Michelle works as a researcher and document writer for an Indigenous not for profit in Brisbane. She writes fiction and is one of a team of digital creatives at readspace.com.au
Failing the Rorschach Test
It was the First Man who recognised repetition. He brought it up one day at the pool. Free style distance was the First Man’s favourite, where breath, pacing and clean lines carried him forward. She saw his sculpted determination most on his turns. Tumbling over, he propelled himself off the wall in easy motion, lining up to a mark somewhere in the distance. His legs were long. His shoulders strong and arms steady.
She was a natural fly swimmer, thrusting her hips with a supple easy rhythm. He coached her on the crawl, to move her legs and chest in unison. Every day they swam.
He smiled easily. He loved her and he loved his music. To him she was breathtakingly pretty. Feisty, she had an enthusiasm for sex he found difficult to understand. Into it like none of the other girls he’d been with. Risky. He could never touch her enough. Complicated, she understood this as love.
She was critical of others who got in the way of getting her wants met. When she was frustrated with people, he’d always say, “Don’t judge. Everyone messes up.”
That afternoon at the pool, she was out of the water, patting herself down with a towel. She’d asked him about his day.
“I just don’t know how much of my life is repetition,” he’d answered.
The remark insinuated itself into the kernal of their togetherness. She nagged the First Man for weeks. She brought it up on their daily strolls around the bay. Iron Cove, steel and grey. She demanded that he explain precisely why she wasn’t a repetition. And he could not explain anything. She mentioned it every time they had a difference of opinion. It was obvious in her mind. He was bored in the relationship. She encouraged him to find a career rather than keep working as a storeman. There was no conversation about what she saw for their future.
Swollen dark purple clouds filled the sky, the afternoon she prepared his application for university. That was the day she demanded he move out. Rain and tears spat as she banged away at a keyboard for his success, not his failure.
He did not have the life experience to know, nor the language to say, “You’re different. You need to work out what you want and why you want it to control your emotions. Otherwise anything could happen.”
He was crushed by her rejection. She let him wait for days before she returned his calls. She sent him photos of herself with other lovers. Wanting him out of her life because she couldn’t stand the idea of him not being hers anymore; or to see him with someone else.
She had never loved him then as she should have: with all her heart. The flat was empty without him and his music. A few months later she left the city by the bay. She moved to a city located alongside a meandering river. They tried letters and phone calls. It was no use. It was over. The First Man’s life opened up ripe with possibility, his future.
She knew the Second Man as long as the First Man. They shared a friendship of ideas and information. Their companionship had coexisted beside her cohabitation with the First Man. The sexual satisfied by the First Man. The intellectual fulfilled by the Second Man. Both men were friends. Her emotional needs fell between them.
A couple of years after her move to the city by the river, there was a summer when it was very hot and the Second Man invited her for New Year to visit where he was living.
The first afternoon they went for a bush walk as he wanted to visit a cave with rock paintings. Without a topographic map they had difficulty finding it. Wandering around the bush they found another cave.
Sticks and small dry leafy branches covered the entrance. A hole really. He moved the leaf debris aside. They got down on their hands and knees to crawl in the opening.
Inside was a domed chamber. The honeycomb walls were covered with tiny ochre hand prints. They were inside a birthing cave. This caramel enclave of sandstone had the remnants of a dead camp fire. The ceiling was too low for them to stand upright. They had to stoop.
This was not the place the Second Man was looking for. Uninterested, he crawled out of
the cave. When she exited, she carefully put the branches back in position over the
opening. They continued to search. After an hour out in the heat, they walked along a ridge where they found the cave he sought.
Steel bars secured this cave, protecting the walls from vandals who might spray unseemly
slogans. Through the bars, the Second Man took photographs of a rock painting depicting
two white figures and a sailing ship. The Ship Cave was the first known record of the
settlers. He took a photo of her holding the bars, locked out.
