Fiction

Quinoa nation

LILY IS TALKING in her sleep again. Usually I don’t notice, because if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s ignoring my girlfriend.

‘And that was a latte for you? And you? Two lattes, vibe.’

She’s talking about work. I consider waking her or making a note of what she’s saying so I can make fun of her in the morning, except I was also dreaming about my ‘career’. I dreamed I left the sandwich board in the street and forgot to lock one of the gates at the shop. Amanda sat me down like a teacher in school and told me she was disappointed in me. She said there’d been an issue with the ordering, that the optics of a sandwich board were problematic given the current gluten discourse, and that if I kept this up I wasn’t too old for a smack. Then she reminded me she wasn’t my mum.

When I woke I was screaming. Lily didn’t stir so I gave another shout, to test her. She ground her teeth and mumbled.

I wonder if I talk in my sleep, too – if Lily and I ever have entire conversations that in the morning neither of us remembers?

 

THE SHOP WHERE I work is called Aurelio Books and Fine Wares. Although Aurelio dominates the signage, his identity is an abiding mystery. I suspect Amanda chose the name because it forced one to consider, momentarily, if she had once been made love to in a Tuscan farmhouse by a youth with hairy knuckles who had crossed himself before nutting in her with the velocity of a speeding Ferrari. The books are a slightly more tangible presence. Mostly, there are fine wares, ornate terrariums and soaps that appear oedipal. Edible. Soaps that look as if you are supposed to eat them.

At the counter Joni stares somnambulantly at the computer screen, trawling through threads about how vaccines ruin your endocrine system and how all the paedophiles in Hollywood have been secretly executed and replaced by clones.

‘Hello, my darling!’

‘Blast off, zero.’

She gives me the finger, without looking away from the monitor. She’s pretty invested in the clone theory, which I don’t think is plausible because if you cloned a paedophile you’d just create another paedophile. If I told Joni this it would literally break her brain.

While I untangle sustainable sandwich wraps from reams of plastic packaging Amanda’s husband wanders past, smiling at me in his characteristically vacant way. I don’t think Pat has any idea who I am. The poor bloke probably doesn’t even know about Aurelio. He drifts out the door, off to do whatever it is he does with his time, which I’m starting to suspect is acid.

‘Where’s Amanda?’ I ask.

‘Downstairs,’ Joni says.

‘Cool. I’m going to chuck some deconstructionist hip-hop on.’

‘The fact you call it deconstructionist hip-hop says so much about you.’

Though Amanda is an avowed anti-racist she has a singular aversion to hip-hop. She thinks it is about and for gangsters, even though these days it’s mostly about taking ketamine. I tried to convince her once that rap was poetry, that there was a clear throughline from Rimbaud to Tyler, the Creator. Les hallucinations sont innombrables. I’m awesome, and I fuck dolphins. One time she got some slam poets to perform at the shop, and when they finished she made the audience take the knee for an excruciating minute. Then everyone got up and resumed browsing bespoke ceramics.

A woman is at the counter. I’m not sure how long she’s been there. I’ve become so adept at dissociating I should probably list it on my CV under ‘Other Skills’, right under ignoring Lily. Anyway, she’s there, she’s wearing Lorna Jane activewear and she has a ponytail. It’s the shiniest ponytail I’ve ever seen. Her singlet says: ‘I woke up HAPPY.’

‘Can I help you?’

‘Actually, yes. I got an email to say a book I ordered has come in.’

She doesn’t elaborate. Most of our customers don’t. They never think to give their names, and they usually don’t remember the title. It’s because our customers are all the kind of person who, when you ask them how their day has been, will say it’s been ‘just awful’ because they spent the morning kicking tenants out of their investment property. Most of them seem offended they have to talk to you at all. The only reason any of them read is because it gives them an excuse to get blackout drunk at book club and get into arguments about whichever Patrick White novel has recently been turned into a movie. Then they all agree that Geoffrey Rush did nothing wrong.

‘It’s Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbook.’

‘Right.’

We don’t stock Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbook. I know this because Amanda thinks Gwyneth Paltrow is goofy, despite Amanda and Gwyneth Paltrow being the same person. Our customers are Gwyneth Paltrow’s target demographic. If Gwyneth Paltrow wrote a novel our book club would ­literally devour it.

‘I’ll go downstairs and check,’ I lie.

Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbook is sophistry. Joni got me a copy for my birthday, supposedly as a joke. Joni has a pathetic sense of humour. Mostly it’s just photos of Gwyneth Paltrow riding Vespas and standing on beaches looking windswept on the pages where usually there are pictures of food. There are also 200 different quinoa-based recipes, because apparently Gwyneth Paltrow eats nothing but quinoa and drinks only coconut water so she can have a durry at the end of the week. There are heaps of photos of her kids, too, these poor, mermaid-like creatures who have managed not only to survive being inside Gwyneth Paltrow but endured the subsequent years of Coldplay, kale and vagina eggs. I wonder if Gwyneth Paltrow woke up happy today, if Gwyneth Paltrow would shop here if she were Australian. I wonder if she, too, has sun-drenched memories of Aurelio.

I call out from the stairwell.

‘Sarah, do we have Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbook?’

Sarah says we don’t. We don’t stock Gwyneth Paltrow because Amanda hates Gwyneth Paltrow, even though Gwyneth Paltrow is obsessed with quinoa, which Amanda also loves. We have many books about quinoa. I saw on Reddit that because quinoa is so popular here people in South America can’t afford it anymore, and everyone in Bolivia and Peru is starving. I check out my eye bags with my phone camera, until enough time has passed that it seems like I’ve been doing something customer servicey, and then I hear Amanda call out from the office and leg it back up the stairs.

I tell the customer the book isn’t here, and ask if she’s sure we emailed her? She says she is sure, and I want to ask if she knows that people in South America are dying, but I don’t.

Having ruined her day, Joni and I watch the woman who woke up happy as her ponytail effervesces up the street. Now she will go to bed miserable. She will need to buy an appropriate shirt for the occasion. I can see Pat on the opposite footpath, gazing dreamily at the jacarandas. I wonder what he sees in them. Twirling, mauve ballerinas.

‘Do you ever think Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin are the Amanda and Pat of the celebrity world?’ Joni asks.

I tell her no because I don’t have ants in my brain.

 

JONI AND I go to the pub after work, even though the local pub is notorious for serving the most expensive schooner of XXXX Gold in the country. Joni and I do this often, because even though we dislike each other we enjoy doing things ironically. It’s a gastro pub, which means there is table service, the staff wear leather aprons and viewing the bill may cause one to shit one’s pants.

‘Want to see a movie?’ Joni asks.

‘Potentially. What’s on?’

‘They’re playing oldies. We could go see Sliding Doors. It’s a classic, Gwyneth Paltrow’s in it.’

I stare at her until she realises I’m staring and looks up from the paedophiles in her phone.

‘What?’ she says.

‘Gwyneth Paltrow,’ I say.

‘Gwyneth…Paltrow?’ she repeats. ‘You know. The vagina-egg lady?’

‘I thought we hated Gwyneth Paltrow.’

‘Gwyneth Paltrow? She’s alright.’

‘Alright? Joni, she’s a wanker. She’s, like, the Übermensch version of our customers. If Gwyneth Paltrow had been born fifty years earlier she’d be Hitler’s sidepiece.’

‘I guess. That orthorexic, white woman bullshit though…’ Joni shrugs and sips her drink. ‘She’s kind of fabulous.’

‘What is wrong with you?’

‘Dude, is this the hill you want to die on? She’s Margot Tenenbaum.’

A waiter comes to take our order just as we’ve settled into silence. When Joni and I started working together we used to talk all the time about books before we realised literacy was a pyramid scheme. Now we talk about conspiracy theories or, if I’m lucky, nothing. I don’t really understand why we hang out, ironically.

‘I’ll get a steak, thanks. Medium.’

Joni rolls her eyes. She pretends she doesn’t eat meat and is into animal rights but, really, she just doesn’t like the taste, yet always eats it when she has her period. One day I will have a job where time is not measured by Joni announcing the arrival of her period. I laugh sadly at the flash of hope – that I will have another job, ever.

‘The roast vegetable salad with quinoa, thanks.’

The waiter collects our menus. Ponytails float by the window, an undulating herd of shimmery seahorses. I imagine the smiling faces beneath the glass. They are determined and happy, determined to be happy or happy because they have purpose. Maybe their happiness and determination are unrelated. I picture their sleek bodies, the cheerful slogans printed on their ribs to ward off evil spirits, $400 joggers pulverising the footpath as if it has personally wronged them. It’s as if I can see them, but all I can see is their ponytails.

