The girl next to me is wearing a flimsy red scarf with a triangular fold that shields her hair. She holds her hands up, cleaning her fingernails. The teenage boy opposite our seat is silently keeping his gaze out the window. Lumpy clouds are appearing in patches in the blue sky.
I divert my eyes away from him onto the girl’s dry, chapped hands that seem to have been exposed to harsh conditions over the years. ‘I once had smooth and delicate hands,’ she says, looking at the direction of my eyes.
‘You have beautiful hands,’ I smile.
Her dark unfathomable eyes flash up to me. ‘Thanks, I’m Michele.’
Michele smells of kitchen and spice. The boy looks from Michele to me, then back to her embroidered floral shoes. He plants his feet firmly on the train floor, then spreads his legs wide open leaning slightly backward to display his crotch area. I pretend to ignore him, asking Michele, ‘What brings you to Melbourne?’
Her gaze moves off me, stares emptily to the boy, then into the air. ‘I backpack solo. Currently, I work in an Indian restaurant to save money before I move to Sydney.’
‘That’s so exciting,’ I say, looking at her lantern jaw and long slender nose.
‘Money was the only common thought we all had in our bedroom house on the farm. There were five of us. My parents and I used to sleep in the dining room, and my two younger brothers in the bedroom that looked out into a bleak backyard, which was mobbed with hens and chickens. Here, at least I can sometimes send some money to my family to make sure they meet their basic needs. If I stayed, there was no way I could help them.’
Why is she telling this to me, a stranger she has just met on a train?
‘I see. Where are you heading to?’
‘Meeting a guy I’ve met online.’
‘Do you ever meet nice people there?’
‘Well, it is 10 pm and he’s picking me up despite being tired and having to go to work tomorrow. That says something about him.’
Well, that’s the least he can do, I think. ‘Nice of him,’ I say.
‘Yes, he has sent two messages to me today saying he misses me.’
The teenager squares his shoulders and sucks in his stomach and looks around with a self-deprecating amusement. The little girl, on the left aisle, with neatly plaited hair, raises her hands as though avoiding exposure to what lies ahead of her and starts crying. The boy stands up after unfurling his legs into the aisle and flexes his foot, pulling his toes upward to shin and then pointing them down as if stretching before running. I feel all shaky on the inside like a fly is climbing through me as he pulls down his pants and underpants, showing his private parts. He puts both hands up to his ears and flaps them while sticking his tongue out and making faces.
The first time fear permeated my entire body, my legs had started shaking and my teeth gritting. I had noticed a big guy throwing a piece of paper on the ground, which landed face down. I picked it up and turned it face up. He threatened to kill me if I refused to take the drugs. That was the night I was wandering in the street hungry and lonely, wondering how it was possible to be allergic to any food. I would bite every bitter food and taste the sweetness in it. It was a few weeks after my arrival in Australia when I used to skip dinner to save money and I was ready to kill for a burger. There were many other nights after that when I got less shaky and my teeth no longer clenched at the sight of their manhood.
‘What the hell,’ Michele says as the boy steps off the train, spits on the ground, and runs. She does not seem to get emotional or particularly stricken. I gaze through the window watching the boy walk away, laughing an amused, booming laugh.
The train is drifting in silence before a voice says: ‘Hello, I want to report a boy who just pulled down his pants and showed us his personal thing before getting off the train … Hawthorne East. He was wearing a red loose V-neck T-shirt and loose ripped jeans … Thanks.’
I crane my neck backward to catch a glimpse of an old woman who addresses me in a rather demanding voice. ‘Excuse me, it’s better if you don’t talk this much with yourself if a boy of his type is sitting across from you.’ Her eyebrows are peaked but her eyes are hidden behind tortoiseshell glasses.
‘Mind your own business,’ I shudder, disgusted and ashamed. Where is Michele? I take a mirror out of my bag and look at it, noting a spot of gloss in the centre of my lower lip and the sweat on my forehead. The old woman goes towards the exit door when the operator announces the next stop will be Camberwell Station. I have some time to look at her muscular legs under her red miniskirt while she is waiting for the train door to open.
Two stations later a tall skinny man steps into the train. I watch as he takes off his yellow hat and plops down on the seat next to me. He looks at the book I am holding in my hand.
‘I’ve read Le Clézio’s Ritournelle de la faim, Chorus of Hunger, how beautifully he intertwines fiction and reality,’ he says, with a cheerful smile, and improvises a line in French: ‘Un miros de sărac, un miros de violență, de necesitatea de a parvenu’.
I ask if he is French. He tells me that he has been in Melbourne for a business trip since Tuesday; he is staying in a cottage and will go back to Paris on Monday.
