Finding the angles


– Sylvia Plath


1. The puppy

WITH PAUL, SEX has become vicious altruism: Come on, I'll give you what you want... This is what he teaches her: the availability of humiliation; the intolerable easiness of pleasure.

He also teaches her to play pool and she insists on daily practice. She tells him that in her country this game is the domain of criminals, played in seedy bars. Now she tastes the forbidden fruit. He leans his stick against the wall, listening attentively to her story. But in bed he does the telling: Do this. Now turn around.

They spend their days travelling across the endless landscapes of Victoria. This new country, where she knows no one but him, makes her feel disoriented. Her own country is tiny and crowded, sweating sun and nectar; it is a country of cars, people and stray animals, busy markets and synagogues, where each millimetre is in dispute. She's lucky she got away.

At a roadhouse pub she rubs her pool cue with chalk, suddenly resentful: ‘It's so empty here. Why don't Australians give us some land? We'd use it properly...'

‘Bullshit,' Paul sinks two balls with one shot. He imitates her accent: ‘We'd use it properly...You think your country is smarter? If there was something that could be done with this land, we'd have fucking done it. It's empty because it's dry and useless.'

‘We've already reclaimed one desert, so one more wouldn't be a big deal.' But these are sentences she learned at school. In this dark pub, where the distinction between day and night is blurred and the only motion is the rolling of the pool balls, her words lose their substance.

They pass by seaside villages, visiting Paul's customers. Paul sells goods to the local retailers: koala key rings, boomerangs and other trinkets. His Toyota bites hungrily into the distances and she watches his strong, curved profile. Despite his age, he has hardly any wrinkles. She'd never wanted someone so handsome, had always been afraid of becoming addicted. Now it's too late.

The George Michael ballads he insists on playing again and again transform the time into a melancholic fog through which Paul's stories of others navigate. The others' shadows sink comfortably into the back seat: the lady-boy Paul once picked up in Patpong, and Lucy who loved Paul for years, and the brown girl he and Lucy once licked together like chocolate. Sometimes the stories turn her on, with him being so experienced, so wild. Sometimes she wishes he'd shut up.

Soon they'll stop in a nearby town and perhaps Paul will sell something to an overpriced souvenir shop at the foot of a lighthouse. Meanwhile she can see the cold greenish sun melting into his eyes. His pupils, full of colour, are so large that she can't see the whites. It occurs to her then – she'll never be enough for him.

‘Please,' she says, ‘not George Michael again.' They sway on a dirt road. Ahead thick eucalypts close in on the narrow path. She feels sick and releases the seatbelt. Eventually they are back on the freeway. The roof is open and the sky is as high as a castle ceiling. She watches the spacious fabric of meadows sewn with the threads of creeks, but craves a dark corner and her favourite book: Plath's Ariel. ‘I was fucking lonely before I met you,' Paul tells her suddenly, his gaze on the road.

They stop at a Tabaret pub with beer-soured carpets and a log fire. Behind a raw-edged timber table she leans on Paul, sculpting him a pink moustache with hot chocolate. He seems unusually happy. At these rare times when his laughter flows freely, his face softens and he looks so much younger, almost her age.

She is afraid of the sudden silence as the fire goes out: ‘Tell me a story.'

‘What kind of story?'

She has had enough of the others: ‘Something from your childhood.'

‘I was a rotten kid,' he diverts his gaze, as though to divorce himself from what is about to come.

He tells her how at age ten he brought home a stray puppy; it was sad and dirty. His poor mother – dirt was her personal enemy. She fought it bravely, scrubbing the floors, the walls, her son till her palms wore thin and red. Their house always smelled of lavender soap.

He thought it might be fun, the three of them in the house. Perhaps his mother could scrub the puppy too. But she threw them both out, telling him not to come back until he got rid of ‘that monster'. He and the monster spent the night under the nearby park's pavilion. The white puppy clung to his legs.

