The two boys trailed through the city in the yellow cab. It had been the hottest summer on record, and the streets were cracking and thirsty for a drop. The long, straight roads were like an eager tongue flopping from its jaw, preempting a splash or drizzle of something, anything liquid. Even in the depth of the night, a heat haze rose from the black bitumen as if it were beckoning the rain. The streets were buzzing with overheated wires hanging loosely above the rooftops, and restless sleepers were sweating in their dreams.
Adrian was sweating, but not from the heat. His body was boiling, his veins carrying frantic blood throughout his slender frame, his heart struggling to keep up with the sheer excitement.
It had been two weeks since he left Rachel. She’d looked so small and lost among her things when he had walked out the door. But when he saw her last night, he couldn’t help himself. The sex was always savagely better when he wasn’t meant to do it. He could taste her on his breath, and when he closed his eyes he could feel the small dints in her lower back on his fingertips. He clenched his jaw and let the feeling pulsate over him. He was definitely not in love with her.
The cab passed the gardens with the grand trees and manicured grass that was spindly to the touch. They passed the government housing that stood tall on the suburban scape, a beacon of communist architecture against the prestigious university houses and overpriced inner-city pads for the pseudo-lefties. Adrian had once lived around these parts with Rachel when he was in first-year uni. Every morning he’d buy a coffee from a trendy café two doors down and feel his place in the world. It wasn’t long before he realised it was all bullshit.
Pablo was sitting up front, talking with the cab driver about the song on the radio. Adrian sat behind the driver in the back and opened his window sticking his head outside, the warm air giving him no respite.
“Hey man, you can’t do that,” the cab driver yelled, swinging his arm around the chair in an attempt to pull Adrian’s legs and bring him back inside.
“Yeah man, Adrian, what are you fucking thinking?”
Pablo was tapping on Adrian’s legs too now, his palms clammy and gripping. He was licking his lips and staring intensely at Adrian. They were riding over to Sophia’s house—Pablo’s girlfriend—where the beer would be flowing and girls would dance with their arms above their head, their taut bellies peeking from beneath their tops.
“You feeling it working on you at all?” Pablo asked, his left eye wobbling slightly.
Adrian was most definitely feeling it working.
Adrian couldn’t remember how long he’d been in love with Sophia. He could recall a moment when they’d been at a party and ended up on a mattress in the middle of an empty room. She’d been taking coke all night, but it was only just now starting to kick in, so she began moving slowly around the mattress in front of him.
“I’m just feeling so goddamn warm!” she cooed, closing the door to the rest of the party.
“You don’t mind if I take some things off, do you?”
Adrian remembered the way he had bit his lip and made it bleed, tasting the chemicals on his gums and the richness of his own blood. Her body seemed to glow under the cheap crystal lights that lined the side of the room. Every shadow on her form danced as she flailed her arms and craned her neck back. Adrian could have watched her dance forever, but eventually she came back down to the mattress where he was lying and whispered something in his ear.
Adrian used to think he understood sadness. When he was young, his mother would describe the symptoms of depression over breakfast.
It wasn’t until he met Sophia and spent his energy dissecting her mind that he could really fathom what it meant to be surrounded by such darkness. He often berated himself for falling in love with a girl like Sophia. And as he lay on the dirty mattress watching her dance before him he was reminded of reclining on the plush leather couches in his mother’s office that he had always found ridiculous cliché. He could still make out the fusty smell of the books and the way it made him feel almost intoxicated with the promise of self-discovery. It was times like these, as he was sprawled in a foreign room and watching a beautiful girl in front of him that made Adrian resent such memories. The way they would creep into every seminal moment like a pervasive illness, tainting his immediate perceptions with instructions from his past. His mother would never have approved of Sophia. But Adrian craved her voice, he craved the place she lead him to so often. Like a great rift in a valley, indistinguishable from a distance yet deeper than one can imagine, her mind was a beautiful place to Adrian.
“But be careful not to fall,” she warned.
