
“Where are you taking her, on your date?”
I didn’t know. I was a complete amateur and needed to be euthanized for my own protection and to prevent me from breeding.
“I hadn’t thought about that,” I said.
Pete put down his tongs. He held up the palm of his hand as if it were a mirror and said, in a plain tone, “Oh my fucking God.” He then picked the tongs back up and poked at his sausages, rolling them all over a quarter-turn, revealing incomplete parallel black stripes. I had a fairly strong surge of nausea.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“Straightforward. Go to the whisky tasting they have at The Forkers. That way, if she hates you she can at least get drunk, and if she likes you, the booze can loosen her up and increase your chances of giving her the worm.”
His logic was infallible. Except: “What if she likes me but I don’t like her?” At that, Pete pretended to throw his tongs at me. “That’s the spirit.”
It would’ve been better if I could have remembered what she looked like. But the harder I tried, the worse it got. By the time I made the call, she was nothing but a disembodied haircut.
“Hello?” she said.
“Hi, Amelia? It’s Wade.”
“So, you remember me, right? From that party at”—Jesus, I couldn’t remember the guy’s name—“from that party last year?”
“Yes, of course, I remember. You shook my hand when I left.” That was right but not right. She’d shaken my hand. But now that I heard her voice, I remembered what she looked like. I saw her there, in that dress carrying her shoes to the door and saying goodbye. Shaking hands.
“How’s Pete?” she asked. I had somehow forgotten that she knew him, but of course she did.
“He’s—he’s the same.”
“And how’s your study going?”
My study had stalled because I was supposed to be writing the final version of my research proposal and I wasn’t, because whenever I sat down to start writing I felt a sudden and expansive combination of sleepiness and humiliation. I was avoiding my supervisor in person and sending him emails detailing the progress I wasn’t making. “Pretty well,” I said.
“Oh, yeah. No, actually. I changed my major. Sociology now.”
My supervisor had rejected the first three projects I’d come up with, and it looked like I was headed to do some sort of qualitative study of social factors affecting people’s emotional responses to public transport, which meant I was probably going to be asking strangers on the street what they liked about the bus. “I’m still nailing it down.”
“But it’ll be in urban psychological sociology with a tie into public health.” I sounded, suddenly and predictably, like a wanker.
“Right,” she said.
“How’s work?” I asked, hating myself.
“Work’s work. Busy, draining. So—”
“You want to catch up for a coffee, then? That’s what you texted, right?”
“Yeah, that’s right. But, no, do you know The Forkers?” Oh, shit. Shit. It was all shit now. I had forgotten, when Pete had suggested The Forkers, that I had originally asked her for coffee. Now I was pushing the Forkers plan, throwing the coffee out the window. But I had to proceed. “They have whisky tasting once a month, I thought we could check it out and sample some of what’s on offer.” It sounded pretty much like I was trying to get her drunk. Or implying she was an alcoholic.
“I don’t really like whisky.”
“Oh. You can probably drink something else.” To satisfy your alcohol addiction, Amelia, obviously.
“Oh,” I said.
“What?” she asked.
The Oh had meant, oh okay, I see it was tolerable for exactly half a second and then I ballsed it up and it doesn’t really matter but it’s all gone straight to hell and I’ll let you go.
“Yeah, I’m here, sorry.”
“You said about coffee in your text?”
“Wade, will you meet me for coffee, then?”
“Sunday after next?” She talked a bit more. My hands were on my forehead, and I was squeezing the phone to my ear with the point of my shoulder and my cheeks ached with whatever facial arrangement I had adopted.
“Okay, see you,” she said.
“K bye thanks see you then,” I said.
About ten minutes later I realised I hadn’t listened when she gave me the details. I had a subclinical panic attack and then made a plan. I would text after a suitable period of time and say my idiot flatmate has thrown out the piece of paper on which I had jotted down the details, and could you please remind me again where and when we were going to catch up?
I reckoned it would work, the text plan, and I drafted the message right then and there. I swapped details for deets, then swapped it back again, and saved the text to drafts. It was about quarter to nine, but I went to bed anyway. I lay awake until 4:30am, at which time the neighbour got home and puked into his shrubbery and slammed his door, so I got up.
It was Sunday afternoon, the Sunday before the Sunday when I was to have catch-up coffee with Amelia. I didn’t know where yet, or what time—that draft text was still unsent.
