She closes her eyes. The glass neck is warm and clammy against her fingertips. Its perfectly smooth skin rubs the joints in her fingers. Her grip tightens and her breath shortens into a hollow beat that heats and cools the kink in her throat. Her brow is tight and pushes her eyelids deeper into her cheeks. Greasy sweat sticks to the melting droplets forming in the corners of her eyes. Her mind feels wonderfully clear and completely empty. Her toes wrap around themselves and her nails catch against the loose stitches in her socks. Her buttocks hug tightly against each other. Her nipples dig deep into the cups. She imagines birth and the baby’s slick little body exploding out, wet and sweaty from between her pubic hairs. When it is all over her fingers smell of BO and she sighs long through her nostrils. She feels around with an outstretched hand until the wineglass sits smoothly on the sideboard.
She opens her eyes. The box has crumpled beneath her. She can see his name scrawled in thick black marker slashes, disappearing below her buttocks. She follows the goose pimples down her arm as it curls around her swollen belly. She cannot see where her fingers end at their acrylic pink tips.
She slides the ratchets of her spine up the sweaty wall. Her bra strap cuts deep into the wallpaper but she does not care anymore. Over her bulging belly, looming like the rising sun, she realises how small she really is. Boxes line the walls and carpet. She pulls a cigarette from the carton on the sideboard. It is perfectly smooth and straight and erect between her fingers. She lights the end and feels the smoke ejaculate into her lungs. She holds it there, thinking of the sweat on her brow and the saliva painted along her lips.
She remembers the night that it happened. Wispy flecks of memories get caught in her eyes. They were out to dinner and surrounded by scrappy plates and the familiar warbling of friends clogging her ears and catching in her throat. There were eight juvenile doctors and pompous lawyers and tradies and their snickering wives loudly boasting the monotony of their lives. She did not listen but stared into her contorted reflection stained with gravy and shreds of desiccated chicken. Suddenly she realised she was standing. The table had not noticed.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” she said. She turns on her high heel before anyone can respond. She had seen enough of their flapping jaws.
The cubicle wrapped its walls around her. She leaned her forehead on the cool door with her knees against the tiles. The door was scratched full of letters. Below her eyes she read the messages scraped into the timber. “Michael loves Joanie,” floated in a heart-shaped bubble. She wondered who these people were. Michael, she pictured as a grease mop with acne and a hard on. Joanie was a girl at her table. She was beautiful and drunk with a raspy voice. She closed her eyes but the names were etched into her eyelids. She realised she was more tolerant and caring towards these characters when they are figments that she met in her corneas. She pulled a nailfile from her bag and was surprised to find how easy it is to chip scraps from the door.
“Juliet loves Peter.”
With the final gash she knew she regretted her carving. But no one could ever identify them. No one could possibly tell that she is Juliet and Peter is Peter. If she scrubs the name away then she is admitting her guilt. She felts sick, as if her stomach is full of heart shaped bubbles. Over the toilet seat she could see her face in the still water, reeking of disinfectant and piss. She picked out the split ends in her hair and the lumps beneath her eyes. This was the Juliet that she never sees from her eyes. This was the Juliet she showed to the friends and strangers around her.
“I am Juliet,” she said. Her face rippled and her cheeks expanded and contracted. There was water in her eyes and a finger down her throat, sharp and smelling of gravy.
The door knocked. She had forgotten it existed.
“Juliet. Are you in there?”
Can I come in?”
“Peter, this is the woman’s bathroom, you need to get out.”
“I’m coming in.”
He pushed the door open. She was sitting on the cold seat over her disgrace with her dress blooming around her and her frilliest nickers twisted and knotted around her ankles.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“What does it look like I’m doing?”
He grinned great folds into his cheeks. It is the grin of the high school cum-puppets that wolf-whistled from across the oval as she bent over the drinking fountain. “Hey darling,” they called. “Hey honey, do you spit or swallow.” She clenched her fingers against the toilet seat until it bent in her grasp. She could not bear to look at her body. She could not bear looking at him. She closed her eyes.
“Waiting for me?” he asked.
He stepped into the cubicle and closed the door gently behind him.
“Go away, Peter.”
He gave out a double barrelled snort.
“Back out there? With the toffs garrotting themselves in their neckties while they silently wank under the table?”
“They are your friends.”
“These people don’t have friends. They have partners.”
