By: Antonia Schuster
His nonchalant Kik message springs on to my screen at 3.20: How about 3.30 near Platform 28 bar?
I make hasty excuses to my staff, sending them flighty Skype messages just got to duck out for half an hour or so, back by around 4, and race out of the office.
I stop in the bathroom for thirty seconds to check my eyeliner before leaving – to trace heavily over the black kohl rings, widening my eyes with strategically applied blue eyeshadow, then – the final step in the quick beauty fix on the run – moisturising on my way down in the lift. Surreptitiously running cream over my cheeks, out against the lines in my jaw, smoothing my forehead. I concentrate on the news screen as I do it, avoid eye contact with anyone, as if this is the most normal place in the world to decide to moisturise. As the doors open and I escape the politely averted gazes, I put on a light, carefree smile. I do my lipstick waiting for the lights at Spencer Street.
I practically run the distance over the Southern Cross bridge, holding my hair down, smoothing my skirt. I clatter my way through the labyrinthine wind tunnels of the Docklands and by 3.31 I’m there, strolling around out the front of Platform 28, pushing the snarls of hair out of my face, checking my phone. He doesn’t seem to be here yet. I stroll and look up and down the lonely sterile streets – then perch on a concrete bench outside the bar to wait.
A young redhaired guy approaches me blushing. I smile at him: here’s a distraction.
He coughs and blushes a little harder. ‘My friends dared me to come and talk to you,’ he begins hesitantly, hanging back with his hands in his pockets, eyeing me cautiously, as if expecting me to tell him to piss off. ‘We’re here on a footy trip…’
I immediately give him a light tinkling laugh. ‘Oh wow really? Where are you from?’ Letting my voice rise in that flirty harmless way.
He looks relieved that I haven’t abused him, and the colour recedes a little from his freckled high forehead. ‘Tasmania,’ he replies, sitting down next to me on the bench. ‘We’re here for the weekend. They said I should ask you… if you want to come to a cricket match?’ He eyes me sideways, half-doubtful, half-hopeful.
‘A cricket match?’ I frown a little puzzled frown. ‘But you’re on a footy trip, are you here to play footy?’
‘No, well yeah it’s my footy team, we’re going to the cricket tonight,’ he mumbles, as if he’s not quite sure what he’s doing. Or possibly it’s just that he’s very drunk. He turns to look back into the bar through the floor-to-ceiling window behind the bench, and sends a tentative smile to a bunch of guys at a nearly table who are grinning widely and giving him the thumbs up. ‘So,’ he continues, turning back to me, ‘We were wondering… we’ve got a spare ticket… if you’d like to come?’
‘Where’s the cricket on…? I didn’t know there was cricket on at the moment…’ I’m spinning it out now because I want Xavier to arrive and see this guy trying to chat me up. What a bonus!
‘Oh I think it’s at … Etihad Stadium…?’
‘And it’s tonight?’ I give him an almost maternal look of concern. ‘You know there’s going to be a massive storm and torrential rain tonight… have you got seats undercover?’
He doesn’t know. And then, Xavier appears on my periphery, watching me with a slightly askance look, a mild surprised smile, hanging back.
‘Oh there’s my boyfriend!’ I say, loud enough for Xavier to hear. The guy gets up quickly, embarrassed now, mumbles goodbye and flees back inside.
He sits beside me and I’m glad to have this little episode to narrate and laugh charmingly about, to bridge the slightly awkward first thirty seconds. When you only see someone for forty minutes three times a week, it somehow never stops being awkward, even after eleven months. There’s always got to be a little thing to say, a slight joke, a prepared exclamation, or a slow seductive smile. Which only ever works on the rare days I’m feeling confident.
He leans in and kisses me, his lips gentle as a wisp of a breeze.
‘Thank you for coming,’ I begin, looking up at him with my eyes searching his. ‘I just…’ I shrug the usual shrug of uncertainty, helplessness. ‘I didn’t want to leave it as we did yesterday…I felt like we didn’t really get a chance to talk about how we feel… and it seemed like…’ I pause, struggling to find the words. ‘seemed like – I couldn’t feel that you really wanted to be with me.’ I stop. Trying to be honest sometimes means sounding pathetic; I’ve learnt this with him.
He curves his arm around me. ‘Liesel, I did want to be with you. But you must understand… when my work is so busy I feel stressed, and … you know I am not an extrovert! And I can’t express myself so well in English, it’s not my first language…’
His eyes with their dark lashes go broody. I look at his beautiful profile, his deep tan, his aquiline nose, his thin lips often set in a firm line of self-control, and his giveaway eyes, always brimming with unspoken emotion. The unspoken emotion that I hope is there, that keeps me coming back.
