This is a short story I submitted for the One book many Brisbanes comp that happens every year in my current city of residence. They knocked it back… suckers.
THE TENDER CALCULATION OF REGRET’S DISCOVERY
Brisbane is roughly 25,652 kilometres from New York City, give or take a few. When I left Manhattan, my shrink told me that I was approximately 14.7 years away from killing myself. This gave me a life expectancy of roughly 38.5.
Over the past two years the accent I arrived with has finally softened. I know to say ‘Bris-bin’ instead of ‘Bris-bane’ and can even get away with the occasional ‘mate’. I have a unique appreciation for blending in, keeping a low profile.
I’ve learnt a lot since moving to Brisbane. I learnt that the scent of jasmine in Roma Street Parkland on a spring afternoon is more intoxicating than anything I ever bought from the dealers up on Dyer Avenue in the Bronx. I learnt that for less than three bucks you can ride the City CAT up and down the Brisbane River all day undisturbed.
That’s where I met Matiu.
Matiu was one of the only other travellers when I hopped the CAT in West End at 8am on a Saturday. He looked suspiciously at my brown paper bag. I nodded knowingly at his red eyes. When the white sails of the boats that neither of us could ever afford flapped in the river wind like crisp linens on a summer clothesline, we silently envied their beauty.
Up to Apollo Bay, back to the University of Queensland. We start to take off for a third round when curiosity gets the best of Matiu.
‘What’s in the bag?’ he asks without making eye contact.
‘An empty bottle.’
A group of Chinese students get on the ferry and I listen to the unique sound of each syllable spoken. I’m fascinated by the tonal richness of Asian dialects. Every phrase is a cacophonic scale that leaves me hanging on each note. Their chatter makes me feel ineffably lonely. I rise to depart as we approach the South Brisbane dock.
‘Where are you going?’ asks the brown skinned boy I’m still unfamiliar with. I can tell he’s tall even though he’s sitting down. His long legs look tangled the way he’s got them pulled close to his body. He looks about my age, twenty-six. Maybe twenty-seven.
‘What’s your name?’
‘I’m going to ride the Wheel of Brisbane Matiu.’
I’ll probably end up lying in the sand at Streets Beach again. I’m disappointed with the empty bottle that feels heavier now than when it was full. Some days are like this. My thoughts start moving too fast and I think maybe I should just go home to Darra and wait for another day. Wander around the Vietnamese markets perhaps. The families that own those shops are always smiling. I could buy some of those Japanese biscuits in the happy pink box with the panda on the front. Pump myself full of some artificial flavours.
‘I know someone who rode that and said it was shithouse,’ says Matiu interrupting my bouncing thoughts. ‘I haven’t been on it, I’ve seen it though. It looks crap.’
I turn to the stranger who becomes slightly more memorable with each spoken word. ‘Do you have a better idea?’
‘What’s your name?’
‘I got a mad better idea Sophie. We’ll get off in the city.’
We hop off at Eagle Street Pier. It’s so different down here on the weekends. No greasy haired lawyers in dry cleaned suits. Usually they mob these footpaths, barking into their iPhones about meeting up at Jade Buddha for some twenty-dollar cocktails.
I’m pleased to have no conception of time. Judging by the way my long curly locks are twisting from the combination of sun and humidity, I assume it’s close to noon. I start twirling a curl around my fidgety fingers. Matiu asks me a typical question.
‘Where’s that accent from?’
‘For real? Why are you here?’
This is another question I’m regularly asked. My reply depends on a lot of things, like the mood I’m in or who’s asking. Some favourite replies include, ‘You don’t get Palm trees or purple-flower leaves in Manhattan,’ and the ever popular, ‘Two words. George Bush.’ Then there was the time I told that old lady it’s because I’m in a witness relocation program.
Around 87.4% of all conversations I have with people in Brisbane start off with one of these two bloody questions.
I look at Matiu as we wander in the direction of King George Square. I don’t know why he bothered to ask me anything in the first place. He isn’t even paying attention to me. His eyes are all over the street.