That night, there was a party at the old farm house where he was living. A New Year’s Eve party themed, Daydream Utopia. The Second Man moved in a circle of clever and colourful people. There were nymphs at the party, wandering minstrels, someone dressed as a crescent moon and another guest as an island. The Second Man was an explorer and she wore a mermaid costume. These guests all assumed she was his lover. He was selective when deciding for whom he would correct the assumption. A pretty and fun girl created an impression. Impressions mattered.
The hostess, who owned the property, had commissioned the Second Man to design and build an outdoor amphitheatre. This task complimented his goal of becoming a well known architect. The woman was in her forties, around the age she was now. Wanting to find out about the Second Man’s house guest the hostess initiated conversation. Perceptive and pointed she’d asked about the general and then they’d spoken about the particular.
In the course of their chat she had told the hostess about the wedding by the bay that same night. Opening a bottle of red wine, the woman had asked about the bride.
“I don’t know the bride. I lived with the groom.”
It was the First Man who had married.
“You must have mutual friends. That can make things difficult. Wine?”
“Thanks I will. It’s okay. We don’t see each other.”
“Did you meet my husbands this evening? One husband is an ex husband.” The woman filled their glasses. “A marriage has to give birth to something. Sharing an aspiration is the purpose of marriage. My first marriage was about supporting my husband’s career and having children. My second marriage is about this place. Creating a haven for others who value the same things as us.”
Drinking slowly they talked about family life. She told the hostess how she didn’t see her parents. She had run away from home as a teenager.
The woman reflected on her relationship with her daughter. “With all the love and affection you can give a child, sometimes you can’t protect them. Things happen behind closed doors with other damaged beings trying to unravel their own dark dreams.”
Listening, a smudged memory of a little girl and a teenage boy in a cupboard surfaced, just for a moment. Her own experience of fractured intimacy then dissolved from her mind’s eye.
The hostess and her first husband had pursued all manner of treatment programs to get their daughter better. Nothing had worked. The woman said, “Having children you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t because once you have a child, they have to come first. Loving a child can be a painful thing.”
The advice now seemed as wise as it did back then.
A long time ago on a verandah, an orange lip of bushfire blazed on a distant escarpment. She had sat next to her friend, the Second Man, observing. In an architecture book full of photographs, he showed her a picture of a church but the interior looked more like a grand cave.
“You see in the Notre Dame Cathedral, they used curved trusses. This creates that amazing upward motion. It’s a vaulted ceiling.”
She watched him, listened to him. It was really the summer heat and the cave that afternoon. She had burning realisation. Love didn’t have to offer the physical fever she had shared with the First Man. There were other fevers: ideas and knowledge. They only wanted the best for one another. There was respect, loyalty, fun and vision with him. These were what was necessary to create a life together.
She made her feelings clear. He was shocked. He did not feel the same way. Smoke blanketed the air. It was an unpleasant start to a new year.
They’d been friends a long time, since school. A few months later, the Second Man wanted to make things right between them. He invited her away once more. While he spent his days drawing plans and preparing budgets, she spent time in the garden digging and weeding. She planted seedlings that by now would have grown into trees. She liked to watch a honeyeater bob about sucking the nector from the gum blossoms. Years later, she had thought of that honeyeater and it became her twitter user name.
In the late afternoons, they would go for walks in the charred bush. He wanted it to feel and be as it had been before. She wanted everything to change. Uneasy silences. So self-conscious, she was difficult company. He resented her by the end of this visit.
The last night she was with him, he said things he meant and things he didn’t mean. He did advise her to seek help. She didn’t understand what sort of help would help, when everything he was saying was all about him. He talked about why he had moved from the city to the country. How he was unable to surrender his heart to anyone; how he was there on the farm to work out what he wanted; and how important that was to his future. When he spoke about her, all she heard was his pity and she didn’t appreciate being pitied. She felt shame.