‘I know, I know.’ I take his warm hand, turning it over in mine. His fingernails so perfect, whereas mine… I could never do nails well, I can’t be bothered, can barely even keep them clean. ‘I don’t mind that, I really don’t! It’s just that sometimes I need… I need you to just tell me something nice…’ My voice trails off. I have said this and texted this so many times it’s becoming an empty refrain. A chorus that keeps repeating, on average twice a week.
Not having anything to say, he leans in and kisses me again. Again, the light caress of his soft lips, brushing mine, his tongue playing lightly with mine, then drawing away. He glances at his silver watch; doesn’t bother hiding it as he knows by now that I always notice.
‘You know Liesel, I only have about five minutes more…’ he murmurs, stroking my waist. I’ve draped my leg over his by now, my hand clasping his thigh – as if touching as many parts of him as I can will make our time together seem longer, will make the meeting seem more than eight minutes sitting on a concrete bench outside a bar.
‘I know, I really appreciate you coming,’ I gaze up at him entreatingly, giving him my ‘look’ that he loves, that always made him melt, before, in the early days.
The first time we met, he whispered to me that he felt like he was drowning in my blue eyes. So I developed a look that I knew cast a kind of spell over him; I could switch it on, turn my gaze on to him, and see him literally almost turn to liquid before me. I’ve perfected this look.
But these days, somehow, it doesn’t always work. He sometimes half-turns away, not realising I’m doing it. Or maybe has just gotten used to it and is becoming immune.
Today he smiles distractedly at my look, then frowns with anxiety. ‘Liesel, I love you, and I don’t want to hurt you. What worries me is I think you haven’t realised I’m going home to France.’ He looks straight ahead as he talks, his voice serious.
Oh not this again. I sigh. ‘I do realise it, I know this – but I can’t help how I feel. Do you mean…?’
‘I don’t want to end it with us.’ He looks at me gravely, squeezing my hand tightly.
‘Do you think… anything might change?’ This is the hope I am hanging on to with my life.
‘No.’ He shakes his head firmly. ‘I will go back, sometime between…’ I can see thoughts of possible mid-year holiday destinations flitting through his mind. ‘the end of June and middle of August. You know school in France starts in September, so we need to be back for the children to be ready for school, we need to settle back into our house, I need to re-commence in my work in Toulouse…’
‘I know all this.’ I manage a smile and push back tears. ‘How do you feel about going? Do you still feel… your head says yes, and your heart says no?’
‘Of course, that has not changed…you know there are many reasons why we have to leave, and I miss France very much… but…’ He shrugs again with a deprecating twist to his lips. ‘I don’t like to think I will leave you.’ As he looks at me his eyes glisten with tears, the tears that are always close when this topic comes up.
‘So then we’ll never see each other again?’
‘I don’t want to make promises… there are guys in the company who come back and forth… but they are mainly younger, aged under forty, and it gets harder now with the visa as well.’
‘So you say you don’t want to hurt me, but what about you?’ I actually am not sure what I’m trying to achieve anymore with this conversation. I am groping round in the dark for a way out of it, a way to feel better. I just don’t know how or what that could be.
‘Of course, I will be hurt too. But I really don’t like to hurt other people.’ That reminds me briefly that he did the same thing moving to Australia nearly two years ago; he left a girlfriend in France. He must dread the fact he’s about to do the same, again, on his return journey. There’s something vaguely ironic about this, though I can’t quite define what it is. Why does he not wonder what he’s doing with his life.
Xavier lifts his wrist to look at his watch again. I know time is more than up now.
‘Okay, well let’s talk about that another time.’ I summon up a brave smile. ‘But what I want is to know where I stand now – I know you’re busy, but… I need to feel… I need to know how you feel, I sometimes just need some…’ I am back where I was eight minutes ago.
He holds me tightly, the farewell embrace, the thing to tide me over till our next rendezvous on Monday, at the Rialto. In the changeroom by the downstairs bar.
‘Liesel, I do love you,’ he murmurs. ‘You need to remember that. You are a … very positive thing in my life! I would love to spend more time with you… but I can’t give you all the time I would like! You have to understand that, cherie.’
Another kiss, soft and languid. Another breathless ‘I love you Liesel’, to which I whisper back, ‘I love you, Xavier’. Standing to say au revoir till Monday, another embrace, his arms pulling me close, hands firm on my waist, stroking and promising more on Monday.
