The Feel of Men Close Up
I hadn’t gone to dance. I was there to meet the Buddhist who gave good head. That was how Maria had described him. “You’ll like him,” she’d said as we sat in her newly renovated kitchen. “He’s been celibate longer than you have.”
“But-,” I said, curious, careful. “Aren’t you two..?”
“Oh god no.” She shook her head and her long hair moved, shiny as fresh liquorice. “Not at all, we’re just mates. I broke his drought, that’s all. A favour, really.”
We met at the Railway Club, where there was swing dancing. Women in wide skirts and bobby socks. Men in braces and two-tone shoes.
The Buddhist was shy and handsome and we looked at each and smiled. I thought we would dance together, but it wasn’t like that. Everybody danced with everybody.
My first partner was a woman with a swinging ponytail. She taught me the steps, guiding my body with her own until we moved together, swish-swish-spin. The sudden wonder of it made me laugh.
The caller yelled ‘change’ and I found myself before a short bearded man, who swore when I got the steps wrong. He was stiff like a person make out of plastic and wire. I bowed my head and watched my feet.
My next partner was tall, graceful and very young. His name was Jun and when we danced, he led. I’d not known what that meant before. But I got it now. The clues were physical and slight like the ones lovers give each other in sex.
When the caller yelled ‘change’, Jun didn’t. He danced me out of the circle.
My mother always said she married my father because of the way they danced and I saw now, how you could fall in love with the grace you made with another person.
Jun began to sing along with the band. He sang freely like young children do. He swished me about the herringbone dance floor, throwing me against the lock of his arm then pulling me in close. I felt his young man’s chest and the swish swish sway of our hips and thighs pressed.
When, finally, he released me, I could dance.
I danced back into the circle and all around the circle, charmed by the scent of men close up, the texture of stubble, the feel of muscle under my hand.
But when it came time to dance with the Buddhist, he smelt of beer and we were clumsy together. I trod on his foot. His elbow cracked my eye.
My eye watered but I kept dancing.
At the end of the night, I saw him on the other side of the room with Maria pressed to his neck. When she saw me, her eyes slid sideways but I was only happy. I felt filled up with the music and the moment where I had found my own grace, there on the herringboned floor, outside the circle, dancing.
The Feel of Men Close Up was short-listed for the 2015 NT Literary Awards flash fiction award. Thank you to the fine folk at the NT Library for hosting these fabulous awards.
It Feels like Happiness
I am only afraid at the airport. I walk through the automatic doors with my daughter asleep in my arms. Her plump legs dangle. One tiny shoe hangs from the toes of her left foot, about to fall.
That she will die. This is the fear. Typhoid. Malaria. Terrorism. The town I come from lost three young men in the Bali bombing. All of them blond with sunburnt noses and large brown feet. The only one who came back had freckles and blue eyes and red hair. I didn’t know him well enough to speak to, but I noticed him. Everybody did.
I slide Molly’s shoe back on her foot and she wakes, stretching like a cat in my arms. People stream around us. I lower her onto the floor and we step together towards the security gates. She puts her velvet rabbit on the conveyer belt, watching solemnly as it disappears behind a black rubber curtain into the X-ray machine.
We arrive in the dark, warm, middle of the night, and I push my face against the taxi window. The buildings are worn and beautiful. On the side of the road, a man pushes a huge-wheeled, bright-lit food cart. In front of us, a family of four share a pink scooter. The bare soles of a baby’s feet illuminated in the taxi headlights.
The driver’s name is Nyoman. He has bright, even teeth and smooth skin. His face is hairless as a boy’s, although he is nearly forty. Same age as me.
When we get to the hotel, he lifts my sleeping daughter from the back seat. A moment then, when we are bent together over my sleeping child and he smiles into my face with all his bright teeth, before rolling Molly gently into my arms.
He gives me his card and I carry my sleeping child along a narrow path between a swimming pool and a tall stone wall. The wall is patterned with a vine of heart-shaped leaves. The sound of water rushes from the pool.
And then the soft quiet moment when I stop and see that here we are, unbelievably, in Bali. Not for a holiday. Something else. Something open.
I rent a one-room house made of bamboo with a grass roof that is grey with age and leaks in the rain. But I don’t know this yet. At first, everything is dry.
The woman next door is tall with dark brown hair and a French accent. Her name is Margo. She sits down at our small table, facing Molly, “Where’s your daddy?”
Molly looks at me, then at her spoon.
“Where’s your daddy?” says Margo again. “Papa? Where is he?”
“This spoon is very shiny,’ says Molly, turning the spoon this way and that so the light is reflected brightly in its silver curve.
“He’s in Australia,” I say, leaning over the table to take Molly’s free hand, hold the silky fingers inside my palm.
Above is an excerpt from the full story. It feels like Happiness won the 2013 NT Literary Awards travel section, and was selected for inclusion in the Award Winning Australian Writing anthology published by Melbourne University Press.
Flying into Hobart, the plane draws an arc above the silver river, the dark mountain. As the wheels touch down, I remember being eighteen and how good it was to leave.
I grew up in Tasmania. I was the fat girl with frizzy hair. The smart one with braces and no mother. Metal cut the inside of my mouth and I was always cold. I remember lunchtimes in the library or the art room. The smell of chalk and etching acid and dark ink. A blue and white uniform. The taste of the small green rubber bands that joined the top set of teeth to the bottom and the way my tongue could not stop flicking at them.
Once in a maths test, a rubber band pinged silently from my mouth. I saw it sail, suddenly freed, across the room to slap wetly against the blackboard where it left a small dark patch of my spit on the dust-grey surface.
The shock of it and the moment of stillness before the noise. Heat in my cheeks. Staring down at my desk as laughter broke across my back. Then the kindness of the teacher who said only, ‘That’s enough, settle down.’ And finding refuge in the algebra before me. I felt the space where the rubber band had been, flicking at the emptiness with my tongue.
This is an excerpt from the story. The full version of Small first appeared in Meanjin in 2010, when Sophie Cunningham was Editor. I will always be grateful to Sophie for her kindness and support and for the moment of seeing my words in print in such a beautiful publication.