Adrian asked Sophia if she was an apparition that night. She just laughed, although it sounded more like a cackle against the tinny electronic music playing in the next room. He listened to the song that played at that very moment every day for a year after that. He tattooed the lyrics onto his arm:
‘space is only noise if you can see’
When Sophia asked him about it he told her he read in on a bathroom wall at a bar. It was easier than way.
By the time the cab pulled into the street Pablo had gummed two more lines of speed, and paid the driver who looked suspiciously at the boys before departing. Adrian watched Pablo saunter down the middle of the road with his hands folded behind his head, his eyes rising towards the stars. Adrian could tell his eyes would be closed in this moment. The two had been best friends in primary school. Growing up in St Kilda had afforded them the luxury of summers mainly spent at the beach, despite how urban and filthy the seascape was in the area. Pablo had gone to a select entry school in year nine, leaving Adrian and all his friends at the public school in the city. The change in schools had a negative effect on the strength of their relationship, and it seemed that while Pablo became more interested in going to bigger parties and taking more intense drugs, Adrian stuck to smaller gatherings, preferring the effects of acid or weed. After year twelve, like a cosmic eruption of eighteen year olds’ keen to expand their social circle and test their limits, their friendship groups collided. But there always seemed to be an unspoken tension between Adrian and Pablo. Pablo’s parents, both artists, seemed to have imprinted their self-conscious egotism onto their son, and so as Pablo grew older, more confident yet more confused, Adrian found it increasingly difficult to reconnect. Pablo and Adrian had met Sophia when they were twenty-two and at a house party. She had been drunk that night (as she was at most parties) and barely afforded either of them any attention. Adrian recalled the way that Pablo had caught him staring at Sophia dancing across the room, laughing smugly before slapping him on the back and walking towards the dance floor.
The boys approached the house and were guided inside by the thudding sounds of base. The house was decrepit, the backyard littered with beer cans and a strange, sprawling pumpkin vine. People had written on the walls things like ‘say no to wearing shoes’ and ‘fuck me, I’m skinny’. A picture of Tony Abbott from a recent newspaper article had been cut out, his grinning face now stuck on the body of a female pornstar bending over a park bench. The half German guy, Jakob, had his head down over the decks, his long, wet hair cloaking his beautiful face. In the corner of a room where people were smoking, Adrian could see Sophia talking to some of her old uni friends. People were always asking Sophia if she was ever going back to uni. She’d flash them one of her intoxicating smiles before conjuring up a farfetched reason for her leaving. Sometimes she’d go on rants about wanting to focus on filmmaking or become an actress. Adrian could always detect a specific glint of life in her eyes as she spun these stories. It was as if for a brief moment she herself believed she could be capable of something more.
Sophia moved across the party slowly, careful to pay particular attention to those she deemed worthy. She wandered over to Jakob, pressing her lips against his cheek and whispering something in his ear. Eventually she approached Pablo and Adrian who were sitting in the corner.
“Hey, baby,” she said to Pablo softly.
Pablo ran his hand down her back and kissed her neck. Then the two disappeared.
Somehow over the course of the evening Adrian became stuck speaking to Anya, a tiny woman who had an alien beauty with white-blonde hair and full, circular lips. She had just come back from modeling in the UK and was telling him about the best clubs to visit.
“You just have to go there, dude, it’s like Melbourne on crack.” She was holding a cigarette in her hand and it looked almost comically large against her tiny fingers.
“I guess I’ll have to check it out sometime.”
Adrian had been to Europe to visit his expat father in France. Sophia once wrote him a poem in French. He kept it as a bookmark in one of his favourite books and would read it occasionally in the vain hope that he may one day be able to understand. She had written it for him during a camping weekend when their group of friends decided to get into a car and find a wide, open space to have a fire, play music and take drugs. On the second night away, Sophia had found Pablo in the bushes with Clara, his then housemate. Adrian noticed that she didn’t shed one tear when she told him later that night. She was rolling a cigarette, stopping every few seconds to crush the crystals with her library card onto her hand mirror. Adrian remembered her face in that little mirror, each grain of white crystal dotting her reflection.