I half-run back to the office through the strengthening wind, almost blown back across the bridge to the CBD. I spend a diligent hour catching up on my emails, concentrating with a ferocious intensity on editing a Ministerial Brief, and thank my team for all their work this week. I stay longer than usual, doing penance for the forty-five minute absence.
How did this happen?
The thought ricochets off the edges of my brain as I trudge down Bourke Street through the gloomy Friday afternoon cool change. The blazing sun and cerulean skies of the last days have given way now to a grey vexing cold, the wind whipping menacingly around my goosebumped shins, making me clench my toes in my inadequate slip-on mules, and clutch at the sleeves of my cardigan. It’s the first time all week I’ve put it on.
Typical for a Friday.
I push my thoughts down.
I get to the tramstop and look up and down Elizabeth Street. Why are there no trams? I’ve just missed a number 57 pulling out, it looks like the one and only tram as far as I can see. It’s loaded to bursting point.
The screen shows a red exclamation mark against each tram number. None of them are running for the foreseeable future. A message lights up to say northbound trams are departing from the Victoria Market, due to a service disruption.
I sigh and begin the walk four blocks north. I’ve got the wrong shoes on for this. I regret I didn’t cycle today: I decided not to – because according to the weather report, the rain should have hit by now, and it’s going to be a maelstrom. But it hasn’t: if I’d cycled I’d be halfway home by now.
Always cycle, I tell myself, not for the first time, as I traipse along awkwardly in my black suede heels. The stressed-out run to and from the Docklands means I’ve already exceeded the comfort limit for these shoes today.
As I near the market I see ambulances and police cars blocking the road, lights flashing in the darkening afternoon. The place is in chaos. Trams are lined up on the city-bound track, a row of sleek while capsules standing silent, and the northbound track is empty. I don’t know what’s happened, but I can’t see any trams heading to Brunswick any time soon.
I look at my phone. No further messages from Xavier. It’s 5.30.
I decide to take the Lygon Street tram, and turn eastward, to climb the incline to Swanston Street.
Fuck. I stand incredulous at the tramstop at Queensberry Street. It’s taken me so long to get here, through spitting rain and nasty wind gusts now – to find the tram isn’t running, Lygon Street is closed for roadworks and I will need to take a bus that will inexplicably wind its way east, through Fitzroy, then back to Brunswick: a tram replacement.
I have no other options.
I would walk but I don’t have the right fucking shoes. Because I didn’t cycle and because I wanted to look sexy for him.
I am mind-numbed with how much I am giving to this man.
I ask for information from men in fluorescent orange jackets who are milling around with walkie-talkies and big dark sunglasses. I am grateful in a desperate way for their clear and helpful answers; they point me to a waiting bus. Thunder erupts overhead and the rain starts to pelt icy needles.
I almost run: irrationally, I don’t want this bus to suddenly take off without me.
When I climb onboard and fumble for my purse to get my myki, the driver waves me on, saying, ‘Don’t worry about it’. I misunderstand and swipe my card anyway – then regret it as no one else is validating their ticket when they get on, rain-soaked, as if that’s a reason not to have to pay. Tonight, it feels as though it kind of is.
I sit on the fold-down disabled bus seat, looking at my still reflection in the dark window, and the bus takes off. I’m grateful.
He’s wasting my time.
People are on their phones, no one is looking particularly perturbed by the long delays. Out the windows, streaming now with cascades of rain, the traffic is like Bangkok traffic. I sit there still and think I’ve never seen anything like this in Melbourne. Lines of cars stretching into an unseen horizon, three lines heading north out of the city, unmoving, unblinking. Eerily, no one is blaring their horn, no one is trying to out-manoeuvre this vast sea of cars that ends nowhere. No one knows when they will reach their destination; this is unplanned, unanticipated. Unprecedented.
I simply sit. I don’t even feel annoyed. I sit and watch the water streaming cleanly down the windows.
When we finally, slowly turn from Elgin into Rathdowne Street I think blindly: I thought we were already in Rathdowne Street! I have lived in this dense pocket of the city almost my whole life, and I am still disoriented.
I sit. I listen to the driver explaining the detoured route to perplexed passengers. I am perplexed myself.
I look again at my reflection which I so rarely have time to see. The streams of water liquify my anxious searching face. The pleading in my eyes: I feel it but can’t see it, and in not seeing it I am acutely aware of it.
As I sit in deep unmoving intractable traffic, I know I cannot continue this with him.
I pass a street I lived in as a student, twenty years ago.
I pass the kindergarten where my son went.
The café where my ex-husband decided it was okay to live in Australia.
I think nothing. I stop checking my phone. I am silent and still on this bus.