‘I had to get away,’ I finally say dropping my paper bag in a silver bin on the corner of Adelaide Street. We stand at the lights waiting to cross. ‘I mean, I tried to. It’s not as easy as it seems… someone told me it was always sunny in Brisbane.’ The little green man flashes up and tells us to proceed.
‘You know where we are right?’ asks Matiu and I giggle at his assumption that I’m a tourist.
‘Yeah, I work down the street in one of those govie buildings.’
Matiu laughs and his broad shoulders jerk up toward his gold hoop earrings. ‘Ha! And I work over with Sergeant Pig on Charlotte Street.’
‘I’m a statistician,’ I tell him. ‘I work for the Office of Economic and Statistical Research.’
Matiu stops in his tracks and looks at me, confused. A small tribe of grubby Emo kids with greasy hair and ripped plaid pants stumble past. I start to rub my fingertips together, a habit I picked up back when I quit smoking. An Ibis struts over to indulge in a chunk of Hungry Jacks dropped by one of the Emos.
‘What’s the square root of 1,498?’ asks Matiu.
I laugh and shake my head.
‘See I knew you weren’t serious,’ he says.
‘That’s a bullshit question,’ I tell him. ‘It’s 38.7 blah blah blah.’
Matiu takes his phone out of his pocket and starts punching in numbers reciting his motions with each button press. ’38.7 times 38.7… holy shit!’
‘Yeah dude I told you it was a crap question. You could’ve been fair and given me something like 1,444. Then you’d get a nicer answer.’
‘Like what?’ he asks.
It’s fun doing tricks for Matiu. Lately all my math skills have been good for is working out how many households have .5 children with an income of approximately $63.7k. I won’t knock my luck with numbers though; my work visa depends on it. I call it luck because I can honestly say I’ve never had to put too much effort into these ineffable understandings. Math is practical and exact. I wish life could be as matter-of-fact as an equation. One answer only. You’re either right or wrong.
‘You must be crazy smart aye,’ says Matiu as we approach City Hall.
‘I don’t reckon. But according to the Australian government I’m a “skilled migrant”. How else would I be here?’ I ask. ‘Australia isn’t exactly renowned for its flexible immigration policy.’ I giggle again unsure if it’s my remark or the bottom eighth of gin taking effect.
‘Let’s go,’ says Matiu leading me inside.
I’ve never actually been in City Hall even though I pass it all the time. On another day I might wonder why I’m here. Today I’m just appreciating the company, this doesn’t happen very often.
Random pairs of eyes graze over Matiu and I as we walk toward the lift. Matiu in his baggy 50Cent shorts and green singlet; me in a pair of Mooks three-quarters and perfectly fit Cue top.
I discovered a long time ago that clothing is the best disguise possible; way better than any of the costumes that fancy dress shops rent out. A good costume will let everyone know exactly who are or what you’re trying to be. A good wardrobe convinces people you’re just like them. It takes someone special to see through my façade, someone like Matiu I guess.
The lift doors open and the first thing I see is the entrance to a crèche. Before I can say a word Matiu steers me to the right, ‘Come on sis this way.’
There’s a square shaped vertical tunnel in front of me that looks like it’s part of a dumb waiter. From up above I can hear someone singing in Italian. Behind Matiu there’s a sign with information about a historic lift that still remains in City Hall since the building’s original construction in 1930.
I open my mouth to ask what exactly this place is when a metal cage suddenly appears filling the square space in front of us. A little man wearing grey dress pants and a red collared shirt slides open a creaky door. ‘Matiu!’
‘What up Mario,’ says Matiu leading me inside the dimly lit cage that’s musty with the scent of Mario’s cologne.
‘Who is your lady friend?’ asks Mario propping himself up on a small wooden stool in the front corner of the lift. It’s the only accessory in the tiny space except for the small black radio placed beneath it. The radio looks nearly as old as the lift. Pavarotti’s powerful libretto fills the atmosphere and Mario sings along.
‘This is Sophie.’
‘Ciao Sophia!’ says Mario. ‘Lei parla Italiano?’