He drew his lips together and kissed her. His cheeks were prepubescent in their smoothness. He weaved his tongue between her lips. His saliva tasted of gelatinous chicken gravy and he muddied her gums and teeth. He pushed deeper into her throat while his rigid fly stabbed upward into her guts, behind her ribcage into her bloodless heart. She pulled her head backwards but he snaked forward until her head was locked against the tartar-coloured tiles. She could think only of her younger self, maybe ten or eleven, playing, stroking, touching her boarder collie on the back porch. The yard was built in the channel of a cement creek. The wind pooled at the bottom of the hills by the shopping centre and exhaled long draughts of pollen and dust into their hair. His fingers tickled and rubbed between the buttons in her shirt. Then he was unzipping her fly. The wind was stronger now, reeking of off-cuts from the dumpsters behind the supermarket. It tossed the leaves around and around and around and around and around until it rained gumnuts with sharp cracks onto the pavers. She grabbed the dog by the collar and dragged it inside.
“Juliet,” he cried.
She opened her eyes and looked past him to the wooden door falling up and down.
With the playful whispers of her second cask of goon swimming in her mouth, she decides to call him. She dabs out her cigarette on the box (almost hoping it will catch alight and burn whatever it is inside) and dials. In the gasps between the dial tone she questions what it is she is going to say. It is a Friday night and he is probably drunk or stoned or asleep. He was so confident when they first met at church. He showed no remorse or discontent for the little that he possessed. She liked this in him. It is what makes her miss him now. The little phone bleats down the line and fades out silently into the distant air. Finally his voice silences the needy lonely cries.
“Hi. You have reached Peter Johnson. Please leave a message.”
Then it is he who is waiting for her: silently and expectantly. She shoves the receiver back onto the phone. Fuck him. He was there, she was sure of it, sitting silently by the phone; leaving him with yet another crime to atone.
“Arsehole,” she tells the room and her belly. “Idiot, loser, deadbeat, dead-shit, shit-head, dickhead, failure.”
She pulls another cigarette from the carton. She has taped over the photo of rotting desiccated lungs but her mind paints its image onto the creamy surface. She does not care. She is drawn to the pleasure and release of killing herself just a little bit. She can feel the smoke fall from her oesophagus, through her stomach and guts and kidneys and emerge from her bum. She feels so simple. But the cigarette works only to refocus her anger. She cannot prevent thoughts, like splinters, digging into her forehead and scalp. He could be out with some other broad he shelled out a drink to at the Imperial, or they could be fucking on a choir of fantastical bedsprings, or he could be stoned in a park or mugged taking a slash against a wall. But then why did she bother to keep thinking of him. There were so many other people she could call who would stimulate better conversations than his awkward invisible smirk. She picks up the receiver again.
When she took the test, he was standing beside her with his hand on her shoulder and his eyes on the cubical door. He wanted her to do it at home, but it was her baby. This he was happy to accept. It denied him responsibility in the conception. So they walked across
Main Street from the budget chemist to the public toilets by the footy oval. She told him to sit outside but he simply laughed and said that good fathers are there for all the important moments in a child’s life.
“I am not pregnant,” she said.
“Then what are we doing here? Let’s go home.”
She spat a look of disgust at his face. It caught him between the eyes and he stayed silent as she struggled with her belt and then her fly. Her stomach filled with bubbles.
“I am going to vomit,” she said before calmly upending her lunch onto his business trousers. In the next cubicle, two aggressive, acne scarred teenagers were sucking on each others faces. There was a flapping of loosened clothes and noisy moments of passionate silence. He patted down his pants with toilet paper then put his palm on her shoulder. He looked at his face in the little scratched mirror on the cubicle door and listened to the breathing grow heavier around him and fall into a singular rhythm. He can’t help but find himself falling into it too. At the point of definitive exhalation he looked down at her. He saw the fabled triangle of hair wedged between her legs and the beauty of it all. Even in this moment he wanted her. He kissed her gently on the forehead.
There is a click at the other end of the line. She jumbles her fingers, hurriedly pounding her cigarette to a premature death. The rain had steadily increased over the evening and now the downfall mutes the room in the fuzz of static on an old radio. Through the spatter she can make out the familiar voice.
“Hi. You have reached Peter Johnson. Please leave a message.”