‘Did you know that people in South America have been eating quinoa for thousands of years?’ I say. ‘And now that it’s a luxury item the price there has quadrupled and nobody can afford it? So they’re all starving. Which is ironic because people here eat quinoa because they want to lose weight and be skinny and look like Gwyneth Paltrow.’

‘No shit?’

‘Yes, shit.’

The ponytails have disappeared. This makes me sad, for some reason. I wonder if what I really want is a ponytail. I realise I’ll need to call Lily and ask her to pick me up, because I’m drunk and probably shouldn’t drive.

‘What about body positivity?’ Joni asks.

‘I’m positive our bodies came from the dust,’ I say. ‘And to dust they shall return.’

We drink until our meals come. Joni’s salad looks delicious.

 

LILY AND I are having sex, and even though I’m tired and drunk and not that into it I remember the woman who woke up happy and suddenly my hips are hammering back and forth, violent, manly gurgles issuing from my throat. Urgh, uh. Oof. Lily kind of looks like Gwyneth Paltrow because they’re both pretty and pale and have almost imperceptible overbites. In another stunning coincidence Lily also loves quinoa. It is possible, just possible, that all women love quinoa. I wonder if Gwyneth Paltrow is good in bed – and decide, yeah, she probably is. Gwyneth Paltrow’s probably good at everything.

‘Want to watch Sliding Doors?’ I ask, after I cum.

Lily says whatever, and we do. In Sliding Doors Gwyneth Paltrow plays two characters, one of whom misses her train, hence the titular doors. Apparently if she does get on the train she gets hit by a car and dies. It’s a movie about how choices have consequences, how sometimes when we make a choice we are mowed down in the street and killed instantly. Lily thinks it is a travesty.

‘You probably don’t get it because it’s avant-garde.’

Lily yawns. ‘You’re such a fag.’

It’s weird because Gwyneth Paltrow used to be a decent actress, and now she has a cookbook that gives you a rash if you eat the recipes in it too many times. It’s weird because she used to make a living pretending to be someone else, sometimes two people in the same movie, and now she has a website, which somebody else runs, where she tells other people how to live. She sells yurts on her website, fabulous yurts, that cost as much as I pay each year in rent. She sells fabulous eggs that go in her fabulous vagina. People purchase the vagina eggs, on her recommendation. There is a vagina-egg economy. Through sheer manic will Gwyneth Paltrow has convinced a not insignificant portion of the human race that by putting an egg in their vagina they will become a more enlightened person instead of a chicken.

I will never own a vagina egg because I do not possess a vagina. I have nowhere to put it and no money, and so will remain unenlightened forever.

 

LILY GOES OUT for a jog (I warn her not to get hit by a car) and I stay at home and can’t be bothered to do anything except tug at my dick, which gets boring after about five minutes. I think about popping a dexy or reading a book, but I end up just vaping in bed. The vape is peach flavoured. I wonder if there are quinoa-flavoured vapes, if by sucking quinoa-flavoured fumes out of a piece of plastic I would feel as if I’d eaten a square meal. Like I was improving myself. I look at my bookshelf and wonder which would require more effort, reading something or dragging the whole lot out to the backyard and setting them on fire. Ninety per cent of them I bought at work, with money I made while working. With my staff discount each book cost exactly one hour.

I think that if I were Amanda I would only sell Gwyneth Paltrow’s book. Fuck Sally Rooney, fuck Patrick White, fuck Karl Ove fucking Knausgård. I would sell the Gospel According to Gwyneth, with a side of vagina eggs, like burnished religious ephemera.

Pulling out my willy again I wonder what Lily did at work today, whether I should have asked her.

 

LILY IS TALKING in her sleep again. I notice because I can’t get to sleep, and I’m lying there staring at the ceiling, thinking about Gwyneth Paltrow, wondering if today is the day, the day I’ll be struck dead by a speeding motor vehicle. Lily is talking about work, even though in a few hours she’ll wake up and be there anyway, and the only way she can escape is by sleeping.

‘I’m sorry,’ I whisper. Wrapping my body around her I bury my face in a warm, fragrant cloud of her hair.

‘And that was a latte for you? And you? Two lattes, vibe. See you latte!’

I wonder if I talk in my sleep. I don’t think I do, but maybe every night Lily and I have entire conversations that neither of us remembers.

I wonder what we would talk about if we did.

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