In what must have been a single second I was immersed in something I shouldn’t have been. I had only part of that moment to register the sound of retching as I opened the bathroom door, and in a flash, I registered first the smell—some concoction of vomit and the shit of a sick person—and felt disgust, before I saw the figure of Margeaux. She was sitting on the edge of the bathtub, with one red-clawed hand holding back her mounds of deep, auburn hair, the other supporting her weight on the cistern as she leant over the bowl.
This single second stretched out like the pinkish saliva reaching from her lips into the toilet as she turned her face towards me.
“I am so sorry,” I said, and backed out.
I sat in the kitchen on one of the two stools we had squeezed in beside the bench. The image of Margeaux played back to me in a cruel mimicry of the Little Mermaid in her pink dress—Margeaux’s red nails and reddish hair with the salmon ceramic, candy pink shower curtain, the blush planter on the edge of the bathtub, and her pink saliva, tying her to the scene by a sliding thread.
I tensed my toes around the chair frame, staring at the kitchen tiles—cool white, almost bluish in tone, with grout so dirty most of it looked black—and shivered. I had come downstairs to pee because we were avoiding using the upstairs toilet, since it leaked downstairs when flushed, and the cold of the house was encroaching, beginning as always with my feet.
Margeaux came into the kitchen. There was a fine sheen on her white skin, but her back was straight, her dressing gown was tied neatly around her body and her hair was off her face. She did not falter in meeting my eyes.
“I am so sorry,” I said. “The light wasn’t on and …”
“It’s fine,” she replied, and she turned away from me as she filled the kettle and flicked it on.
“Are you ok?” I said to the back of her head.
Her words overlapped mine. “Caroline and I broke up.”
“Oh. Shit,” I said.
She didn’t turn around, and the sound of the kettle grew to suffocate all other sounds, and I didn’t know what to say so I planted my feet on the tiles and hugged her from behind. She softened. Her hands went from clasping the edge of the bench, to looping around her body to hold onto my arms. As I had been many times before, I was struck by her smell: she had just been vomiting, from what I could tell, but she smelled like a baby. Not like the washing powder of a person who still has a mother doing the daily work of care, but like the skin of a baby. And yet, to hug her was more to hug a mother than a child—I was holding her, and her five-year long relationship had just ended, but I felt a deep comfort resting the side of my head between her shoulder blades.
“What happened?” My breath created a momentary hot patch on her back around my lips and nose.
She extricated herself gently and started pouring hot water. Peppermint scented steam curled into the stale air.
“I don’t really want to talk about it, just yet,” she said. She turned to me now, and found my gaze again as she asked, “How are things with Curtis?”
“Oh,” I said. Curtis was somebody I had been dating a couple of months. I examined Margeaux’s face. Her expression was smooth: the conversation regarding Caroline was over, and the one about the pinkish string would never begin. “I don’t know.” I paused. “I had an orgasm for the first time the other night.”
“What!” she gasped, and her eyes widened. “That’s so exciting! Are you going to fall in love now, now you’ve had the gasm?”
I laughed and shook my head, not as a ‘no’, but to shake off the topic.
“Well!” she said, and put her peppermint tea down. “I think that calls for a wine! You’ve never come before, have you?”
“No. I mean, never with somebody,” I replied, and watched her cross the kitchen to the pantry.
“Yeah, yeah, of course, we all do alone,” she said, and made a flourishing gesture with her free hand before pouring two glasses of red. She looked out the window. “And the sun has come out!”
I put on some slippers, and we went into the courtyard to sit in the pale pool of sunlight that was covering the lounges we had found for free. I leaned against the wall under the kitchen window and closed my eyes. It was the beginning of June, and the sun was not enough to heat the bricks, but my face tingled under the suggestion of warmth. I closed my eyes.
I came to with the tickle of grass on my calves and looked down. Weeds were growing through the gaps in the paving, shooting up amongst bits and pieces of junk—a Perspex coffee table, a rusty candelabra, some planks of wood. I got a whiff of stagnant water and looked at the tub I had bought for storing my indoor plant paraphernalia. The lid had come loose and several inches of rainwater filled the bottom, so that the small shovel, the plastic pots and what I had left of potting mix were sitting in a shallow green pool.
