“I hate this song.”
“Freya, you didn’t answer my question.”
“I’ll take a Moscow Mule. Cheers.”
A disapproving frown fills Jane’s face. “I didn’t ask if you wanted another drink, Frey, I asked if you’re serious about this.”
“Yeah, I heard you. I was hoping I could change the subject. Look, I don’t want to think of it so much as ‘giving up on my lifelong dreams of working for the Red Cross in East Timor’ as ‘embracing my backup dream of sitting on the couch getting fat watching Seinfeld reruns.’ East Timor will still be there in a year or two. Unless Indonesia forcefully reclaims it, I suppose.”
“But this is what you’ve been working towards, what you always said you were going to do…four years’ experience in a local hospital, then a job in East Timor. You bored us all to death talking about it. I get that you’re upset about what happened to Valerie….”
Freya winces at the mention of Valerie’s name, images of blood and steel ricocheting through her head. “No. You don’t get it at all. If I had a religion to lose then, I would be losing it right now. What happened to Val was…Christ, you know what? We’ve been over this. If I start talking about it again I’m just going to end up the weird girl crying in the bar that everyone looks at. Let’s talk about something else. You want another drink?”
“Vodka and Coke, easy on the vodka.”
“Got it.” Freya moves through the crowd of bleary-eyed early evening revellers. The air is a sweltering haze of foul-smelling smoke and ear-wrenchingly bad American electro-noise. It sounds like a drunken tattoo artist singing karaoke over the glitchy bleeping of an ancient Commodore 64 computer.
On nights like this the clouds of colour swimming in front of her eyes are usually more a source of entertainment than annoyance, but right now their buzzing and bouncing greatly vexes her. She ignores the “little Kandinskys” dancing in her vision and walks inside.
She passes through the doors of Ric’s for, what, the ten- millionth time? How many hazy drunken nights has she begun, regretted, and then repeated here? Too many to count. She checks her reflection in the glass and is as satisfied as she ever allows herself to be. A curtain of crimson hair frames her elegant cheekbones and kryptonite green eyes. She would like to be a little thinner, she supposes. Her tight red dress, paired with matching red gloves, displays her curves that are teetering between “femininely seductive” and “a little more to love.” But if she lost any more weight she could hardly criticise the waif-like creatures on TV and, more to the point, filling this bar, with half as much vitriol. And she enjoys doing that.
She stands at the bar waiting for the Barbie doll ahead of her to finish her mating dance with the bartender. When the girlish tittering and batting of eyelids goes on for too long she says, “Hey, Twinkle Toes, when you’re done staring down at that fake blonde’s fake breasts you want to rustle me up a couple of drinks? I’ll take a Moscow Mule, heavy on the Moscow, and a vodka and Coke, heavy on the part that isn’t Coke.”
“Hey, sweetheart, I’ll serve you these but, after that, you’d better slow down.”
“Sorry Nosebleed, I have a strict policy of not taking advice from anyone who has brand-name tattoos on his neck.”
“Nosebleed? Shit! Is my…?”
“Not yet. It’s a preemptive nickname. Call me ‘sweetheart’ one more time and it’ll suddenly be highly applicable.”
“Jesus, I was just being friendly!”
“You and Merriam-Webster have very different interpretations of ‘friendly.’ Now hurry up with that booze. I’ve got a future I need to avoid thinking about.”
The bartender complies with a grimace. Freya grins at him and walks back outside, holding the two glasses as proudly as a hunter bearing fresh kill.
Jane’s brow is still furrowed with the same endearing yet irritating concern. She takes the drink from Freya’s hand, nods appreciatively, sips it, then says, “Christ! Freya, are you sure you asked them to go easy on the vodka? This is like making out with Dostoyevsky!”
“Yeah, pretty sure,” Freya lies. She’s a good liar. It’s a skill she prides herself on. The clamour of the bar rushes in to fill the silence between them. Finally Freya says, “Listen, I know I’m getting a little worked up about this. I don’t mean to be a bitch. I just need a year in a cakewalk job before I get back to saving the world one penicillin injection at a time.
“After what happened to Valerie, I need some time out. Or off. Or maybe in. I won’t spend the next ten years as a guilt-ridden workaholic until I get knocked up by some surgeon who decides two weeks before the baby’s due that he’s staying with his wife. I need one lap around the sun. To paint, eat, drink, live, love, drive to the beach. Then I’ll get back to turning into the person I’ve spent the last quarter-century trying to become.”