Paul tells her that back then he hardly felt the cold; he was deep in thought. A curious story was revolving in his head. He wasn't even sure where he'd heard it – most likely from his mother. She loved educating him on different topics, like Japanese customs. Apparently some gourmet Japanese restaurants seat their customers around circular tables with holes in the centres, through which they scoop out the open brains of monkeys with their spoons. To enhance the flavour, the monkeys are kept alive in some sort of device underneath the tables. The customers don't see their faces, just the appetising brains.

‘I can't really explain it.' Paul's voice is unusually husky. ‘What was I thinking...I was confused, you know. I was just a kid. You studied psychology. Maybe you can explain why...'

He was already then a strong boy with muscles developed through hours of weights. Excessive energy, his teachers would write in their reports, hyperactive. The puppy pissed on his leg, shivering. Paul started digging a round pit with his penknife, the size of the puppy...

She pulls away from him: ‘I'm not your fucking psychologist! Just shut up.' She leaves for the only place she can think of – the toilet.

The toilet seat is filthy: a curly black hair sticks to a yellow stain. She sits down anyway with her red skirt rolled up her thighs and her panties on. She grates her teeth.

She rocks to a rhythm like a worshipper at the Wailing Wall. Why do I need him? The odour of a blood-soaked pad carries from the open bin. How odd to relate this familiar smell to another woman, a stranger. Who else has cried here?

Do I have a tendency for masochism? His beauty and the authority of his age can explain their first weeks together. But what is it now? She sniffs the rotten smell of the other woman and sees a bloodstained arena. She's in its midst, wearing a tiny gold dress and holding a whip. A green-eyed man who resembles Paul is curled at her feet. She can hear the loud calling from the audience: An encore for the tamer!

She thinks of Sylvia Plath, the queen of tragic endings, the mourner of women who adore fascists. One day, when her English is better, she might write poetry about women who tame them. She feels the urge to pee and pulls down her panties. Her buttocks touch the stickiness. The urine won't come. Perhaps it will be trapped forever inside her body, the way she is trapped every night in Paul's arms. He needs her more than she needs him, and this is his deadly pull for her. To feel so loved. She walks out with a heavy bladder.

That same night he insists on cleaning her toes, one by one. His tongue crawls on their sweaty skin: ‘Tell me you hate me.' She wonders if she'll ever be able to kiss his mouth again.

His voice suddenly becomes childlike: ‘Don't let me fuck you. Punish me, please.'

And then it comes to her. So naturally. She pushes him away, ‘You're a dog, right? Come on, little doggy, stand on all fours. Wag your tail!' He sways his firm arse in the air.

In the morning he wakes up first and opens the windows. She doesn't say she is cold, afraid of his morning surliness. He starts his push-ups; the muscles on his arms swell like cobras. She thinks that no matter what she does at night, she'll never have the fakir's skills to make him dance to her flute.

‘Thirty-five...forty-one...' His breathing remains ordered.

The motel is worn out. She lingers in the narrow bathroom tiled with 1970s green ceramic, trying to wash away the previous guests' sweat and sperm accumulated in the cracks. She has no privacy anymore. The memories of her life before Paul fade.

He shouts from behind the door, ‘If we leave now, we can be in Corowa by eight! We can stay there overnight and in the morning drive to Sydney.'

She drops her toothbrush: ‘I've already been to Sydney!'

‘But not with me. I'll show you a Sydney you don't know.'

Sure...he's always ready to go. Boredom clings to him like a wetsuit, making him wander. She suddenly realises the extent of his unhappiness: how desperate he must be, to escape into these uniform landscapes time and again. Pity softens her feelings for him.


2. The puppets

ON THEIR WAY to Corowa they stop at every green sign that promises a scenic view. At night they go to a local pub and play pool, silent and focused. She is determined to win, but doesn't. She leans on the bar and drinks her beer from the bottle. A local with a veined red nose talks to her while Paul stands in a far corner, as though a stranger to her.

She retells the story that always wins Australians over: how she used to handle M16s in the army. She laughs loudly, feeling like Luna Park, a sparkling illusion. The man offers her another pool game and another beer, but loneliness is already crawling over her. Paul's distant gaze tells her something she doesn't want to know.

