Biography: I am a University student from Perth, Western Australia. I have previously pitched this short story to The New Yorker who informed me that although they couldn’t publish it, they recognized that it indicated promise and advised me to keep writing and reading. I have previously had my poetry published in Inclement Poetry Magazine and Westward Quarterly.
Neither Happy Nor Sad
Preference. I prefer it when elevators are quiet and don’t have music whispering from their speakers, unlike this one with poor taste in jazz. The middle-aged woman standing next to me is shifting her weight from one foot to the other at a very fast pace. I can tell she doesn’t like the awkward silence between us. It sits heavy on both our shoulders. On the ground level of the apartment building, I dragged the empty suitcase I had borrowed from my mother behind me and out into the dazzling sunlight. It was massive, made of brown leather and covered in stickers from her post-teenage-self-discovery travels across the globe. She only ever needed to take books, clothes, and food with her. Tonight, in order to have a peaceful holiday with my boyfriend, I planned to fill it with the self respect I gave up a long time ago.
It would have been very rude to reprimand a man just for gifting me a bag of apple-flavoured sweets on our second date. Even though sucking them made the roof of my mouth sore, and I could feel the warm blood on my tongue although I couldn’t taste it. Not wanting to injure his pride, I avoided telling him that his candy had the same painful effect on me as drinking a boiling hot cup of coffee. The crucial difference was, the lollies lacked the aroma of a cappuccino and its ability to stir a deep longing within me. The smell of apple could never achieve this, just as the smell of Peter never really could, either.
On the bus ride home from my mums, a bearded old man in a shiny yellow rain coat drunkenly stumbled onto the seat next to me. He sat on the suitcase, its corner pressed into his bottom as the plastic squelched. He hastily stood up again, rubbing the painful area and apologizing, all the while looking towards the back of the bus. I tried to catch his eye, but he avoided my gaze as if it would transmit a disease rather than kind empathy.
The sky was clear blue on the afternoon of our first date. Not a happy blue, a sad blue. I could tell from the shadows of the lamp posts lining the quiet street that they too felt a little exhausted. Peter and I met at 3pm, in front of a small, run down Italian cafe he had chosen. It took us a long time to decide on a meal appropriate for this time of the day. I was secretly craving the mushroom risotto, but kept quiet about it. Over tomato soup and tiramisu, we spoke simply and clearly, neither wanting to give too much of ourselves away yet trying to take, with hungry hands, as much as we could from the other. As we talked and ate on the terrace, a young red haired waiter watched us from the counter nearby. He lingered in the corner of my eye, his eyebrows raised half way to the top of his forehead while his mouth formed a little “O” shape. As soon as one of us turned towards him inquiringly, his green eyes moved rapidly in their sockets, darting left and right before dropping their gaze down to the computer screen in front of him. Each time, one eyebrow failed to return to its proper position, so that it stuck in the air, like a caterpillar performing the downward dog yoga position. He made us laugh, with honest laughs that were mixed with a hint of mutual discomfort.
The night we broke up, the sky was dark. Neither a happy dark nor a sad dark. My suitcase lay upside down, empty with its contents strewn across the room, the result of an argument I was having with myself. The anxiety had multiplied within me like a pathogenic bacteria throughout our flight to Perth, and reached its tipping point as Peter removed his leather jacket and hung it over the back of a desk chair in our hotel room. In my vulnerable state, naked without the lack of self-esteem that lay by my feet, I was rendered incapable of letting my boyfriend treat me like his door mat. This frustrated him, and without reprieve, without a bridge of understanding to reach me by, he pulled his jacket back on and left. After the door slammed shut, I walked slowly around the room, picking up my belongings off the wooden floor, clothing myself with the self respect I had not grown out of.
I let myself into my Mother’s apartment the following morning to return the suitcase. On her bedside table lay a book borrowed from the city library. It was written by her favourite author, a man she could admire. When she took it down off the shelf, she was overwhelmed with disgust. It was obvious from the immaculate condition of the novel that it had never been read. She flicked through its pages, the bleach white paper painfully reflecting the glow of the light bulb dangling from above. Frustrated that such a high quality piece of literature was under-appreciated by so many, she took it upon herself to return the book in a state reflective of 1000 previous readers. After each reading session, instead of using a bookmark, she folded the corner of the page. She positioned the book to sleep on its stomach, so creases would appear in the spine. She underlined her favourite sentences with a blue ballpoint pen. As the sunlight streaming in through the window passed over my face, I lifted the suitcase up to the top of my Mother’s wardrobe, returning it empty, as I had found it.