Thursday, February 18, 2010

Arboreal Interior Design

I got a rather unusual phone call from my friend while staying with my parents in Brisbane last year. It was unusual because of how calm and collected he was. His girlfriend had gone on one of her regular trips overseas, this one being longer than most. Normally when this happened I would receive an anxious phone call from him asking what I was doing that weekend. A lot of people find being alone quite boring, and will dredge the depths of their phonebook in search of someone to talk to. My friend Toby on the other hand, seemed to become seized with an anxiety that came on as soon as his girlfriend's plane lifted off the tarmac. So naturally, when he asked me to come over and hang out "whenever" in a laconic, calm voice I began to wonder if he'd finally caved in to medication.
It's funny though, you wouldn't have picked him as that sort of guy. He was a graphic designer, and looked the part completely: wardrobe full of t-shirts with ironic slogans, skinny-leg jeans, perpetual 5 o'clock shadow and thick rimmed glasses. In public he radiated an almost smug self-confidence but as I said, this is something he could not sustain while he was alone.
I met him at uni, when he was in his second year and I was in the final year of my degree. Before that we'd been at high school together, but being two years his senior we travelled in quite different circles. We ran into each other at the bar after class, and after the initial "hey-I-know-you-from-somewhere" we struck up a lengthy conversation. We clicked pretty well, and his flat in Petersham became a regular haunt of mine. It was a cosy little place in a typical red-brick 70s apartment block, on a typical tree-lined Inner-Western Sydney avenue. It had been a complete bargain; the rent was under three hundred dollars, in an area in which property prices were skyrocketing.
Toby claimed that when his girlfriend left the place had an "oppressive" quality to it. Given that I lived with my family on a housing estate outside Blacktown, I had little cause for sympathy.
Besides that, I've never really had a problem with being alone. I used to envy those with flourishing social lives, whose facebook page would always have a visual account of their exploits. But eventually it came clear that they sought to cultivate their social lives with a zeal that bordered on desperation. It seemed that being surrounded by legions of boring acquaintances was a small price to pay for being able to say that they Did Something On Friday Night.
I fell prey to this way of thinking, but eventually I grew up and cut my more freewheeling social networking back to a tight-knit group of friends.
I work as a freelance translator, so my social life has always been subject to a certain degree of ebb and flow. A lot of the time I work from home, but sometimes I've picked up a regular job at a business that's seeking to expand into South America. Once I worked for a company that marketed cleaning products, and it was here that I had one of the most eventful social lives. The boss was one of the most anal people I've ever met, and hired a squad of ten janitors, all Indians.
He would make them clean the whole office at hourly intervals, and personally drilled them until they did it to his meticulous standards. Feeling sorry for the poor guys, I would chat to them during my lunch breaks. Eventually I ended up going drinking with them regularly. We would start out at a dingy RSL outside the business park, and then wind up out the back of a restaurant someone's uncle owned with a case of Extra Dry.

I stood outside my friend's house. After a week in Brisbane I could feel the late autumn air acutely. Toby's street was lined with London Plane trees, giving one the ability to suspend their disbelief and pretend that Australia had a proper autumn instead of a warmer version of winter.
The huge rust coloured leaves crunched under my feet as I made my way up to the amber tinted glass of the stairway door. A noise in the distance began to permeate the still April air; running water. Not like someone had left the shower on or the bath running, but a mighty roaring deluge that got progressively louder as I climbed the stairs. My friend's flat was at the top, and the final flight of stairs were slick with water. His door was slightly ajar, and I stepped in, curious as to what I might find.
"Toby?" I called out. I stepped forward and found myself knee deep in rapidly flowing water. I took in my surroundings. A vast body of water flowed through the middle of his flat, like he'd somehow managed to alter the course of the Rhine. The walls of the flat had become two huge canyon walls covered in moss. The couch sat on a sandbank in the river, one side sunk slightly into the silt. The TV sat opposite it, and despite all possible odds, was switched on.
"Sam!" came a voice from the shore. He was seated on the sandy river bank, a grove of pine trees behind him.
"Toby!" I cried, splashing over to him. His designer stubble had become a full grown beard, and his expensive jeans and casual jacket were filthy and tattered. My socks were drenched, but my sense of humour was still intact.
"I quite like what you've done with the place"
He grinned "Thanks". Despite his dishevelled experience, he was a picture of calm.
"C'mon, I've got dinner on"
He led me through the grove of pine trees. He had set the kitchen up in a clearing, the stove leaning up against the trunk of one of the trees. The kitchen light hung down from the ceiling high above, the incandescent glow seeping eerily through the canopy. He ladled some minestrone into my bowl and we waded out to the loungeroom. After watching a couple of DVDs, I began to feel sleepy.
"Where have you got your bed set up?" I wondered. He pointed up. High above was his bed, perched on a slab of rock protruding from the mossy cliff face.
"Goodnight" he said, and began the arduous climb.
I wandered back to the kitchen, and fell asleep on a bed of pine needles

