I wake naked in an empty bed. ‘Reuben?’ I call, but there’s no response. Anxious all of a sudden, I pull on knickers and a camisole and pad down the corridor to the kitchen. He’s there, at the bench, hunched hungrily over a bowl of granola. Tousled and shirtless, he would not be out of place in a breakfast cereal commercial. I perch on the barstool beside him and kiss him on the cheek. ‘Stunning bed hair,’ I pout, working my fingers through his locks.
‘You know,’ he says between mouthfuls, his eyes fixed on his bowl, ‘an ex-girlfriend of mine—it might have been Charlotte—observed that my attraction to women is a push-pull mechanism.’ He shovels granola onto his spoon and shrugs. ‘It’s my psychology. The more interested a woman becomes in me, the less interested I become in her. But the less interested she is in me . . .’
My throat tightens. It’s all I can do not to cry. I release my hold on his hair.
‘Well,’ he says, ‘you get the picture.’
Reuben and I meet for a drink. I purposely arrive at the bar fifteen minutes late and spy him sitting by a window. I nod hello, then strike up a conversation with the barman. Eventually, I make my way over to Reuben.
‘Hi.’ I make no move to touch him.
He leaps to his feet and kisses me on the mouth. ‘Hi,’ he smiles. ‘You look great.’
‘Thanks,’ I say, affecting indifference.
‘Can I get you a drink?’ he asks, making for the bar. He returns a little while later with averna on the rocks. ‘It’s like this,’ he passes me a glass. ‘I’ve only ever dated creatively active women. Rosie is an artist, exhibiting and selling her own work. Yvette edits a prose journal, and Stella is a published poet.’ His use of the present tense is unnerving. He pauses to drink. ‘Then there’s Freya. She’s a model, whereas Camille is a trained actor. Kate is a textile designer, and have I mentioned Pip to you before? She makes upcycled clothing. Naomi is a ceramicist, and Belle is a playwright.’ He scans my face. ‘You’re an art supply store assistant,’ he traces a finger around the rim of his glass. ‘One degree removed from the action, wouldn’t you say?’
I’m expecting Reuben to drop around, so I throw myself into some long-neglected ink drawing. I climb into a pair of ink-splattered overalls, and, for authenticity’s sake, I smudge some ink on my cheek. I fix some Schiele and Hester prints to my walls for inspiration, and set up a long trestle table with an industrial lamp, jars of ink and brushes. I set to work, making drawings and lining them up on my bed to dry.
There’s a knock at the door. I tuck a paintbrush behind my ear, apply some lipstick and take my time getting to the door.
‘Well, well,’ he says. ‘Look at you. The very image of an artist.’
My heart soars. ‘Whatever,’ I scowl.
He lunges at me, taking my face in his hands and kissing me with urgency. We push through my bedroom door and tumble onto my bed, drawings and all. He tugs me free of my overalls and underwear.
‘Have I told you about Freya?’ he says. He is wasting no time, rolling a condom onto his cock.
‘The model?’ I say, flushed.
He has a faraway look in his eyes. ‘She’s wild in bed. You reminded me of her just then, only she exudes sensuality all the time, not just in bed. Her walk, her voice, her mannerisms . . .’ He runs his hand up and down his cock a few times and sighs. ‘Now Freya is really something,’ he says, shaking his head and reaching for me.
Reuben and I pack bathers and towels and head for the bay. We stride the esplanade, me trying to keep my gait smooth but effortless, Freya-like. It’s no mean feat. The beauty of our surroundings is lost on me, as I focus on looking both indifferent and sensual.
On the beach, we search for a sheltered spot by the dunes and spread out our towels. It’s hot but windy, sand stinging us in drifts. I lie on my belly. Propping myself up on my elbows as sexily as I can manage, I take my sketchpad from my bag. I watch him lying next to me, labouring over Joyce’s Ulysses. He’s lithe and brown with sun, his brow creased with concentration. I study him for a moment, my pen poised, but decide against drawing him. The last thing I want is to look like an artist smitten with her muse. He turns his head, and catches me admiring him. I touch my pen to my lower lip in what I hope is a suggestive but blasé gesture, then I frown and turn my back on him.
‘What’s with you these days?’ he says, placing a sandy hand on my shoulder. ‘It’s like everything you do is premeditated.’ He brushes shell grit from his hand onto my forearm. He may as well have palms made of sandpaper. ‘There’s something to be said for spontaneity and confidence. Not to mention an interest in fashion. Kate and Pip both dress so well.’
I turn to face him.
He’s on his back, one arm hooked over his eyes, so that only his mouth and nose are visible.
‘It’s the difference between fashion and style. Pip and Kate don’t buy into passing trends.’ He reaches blindly for me and snaps my elasticised bikini bottom as if to illustrate his point. ‘They wear timeless cuts and quality fabrics.’
