I went to the birthday party of a friend of a friend. He greeted us—me and my friend Pete—and I wished him a happy birthday with as much enthusiasm as I could generate for someone I barely knew, and then went to find a place to stash my chilly bin. Just after that I met this girl. She asked me what I did. I said I was a student.
I started at university a few years ago. Who’s counting? I took chemistry to start with, but then found out about the equations. Write an equation to describe, they said. Pete’s comment was: “Chemistry is for propeller heads.”
I’ve known Pete since high school, but we only became friends at university. That’s how it happens sometimes. We started flatting together, randomly, in a tiny, damp and lopsided house in Mt Eden, and there we built our domestic hierarchy. He had a thing for doing the vacuuming; I was in charge of neglecting the gardening. I paid the bills, he answered the phone. The dishes got done somehow.
Pete is a pretty good guy. Some things about him get to me, but mostly they’re the things he has that I don’t. Like his arms. Pete is fully buff and, somehow, miraculously, nearly hairless yet totally masculine. That night at the party he was wearing one of those T-shirts that’s been specially treated with chemicals to make it look old and new at the same time. His arms were big enough that they stretched the fabric of the sleeves just like they were supposed to. My arms, on the other hand, looked like sausages left on the barbeque too long—like some of what was supposed to be inside had fizzled away. Sometimes I thought he tried too hard in the gym and other times I thought that my life would be distinctly and quantifiably better if I had arms like his.
Anyway, after all that chemistry business, beakers and Bunsen burners, I changed to biology. Pete took biology. He knew everything about it. I, as it turned out, did not. Failure ensued. I was becoming a disappointment. My mum and dad started looking at me (their beloved son Wade) like I was the overgrown magnolia tree that, cherished as it may be, nevertheless stood in the way of the kitchen extension. I switched again, this time to anthropology, because the demographics of that class were more appealing. Girls.
So the girl at the party, she asked me what I did, and I said I was a student. She said, “That must be interesting” in the tone you would use to say “You should get a job”. This girl was taller than me, although she had on some pretty serious shoes, with heels as thin and hard and sharp as knives. If she were to kick them off I might have topped her in height. Maybe. I picked her as an ex-private-school girl. Why would I say that? It was her dress: conservative across the chest—no cleavage, square across her collar bones—yet cut above the knee, despite the chilly autumn evening. Are bare legs what girls suffer for fashion, or is it just what they want to wear? Who gives a crap about cold legs, anyway, in the big scheme?
So, this girl, with her demure décolletage and legs-to-the-weather, she talked to me. I watched her mouth. When she learned about my area of study she smiled. It was weird though, when she smiled: her lips didn’t curl up. Her mouth just stretched sideways to show her teeth, white and all in a row. The other thing was, she wore a perfume I immediately recognised: Anaïs Anaïs.
I’ve got a thing for smells. Smell is limbic; it has a direct line into the animal parts of your brain. Anaïs Anaïs affected my animal parts. It was the perfume worn by the first girl I ever kissed, which meant it was the perfume worn by the first girl I ever fell for. I was thirteen years old. She’d gone to my school, that girl, and a few weeks after I kissed her, she moved to Germany with her mum. That’s the sort of thing that happens.
“What exactly is anthropology?” she asked.
“Sort of the study of people.”
“Isn’t everything?” This was maybe a joke, although it was a bit hard to tell with Anaïs (as I now called her, not knowing her actual name) because of that smile thing she did, without the curl of her lips.
“What do you do?” I asked. Do you know, until the end of the something-or-other century, the custom, when introduced, was to ask “Who are your family?” Can you imagine?
“I’m a lawyer,” she said.
“OK.” She had to be at least, say, 25 years old. A bit older than me then. Taller and older. And she was smart, or studied hard, or both. Lawyers make me think of that joke, that one that goes What do you call two hundred lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start. I don’t know anything much about lawyers apart from that joke. I asked some questions and she answered them, and we finished the drinks we had in our hands, and, well, there is only so far that politeness can get you: we ran out of stuff to say. And then she said, sort of out of nowhere, “I’ve seen you before, you know.”
“You don’t remember?” she said, eyebrows up.
“Not sure.” Did I?
She would have told me probably, but at that point another guy came over, someone she knew. Anaïs slowly rotated her shoulders through ninety degrees. With private-school delicacy I was excluded from the conversation. I excused myself silently and unnoticed, and went to access my chilly bin. I took another look at her as I left, to see if I could place where I might have seen her before (I couldn’t), and also to see if she would look at me as I left (she didn’t).