She thought he rejected her because she didn’t fit in with his circle, not clever enough. It wasn’t that. They valued different things. He focussed on his career and became sought after, winning awards and accolades for his buildings. He always had a pretty woman by his side.
In the city alongside the river, she fell for a Third Man who was unable to sleep over. Others did stay overnight. They were boys not men, kinky past times.
She saw the Second Man for the last time at a dinner to celebrate her birthday. He arrived late, spoke about himself all night and left early. He had another engagement to attend.
After he left, a friend remarked, “People who are as smart as he thinks he is, know it is rude to speak about yourself non stop.”
Another guest said to her, “He was so patronising towards you.”
They were right. She ignored his messages on the answering machine. Time passed. She heard from an acquaintance that the Second Man had married a woman with a lot of ambition. They had moved to the mountains, not far from the city by the bay.
Tonight she’d been at a work event in the city by the bay. It was a launch party and she had spoken to three men. One had joked about her expectations. Now she knew she no longer had expectations. They were long gone. Now she had certainty. And there would be repercussions.
At this event, seeing the First Man, she had immediately gravitated towards him.
She greeted him warmly, “Hello you.” She was curious and a little nervous.
He looked at her for a moment, then said, “You’re the same. Radiant.”
“Thanks. I must have changed a bit.”
“A bit. But so have I.”
“What have you been up to?”
“Farming free range kids. I am married and work in planning these days.”
She smiled knowing his kindness and having experienced his patience. He had cherished her. He always thought the best of people. Contented, he had put on weight. His hair had receded.
“What about you?”
“Working for a PR company. I did the promotion for tonight.”
“Yeah I follow your tweets. It’s Honeyeater, isn’t it? Isn’t that your Twitter name?”
An unknown woman came up behind him and slipped her arm around his waist. After he introduced them, the First Man’s wife wanted her husband’s undivided attention and found a way to excuse them.
She then saw the Second Man. He was on the sideline of a political discussion his wife was having with another guest, observing, interjecting sparingly. Discreet about what he believed, he did not want his beliefs to jeopardise his aspirations. His glance met her gaze. There was the knowing recognition. There was no avoiding him. With resistance, she forced a smile.
Her mouth moved, “Hello.”
“It’s been years,” he said.
She waited for him to say something else. Nothing more to be said, he turned his attention back to his wife and the discussion.
She went to the bar. Sitting there she gulped down a drink, then another, until the Third Man sat down beside her.
They drank together. The more they drank, the closer they leaned in toward one another.
“You’re a goddess.”
She looked at his wallet on the table in front of him. Picking it up, she then held it open revealing a photo.
“What about her? Is this how you treat a goddess, being here, with me?”
“Her. She trapped me in the circumstance of debt and children.”
She got up, her hand resting on his shoulder for a moment, and she whispered something in his ear. She went onto the dance floor. His eyes followed her hips as she swayed to the band. When the band took a break, she went back to the bar. She sat down and he ordered another bottle of wine. Other guests left. Only these two remained, touching one another, talking to one another in the way people do, when sex is in the offering.
Finishing his glass, he said, “So how about your impossible expectations? You’re a hard woman to satisfy. We can work at it. I can’t leave her just yet. But in another year, maybe. I can come back to your place now. At least for tonight.”
She saw it then, the truth. She had never seen herself as worthy of a shared dream. Repetition swilled around in the bottom of her glass. She finished the last mouthful of wine.
He stood up and she followed. They were leaving. But this was not a drunken pick-up. This had been going on for years. Outside at the back of the building he walked ahead of her, just a few steps, passing a pile of building rubble. She stopped to pick up something. She walked faster to catch up.
Close behind him she raised her arm. In her hand was a rock. She struck his skull. He fell to the ground. His head cleaved open. There was no need to strike him again. He was dead.
It was a reaction. A reaction to something familiar.
The cave they had shared was empty. No children. No home. No shared dream. And there would be consequences. She got out her phone to tweet something and reconsidered. It didn’t matter now.
* * *