I stared at his photo on the cover of his book. I remembered the mental health ads he’d starred in. Filmed at the beach, staring into rock pools at the myriads of tiny watery lives. Silent, immovable starfish and glassy red anemones plopping open. Kneeling close, showing people there was something to be curious about. Or lifting groceries out of a brown paper bag, lining them up on a dark slate benchtop, demonstrating there was some kind of respite to be found in doing ordinary things.
I met him once when I’d just turned nineteen. He was out on the lash with one of his teammates. They’d tried to pick us up at The Gluepot on New Year’s Eve. The air filled with hysteria, people on the edge. My friend Kara threw an ashtray at him for no real reason, then we got thrown out. We were rarking it up, spitting at them, behaving badly. They were both very polite, very pleasant, there was no reason to spit at them. It was just one of those things we started doing for the pure hell of it, and then it became a habit, spitting at men then cracking up laughing. The funny thing about men is they don’t mind anything from attractive women. They were playing along, still thinking they were in with a chance, then Kara threw the ashtray. All hell broke loose after, like it always did when we were together.
Kara’s father had tried to shoot her brother, Ryan, in our third form year, which set her apart, gave her a strange kind of invulnerable sheen.
A tattooed K on the web between her thumb and forefinger she’d inked with a compass in the fifth form, daring me to do the same. A fuck you beauty spot just to the right of her top lip. She was like one of those Siamese fighting fish they keep in a tiny compartment at the top of the tank, knowing if they release it, it would eat the other fish. Raring to go, worrying the glass, spoiling for a fight. Beautiful fish with long streaming tails and deadly quick.
All those days we spent together, knowing every flicker of each other’s eyes, every smirk. The long stretch of the summer holidays, kicking back, lying on the grass. Summers that melted you until you were one person. The years streaming by like one of those flowers captured on time-lapse photography.
Kara had got a job in a bindery straight out of school. She’d roar into town on Friday when she finished work. Her green, nylon uniform stuffed at the bottom of her pack, tossed on the backseat of her brown Toyota Corolla.
I’d get a call, late Friday afternoon. The rasp of cigarettes and alcohol in her voice; a dark restlessness, winding up to a big night.
Silence was a temptation. Thinking was a temptation. Being alone was a temptation. Glad-rags hanging, winking through the slit in the wardrobe. Imagining sliding on stockings; black kohl eyes, silvery eyelashes. Moving close to the mirror, preparing, anticipating, wanting to be lost. Giving over to the hours where I could disappear.
I’d gone to AA for a month and got a key ring.
“One month clean!” Kara laughed, waving it around the bar. “It’s plastic...cheap bastards.”
At the first meeting they came up to me one by one, introduced themselves, gave me their phone numbers. They didn’t push anything.
I remembered the relief I felt as I’d held onto that key ring. Squeezed it tight, slept with it under my pillow. It felt like something unearthed from Tutankhamun’s tomb; throbbing in my hand like a talisman. It had protected me for a few weeks.
I was in my first year at art school, taking photographs of vomit on the pavement; in the entrance ways to mirrored buildings. Early Sunday morning vomit, before the shopkeepers brought out a bucket and washed it away. Stains grown old in the sun, like freeze-dried army rations.
I called them Cries. The way they came out of people’s bodies, the violence of their trajectories. Dried artefacts left behind from hidden pain, like muted questions.
“I’m recording them,” I told Kara. “And blood. There’s always blood on Sunday morning.”
Walking around the city at 6am, everything silent and grey. Everyone else in their beds. Searching out the places where people had reeled, gasping for breath; holding onto something, a wall, a lamp post.
“Fuck man,” she’d laugh, punching my arm, teasing me when I got serious. Her lips slanting in that perpetual smile as if she knew something you didn’t.
I remembered the English courtesan, Nell Gwyn, who’d put a ten pound note between two slices of bread, sprinkled it with salt and pepper and ate it in front of the man who had just paid her. Laughing as she chewed each piece.
Before the blood and vomit, I’d painted a dead elephant from a photograph ripped out of an old National Geographicmagazine. Slaughtered for its tusks. One eye lidless, staring, open. Its long eyelashes, thick and gentle.
I had read somewhere that elephants mourn their dead. They stand over the body for days in a circle, then suddenly one turns away, and they all leave.
“See,” I told Kara when I showed her the painting.
“You’ve just copied it. It’s just the same dead elephant in the jungle...We should write something. Make a film: two women drive around out of control, hold up liquor stores, and scare the crap out of everyone.”
“Yeah?” I laughed.
And who wouldn’t long for that—a friend to have a crazy journey with? Susan Sarandon in that straw cowboy hat in Thelma and Louise. Her sweat-soaked, red neckerchief; growing more and more tanned, looser and looser as the journey progressed.
I stared at the cover of his book. Eyes drawing you in, a relaxed look around his smiling mouth. I remember shaking his hand across the table at The Gluepot. He’d reached out and offered it, then asked us to join them.
I suppose I could tell a story about knowing he was depressed then, that I’d seen there was something sad about him, and in hindsight you could overlay that on him. He was serious, quite grave, and thoughtful, and you could see how easily someone could hurt him. All those things. I was drunk, but sometimes drunks know.
“Julia’s wearing two sets of pantyhose. Green on one leg and purple on the other. The empty legs are knotted around her waist,” Kara had told them when I walked over to the bar.
“What’s so funny?” I said when I came back to the table.
“She told us about your pantyhose,” his friend said.
Kara’s eyes closed. Clicked shut like a machine. Her eyelashes, long and straight, pointing downwards, not curled up at the ends. I’d never seen anyone else with eyelashes like that.
I thought about how some people take it all out on themselves as if they’ve committed some big crime when really it was committed against them, and others project it all out there onto the world.
“You think you’re hot shit on TV,” Kara smirked, prodding him in the chest, ratcheting it up like she always did, cranking it up so high and fast. Her eyes staring, hotly focused.
It felt like you’d walked out onto a strange landscape where everything slowed down to white, where her eyes had forgotten to blink. I knew where it came from, she’d had to wrestle the shotgun off her father before he could shoot Ryan. She’d had to have that kind of brio.
Kara laughed when he told her what he was reading. She kept shouting about Harold Robbins as if it was a crime, and I knew she hardly ever read anything. I had never seen her with a book. And he looked a bit embarrassed, then she started spitting, and it ended in the ashtray.
In his book he’d talked about feeling ten feet tall and bulletproof when he was drinking: ‘I felt like I could knock down walls and burst water mains. I imagined things exploding as I walked past.’
He said it had masked his depression.
And I remembered his friend saying that night: “I think you are the loneliest girls in the world.”
You know what happens when someone says something true but terrible, so terrible you can feel it move within you? You feel it stir and it’s moving somewhere. It’s different for different people, some feel it in the gut, the chest, the groin, the legs, the feet even. In me, it is the throat.
I had to cut loose from Kara eventually. I told her when I was getting out of her car one night.
She was the kind of friend that men sometimes have when they go to war. You run over a hill and you know they will be there with you, head-to-head, or two millimetres in front. They would not think or hesitate.
She’d screamed at me when I got out of the car, the way she had screamed at him about Harold Robbins, that same savage snarl.
She called me a coward. She’d spat and said I was gutless because we had been at a party with some guys and I didn’t defend her when she had got out of control and started breaking things. I just stood there and didn’t say anything, I hadn’t joined in, and she’d been left standing amongst them holding a wine glass, or a beer bottle, something ready to throw.