If I knew it’d be like a light going out, that one moment there’s everything and next there’s nothing and darkness, I think I’d do it, I really think I would. But since I don’t know that, since stories of damnation and shit have fuelled my upbringing, I just lay in bed, knowing I should get up, but thinking about everything I have to do today and how I don’t want to do it.
The light seeping through the blinds covering my bungalow windows, as well as the sounds of neighbours, suggests it’s about nine. Maybe later. My body’s in agreement, my head cloggy from sleeping in. I roll onto my side and look at the clock radio on my bedside drawer.
I try to summon the will to get up, like the day’s a freezing pool I have to build the courage to leap into. Once I do, there’s no getting out, not until I go back to sleep, although that’ll be late tonight since I’m meeting Ash and Dylan at The Back Room for drinks. Dylan says he’s got an announcement. Ash has joked that Dylan’s announcing he’s going inside for having a seventeen-year-old girlfriend.
I haul myself out of the cosiness of my bed and undergo my morning routine: pull on my sweats and socks, turn on the computer, open the blinds, put on the electric kettle, drop a chamomile tea bag into a cup, and dart into the bathroom.
My antidepressants wait for me in the medicine cabinet, an unwanted house guest I can’t disinvite. I pop one into my palm and dry swallow it. Once, I’d get side-effects: dizziness, stomach cramps, thumping heartbeat – emergency room stuff. Not that I went. It was bearing through the meds or facing the shit. I bore through. Since, the symptoms have faded to a bit of morning dizziness.
I leave the bathroom, open the door of my bungalow, and stare across the yard at the house. I should go inside and make myself breakfast – some toast maybe. You’re meant to eat something with antidepressants because they’re so rough on your stomach. But it’s too early to deal with my parents and their everyday recriminations about being over thirty, not married, and living in a damn bungalow.
At the foot of my door I spot a clothes peg. It’s split in two – one of my mum’s victims when she’s in a hurry to pulls down the clothes. It saddens me looking at it. It has one purpose, and now it’s done.
I go outside, pick up the halves, and hunt around for its hinge, even as I hear my kettle whistling. I’m just about to give up (at least for now) when I see the hinge poking up from a clump of dirt in the garden. I pick up the hinge, brush it clean, reassemble the peg, and clip it back on the line. There. All better.
I return to the bungalow as the kettle shuts itself off, so I fill my tea cup, sit at my computer, and open my emails. A pile already waits, including the one which came yesterday from Samantha.
Hey! It’s been a long time. Hope you don’t mind me emailing you. Got your address from Facebook. It’d be great to catch-up. Get back to me, huh?
Samantha’s a girl who chased me through high school, but depression and life (like there’s a separation between the two) got in the way. She got married to some dick, which might be unfair, but I remember hearing at the time that he was a dick. Suburbia swallowed them into domesticity, and I’d heard they squeezed out a couple of kids. Her email is a surprise. I don’t know how to answer it, other than to say something noncommittal, which isn’t answering it at all.
I have other emails, which I don’t read, but I can guess what’s in them depending on where they came from. There’s the usual circulars people send when they’re killing time at work; some from Advanced Business Solutions, as well as Healthy Plus, for whom I copywrite on a freelance basis; as well as a couple from fiction anthologies to which I’ve submitted.
I stare at the emails from the anthologies: Collected Works, and The Bold Writer – two of the country’s premier journals. You get published in them, you’re making a name for yourself, which is something I’d like to do – especially after fifteen years of trying.
I nurture a quiet expectation that when I read these emails, they’ll be acceptances. No, it’s not even an expectation. I know they’ll be acceptances. I don’t mean to build myself up. I always tell myself not to, because it makes the fall further.
Of course, over the years, I’ve submitted my work hundreds of places (if not over a thousand), and I’ve had this feeling a lot. The handful of stuff that has been accepted I didn’t give a chance, and had even forgotten sending out. Journals are notoriously slow. Publishers are little better. I just sent my book out and it’ll be months before I hear anything.