I looked across at Margeaux. She was seated on the opposite side of the courtyard staring in the other direction, down the long narrow length of junk and weeds towards the back gate to bluestone laneways.
“I do feel … unsure about Curtis, at this stage,” I added. Margeaux looked around. “There’s something kind of, I don’t know, foreign about him?” I went on. “But I still really wanted to have sex, oh my god, I was sopping wet.”
“And you did! And it’s good!”
“Yes, the best! When we had sex for the first time all I could think was ‘I’m so glad this is happening, I’m so glad this is happening’.”
Margeaux made a soft ‘mmm’ noise of laughter. We sipped our wine.
“But I also feel like … I don’t understand why he likes me so much.”
Margeaux’s dazed expression sharpened. She looked at me directly and pressed her chin back, frowning.
“What do you mean? You’re the whole package!”
“No, no, I don’t mean it that way.”
“You better not.”
Margeaux’s gaze tilted up, landing somewhere above the kitchen window. I found a patch of paving uninterrupted by weeds to put down my glass of wine and drifted over to the base of the lemon tree by the door. I looked up, and then down. Above were unripe pieces of fruit, hard and shadowed by green, and below were the forgotten ready-to-eat ones, turning soft where they lay among dead leaves. I nudged some around with my foot, looking for something decent. One was near mush, and the smell that sauntered upwards when I disturbed it gave me a flashback: a different share house, the rotten fruit of a different citrus tree, and a bond clean and garden job left entirely to me. I resolved I would never be a part of the bond clean at this house. I would sacrifice much to avoid it.
“What do you mean, then? About not understanding why he likes you.”
I turned away from the lemon tree and faced Margeaux. She was watching me, arms crossed, wine glass in hand.
“I haven’t … had the opportunity to show him me, yet,” I said. “So I’m wondering what it is he likes.”
Margeaux nodded slowly and took a gulp of wine. She wiped her mouth with her palm.
“I was working on a job once and this older senior guy told me after a while that he really likes me,” she said, “And I was a young designer trying to get ahead. I was like, do you really think I’ve shown you the real me in this environment? Is it kind of like that?”
“Sort of,” I said. “But that’s extra weird because the way you are as a junior person at a job is like a totally blank slate.”
“Mm, just one of many reasons I stopped dating men years ago.”
“I don’t think that’s what it is with Curtis, really,” I said. “I don’t think I’m a blank slate with him. I suppose I just mean … I didn’t do anything for this liking of me. It’s made me realise how meaningless it actually is to be liked by somebody. I wanted somebody to like me this much for so long, but it’s entirely beside the point.”
Margeaux formed a little considered frown. I sat down again on the opposite lounge.
“I see what you mean,” she said. Then she added, “Curtis is a really good guy. I’ve always thought that, we’ve got a bunch of mutual friends.”
I smiled and picked up my glass, then leaned forward on my knees, gripped by a sudden desire to share.
“Ok, true, but also, he does this thing where he … he’s driving home from work or whatever and he calls me while he’s in the car.”
“He calls you?” Margeaux said.
“I mean, just to talk, for no reason. While in the car.”
“He calls you to talk?” Margeaux said again, laughing now, a vulnerable affectionate light in her eyes. “Fucking psycho!”
“Oh, wait … I know, I know!” I said, face heating as I realised how I sounded. “I just get awkward talking to boys on the phone.”
“Awkward talking to boys? You’re adorable, Sofia. I’m going to get the bottle.”
An hour passed, and Margeaux and I finished the bottle of wine, before I realised I still hadn’t peed. Standing, I announced my need to her and said I had things to do upstairs. I knelt down before her where she sat on the sun lounge and squeezed her arm. She smiled at me, resting her head on the concrete fence behind her. Her face was no longer sparkling with sweat, but it was luminous, pale skin made striking by the deep red sitting in the corners of her lips, gap-teeth dulled by wine.
I passed the kitchen and noticed the peppermint tea sitting on the bench, abandoned and cold. I used the upstairs toilet.