There was a solitary beep and suddenly the mouthpiece drags her breath from her lungs and throat and then she is talking. Her mind stares into the letters of his name spat across a box in thick texta. Five letters. Suddenly he appears to be a code, so simple and translatable.
“Peter,” she says. “Peter. It is Juliet. I don’t think it is worth beginning our conversation with pleasantries. I am sitting in the old living room. You remember, right? With the shagpile that flared up under an unwanted cigarette and your favourite chair just outside the kitchen. You were such a slob, deadbeat, loser. Well now all there are is boxes. Rooms made of boxes sealed with duck-tape and labelled yours and mine or mine or yours. I sat on one of yours today and crushed it. If you want to know what is inside then you will need to come over here and take a look yourself. Actually, I am sitting on it right now. It’s a big one too.”
She stops to take a swig from her glass but finds it completely drained; the cask too. “Fuck,” she says with her palm over the phone. She retrieves her lighter and vainly flicks it below an unlit cigarette.
“If you don’t call back tonight then I will drop my lighter into the shagpile and let a million little candles shine and the ripple of flames climb into the boxes.” She clicks the lighter and realises that the sound will act as a sinister backdrop to her bitterness. Finally it ignites with great surprise in her fist. She lights the cigarette but does not know how to act next. She had anticipated that the tape would have ended by this time. The smoke collects in her lungs until each lung inflates into large balloons that escape through the gaps between her ribs and carry her high above her box and the other boxes until she looks down through the atmosphere to a shagpile forest.
“If you don’t call back tonight then first thing in the morning I will be at the abortion office. Come on Peter; remember what we have and what you wouldn’t like to lose. Is not your stamp collection from primary school in one of these boxes? Aren’t your university certificates and your photo albums and your collection of pornographic magazines? Don’t worry; I know that I haven’t crushed them.”
She is silent for a second but then realises she has nothing more to say.
Several weeks later she had attended the same restaurant with John Turner, a colleague from work who walked on the sides of his new work shoes to prevent their squeaking. Their conversation was civil. Juliet never regarded herself as a provoker and thought herself to be open to opposing views. She enjoyed the friendly banter of a good argument. They discussed the drop in services at the hospital where they nursed, and bitterly complained about the government. Neither of them took the conversation particularly seriously and it quickly turned to a contest of wit. Soon she was laughing freely, clearing the smoke caught within the cracks in her lungs. He was several years older than her and balding. His smile came as a joyful surprise when it peeked through his cruet-cut beard. His hands were worn and wise and warm between her fingers as she led him into the bathroom. She kissed him against the basins. He recoiled at first, but she locked him to her with her tongue.
“I have never done anything like this in a bathroom,” he stated.
“Neither have I,” she said. She pulled him by his tongue into the cubicle and fumbled with his belt while his shoes squeaked echoes around the upturned shoebox. She pulls him onto the seat fading like old paper. The cubicle reeked of disinfectant and piss. So she held her nose against his crinkled skin and breathed in his cheap cologne.
“I have dreamed about this for a long time,” he said. She looked at the walls blotched with clods of moist toilet paper and the multicoloured flecks collecting between the floor tiles.
He kissed her harder with his hands out of view. Over his shoulder she can make out the words she had etched onto the door, hand carved and amended by someone with a dinner knife.
‘Juliet loves penis.’
She closed her eyes and waited for it all to be over.
“Juliet,” he whispered at some stage but she does not reply.
The cooing of the phone awakes her from smoky dreams. She quickly stubs the cigarette against the cardboard (now with four elliptical burns lined in a neat row) and lifts the phone to her ear. What would he possibly say? All she really sought was to talk to him but now in this moment she does not feel she has anything to say.
“Hello.” It is a good start.
“Hello.” It is a male voice on the far end, but it is deeper than she expected. Maybe he is chocked up with regret. There is sickly sticky smoky sweat forming on the handset and the chord is knotted tight around her fingers.
“Yes,” she says expectantly.
“Is this Juliet Shaw?” asks the voice.
“Um, yes.” Her mind is reeling through blinks of memories and mutated thoughts, but she cannot pick the voice.
“It’s Tom Cooper; do you remember me?” His voice carries a whisper, small and intimate, blowing hot air into her ear.
“No, I’m sorry Tom. I don’t.”
“We met at
Mykonos, remember? At the bar at the hotel. At the Paradise Rest.”