“But it’s crazy to give it all up. All through university, you worked twice as hard as any of us. Even if Karen had slightly better grades…”
“Karen had slightly better breasts, too, and a tendency to display them to any tutor with questionable morals. I’m happy to take second place with my integrity fully intact.”
Jane sighs, leans back into her chair, and takes another swig from her allegedly half-strength vodka and Coke. “Okay. Fine. Are you really serious about wanting a cakewalk job?”
“I just want to go cakewalking for a year, I swear.”
Jane nods begrudgingly. Freya can see the disappointment in her friend’s eyes, but she has more than enough guilt to wrestle with on her own, let alone deal with someone else’s. “Jane? You’ve got that face on. That face you get when you’re trying not to say something you really want to say, like when you found out that the girl Mark left you for was admitted to the emergency room after the collagen in her lips exploded….”
“Alright, alright, alright. I do have something and, from the sound of it, you’d be paid really well to do almost nothing, plus the job’s right here in Brisbane.”
“Are you kidding me? Why the hell have you been holding out on me?”
“Well, the whole thing’s a little…unusual. But if you really want to put your work in East Timor on hold for a year, well, I know how goddamned stubborn you are.”
“Like a mule, Jane; an adorable mule.”
“Alright, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. I have this little ‘help wanted’ card that a weird rich lady gave me at that fancy benefit at the Tivoli last week.”
Jane reaches into her handbag and removes a pristine white card that’s more like a wedding invitation than a job advertisement. Freya inspects the front.
(a proper girl, not a silly male)
PRETTY (but not too pretty)
CLEVER (but not too clever)
“Hmm. Not big on tact, these people, are they? Certainly sounds weird enough to be interesting. Now, can we leave the serious talk ’til tomorrow when we’re chronically hungover, and start getting properly drunk?”
Three, or maybe four, or maybe sixteen hours later—it’s hard to tell after inhaling heroic quantities of booze—Freya finds herself at a bar she swore on her mother’s grave to never enter again. She mumbles an apology to her dearly departed and downs the last of her drink.
“Callum, do you think I’m a fuck-up?”
Callum sips at his whisky before answering. “Freya, I think that even da Vinci would be asking that if he was as drunk as you are now, although he might phrase it differently.”
“Everyone’s doing…like…amazing things…and I’m not. I want to find out about the world before I try to save it. And maybe date someone close to normal before I start collecting caesarean scars, a mortgage, a husband who resents me for letting myself go too quickly and a little house on the prairie.”
“Jesus, has Jane been drilling that stuff into you again? Why’d she go home so early, anyway?”
“She has to do some disgustingly wholesome activity tomorrow morning, like bake cupcakes for the homeless whilst running a marathon to raise awareness for canine epilepsy or some crap. That girl is always so da–Oh my God, I love this song! No… wait…fuck. I love that David Bowie song they sampled to make this piece of shit. Now everything’s going all purple. I hate when everything goes purple. You know what I mean?”
He smiles and shakes his head. “Rarely, if ever. But, yes, I understand. I’m hardly the poster boy for the Suburban Australian Dream.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot. Hey, everybody, look at Callum…he’s a boy who likes boys. Isn’t that so different and interesting?”
“Frey, if I didn’t love you to death I would beat you to death with this bar stool.”
“I wish you were the first person to tell me that. Tonight. And Jane’s not so bad—I shouldn’t be so harsh. She just makes the rest of us look like jerks because she’s such an overachiever. She found a job offer for me. Says it’s easy and the pay is good, but it sounds a little weird.”
“You gonna check it out?”
“Sure, why the hell not? I’ve got the card in my—” Freya’s sentence aborts in midair as she begins madly hammering Callum’s arm with her fist.
“For the love of God, Freya, what the hell is your problem?”
“Look!” she whispers in reverential awe, pointing at the street outside. “It’s her!”
“What the hell are you whispering for? Her who? Oh, her! Yes, she is something, isn’t she?”
They watch as the “her” skilfully navigates obstacles presented by the drunken horde as though she were in a platform video game, dodging multicoloured projectile vomit, flailing limbs, lascivious leers, and glasses smashed haphazardly on the pavement. She glides through each of these minor perils with the unwavering grace of a Russian princess. Her eyes are focused straight ahead, each step is poised and dainty. She is dressed, as always, in an outfit so grandiloquent that it very nearly defies the laws of physics.