Pete and I were sitting outside on the front veranda, in the shade. Pete had a bad hangover, so I was keeping things quiet. I was thinking about my research project. I had agreed with my supervisor that by Monday I would create the formal project outline and complete the draft of my questionnaire. I’d done none of it. On Friday night Pete and I had got Chinese from the smorgasbord place down the road and watched American Idol. On Saturday I did nothing at all during the day and then at night I played video games until about 2am. Pete had gone out.
Even though I was sitting there thinking about my project, I wasn’t contemplating actually doing any work. I was thinking about how to explain my project to Amelia next week and still sound like a worthwhile human being. I hadn’t cracked that nut yet.
“I fucked up,” said Pete. His eyes were closed.
“Symphony hates me.”
“Symphony?” He hadn’t talked about her for a long time. They’d broken up two years ago.
“I saw her last night.” His eyes were still closed, and he didn’t say anything more for maybe a minute. “I’ve been stalking her, you know?”
“What?” I said. Pete opened his eyes and looked at me and sort of half smiled.
“Not really stalking. Just thinking about her. And watching a bit.” Another pause. “And sometimes I phone her.”
“That sounds like stalking,” I said.
“I told you, I fucked up.”
“I saw her last night,” he said.
“Why?” I asked. He tried to sit up straight, failed, and slouched down again, easing back into his hangover, and closed his eyes.
“I talked to her the other day, you know, to get Amelia’s number for you. I had to call her about five times before she would talk to me. So once she actually rang me back and gave me Amelia’s number, I asked if she wanted to go out on Saturday.”
“She told me to fuck off, but after I made a cock of myself for asking so many times, she gave up, and we met for a drink. I think she pretty much just wanted to see me so she could tell me to fuck off in person. She left pretty quick. Then I met up with some of the guys and just drank.”
“So, okay.” I figured that now was a good time to ask. “Why did you and Symphony split, anyway?” I asked.
“I was too much of a man for her.”
He looked at me. “What does it matter?” he said. I shrugged and he closed his eyes. “She figured she had had enough of sleeping with someone she hated.”
“Why did she hate you?”
“Why does she hate me, present tense.”
“Okay, why does she hate you?”
“Fucked if I know,” said Pete, “You’d be better asking her. Why don’t you, she liked you.”
Huh? “What do you mean?”
Pete took in a long breath, like an inverted sigh, and raised himself off his chair. “Look, last night I told her thanks for giving me Amelia’s number to give to you, and she said she couldn’t work out why you and I were friends anyway, and why a guy like you would bother hanging around with a fuckwit like me. No, hang on, she didn’t say fuckwit. She said wanker. She said why’d you hang out with a wanker like me. So I said ‘What makes it so Wade isn’t a wanker?’ and she said you were ‘good to talk to’.”
When Pete said “good to talk to”, he made inverted commas in the air.
He continued. “Oh yeah, she also said you looked at her titties all the time.”
“What? Hang on—”
“Okay. Fair play. She didn’t say that. What happened was I said ‘Oohh so he’s sooooo good to talk to is he?’—look I was being a real prick by then— and she said ‘Yes!’ and then she like whacked me with her fist, and then I told her that Wade probably looks at your tits when you’re not watching, and she said that she wouldn’t care if you did. Or wouldn’t mind. Or something.”
“Which was it?”
“Care, or mind?”
“What? Look, what does it matter? She has had a gutsful of me and there’s nothing left to say. Jesus I have a massive fucking hangover.” He paused for a while then said, “I’ve got to get out of this house.”
Blood surged in my temples. I ignored it. “We could hike it up the mountain?” I suggested.
“I don’t see why fucking not,” he said, so we got up and walked up Mt Eden. By the time we were at the top, Pete was sweating something shocking and I could smell last night’s alcohol on his breath and seeping from his pores and probably evaporating off the gunk in the corners of his eyes. He really stank.
Over the years, Pete has called me, among other things, Nana, Grandpa, Womankind, Girl, Liberal-Arts Enthusiast, Baby-Baby Doll, The Journeyman, Princess, Prince, and The Count, along with all sorts of foodstuffs, and all at different times depending on his mood. From that day when he first studied worms, he sometimes called me Hermaphrodite, which he shortened to Herm, and then re-lengthened to Herman. When I said I was going shopping for clothes for my catch-up with Amelia because all the stuff I owned looked like Mum had bought it for me, he called me Eunuch.