I sat outside for a while, by myself. After a few minutes, something twitched in the corner of my vision. A rat came out of a compost heap. It trotted calmly from the heap, had a sniff around the nearby shed, and slipped under the fence. Heading off to see what’s what. Rats were on my mind that day.
Pete is studying zoology. Zoology is one of those programmes that you end up doing because you have a strange combination of skills and interests. For example, Pete was good at drawing, had a delicate sense of touch, and didn’t mind the smell of guts. This meant he was a gun at dissection. In his first-year zoology lab, he’d had to cut open a rat and inspect its insides. I imagine it stank like week-old rubbish left in the sun, or like the skin on my broken foot the day it came out of its cast, but he didn’t mention that. The bit he described in the most detail was the rat’s reproductive system. The primary task of his assignment had been to identify the vas deferens in the male rat he’d opened up. The vas deferens is a tube that carries semen from the testicles to the ejaculatory ducts. Biology. Pete had been the first to find his specimen’s vas deferens and the best at displaying it cleanly. His lab instructor told him a joke, as a kind of reward. Is the internal anatomy of a male rat different from that of a female? Oh yes, there is a vas deferens. You have to say it out loud.
This wasn’t why rats were on my mind though.
“Do you have some sort of job?”
I had been watching the rat trot away and hadn’t seen Anaïs approach. She surprised me a bit, and I jumped, and she gave me another straightish smile. Now that I saw her outside and standing in front of the more sedate backdrop of the vegetable garden, she was a little drunker than I had first thought. Not really drunk, but affected enough that she was willing to come over and ask me a straight-up question.
“I do door-to-door market research,” I said. She didn’t say anything in reply, and hardly seemed to hear me. “I just saw a rat over there,” I added, ridiculously.
“Hmm,” she said, and then, “market research? Are you one of those people who annoy people when they get home from work?” This was slightly unfair but I gave her some leeway because she was a bit drunk and also because of her smell and her teeth, those collar bones.
“Yeah, I guess so. It pays well,” I added, trying to justify the intrusion I represented in people’s lives.
“You must see lots of weirdos.” She was right. Most people think that most people live like they do, so when they imagine what it’s like to do market research door-to-door they picture themselves knocking on doors like their own and asking questions of people who look more or less like they do and share their opinions on things like laundry detergent and margarine. But that’s not really what it’s like.
“It’s strange how some people live,” I said, and then I told her a story from work that morning. This was the story that had put rats on my mind.
The area I had been assigned that morning was a bit rough. You have to take what comes. I knocked on the door of someone’s house, she agreed to answer my survey on disposable nappies, and in I went. The house stank like the kennel of my family’s dog after that time he drank paint. In the kitchen we sat down at the table, which was covered in piles of unopened mail and empty chip packets and gone-off bananas hazed with a cloud of fruit flies. I began the interview straight away, and she immediately ignored me and switched on her TV and began staring at it. I wasn’t too sure what to do, so I looked around a bit, and saw a rat scurry across the kitchen floor. Well, I guess it could have been a mouse, but rats are more dramatic, and make for better stories.
The woman moved faster than I thought possible. She got up, reached for the frying pan on the stovetop, and with a loud grunt hurled it violently at the rat. The sight of the weaponised frying pan flying across the room was quite intense. I partly wanted the pan to hit its target and partly wanted it to miss—was it better to have a live rat succeed in its break for freedom or to have a dead rat smeared across the kitchen wall? In the event, she missed. The pan settled in the corner of the kitchen, leaving a crack in the plaster board.
So, I told this story to Anaïs. I had also told this story to Pete in the car on the way to the party.
“Rats are the perfect animal,” Pete had said.
“They’re total bloody survivors. Completely undifferentiated. In a nuclear holocaust, rats would make it through. They’d survive and evolve and go on to rule the planet.”
“People say that about cockroaches.” I’d seen something about swarming cockroaches on a TV documentary. Their group-think and mob mentality was terrifying, but on the whole the portrayal was sympathetic.
“Nope,” said Pete. “Cockroaches would survive OK—they drink insecticide—but they’re completely differentiated. Cockroaches are end-state. End-state, mate. Nowhere to go.” This was Pete, a guy who has ridiculous theories and doesn’t care if you think so, but who is also knowledgeable about arthropod differentiation. Girls love that stuff. They love his arms too, but they love that stuff more, that stuff that makes him seem original but also like he doesn’t give a crap. I, on the other hand, give too much of a crap. I lie awake at nights frantically giving too much of a crap about things. It’s off-putting.