A feather boa curls around her neck like a flamboyant serpent, her dress clings like a second skin, and her bright red heels clack heavily on the concrete like a war drum. She ignores the heckles thrown her way—not so much with silent defiance as the imperious manner that shows responding is completely beneath her.
“She is so amazing!” Freya sighs in admiration. “Really, you don’t think she’s a little strange?”
“Obviously, but that’s the whole point. She is what she is and she doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. She’s so enigmagnetic!”
As though she can hear Freya and Callum across the crowded street, she turns for one brief moment and glances their way. Marilyn Monroe locks eyes with them and treats them to a dazzling, confident smile, then disappears into the throng.
Freya smiles at the space where Marilyn once stood, before staring drunkenly into Callum’s handsome brown eyes and murmuring, “If you weren’t my best friend and annoyingly gay, I would definitely take you home with me.”
“Thanks, that’s the best offer I’ve had all week. One last round?”
“Please, madam, you are talking very loudly! I must concentrate my driving.”
“Yeahyeahyeah, very, you know…studious of you or whatever. I guess they raise ’em good in Tajikistan.”
“As I said before, I am a proud son of Turkmenistan.”
“Right! I knew…I knew it was one of the ’stans. Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kurdistan, Cantunderstand. Ha! Lil joke. You like that one? No? Nothing? No dice? Doin’ the ol’ stare straight ahead and pretend you can’t hear me, huh? You know what, I’d probably do that too if I was driving around some drunk idiot who didn’t know how to tell the difference between countries. Fair call. Hey, you know once when I was on holiday in Fiji I met this American guy who wouldn’t stop staring at my chest and he was all like ‘I love the choc-o-late from your country.’ And I was like, ‘Are you talking about Austria?’ I mean, Christ, how can you be so ignor—Wait, this is my house! Okay, lemme…I gotta find my…Oh fuck…”
“What is problem?”
Freya rummages through her handbag. “I think…I think I lost my purse in the Beat…or maybe the Bowery.”
“Madam, I must have my pay.”
“No but, see, s’okay cos I keep a twennie in the letterbox for this ’xact reason.”
Freya tumbles awkwardly out of the cab with an impressive lack of grace. Her bare feet collide with the cold cement of the footpath, painfully alerting her to the fact that she has also lost her shoes. She snatches the twenty-dollar bill she keeps hidden in an envelope beneath a rock behind the front fence and hands it to the taxi driver.
“Peace out, brother,” she slurs, holding up two fingers in what she imagines is a magnanimous display of cross-cultural solidarity, but more closely resembles the gesture of a pop star posing for the paparazzi on her way into rehab. The driver considers demanding the extra dollar-twenty-five she owes him, but thinks better of it and speeds off into the early morning, where a microwave dinner and his long-suffering wife await him.
Freya struggles with the lock on the door and bursts inside with a series of crashes. She stumbles up the stairs to her apartment, opens the door, and hurls her handbag against the wall, where its contents spill out like the organs of a goat beneath a voodoo knife. In the rubble of makeup, aspirin, and fast-food vouchers is an extravagant white-and-silver card that she vaguely recalls Jane giving her, somewhere between their fourth and fourteenth Moscow Mule.
The card lies there, incongruent with its squalid surrounds. If the card had a voice, it would no doubt be a royal accent lamenting the agony it was enduring among this trash and riffraff. Freya giggles at the thought of a talking business card, then picks it up and whispers, “Sssssh, sssssssssh.” She squints to discern the words hiding within the grandiose flowing font. She realises that she has not yet read both sides of the card. Through the thick clouds of her drunken stupor she can barely read the contact information accompanying the message:
APPLICANTS WITH AN EXCESSIVELY
CURIOUS AND INQUISITIVE NATURE
ARE DISTINCTLY NOT WELCOME.
LIGHT DUTIES. LARGE PAY.
NO QUESTIONS ASKED OR ANSWERED.
Freya lacks the mental energy to be sufficiently confused by the strange cluster of words printed in embossed silver on the card. She carries it over to her desk, opens her e-mail, attaches her CV, and clicks send. Precisely two seconds later she is struck by the horrific realisation that there is no “undo” function on her e-mail and her CV is now recklessly hurtling through cyberspace. She is about to perform some sort of panicked dance that will involve manic arm-thrashing and an eclectic collection of yelping noises, when the extraordinary quantity of alcohol rushing through her bloodstream overpowers her and she passes out on the keyboard with a satisfyingly heavy clunk.