“Balls and clothes shopping are incompatible.”
“You buy clothes,” I pointed out.
“But I don’t go bloody shopping.”
It’s a sad business, a single male in a shopping mall searching fruitlessly for items of clothing to make him appear to be anything other than what he is. Looking for trousers that give him some sort of an arse, a shirt that gives him some sort of pecs, and shoes that imply he is better in bed than his hair might suggest. Excuse me Miss, do you have any clothes that can change your physical and metaphysical being? Do you do lay-buy?
I tried on a shirt and had decided I didn’t like it, and, just as I was just taking it off, I bled all over it. From my nose. Sometimes things happen in real life that are so outrageous or unlikely or sad or unfortunate that you don’t believe it even when it’s happening to you.
I get bloody noses. I used to get them all the time, when I was a kid. I had to have the blood vessels in my nose cauterised when I was eight years old, which means that a doctor carefully and precisely set fire to my nostrils. It worked for a while, then those nose bleeds returned. When I moved in with Pete, I was getting them maybe ten times a year. The first time he saw it he asked me how often it happened. “Once a month, on average, I’d say.” From then on he called them my nose periods. “You should get yourself some nose tampons, mate,” he’d said. And he actually made me some nose tampons out of toilet paper and cotton buds. He put them in a zip lock bag and decorated it with flowers from the overrun garden out the front. Sometimes, when he gets on to something, he just won’t leave it alone. I used those nose tampons the next time I got a bloody nose. They worked, too.
I took the shirt off and walked out to the shop assistant to show her. She had been nice to me when I was browsing, and smiled as I approached.
“Hi there. Sorry, I accidentally bled on this shirt.”
“What? Why?” she said.
“I didn’t mean to.”
“Oh my gaaarrd,” she said, taking half a step back when I showed her.
“Yeah, sorry, I’ll buy it, of course.”
She nodded and said, “But are you okay?”
“Yes, it happens sometimes.”
In the end, I was mostly just glad when the eftpos machine said “Accepted”. It had cost more than I had been planning to spend.
She packaged it up nicely, putting tissue paper around the still-fresh blood stain so it wouldn’t spread. I was, for all intents and purposes, an invalid who was trying to retain his dignity and she was the nurse cleaning me up after I’d soiled myself. But, in the end, it was just another shop I couldn’t go into again. No big deal. I guess, in some ways, the whole blood-on-the-shirt thing saved me the time I would otherwise have spent looking for the mythologically perfect shirt.
I took the shirt home and washed the blood out. Blood comes out okay, when you know what you’re doing. I decided to wear the same jeans I wore to the party when I met Amelia. They had a small tear at the right knee, in the place I put my foot when I cross my left leg over my right, but they actually fit me almost properly.
On the Thursday before the Sunday of my coffee-date with Amelia, I was sitting on the couch, watching the third test match finish. It was going to be three-zip to the tourists. I got a phone call.
My phone was in my back pocket, so I’d been sitting on it when it started ringing. I lifted that butt cheek and pulled it out and looked at the little screen. The screen said Amelia.
In about a ring-and-a-half, I worked out what was going on. Amelia was calling to say she’d made a mistake, that when I’d called her she thought I was Pete, and that she’d figured the other guy, who was actually me, would never dare to call her and ask her out, and it was only when Symphony said, no, Wade was the strangely overweight skinny guy who had arms like wrinkled sausages and who hung around with Pete, and it was Pete who was the big guy with the arms and the pecs and everything, and therefore she would have to cancel our catch-up because she wasn’t interested after all and sorry to have taken up my time.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hi, Wade?” When I heard her voice I remembered her again, what she looked like with her collarbones and her thin wrists and the smooth skin of her neck that glowed like clouds backlit by the sun.
“Yeah, hi Amelia.”
“How’s it going?”
I was miserable. “Good.”
“Hey, I’m really sorry but I have to cancel our catch-up.”
“Oh, okay.” I said. It’s equal parts horrifying and satisfying when your anxieties turn into realities.
“Not cancel, really, just postpone.”