“You’d have cockroaches ploughing on as cockroaches”—Pete continued rambling about the zoological consequences of a nuclear holocaust—“and then rats becoming whatever there is to become.” Pete was drinking his beer in the car while he talked, and I was driving. We were going to leave my car at the party and walk over and drive it home sometime on Sunday. It was the usual plan. He drank about another half a beer then picked the topic up again. “Cockroaches have no lungs. They have to get their oxygen by passive diffusion. Dickheads.” (He meant the cockroaches.) “Fatal weakness. They can’t get any bigger. It’s the square-cube law.” He paused, and then, “Some animals are fucking weird. I dissected a dogfish last week. You open up an animal and it doesn’t have any lungs and it’s like, whoa! Crazy! What’s the story? It’s so obvious something’s missing. You gotta have lungs to get through the holocaust”—he wasn’t really talking to me anymore, and he looked out the window—“Oxygen, that’s where it’s at. Got to have the oh-two.” He stopped and took a long drink from his bottle. Sometimes with Pete it seemed like he only ever stopped talking to take a drink.
After I’d finished telling my morning work story to Anaïs, I said to her, “Isn’t it a strange way to live, in a rubbish dump of a house with rats running free?”
“I guess so. What do you think? You’re the anthropologist. Aren’t you supposed to know about people?”
“I think she’s nuts.”
“I guess. Nice though, in some ways, trying to help you out with the interview. Trying to get by. Doing what she can. Maybe not that different to most people I know.”
“You reckon?” I had hit a bit of a snag. Anaïs was sympathetic. How was I supposed to see that coming?
“That rat though,” I said, stupidly and meaninglessly. We both sipped our drinks.
“Have you worked out where we’ve met before?” she asked.
“I used to flat with Symphony.”
Symphony (straight up, that was her real name) was an ex-girlfriend of Pete’s. Symphony studied Fine Arts. They’d met last summer. Pete called her Symph for short, which I never got used to. It didn’t sound like a name. It sounded like the breath you take just after jumping into a cold swimming pool. One night the previous summer, just after Pete and Symphony started seeing each other, I was awake at 2am (I have periodic insomnia, the current period just ticked over two years’ duration). I had been lying in bed for a while, measuring my heart rate off the luminous dial of my alarm clock, and I figured enough was enough, and I got up. I found Symphony also awake. It was the night after the day after New Year’s Day. Don’t ask me how I remember these things. She was sitting on the couch sipping a cup of herbal tea. It smelled like that strawberry flavour you get in milkshakes from fish and chip shops. Delicious. Symphony was, I don’t know, beautiful? Sorry to use that word, but yes, pretty much. I was with Pete when he met her. Afterwards, this is what Pete said: “You think every chick is beautiful, you pussy. She’s just another girl.”
On that night after the day after New Year’s Day, I made a cup of hot chocolate. High-protein trim milk and five teaspoons of chocolate powder. I sat on the couch next to Symphony. She started talking.
“Couldn’t sleep?” she asked.
“No,” she said. “I’ve had too much alcohol recently. I get achy legs. Keeps me awake.”
“Yeah.” It was summer, but a little chilly at 2am. She sat in the corner of the couch, legs curled up and tucked under her. She wore tiny blue satin boxer shorts and a white singlet. Painful.
“Got any New Year’s resolutions?” she asked.
As a matter of fact, I did. I had just resolved, as I lay in bed not sleeping, to try to give less of a crap about stuff. I figured if I could give less of a crap, I wouldn’t think about stuff so much, and it wouldn’t keep me awake, and I’d therefore have no reason to lie in bed maniacally resolving to give less of a crap. It made sense at the time, and was sort of comforting. I had this plan to paint a poster that would say, “In the cosmic scheme, I matter not, so give less of a crap, Wade.” I would Blu-Tack the poster up in my room where I could see it from bed. For whatever reason, lying there in the dark, it seemed right to paint “I matter not” instead of “I don’t matter”. Insomnia revealeth the poet in us all. Anyway, I had resolved to do something practical about the idea, so I got up to go online and buy paint and paper. Of course, once I was up, it seemed ludicrous. I should have known. You’re less lonely when you’re vertical.
“Lose some weight,” I said. “Go to the gym more.” And I flexed my arms, muscle-man style.
“You could go with Pete. He can probably sort you out.” The fact was that I went to the gym quite a bit already, and mostly with Pete. He usually came away from each gym session with a new ab, while I usually came away breathless and blotchy. Also, I didn’t really want to lose weight. I wanted to move the bit of me that flops over the top of my jeans to places like my pectorals, biceps and deltoids. I was pretty keen to shift up to a T-shirt size of medium.
“How about you? Any resolutions?” I asked.