An hour from Sydney, Paul tells more of his past adventures in remote countries, beds and ashrams. Am I also your exotica? She wants to ask. She is scared of the answer.

How long will they last? In the narrow hall of their home in Melbourne, Paul had pushed himself tight to her, naked, feverish, pleading: ‘Don't leave me! Everything will be different, you'll see. Let's go away. Let's love each other.' She loved his urgency then. But the days of travel have become weeks. She thinks: If I don't put my roots down soon, what will happen to me?

At the Quest Hotel apartment in Sydney, when he wakes up in the morning to do his push-ups, she holds onto him intensely, wetting his chest. In between the tears she wants to tell him how relieved she is to be able to finally cry beside him.

But he pushes her away, red-faced: ‘Why are you always whining? You've got no shame! I drive you around, take you out, lick your cunt, but nothing's enough for the foreign princess. Give me a break. Give me a fucking break!'

Lying between the sheets, she watches him doing his push-ups. She wants to smash his shapely nose with all her force, until cracking music is heard. It's frightening to hate so much...she is also terrified he'll walk away now, leaving her with all this hatred.

He takes a seat beside her, panting: ‘Look, I'm sorry.' His eyes are unfocused. ‘C'mon, baby, get up. I'll take you to the casino. They have a nice brekky there.'

‘I hate eggs and bacon,' she tells him. ‘In my country we eat salads in the morning. I want to do an English course. I want to finish my degree.'

‘What are you talking about?'

‘I'm not a tourist anymore, remember? I want to have a life here. My own life.'

He eats slowly, piling up bleeding beans on his fork, carefully cutting the fat off the overcooked bacon. She finishes her third coffee.

‘Aren't you going to eat?'

‘Tell me, do you love me because I'm uprooted, rootless? You think I'm completely yours, don't you?'

‘Don't give me this shit, okay?'

‘I'm going back to Melbourne.'

He doesn't say anything when she gets up. He doesn't even look at her. I'm so lucky, she thinks, so lucky to walk away from all this madness. But she can't stop crying.

When he returns to the apartment, she has already finished packing her suitcase, and is staring at the white walls. She thinks: In Australia, without Paul, I'm like this room – anonymous, colourless.

She has nowhere to go.

He approaches her slowly. Maybe he'll hit me. Oddly, this thought relieves her – something irreversible must happen to compel her to make a decision. She is alert, like an animal. He crushes to his knees and buries his face in her skirt: ‘I'm so happy you're still here! So happy...I need to be inside you...Tomorrow we'll drive back to Melbourne. You'll see. I'll take care of you. You'll enrol at university. We'll go to those jazz clubs that you like and I don't.' He smiles, gets up and rocks her in his arms, as though she is a baby. She has never felt like this with other men – that nothing mattered, not politics, nor high aspirations, just the room where they were together. She tries to memorise this feeling: just the room.

They drive to The Rocks. The bumpy paving reminds her of the ancient neighbourhood in her birth city, where migrants, artists and other minorities reside together. She sways on her high heels. Paul gently supports her back. She pulls him towards a puppet shop drowned deep inside a basement. Its low walls wrap softly around them, promising fairytales. Harlequins, frogs, cows and princes hang from the ceiling, watching them closely. Paul finds a pink puppy puppet and pulls its strings.

‘I love you,' it barks. ‘I'm crazy about you.'

‘Just married?' the owner asks. He has a French accent.

Paul seems to enjoy the game: ‘Isn't she pretty, my wife?'

She doesn't like how these false words slip so easily from his mouth, yet Paul's excitement infects her and she shares his little deception. What if they were married? Would she be happier?

‘When we have a baby,' Paul says, ‘my wife will speak to it in her language, so the kid grows up bilingual.'

‘Very good!' The Frenchman seems agitated. ‘That's exactly what I say to my wife! But she say in Australia they hate the French. She don't want my children speak French!'