A Cubicle in the Sky

Once more he joins the procession of commuters in their steel-and-glass boxes, dragged southward down the highway.
The bus is full. He stands, holding on to the overhead strap, an action that rouses protest from his shoulder. As if sitting at your bloody desk all day isn't bad enough. Have a muscle spasm you insensitive bastard. A twitch runs through him, sharp intake of breath causing the guy in front to shoot him a puzzled glance.
His other arm holds his book, but he isn't reading it. Camoflaged behind a paperback hide, he peers out at his fellow commuters. David Attenbrough of the public transport system.
Out of the corner of his eye he watches a woman in her early thirties. He can just see the edge of her frilly blouse, betraying a hint of cleavage. Her breasts and face are the same mole-pocked landscape of ill-conceived sunbaking. Her voice invokes the ghost of cigarettes past. In these tobacco-stained cadences, he can hear the hopes and fears of a lady with her 20's lying dormant behind her and the iron-wrought gates of her autumn years less than a decade away. In her conversation the recreational oscillates back and forth against the mundane . Tickets to Good Vibes segue into getting the new air-conditioning installed. Domestic realities gradually encroach on her sunkissed realm of solipsism.
His attention wanders, omnipresent but arbitrary. The woman's voice becomes a husky murmur in the distance. The bus begins its journey across the harbour bridge, diesel hydraulics groaning like indentured mechanic slaves. The clouds are opaque over the metallic-blue grey water, overshadowing the shore of the Eastern Suburbs. Two dark entities gliding in tandem.
The bus doors hiss open.
Office clothes are the perfect disguise. They allow him to stride through the metropolitan canyons of glass and steel, his subversive traits buried deep beneath millimetres of silk. The confidence is fleeting though, and is swept away at the next intersection.
She stands waiting for the light to turn green. Artistically tousled hair, baggy flannel shirt that somehow manages to flatter her lithe frame, black jeans (skin tight, of course). White headphones in her ear and there's a one in three chance it'll be Radiohead, Nirvana or Jeff Buckley. Her Woolworths bag is full of thick books on their way back to the State Library. He catches the word HEIDEGGER on one of the spines.
He implores her mentally. Please little bohemian girl, use your x-ray vision. Look into my bag and see my well worn Kafka paperback next to my packed lunch. I read Dostoevsky yesterday, honestly. We can talk about phenomenology under the neo-classical arches of the library. Its right near my office. Please.
She shoots him a wary glance, probably oblivious to the wistfulness behind his gaze. She looks suspiciously at his work clothes: a barely-adequate straitjacket for unbridled corporate chauvinism. He wants to tear his off, and show her his pasty, scrawny Philosophy-class body. I'm not like them. I'm on your side. Suddenly, she turns down a side-street, morning sun catching the purple highlights in her hair.
He comes to the final intersection. A five meter stretch of road is all that seperates him from work. An epoch passes from pressing the button to crossing the road. He evaluates the successes, failures, romances, tragedies, hopes and dreams of his life one last time. He casts them aside and steps through the lobby doors, then ascends to his cubicle in the sky.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Dairy Woman Who Died in My Bed