“I want to get into transcendental meditation.” And here’s when it might have happened. I imagined Symphony and me, lying together through those hours to morning, discussing the emptiness of contemporary existence, the philosophies of educational nihilism, the anti-biology of twenty-first-century ergonomics. I could tell her about my ideas for cycle lanes that could simultaneously cure traffic congestion and societal obesity, and she could tell me about life-lessons from Jackson Pollock and the sculptures of Salvador Dalí. In amongst all this, she would take her clothes off, repeatedly, because sometimes that’s the best bit. Anyway, that’s what was in my head. But we must have woken Pete with our talking.
“What’s happening?” he said, blearily. I guess he saved me from embarrassing myself, and looking back I ought to thank him for his perfectly shitty timing.
“We’re talking about New Year’s resolutions,” I said. “You got any?”
“To drink more, and more often,” he said. And then, “New Year’s resolutions suck dick, Wade.” Pete is a man’s man, and a ladies’ man, which is strange and sort of the same thing. He walked over and knelt behind the couch where Symphony sat, reached over her shoulder and slid his hand down the front of her singlet. I don’t remember if I saw this happen or not, but no matter. Real or imagined, it’s all the same. And real or imagined, Pete stood up, led Symphony by the hand, and they went back to bed. I looked down, fascinated by my hot chocolate, swirling brown and cream in a chipped mug, and walked to the kitchen and tipped it out. I made a cup of that tea Symphony had been drinking. The packet said it was raspberry, not strawberry. You can’t get everything right. Anyway, that was all in the past.
I guess I should have asked Anaïs about how Symphony was doing these days, and I think I would have, but just then, Pete wandered over. He remembered Anaïs immediately. He, of course, also knew her actual name, which was Amelia. Amelia. Close enough. They started talking about people they both knew. There wasn’t much for me to contribute to all this so I just stood there, nodding every now and again.
After a couple of minutes, the conversation stalled between Anaïs and Pete. “I just saw a rat over there,” I said to Pete, pointing at the compost heap.
“It’s always rats with you,” said Pete. Not exactly fair. Sure, it was rats with me on that day, but that was with good reason. It wasn’t always rats.
“You should hear about the rat he ran into at work this morning,” he said to Anaïs.
“He just told me. And about his anthropology studies.”
“Ah-ha,” said Pete, “actually I’ve been meaning to ask you, Wade. I’ve heard that everyone who studies anthropology is a narcissist.” That wasn’t really a question as such, but they both laughed and looked at me to answer. The trouble was I couldn’t quite remember what “narcissist” meant. That’s Pete, he hits me below the belt with a rat-man accusation and then soars above my head calling me a word I don’t properly understand. He’s hard to pin down. Unexpected, and unpredictable.
Get this. One afternoon we were sitting on the veranda of our flat. We were listening to cricket on the radio when out of nowhere a sparrow flew into the window. Thud. We both jumped, and the sparrow crashed to the ground. The bird was alive—its eyes were going crazy in its head—but it wasn’t moving otherwise. Its neck had twisted around, as if it were looking over its shoulder. It freaked me out. We got it a saucer of water and some sunflower seeds, and put it in a shoebox lined with advertising pamphlets, but it stayed in that twisted state for hours. I couldn’t stand to see it suffering, so I suggested that we put it out of its misery. I wasn’t thinking right. I told Pete I would hit it with a piece of timber. Quick. Merciful. He didn’t stop me. Anyway, surprise, I couldn’t do it. I held the piece of four-by-two over my head, then promptly panicked. I started sweating and breathing too fast. I was pretty much whimpering, to be honest. I was a million miles from killing that bird. And then, guess what? Pete hugged me. Pete. Strange, the feeling of his arms around me. But: not awkward. It wasn’t the forced hug of a rugby team huddle, not the reluctant lean-in with cousins at Christmas, not the hug-and-mmwuh! of suburban greetings—not any of those. It was physical contact that made me feel part of something, made me feel important, even if only to one person. A temporary closeness I could always keep, one that might never be taken from me; something to be treasured, to be deployed during moments of loneliness. That was us, then. A friendship forged over a dying sparrow.
Anaïs and Pete were still waiting for me to respond to the narcissist question. “I get confused with the N words,” I said. “I get narcissism confused with nepotism and narcolepsy and necrophilia. I can’t remember which is which.” I was trying to be a bit funny and to divert them at the same time, and I think it pretty much worked. Pete likes my jokes—most of them anyway. Sometimes he laughs when I’m being serious, which is okay too I guess. He moved the conversation away from me.
“I have a good joke about necrophilia,” he said.