She imagines herself as the Frenchman's wife, eating croissants and arguing with French passion in her exquisite little house decorated with puppy puppets.

On their way back to the Quest, Paul says he might quit his travelling-salesman job and open a puppet shop in Melbourne: ‘I'll change for you. I'll come home every night to eat your weird foreign casseroles. You'll see.'

They make love – soft-golden, like scrambled eggs. Afterwards she lies in his arms, thinking she shouldn't analyse everything happening between them. Perhaps she'd be better off adjusting to Australian codes, taking it easy. No wonder the locals have such a sun-glassed, tanned lightness about them.

He whispers: ‘Tomorrow we'll head back to Melbourne. But baby, promise me tonight we'll do something I want.' She nods amid his warmth before she falls into the basement of an afternoon sleep.

3. The others

SYDNEY'S NIGHT IS decorated like a Christmas tree with Darling Harbour's lights. They stand in front of a high purple-concreted fence. The intercom watches them with its anaconda's eye.

‘Paul. I phoned earlier.' The electric gate beeps. She takes a deep breath. Paul is beside her, but so distant, with his hands in his pockets.

Just to watch. She might even enjoy tonight if he'd just hold her...

‘Perhaps,' she says while they go up the narrow stairs.

‘Perhaps what?'

‘We should go somewhere else.' She is afraid he'll agree. The winding stairway seduces her with its curves.My inexperience will protect me like a cocoon. Just to watch. She keeps climbing in front of him in her tight silvery dress. Why doesn't he send his hand beneath it? Her thoughts are cut off as they enter the kingdom ofothers.

The mediocrity of nudity is soothing: overflowing bellies, cellulite and grey hair cram the big room, which leads into a long hallway with side doors.

‘Would you like to change into something more comfortable?' asks the mouse-blonde hostess, whose plain black underwear looks more like a business suit.

Comfortable. She forces a smile at the hostess and walks away towards the bar. What can be comfortable about exposing all your bodily faults? She equips herself with contempt to conceal the shakiness. She empties her whisky. A bearded bartender of about her age winks at her; his youth promises freshness that doesn't belong in this place.

‘Look, she's got herself a black man.' Paul points at a middle-aged woman borrowing a clean towel from the bar, and a lanky black man beside her who stares blankly at the woman's veined thighs.

She has come here to find something smoky, delicious, something French perhaps. Instead – here is the towel. And the hostess's underwear. Bloody hell, she thinks, and orders a Bloody Mary.

Paul keeps whispering into her ear: ‘You know, honey, you could do it in the back room, where no one is watching...' For an instant she thinks he is offering himself, and softly removes a lock of hair from his forehead. His breath is short: ‘Don't worry. I'll be so quiet he won't notice me watching...we'll trick him.'

‘Who the hell are you talking about? Who is he?'

His eyes are shiny and his voice is childlike, the way it is when they're in bed: ‘You said you like black men...'

She feels so alone beside him that she must go.

‘I'll be back.' She stages a smile.

She slips away into the smoking room. She wants to cry. She wants to stay. She plays ‘let's say': Let's say I'm here on my own; let's say it was my decision to come.

The light in the smoking room is abruptly bright, eliminating any remaining illusions. A woman wearing only pink suspenders and stockings is talking to a short man: ‘I tell ya, Collingwood will never make it to the finals.' She had seen her before, in a flesh pile on the mattresses in the first room. The short man had sat nearby, occasionally patting different body parts, talking quietly to himself: Fuck you, fuck you.

Australians, she thinks, are no good at trying to be French.

‘It's my first time here,' a man with large sheeplike eyes tells her. The grey melancholy of his gaze is the best thing she has seen in this place. He offers her a cigarette and she wonders whether he likes her. And if he does, what will they do? Will they line up at the bar: A towel please, thank you? Will they speak in bed to each other in a similar way?

The Sheep tells her his girlfriend has just left him. If she wasn't so sad, perhaps she'd take the time to get to know him. In this room, where the glare renders people so vulnerable, she feels the familiar urge to ease their sorrows. Yet she slips away, to look for Paul.