I buy some fashion magazines and flip through the glossy contents, trying to differentiate between the fashionable and the timeless. From the pages, models mock me with sensuality, assuredness, and spontaneity. I eye them, drinking in their hair and makeup, their daring ensembles, their come-hither poise and expressions. Then I hit the shops. I buy a tight leather mini skirt that clings to my thighs and my bum, some super tight high-rise skinny jeans, and a silk singlet with laser-cut detail at the collarbone. I also buy a matte red lipstick, a pendant on a long gold chain, and some tan platform heels. The heels exaggerate the movement of my hips and I wear them out of the store, enjoying my new strut.
When I get home, I head straight for my clothes rack, assessing each piece for its timeless quality. I throw out a cosy but shapeless jumper, along with a bookish Peter Pan blouse, a pilled blazer and a cream skivvy that drains my complexion of colour. I also get rid of two dresses that hit my leg above the knee instead of mid-thigh, and three pairs of less-than-tight jeans. Finally I weed through my underwear, tossing out anything too utilitarian.
I agonise over what to wear to my next date with Reuben. I settle on the hi-rise jeans with the silk top, heels and red lipstick. Finally, I tease my hair into a beachy shock, put on the pendant, and step out into the night.
When I arrive at the restaurant, he’s already there, hunched over the final few pages of Ulysses.
‘Hi,’ I slide into the seat opposite him.
He doesn’t respond.
I touch his forearm. ‘Hey.’
He shrugs me off, and looks up. ‘Just give me a moment. I’m almost at the end of the book.’
I pull out my sketchbook and scan the room for an unwitting person or object to draw. I settle on a potted fig nearby, and begin a contour drawing, outlining the beaten copper pot, then working upwards to capture the plant itself, with its stout stems and broad leaves. All the while, I play with my hair in what I hope is a fetching but instinctive manner. I sit with my chest pushed forward a little, a slight pout on my lips. I’m so preoccupied with my look and my behaviour that my drawing is compromised. My fig looks more like a stunted succulent.
Across the table, he puts down his book. ‘Wow,’ he breathes. ‘The modernist novel at its best. What’re you reading?’
I shrug, and train my eyes back on the fig. ‘I’m focusing on my drawing at the moment.’ I put the finishing touches to my sketch. ‘I haven’t had time to read anything.’
His face falls. ‘You’re not reading anything?’
‘I’m prioritising my art,’ I say. I slide my sketchbook into my tote.
‘You’ve got to rectify that,’ he shakes a finger at me. ‘Belle always has her nose in a book, and Stella can’t leave the house without one. They are constantly talking about what they’ve just read, and how it’s revolutionising the way they perceive the world. Just imagine,’ he pauses for emphasis, ‘how reading more could feed your art.’
I cull through my book collection, spurning everything mainstream and retaining only the obscure, the literary and the local. I finger through what remains, and, keeping in mind Reuben’s penchant for the modern, I pluck out a copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex that I picked up at an op-shop years ago, without so much as reading the blurb.
On opening it, I’m surprised to find it’s not a novel, but a collection of essays. One in particular catches my eye, ‘The Woman in Love.’ I thumb my way to it and begin to read. If her lover wishes it, she changes that image which at first was more precious than love itself; she loses interest in it; what she is, what she has, she makes the fief of her lord; what he does not care for, she repudiates. The breath catches in my throat. I read on. Everything useless to him she madly destroys.
My pulse quickens. I follow the text with a shaking finger. The woman in love tries to see with his eyes. She reads the books he reads, prefers the pictures and the music he prefers; she is interested only in the landscapes she sees with him, in the ideas that come from him; she adopts his friendships, his enmities, his opinions; when she questions herself, it is his reply she tries to hear; she wants to have in her lungs the air he has already breathed. I realise I’m getting teary. It’s the length of Beauvoir’s sentences, I tell myself, enough to make anyone cry. I press on, clinging to the book like a flotation device. Her idea of location in space, even, is upset: the centre of the world is no longer the place where she is, but that occupied by her lover; all roads lead to his home, and from it. She uses his words, mimics his gestures, acquires his eccentricities and his tics.
I pause. Beauvoir delivers the ultimate blow. She is he. She lets her own world collapse in contingence, for she really lives in his.
I crawl onto my bed, sobbing now, the book blotting my tears. Simone has caught me out; she’s articulated the unspeakable. I feel ruined and elated, freed even, all at once.
My phone shrills. Impulsively, I reach for it. An image of Reuben’s face rents the screen. My finger hovers over the ‘slide to answer’ button, but I hold off. Reuben can go to hell, I think. I put the bleating phone aside, and return to ‘The Woman in Love.’ I blow my nose, collect myself, and find my place on the page.
Emily Barber recently completed a PhD in creative writing at the University of Melbourne, where she works as a tutor and supervisor. Her thesis, an extract of which has appeared in Hecate, explored female desire and agency in selected stories by Lorrie Moore. Emily is currently writing a collection of short stories.