‘Matiu where have you been hiding Sophia?!’ asks Mario as we make our way upward through the narrow passageway. I’m unexpectedly surrounded by a frosty shade of white. ‘Sophia it is my pleasure!’
The area around us clears and Mario opens the gate for Matiu and me to exit. Finally aware of where I am, I step into the clock tower.
I walk toward the edge of the narrow pathway and peer down through metal bars at all of the people below. Everyone looks the same from up here, and no one can tell that you’re watching them so your eyes are free to wander. It’s the moments of unnoticed observation that reveal the most about a person.
Matiu gazes down at the streams of life flowing through King George Square, skateboards rolling past and couples holding hands.
‘Why did you bring me here?’
For the first time today Matiu looks me in the eye before saying, ‘Because you said you were trying to get away. This is the furthest I’ve ever gotten.’
A cocoon of warm breeze and silence wraps me in an unfamiliar comfort. I feel emotional. I feel like I want to try and explain to this stranger what I was doing on the CAT at 8am with an empty bottle of Bombay Sapphire. Before I part my quivering lips Mario reappears in his cage.
‘Going down?’ he asks laughing. ‘I always ask that! Matiu! Tell Sophia how I ask you that!’
‘Bro asks that every time,’ says Matiu as the door clangs open.
The three of us stand in the amber glow of the antique lift and slowly make our way down.
‘I’m so happy meeting your friend,’ says Mario to Matiu beaming like a proud grandparent. ‘All these times you come alone, I worry about you.’
‘Why would you worry about me Mario?’ I smile noticing Matiu puff his chest.
‘That’s right, I forget,’ says Mario giving me a playful wink that makes me like him even more. ‘You’re a tough guy, like Al Pachino.’
‘Don’t forget it,’ says Matiu shaking Mario’s hand as he exits.
‘See you later boy.’
I approach Mario who takes my hands in his. We kiss both cheeks like it’s the most natural thing to do. Part of me wishes we could stay here for just a little while longer.
‘Ciao bella,’ he says squeezing my hands one last time.
We exit City Hall and I instinctively start to walk away in no particular direction.
I turn to see Matiu standing perfectly still as families pushing prams and cackling Uni students rush past him in every direction.
I don’t know what it is about Matiu that seems more familiar to me as the day passes.
‘I’m going to the pub,’ I say making a sudden decision.
‘The International, in Spring Hill. You know it?’
‘Of course sis, I do business up there.’
‘I used to work in that area too,’ I say without listening to what Matiu is trying to tell me. ‘Let’s go.’
I quite like the International. I don’t travel up this way very often which is good because the staff is different every time I come. The regulars, of course, never change.
Before we go inside I buy a bottle of Alize from the bottle shop behind the pub. It’s not easy to find in Brisbane.
Inside there’s a little round table in the pokies area where I like to sit and guzzle cold pints from the onsite brewery. The atmosphere reminds me of being back in New York City; something about being surrounded by noise and lights and addiction. A man with dirty blonde hair and leathery skin catches himself on one of the Egyptian-themed money suckers after falling off his stool.
Three pints into our visit I start talking. And Matiu is listening. He’s not just hearing words like my shrink in Manhattan used to. He isn’t clicking his pen and looking at the clock when he thinks he’s extended far enough beyond my peripheral vision for me to notice.
‘I found him when I came home from work. Apparently you’re never too young to have a heart attack… I thought twenty-one was pretty fucking young.’
Matiu isn’t looking at me, this makes it easier to talk.
‘How long were you married?’
‘Six months. We met in June and eloped on Christmas. He was gone the following June.’ I down the bottom half of my pint and patiently wait for Matiu to catch up.
‘So what do you miss the most?’
‘No about ol’ mate.’
One of those awkward silences consumes me; when I feel like I can channel my thoughts through shoulder shrugs and sighs. I twist the platinum band that I still haven’t taken off.
‘I miss saying “I love you”. I know that sounds lame but; it’s not even about hearing it to me. It’s about saying it. Saying it and meaning it.’