“I want to say I love him but I’m smarter than that.”
Sophia didn’t believe in love. She didn’t believe in monogamy. She wrote the poem when she was coming down and wouldn’t let Pablo back into her tent. Adrian recalled her sketchy, affected handwriting, and the hard indentations into the paper. He tried to Google Translate exactly what it said but the words never made sense to him. The tense seemed all wrong. A few weeks later, sitting at a café in North Melbourne when Pablo had left to go to the toilet, Adrian grabbed Sophia’s hand, startling her and urging her to tell him what the poem meant. She pulled her hand away, self-consciously folding her hair behind her ears then squashing her hands between her crossed legs. Adrian had asked Sophia to look at him. She rarely wore make up but for some reason today the top lid of her eye was lined with black. He didn’t like it. Biting her lip she pointed at his shoulder where the tattoo was.
“Replace the word space with a drink and forget it,” she said, her eyes fixed on Adrian’s and with a very serious look on her face.
Adrian opened his mouth, wanting to say more, wanting to understand more, but Pablo came back and sat heavily in the chair beside her.
“Fuck the toilets here are shit.”
Unable to resist the pangs of foreign substance coursing through his body, Adrian realised he was too wired to continue sitting down and decided to go to the bathroom.
He journeyed past his inner-city friends, each of them finding respite from their shitty, menial jobs by smoking weed or snorting white crystals and kissing one another slowly out on the broken couches.
On his walk to the bathroom the linoleum floor moved like liquid beneath him. When he reached the toilet door he looked back down the hallway towards the lounge room. The human figures seemed to be moving like an old movie reel, their dancing stagnated by flashing lights. He stood there for a while and watched them, the lights moving from yellow, to green, to red, to blue, to red, to red, to red. He touched the wooden door and felt every splinter and spike. Just as his hands mustered the strength to grip the door handle and push downward he realised the music had stopped.
He closed his eyes and found he could decipher various voices in panic. When he opened his eyes and saw Pablo running towards him. Adrian could see his lips move but couldn’t comprehend any words. Pablo shook Adrian roughly. He’d shaken him like that once before at a party similar to this one. He’d been so angry then, Adrian thought he might kill him. But this time, his face was white and he looked like a frightened child.
It wasn’t until Adrian saw other people running towards him that he realised Pablo was talking about Sophia. Some ran straight past him and flew from the front door and onto the street like bats into the night. Others pulled on Adrian’s arms and dragged him from the hallway back into the lounge room.
Once they reached the lounge room he saw how filthy the floor was, littered with beer cans and vomit and tobacco. He even saw a needle. People moved away to let him through, and as her face became visible, Adrian collapsed down beside her.
Adrian thought Sophia looked so beautiful lying there. So pure and perfect. He moved her hair from her face gently, as if she was sleeping. A small trickle of blood cascaded from her mouth.
Eventually when the paramedics came they revived Sophia and carried her out of the lounge room on the stretcher. She would apparently be okay. The remaining people at the party, still mostly high, suddenly didn’t know quite what to do. The sun was rising from beneath the brick houses that lined the backyard, and the silent sound of daybreak made Adrian feel incredibly on edge. Making his way past the broken glass and rubbish strewn across the carpet, Adrian stumbled out the front door. A family across the road were packing their car for a holiday. The small child stared at Adrian as he opened the latch on the front gate. A lady with a dog ran past him. Once on the main street, Adrian held out his hand and hailed a cab.
“Where to?” the driver asked.
“Just keep going straight ahead, please,” Adrian muttered. “I’ll tell you where to stop.”
Rachel opened the door in her dressing gown. She had a cup of coffee in one hand and she exhaled as if implying she didn’t know what to do with him. Adrian stared into the house behind her. It was everything he knew so well but it all looked strangely unfamiliar. He scratched his shoulder awkwardly. He had no idea where he was.