I opened the door and recoiled in horror.
That was the day my interest in internet dating ended. In fact, you could say it was the day my existence as a normal human being ended.
Like many people nowadays, I used internet dating as a way of meeting people of the opposite sex.
I found it interesting that everyone I talked to, be it coworkers or good friends seemed to concede in hushed tones, grinning sheepishly that yes, because they were lonely or horny or bored they'd given the internet dating thing a try. Whenever I asked a friend where he'd met a girl that I'd never seen before, he'd give a lengthy pause and then reply "Through a friend". It seemed to be society's skeleton in the closet.
I guess we all feel guilty about the social abyss that the internet has created in out lives. But there we are, lying cocooned in our cubicles, composing mental lists of gripes about the personalities of our neigbours, whom when we see them don't have much to offer them except an awkward, muttered greeting. Not really surprising that we turn to the internet to find people we like. If I didn't have such a pathological aversion to commitment, I'd cling to the hope that I'd meet Someone Special. Ah well.
For me, internet dating was primarily a vehicle for casual sex. Every once or week or so I would meet a girl that I met off the net for coffee after work. The process became almost farcically routine. It was probably the fact that everything was reduced to text on a screen that made so easy to hone my efforts. With scientific precision I would test methods of flirting, until it basically became a formula programmed into my subconscious. On one occasion I managed to set up three dates in one evening without it really registering. It only worked with a certain type of girl though: the naieve, suburban, secretary-in-a-business-park-office type. Women with personalities were immune to cliches.
It kept me preoccupied, sane even. When their predictable monologues of work and shopping drifted across the cafe table, I was able to lapse into a blissful, trancelike state. I would emerge, but only to ask the kind of question that would make them talk more. I was at peace in their stream of supre and sportsgirl. Sometimes we would have sex, sometimes I simply couldn't be bothered getting the ball rolling.
I kept this existence of disposable dates going for over six months. Until really weird things started to happen.
I met a girl off the net through my usual charade. She was quite stunning physically: blonde, great figure, wore cute glasses with thick frames. We ended going back to my place. I was feeling unusually horny that day, but this changed incredibly quickly. I ran my hands up her thigh, and felt a weird lump. I looked down and saw a fat, blue tendril like growth protruding from her upper thigh-almost like a root was growing out of her. I don't think I've ever lost an erection so fast.
A parade of women with increasingly weirder genetic defects marched through my life over the next few weeks. A girl with horns on her back; an English backpacker girl with greenish tinged skin that changed to blue over the course of the date.
I was plunged deep into depression. I called in sick from work and spent a week in my flat, not speaking to anyone. Eventually I decided to give it one last try.
Her photo leapt out at me: white-blonde, with model-perfect looks. I flirted awhile, eventually convincing her to come over. The only weird thing about her was that her name was Foccacia-yeah, the bread. I should have taken that as a warning sign.
She showed up on Sunday afternoon, knocking on the door.
I opened the door and recoiled in horror.
The only similarity she bore to her online likeness was her long, blonde hair. The only way I can account for this difference is that she must have used photoshop.
She was huge. Not fat though, more swollen-like a rubbery bladder filled with fluid. Her skin was pale and clammy. Around her face it was limp and saggy, as if she didn't have a skull.
Completely oblivious to my reaction, she greeted me and heaved herself onto the couch like a dying jellyfish landing on the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
I sat as far away as I could from her, keeping my eyes focused on the TV as she talked incessantly about her utterly banal existence. She didn't seem to care that I didn't reply at all. Her presence had a bizarre effect on me. I felt like no matter what I did, I was absolutely powerless to remove her from her flat. I felt like crying.
So I did the only thing I could do
"Uh, listen...I'm really tired, I had a really full on day. I think I'm gonna head off to bed"
"Okay" She said, giving me a vacant smile.
I shut the bedroom door behind me, breathing a sigh of relief. I was across a threshold impregnable by the bloated entity in the lounge.
I was drifting off to sleep when I heard the door open. The bed undulated as she laid her bulk down beside me. I moved over as far as I could without falling off. A liquid warmth began spreading through the bedclothes, making them sticky to the touch. There was a smell like rotten cream.
I'm not sure whether I fell asleep or lost consciousness.
When I awoke, the bedclothes were drenched with a sticky substance. I got up and found myself ankle deep in a cloudy white liquid. Yellow blotches floated on the surface, like oil on water. As for the girl, there was no trace to be found.
Calmly and quietly I had a shower, then went down the road to my favourite cafe for breakfast. When I got back, the bed was dry and the liquid was gone.
All that remained was the smell of rotten cream.