My mobile rings – Ash. I answer it.
‘Hey, filth,’ he says.
We don’t mean anything by ‘Filth.’ It’s like ‘buddy’ for us.
‘What time tonight?’ Ash asks. ‘Nine?’
‘Yeah.’ I go through the emails from Advanced Business Solutions and Healthy Plus. They’ve got a shitload of notes there and want brochures – usual stuff.
‘Okay. I might be a bit late. Stuff happening with Cindy.’
‘Okay.’ I don’t bother asking about Cindy, Ash’s wife. Cindy’s great. She would’ve made somebody an awesome wife. Just not Ash. Over the years, he’s mentioned her less and less, and we’ve seen her less and less. It’s like Ash is erasing her from his social circle, although that’s probably not surprising given the way Ash behaves. It’s amazing their marriage is still going. And strong, too.
‘I’ll see’ya later, filth.’
He hangs up and I go through the circulars, working out what I’m going to recirculate and what I’m going to delete, but I’m really just holding onto the anticipation before I check the responses from the journals, because while I hold onto the anticipation, the unopened emails remain possible acceptances, and my dreams could still be going somewhere. Life could still be going somewhere.
Finally, I look.
I delete the fucking things.
The Back Room is a third-storey bar which sits on top of an Italian restaurant (Agostini’s – overpriced, but awesome pizza), and a floor that’s been vacant for as long as I remember. I think Agostini’s now use it for storage. You get to The Back Room through a stairwell so narrow it must violate fire-safety regulations.
The bar itself is split into quarters: a lounge with couches and little tables, like you might see in a coffee shop; a dance floor, where some nights they’ll have a band – usually Incandescent X, this awesome three-piece acoustic ensemble headed by a woman with these luminous aqua eyes that you’d expect on a black cat or something; a hall with rows of pool tables; and one corner out in the open with tables and chairs, like an overblown terrace overlooking the street, although you’d freeze going out there tonight. A circular bar sits right in the middle, like an axis, accessible to every quarter.
We’re draped over the couches in the lounge – me, Ash, Dylan – drinking Coronas. Since it’s a Monday night, there’s not a lot happening in The Back Room. The place started as a nothing bar years ago, and had its regulars every night. But then it developed a nouveau trendiness, the way places do. Now, it grows busier the deeper the week goes, and overflows Fridays and Saturdays. It’s annoying more than anything, since we came before it got popular.
‘So what’s happening, filth?’ Ash asks Dylan, but Ash has his eyes on the butt of a blonde at the bar who’s wearing tight, faded jeans, the right pocket torn to show a flash of red lace.
Dylan sits on the couch opposite us, rocking, Corona between his hands. The way his shock of already-receding hair stands up defying gravity makes his contemplation almost comical. He takes a drink, then shrugs.
‘Come on,’ Ash says. ‘Otherwise, I’ve got something to say.’
Everybody’s got something to say. I wish I had something. I think of the rejections from the anthologies. An acceptance would’ve been something to talk about. Maybe I could tell them about Samantha, although it’s hardly newsworthy. That’s something you’d mention as a throwaway.
‘It about Lauren?’ I ask, as Ash’s attention drifts back to the blonde, who’s ordering drinks. One of her friends – a brunette in a tight skirt – has joined her to help her carry. It’s not going to be much longer before Ash’s dick becomes his rudder.
‘It’s not Lauren,’ Dylan says.
‘Why didn’t you invite her?’ Ash says. ‘Oh, that’s right, she’s underage.’
‘You idiot,’ I tell Ash. ‘It’s obviously past her bedtime.’
‘How brave,’ Dylan says, which is our way of wry condemnation. It’s all mocking, in its own way – and Lauren’s great mocking material given her age. It’s weird, because Dylan isn’t much to look at – not like Ash, who’s rugged and sporty – but he’s never had trouble with women. Lauren’s his first relationship that’s become serious.