“I’m in Sydney. I had to come over for work. I’ll be here for at least two weeks, but not sure exactly how long. Could be longer. Maybe give it some time and call me in a month or so.” She sounded distracted, like she had turned her head away from the phone.
“Of course, yes, I mean, no worries.” I said, and began worrying. I wasn’t sure I had it in me to ask her out for a second time. I’d put more or less everything I had into that first text.
“Okay great. See you soon,” she said, and she was gone.
“Sweet.” I said, after the connection had died.
On the television the teams were walking off the field, shaking hands and patting each other on the back. I thought about all the blood I spilt, like a warrior, on that shopping trip. I wondered if maybe Amelia would stay in Sydney, permanently, and if that might not be better for everyone. She could easily find some enormous Australian lawyer with huge hands and tanned shoulders and nuts like cannonballs. They’re everywhere over there.
Pete got home maybe an hour later, and I was still on the couch. He asked me what happened.
“I see,” he said. “So. Beer?”
“Alright.” He brought me one from the fridge, and poured it into a glass. We usually only drank from glasses when we wore collared shirts.
“Alright.” And he trotted off back to the kitchen and microwaved a sausage and brought it to me on a little plate. It had sweated in the microwave and a brown oily liquid had seeped from the small tears in the casing. Pete sat down next to me and muted the TV.
“Cheers,” I said. We sat for a while.
“You know what might help?” Pete asked.
“No.” We sat for a bit longer. Evening slid into the room.
“Want to go get drunk?” Pete asked, half-heartedly.
“Me neither,” he said.
I looked out the window to what I could see of the sky above the treeline.
“Want to climb the mountain?” he asked.
“Yeah, alright.” It was quite dark by then, and the air had a chill that felt good as we walked outside. Mt Eden wasn’t really a mountain, but you know all about it when you climb it. It’s a big bloody hill. About half way up, Pete began running, so I did too. It was just a jog to start with, but then we picked up the pace until, near the top, we were sprinting. We were side by side until just before the summit, when I overtook him. We stood by the monument to catch our breath. He took longer.
I went to sit on the bench but it was damp with dew, so I stood on it instead. The crater of the volcano plunged away from my feet like a cliff. A helicopter scooted across the horizon, buzzing towards the cranes at Mechanics Bay. If I could see around corners, and over great distances, I might have been able to see across the Tasman, to Sydney, and to Amelia.
My phone buzzed in my pocket. Message from Symphony, it said, underneath her Facebook profile picture. We had been Facebook friends for a while. Years. I hardly ever looked at her photos, though. Almost never.
I stared at the picture. This was the first time she’d messaged me. I tapped the screen.
—tell P to go fuck himself
My fingers felt big as I typed on the tiny keyboard. —I think he already did
—tell him I told u to tell him again
I looked up from the screen and called to Pete. “Symphony says to go fuck yourself.” I held up the screen as evidence.
Pete squinted. “But I already know.”
Symphony buzzed my phone again. —what r u doing
—standing on a park bench up mt eden
I wondered, and replied with —what are you doing?
She ignored that one, and wrote —did u call amelia
—why did u not ask me for her number ur self
—I don’t know, I wrote, although I did. How can you ask one beautiful girl for another beautiful girl’s number?
The thread ended. One crease in my brain held the idea of Amelia, and another, so recently sparked, held the image of Symphony. I was horribly in love with both of them, without any hope of resolution or reciprocation, and all of life, at that moment, was delicious. And there, right there, was my perennial problem.
“Wade, you’re terminally heterosexual,” said Pete, out of nowhere.
“Really?” It seemed kind of accurate, at that moment.
“Why is heterosexuality terminal?” I asked.
“Not just hetero. All of them. Lesbian, gay, bi, queer, trans, hermaphrodite, they’re all terminal.”
“What if you’re asexual?”
“Terminal,” he said.
I wondered now, standing on that bench looking down on my friend, and with Amelia wedged in one fold of my cerebrum and Symphony in another, about Pete. I had the habit of thinking of him as my guide, but all he ever offered, or could give, and all he ever wanted, was friendship; he just wanted to know me, and for me to know him. From my prospect on that wonky seat he seemed now to look an awful lot like me, a kind of clown with ruffled hair and worn-out shoes.
I looked at the horizon. The lights from the city were blinking and flickering.
“So?” Pete said.
“What can you see from up there?”
I took another look around. “I can see all of it,” I said.