Paul is not in the main room. She floats along the narrow hall, peeping through half-opened doors. Sometimes men or women address her, but she doesn't hear what they say. Then she recognises the balding back of Paul's head and his bare, muscled back; he is sucking off a blond marble-chested guy on a bed piled with sheets.

Embarrassed to interrupt, she watches silently. Paul notices her first and, his mouth still busy, waves to her to come in. The blond gives her a nice smile. His teeth are snow; his hair is sun. His is a clichéd beauty, like Apollo's...She draws closer, watching Paul's head going up and down. There are only the three of them; no mattresses, no obesity, no towels. Perhaps she might even join in...

Suddenly hairy fingers appear on her hips. One hand goes up, kneading her breast through the satin of her dress. She can feel breath she doesn't like. And what if Paul sees what someone else does to her?

Paul sees. He releases the long slender penis out of his mouth, smiling at her with shiny lips, as though he has just bitten into a slab of butter. She looks back at him, but she can't relate him to herself anymore. Do I know him any better than I know the Sheep?

The stranger's hands move faster and more frantically. The fingers are now under her dress, circling the silky framework of her panties. She is not wet at all. She turns back sharply and stares straight into a face halved by a huge red birthmark. She wants to scream. Paul winks at her. Tell him, she begs silently, tell this horrible man. But the ring of Paul's lips closes again on the divine penis. Apollo moans and pulls at Paul's hair. What if, she thinks suddenly, he detaches his scalp? Perhaps he's also heard about those Japanese customs...

‘Sorry.' She says the magic Australian word and leaves the room.


4. Angles

MELBOURNE SMELLS OF spring flowers and red wine. She gazes at the pool balls. She'd love to smash this meticulously arranged triangle to hell. But it's his turn.

‘So, babe, I know you got a scare in Sydney, but it's natural the first time. Next time you'll have as much fun as I did, I promise. Love you.' He misses the shot.

‘Two for you,' he tells her, as though she is a novice to the game; he strokes her long hair. She gets her ball in. She hopes the clicking sound of its fall will cover her sharp heartbeat.

‘I've found a place,' she says. ‘Tomorrow I'm moving out.' She focuses on the green velvet of the table.

‘Ahaaa...' He stretches the word, taking his time; his muscles swell, crawling from underneath tight sleeves.

Finally, his face turns blood-red: ‘You think you'll manage! You don't get it, do you? You're nothing without me in this country. You can't speak English properly. You don't even drive! You should be grateful I keep you, you little bitch!'

She tries to focus on the angles of the balls. How odd: they are so perfectly round, but each is also a totality of angles. That's it – a sudden revelation. That's it! She has been losing because she has only been noticing the round surface instead of the essence of the balls, the angles.

The guy in the Corowa pub had told her what to do; she had just never followed his advice, perhaps content with Paul always winning (he was an awful loser). ‘Lean your chin on the cue,' the guy had said as Paul was watching them from afar with that strange glint in his eyes. ‘Look at the ball through the point of the cue.'

Focus, she orders herself, and sinks her balls one after another. One-two-three. Like a waltz. One-two-three. She filters out the roundness and sees only straight lines stretching between the angles. She knocks the black ball down into the abyss. She straightens and stares into the roundness of Paul's pupils. Focus. She leans her chin on an imaginary cue.

She filters out her anger at him: How do you know I won't manage! What the fuck do you know about me at all? And why don't you hold me? She filters out her constant loneliness and yearning for him. The straight line from the cue tip to his pupils leads to a great sorrow, but it's his, not hers: the sorrow that he won't have her anymore. She'll still have herself.

And what will he have?

The fascist-tamer cries. It is not her usual crying – the guttural sobbing of a baby waiting for Paul's consolation – this is a silent, refined crying. The tears are large and perfect, like the balls. The audience above the arena whistles its contempt, but she doesn't care. The show is over.

She wipes her face.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review