I feel suddenly terrible for revealing so much, for dumping my problems on an innocent bystander. I purse my lips tightly together to prevent myself from saying anything else.
Then something amazing and unexpected happens, Matiu starts talking. He tells me about being raised by his sister.
‘Mum was locked up for heroin when I was still a kid, but my sister was eighteen then. She looked after us.’
Matiu reaches for his pint and until now I didn’t realise how huge his arms are. Tribal bands swirl his smooth skin from shoulder to wrist.
‘My sister had her own kid when she was twenty. I was sixteen then and moved out. My niece’s father is a dickhead aye. I nearly smashed him before I left.’
‘Where do you live now?’ I ask and Matiu laughs. I get up to buy another round.
The bartender is fat and the frayed tag of her scummy panties is flipped out the top of too-tight jeans. She gives me a dirty look before pouring my beers and feeling less introverted then usual I ask, ‘You right?’
People like this enrage me. Ones that think they’ve got everyone figured out. This personal quality shaken with copious amounts of alcohol has never been a good combination. Panty-tag gives me another greasy and says, ‘Last round, yeah?’
I’m baffled. Matiu and I have asked for nothing from this woman but to pour us piss since we arrived. We haven’t fallen off any stools. We’re not being overly boisterous. ‘Sorry?’
‘I said this is your last round,’ she says with beady eyes. ‘You and your mate. Just finish off your business and get the hell ou…’
Before Panty-tag gets the opportunity to finish her last word she’s wearing my pint. And although the shock has managed to silence her for a split second, the row of patrons sitting at the bar start to cause a ruckus.
Matiu comes out to see what the commotion is all about. That’s when he sees a different side of me.
‘Fuck you honey! You don’t even know…’ Matiu’s hand is cold and firm on my arm as he quickly grabs it and pulls me out of the pub. He doesn’t let go until we’ve made our way well down Boundary Street.
I feel like a little kid that’s just been told off, even though he hasn’t said anything yet. I bite my bottom lip and crinkle my nose. I debate doing a 180 and silently moving on when the air erupts with laughter. Matiu is doubled down in hysterics supporting himself on an empty shop front with one of his massive arms.
‘You are wild chick! I cannot believe you tossed your drink like that girl, you are crazy!’ For the first time since I can recall I find myself laughing as well, so hard that my eyes water.
‘Come on I want to show you something,’ I say. I tug Matiu’s wrist to ensure that he follows. We laugh and carry on all the way to the parklands.
Walking down a swirling footpath I pop the bottle of Alize and pass it to Matiu.
‘That is nice,’ he says after taking a long swig. The brown paper bag crinkles in his strong grip.
‘Cognac and fruit juice,’ I say accepting the bottle he passes to me. I down a few mouthfuls and give it back to him. ‘Ok here we are.’
Before Matiu can try to figure out what’s so special about ‘here’ my hands are over his eyes. He flinches a bit at the surprise but at this stage we’re all smiles; silly and uninhibited like children.
‘How am I supposed to know where you brought me if I can’t see?’ he says glowing in the mystery of the moment.
‘Because it isn’t about seeing anything. Now shhhh!’ I say with a giggle. ‘Breathe in through your nose, as deep as you can.’
Without questioning me, Matiu inhales. His strong chest puffs out and his closed lips curl into a smile. When I remove my hands his eyes are still closed. ‘What is that?’ he asks.
A white flower of Jasmine blows from one of the bushes lining our path. I close my eyes to absorb the sweet atmosphere and say, ‘This is as far away as I’ve managed to get.’
I open my eyes to feel Matiu looking down at me. His eyes are as dark as a midnight sky.
‘I’ve gotta go,’ he says abruptly and starts to walk away.
‘Wait!’ I say trying to keep up with legs that are nearly double the length of my own. Matiu’s quick walk is a steady jog for me. ‘Where are you going?’
‘To make money. Get food.’
I guess I’ve known he was a dealer from when I first saw him; the way he’s constantly on guard and moving just a little too quick. Maybe he expects me to care or something. I’ve already played that game. Drug dealers don’t scare me. The idea of him suddenly disappearing does.