“Yes.” She can see it now. A quiet bar buffered by the sand with a familiar sun blanketing the darkness behind her eyelids. He has dark brown hair, thick arms and no eyes. When he kisses her he whispers sweet nothings into her mouth. His breath tastes of coffee.
“And you were in the pool at the hotel and I taught you to dive and then we had a drink in your room and you gave me your number and said to call you when we were both back in
“Yes, Tom; I’m so sorry. I remember now. I have just been so busy lately. I have been working late and I’m behind on rent payments and I’ve had a cold and then there is the baby.” She bights her tongue, suddenly.
“Baby? You never told me about that.” There is a pause which neither end of the line is willing to fill. “You aren’t married are you? Because then I can’t do this.”
“No, no, I’m not,” she says. “I’m a nanny.”
“I thought you said you were a nurse.”
She jams her teeth sharply together to prevent exclamation. How could he possibly know that?
“Yes, but I am a nanny on the weekends. I just love kids and I need a bit of extra money to help out with the rent.”
But he is no longer listening. His breath is faster and sensual.
“Oh, gosh! I can’t believe I finally found you. I was devastated when I left your hotel room without getting your phone number. And we had such an amazing time. I could not help myself but to think of you for the rest of my vacation. Your beauty and the soft patter of your voice and your laugh.” Then, as if an afterthought, he adds “And that night.”
“I’m so glad you found me too.”
“I have been calling every name in the phone book all night looking for you.” She can hear the rain behind his voice.
“I am so sorry, I would call you but I am afraid I had forgotten your surname.”
“It is Jacobs.”
“Tom Jacobs.” She works with a Jacobs at the firm. He has a worn out jaw and pulsing laugh that he let slip at any possible occasion. At the Christmas party last year, she followed him home. His breath smelt like an RSL’s carpet and his beard sliced her face. Afterwards he refused to speak and after some rushed goodbyes they had not spoken again. “What do you remember about me?” she asks.
“Oh, well. I don’t know. You have beautiful brown hair down to your shoulders and green – no, blue – eyes and you were taking your week off work and you were always sitting in the sun because you liked its warmth on your skin except that you could never tan and this made you laugh and you laughed a lot at the simple inanity of life. And you lived in a tiny apartment by yourself overlooking a brick wall and you were thinking of moving soon because your landlord was so strict and you were so grateful to be on holidays and you were so inquisitive of me.”
“Gosh, it is just so amazing to hear your voice again. I just want to kiss you down the receiver.”
“Tom, I am pregnant,” she says.
Their conversation continues in the small gaps between their breaths. Finally he speaks again.
“And do you think it is mine?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh my god. Can I come and see you?”
“No,” she says quickly. “No, I don’t think that would be a good idea.”
“And are you going to keep the baby?”
She looks at the boxes around her. Each one looks the same. Each is generic. Each could be empty. Maybe she never actually packed them.
“Yes,” she says. “I think I will.”
She takes the receiver from her ear. She can hear his voice distant and faint and he talks in a rapid monotone which may merely be the distance between his mouth and her ear. She feels a lurch in her stomach. It may be the tiny kick of a baby’s foot. Her chest heaves and she steadies herself on her box. He can see him standing by his own window in a tidy home office painted sepia with a large bookcase filled with anonymous hard-cover spines and a large desk with a phone chord stretching to the window sill. He is happy. He will go downstairs to his kitchen and make himself a sandwich and watch it in front of the TV. Then he will sprawl across his double bed and his floor will fill with pillows like discarded thoughts waiting for the morning light. She is staring at her reflection painted onto the blacked out window. He is still talking, faster still. She pulls the phone back to her ear.
“Listen,” she says. “Do not try and contact me again. The baby is mine and mine alone. I need and want no help in raising it. I never want it to know who its father is. Nothing ever happened between us and neither of us exist.
“Juliet,” she says. “Juliet. Juliet. Juliet.” And then she is listening to the dial tone once more. She presses the keys quickly before any doubts can clip onto her subconscious. Then the phone is ringing once more.
“Hi. You have reached Peter Johnson. Please leave a message.”
“Hello Peter,” she says. “I have decided to abort the baby. There is nothing you can do to change my mind. Don’t bother trying to call.” She drops the phone back onto its holster and waits. The rain has eased into a gentle mist and somewhere nearby she can hear cars moaning along the wet streets, going somewhere. She unbuttons her fly as the phone bleats once more. She closes her eyes and lets it ring out into silence.