In fact, if it was the joke I was thinking of, the one about sex with dead people, it was mine. Well, not mine exactly—I had read it in a chain email—but I had told it to him and it felt more like mine than his. Now, it was clear that he was going to go ahead and tell it. This was a problem. How would Anaïs respond to jokes about necrophilia? What if she hated it, and then Pete told her it was my joke all along? The other thing was, once you know the joke is about necrophilia, you’ve given it away, because the joke hinges on the suddenness of introducing necrophilia when you think the joke is actually about homophobia. The joke was also misogynistic. In fact, thinking about it, that joke covers a lot of offensive ground in not too much time. Pete seemed not to have any of these concerns and just trucked on.
“There was a cruise ship going through some rough waters that ended up sinking just off the coast of a small deserted island.”—Yep, it was my joke he was telling.—“There were only three survivors, two guys and a girl.” Anaïs was sort of leaning in as he went through the joke, and to be honest, so was I. I knew how the joke ended of course, but it was polite to go along with it, and I sort of wanted to hear how he was going to tell it, once he’d started. I guess the joy is in the telling as much as the punchline. Pete told the rest of the joke while I stood there, furtively giving a crap about what Anaïs might be thinking but also enjoying the joke-telling experience, and, on the whole, becoming completely unhinged by the clash of these contradictory emotional states.
Pete finished up the necrophilia joke. “A couple more years went by and the guys began to feel absolutely horrible about what they were doing. So they buried her.” Anaïs let out a long groan, but with a smile, not just straight across with her teeth, but with lips curled up and everything. She pretended to push Pete away in disgust by grabbing his bicep and giving a shove. After she finished the shove, she didn’t let go. I laughed too, to the extent that would be appropriate for Anaïs to know that I appreciated the joke but not so much that Pete, who knew that I knew the joke, would think was strange. It’s complicated to be me. Anyway, what with the smile with the upward mouth and the grab of his arm and the obvious success of the risky necrophilia joke, well, to be honest the whole event sort of gave me the shits.
We stayed in the garden a bit longer, but it turned into a repeat of the pattern that developed earlier in the night, and as the conversation moved on, shoulders turned and eventually I became redundant to the goings-on. I slipped away, chilly-bin-bound.
I have a policy to stay to the end of a party if I can, even if it is to the bitter end. It means I don’t miss out on too much. It hurts to miss out, and there is enough hurt around already. Pete usually agreed to stick with me, in his utterly casual but fiercely loyal manner. So we stayed to the end of this one too. Anaïs had stayed late also, and when she left she came over to me and said goodbye. She had been dancing earlier in the evening and had taken off her shoes. She carried them as she left, the straps looped through her fingers. I did happen to notice as she said goodbye—she shook my hand, if you would believe that—that even with those shoes off she was still taller than me.
Here’s the thing: I wanted to ask Anaïs what Symphony had said about me. But how could I? How could I say, “So, did Symphony say I was a creep or what? And does her opinion of me affect yours? Any chance it might not?” Anyway, I tried to tell myself that I should try not giving a crap about what Symphony might have said, just to see what might happen. What happened? Anaïs walked away, and I stood there and watched.
Pete and I decided to walk home rather than getting a taxi, because it was only a half hour walk and the night was dry and not too cold. We’d made a bet on the number of cars we’d see as we walked. There was a six-pack of beer at stake. I’d guessed three cars. Pete had guessed eighteen. We’d seen eight by the time we were about half-way home, so the game was still anyone’s.
“What did you think of that girl?” I asked.
“That girl, that lawyer, I mean, Amelia.” The one with the smell and those collar bones. “I thought you might have hooked up with her or something.”
“Oh her, yeah. Nah, she didn’t seem that interested, she was just a bit drunk. She’s too rich-girl for me anyway. Did you see that dress she was wearing? I like people that aren’t so wound up. She’s pretty straight—you know she gets up at 5.30am every morning to get to work? That’s way too organised. I like people whose lives aren’t so rigid, people that have some flexibility. I mean, mate, there is no way she’d survive a nuclear holocaust.” He was serious about that point. “I prefer, you know, people who have no idea what’s going on.” He wasn’t so serious any more, and said, “You know, people like you, Wade.” We walked for a bit without talking, then he said,
“Wade, may I ask you something, you pussy?”
“You think Amelia’s beautiful, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” I said, and, Jesus, I scuffed the ground with my shoe like a schoolboy.
He sighed. “Fuck’s sake.”
We walked for another minute or so.
“I know Amelia pretty well, I can probably get you her number if you want.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Yeah. Probably not.”
“Fuck’s sake,” he said again.
A moment later he turned suddenly and punched me on the shoulder. He managed to catch some part of me that didn’t have much to soften the blow, some part that was basically unprotected. And to be honest, it bloody well hurt.