‘Okay, if you don’t tell us your announcement,’ Ash says, ‘then I’m going with mine.’
‘I’m getting transferred for work,’ Dylan says. ‘Interstate.’
We’re quiet. It’s not like Dylan’s told us he has cancer or something like that, and we should be happy for him, but we’ve been friends a long time – Ash and me twenty years; Ash, me, and Dylan ten years. The dynamic between us meshed from the start. It’s the way friends work. It’s not about interests and shit. That stuff comes later. You click or you don’t. But that’s relationships in general. Life in general.
‘They do that in construction?’ I ask, because Dylan’s a roofer for BusyBuilt Construction. Surely it’s not like needing a neurosurgeon, no disrespect intended.
‘Transfer-promotion,’ Dylan says. ‘Boss likes my work, and recommended me to head office, so they offered me a foreman’s position on-site for some townhouses they’re putting up.’
‘Are you shitting us?’ Ash asks.
‘This is for real.’
‘You take it?’ I ask.
‘Had to for the money they’re offering. It’s like twice what I’m getting, and they’re setting me up with a place to live and everything.’
‘Six months. First thing in the new year. That’s when this townhouse project starts.’
Again, quiet. Maybe it is like cancer – the killing of a friendship. You take them for granted. You really do, thinking they’ll be around forever.
‘What about Lauren?’ I ask.
‘You can’t take minors interstate, can you?’ Ash says.
Dylan chuckles, like he wants to be blasé about it, but there’s no humour in it. ‘It’s six months away,’ he says without conviction. He takes a drink from his Corona, then lazes back on the couch, trying to relax. ‘What about you?’ he asks Ash. ‘What’s—?’
‘Cindy’s pregnant,’ Ash says.
‘Really?’ I say.
‘No shit?’ Dylan asks.
‘Who’s the father?’
Ash laughs. ‘How brave.’
‘You’re going to be a father?’ I ask.
‘What? I’ll be a good father,’ Ash says, but his eyes rove the lounge until they target the blonde on a couch in the corner. I walked into the toilets once and Ash was banging a redhead in a cubicle while a crowd of onlookers watched. Whatever loyalty he’d had to his vows, debauchery and drinking have beaten into submission. Not that Cindy knows, or even suspects. She’s the model wife living her model suburban life. Ash, though, cheats, gets in fights, and goes on drinking and gambling benders. He can be a prick, which is an awful thing to say, but you still couldn’t find a better friend. Most of the time.
‘Well,’ Dylan said, leaning forward on the couch and offering his Corona, ‘congrats. To your baby.’
‘To your job,’ Ash said, thrusting his Corona forward.
I thrust my Corona forward and can think of nothing to add.
I stand on the terrace, looking at the street three-storeys below. Traffic whizzes by, people moving obliviously on with their lives. I sip from my Corona. The night’s freezing, and the barrel of the bottle threatens to stick to my lips. The beer’s not going down well, and it’s not a night for big drinking, but that’s exactly what I want to do.
Taking a swig, I look back into The Back Room.
In the lounge, Ash sits on the couch with the blonde. She throws her head back and laughs at everything he says. Give it an hour, and Ash will be fucking her. His magnetism is inexplicable. I wish I had it. An ounce of it. And more so his confidence. It makes you wonder why he got married. I think he was hoping to find somebody to save him from his own recklessness, and Cindy did, for a little bit at least.
Dylan plays pool with Lauren, who showed up about half an hour ago. Sometimes they card her, but most times they don’t. Bars are always stricter on guys than girls. Girls are good décor, while guys are a hazard. It’s obvious which you’d prefer given the choice, and Lauren’s gorgeous with her blonde hair and dimpled smile.
I gaze back down at the street, wishing I had a Cindy, or even a Lauren, not that Ash knows how good he’s got it, and maybe Dylan’s just finding out. I wish for anything, but realise I have nothing.
I know now what I want.
And what I don’t want.
I don’t want this life.