‘Don’t go,’ I say trying not to sound as desperate as I feel.
‘You don’t get it aye?’
‘Get what? You’re a dealer? Look, I don’t care. Whatever. Why does everything have to change all of a sudden? I mean. This is stupid. Would you feel better if I said I’ve done every drug already? That I spent the night locked up for smoking weed in Central Park, or that I’ve gone on month-long benders where I seriously forgot my middle name. What the fuck difference does it make? How can a single moment suddenly spoil everything?’
‘You don’t know me,’ says Matiu. It’s impossible for him to sound angry with apologetic eyes, regardless of how hard he’s trying. I, however, manage to completely fly off the rails.
‘Like you fucking know me!’ I cry. ‘You know what? Peace out. Just remember, you’re the one that started talking to me on the CAT. You approached me.’
I find myself desperately trying to calculate the odds of such a random encounter on a City CAT at 8am in Brisbane on a Saturday. If the population of Brisbane is roughly 1.8 million and 47% of the population uses public transport… fuck this is getting too complicated.
I start massaging my temples in a desperate attempt to relieve my pounding head when Matiu says, ‘It’s because I was gonna rip you off.’
Raised voices evaporate into a thick cloud of silence.
‘I was gonna follow you off the CAT, wait for the first opportunity that came, and tell you to give me your wallet.’
I skull four long gulps of Alize.
Matiu is staring at the ground. He’s ashamed. He doesn’t know I was homeless for three months when I lost Jacob. When I would snort any sort of powder lined up in front of me. I haven’t told him about being locked in a mental ward after the cops picked me up wandering around barefoot in the snow near the fountain in Columbus Square. They said the only way they’d release me was if I met with a psychologist every week until they decided I was ‘ok’. 6.4 months after the crazy house I started to desperately apply for opportunities that would take me as far away as possible.
Brisbane seemed very far back then.
‘So why didn’t you?’
I know this boy. He sleeps on the bench near the Commonwealth Bank on Queens Street. I’ve stuffed cash in his coat pockets on cold winter mornings on my way into work. Usually there’s a newspaper over his head, or a hat pulled down low.
‘Because I recognised you,’ he says.
I literally cannot move. I don’t know what to say, what to wish for.
‘I didn’t at first,’ he continues. ‘But the more I watched you, the more I remembered. I remembered a girl whose long hair used to sweep my cheeks when she bent over to slip fifties in my pocket while I pretended to be asleep.’
‘I think you should come live with me.’
‘Ha! Nah you’re right. I don’t need anymore charity today.’
His words dice my already broken heart and I ask, ‘Why does it have to be like this?’
‘Like what?’ he asks. I can see my own reflection in the icy shield he puts up. We both look so afraid.
‘Look… I’ll tell you what it’s like. I got really high this morning and jumped the CAT. Then I realised I had smoked through my stash and needed dollars for a new supply. Something to get me a fix and a feed. And then I ran into you.’
My body droops with a heavy sigh. I’m not going to argue with this person. He’s right. I don’t know him. He doesn’t know me. We’re both just trying to repair something no one will ever be able to fix. With glassy eyes I turn to walk away.
‘And stop stuffin money in my pockets!’ hollers Matiu from behind.
I stop and look back over my shoulder. I can see him disappearing. It’s a different feeling, being able to experience someone leaving – opposed to suddenly discovering that they’re gone. Gone and never coming back. I count Matiu’s steps until he’s out of my sight. Seventy-eight.
Walking toward Roma Street Station I pass joggers, afternoon strollers, and lovers in the grass. And as I’m finally about to exit the park I hear a voice ask, ‘Spare any change?’
Propped up against a palm trunk is a topless man sitting on top of a black plastic garbage bag. There’s a hole in the side of the bag exposing some dirty fabric. I hand him my bottle that’s still half full.
‘Cheers love,’ he says accepting my offer. I don’t reply and keep making my way.
I start calculating the distance to Darwin.