‘It’s not very convenient to take public transport while you’re on a trip,’ he says.
He has a dab of chocolate on his chin, which makes me smile. ‘Yes, I agree.’
‘Do you want to see my place? It’s quite tranquil. There are two platypus in the backyard lake.’
I smile. As we walk up the aisle towards the exit door, it is like all the passengers are staring at me. ‘I need to go to the restroom,’ I say as soon as we get off the train.
‘There it is.’ He points his finger diagonally upwards to the left corner of the station hall. I go to the toilet where I take off my dress and toss a handful of water toward my armpits. I then look at the small freckles on my nose and cheeks in the mirror, smoothing the skirt of my dress into place. A fifteen-minute walk and we arrive at the cottage where he is staying, in the middle of which I stand, with folded arms, motionless legs, somewhere between regret and fear.
The guy’s lips curve into a triumphant smile and his eyes brighten as he says, ‘Welcome to my place.’
There is a key holder with two hooks placed on the wall next to the kitchen door. ‘Do you drive?’ I ask.
He tosses his backpack on the kitchen cabinet where the table napkins are folded into a heart shape. He then rummages through the cupboards looking for something before walking over to the magnetic whiteboard on the stainless fridge door. ‘Yes, I’ve rented a car. There’s no Internet connection to search for a restaurant but thankfully there’s a pizza delivery number on this whiteboard.’
He orders some food as I look at the receding hairline around his temples and little vertical lines on his forehead.
He then unzips his backpack and starts digging through until he takes out a small purple parcel and a tampon wrapper to roll a joint which he lights with a match and hands to me. ‘I’ve never smoked before,’ I lie, as I hold the joint in my pale and bony hand.
‘Take a nice deep breath after you pull and then breathe like you normally would to fill your lungs with the smoke.’
I take a long hit, holding it deep. I blow the smoke in the air looking at a green gecko that is hanging upside down at the wall opposite me.
Twenty minutes later, the screech of the old rusty gate that is the quaint stone cottage’s front door announces the deliveryman’s presence.
‘Get up off the floor,’ he says, in an authoritative voice, as he slips the purple parcel back into his backpack. ‘I’ll be back soon.’
I feel scared at the sight of his remarkably thin body, his narrow face, and the flattened bridge of his nose. I run my fingers into my curly hair and spread it around myself. ‘Just a moment,’ I say in a quiet voice that sounds to myself distant and humiliated. He steers me to a leather armchair. A cackle of insane laughter comes from the other side of the dim corridor. Or maybe it is just what I think I am hearing. He looks at me as if to say something, but he turns away. The stairs creak as he descends to the front door to get the pizzas.
A few minutes later that sounds like a few hours to me, the guy puts the pizzas and the onion rings on the table. I slip a beer-battered onion ring on my finger and twirl it around.
He hands me a glass of water. ‘Are you OK?’ he asks, a glib smile playing on his lips. ‘OK, so you said you are doing a Master’s in social science here, what made you choose Melbourne?’
‘My parents were both medical doctors. One day I was informed of my father’s revealed relationship with the young maid in our house. The maid who was almost my age. Daughter of my nanny with whom I had grown up and played long hours in my childhood. I wanted to get out of that house so I applied for a Master’s and was offered a position at Monash.’
I just lied, as usual. The reality is when my Dad, who was illiterate by the way, died, I was determined I did not want to spend even a minute of my remaining life there where he had lived the same life for 56 years, never realising he did not have to spend his whole damn life in that little farmhouse that had come through ancestral lines. I had looked at his empty and powerless eyes, and I knew if he were given a chance to live again, his eyes would not want him to see the same kitchen, bedroom, living room, chickens and farm. They had always wanted to reconnect with stars from other sides of the world but his conservative mind had never let them.
When Dad died, to comfort herself, mum used to argue for the strength and depth of his life, and say that part of him would always be alive in the vegetables, plants, and soil of the farm. But this was before we realised his death was not an actual death but a suicide. After that, mum began checking up on my siblings and me more strictly than before.
She had gazed ahead with her wide, unblinking eyes and then grabbed hold of my arm in a fatherly way when I mentioned I was leaving to Australia and that I thought they should leave, too. I told her that I no longer liked that old one-bedroom house of theirs and their grandparents and their great-grandparents that had undergone so many renovations. Her eyes had grown small and impotent. Her slender, varnished fingers had begun shaking with frustration. ‘You’re safe here.’ She had sucked on her bottom lip and tears had run down her cheeks.
I did not want to be safe. I did not want to be embalmed and placed in a casket underground and buried there just to be visited and remembered by my relatives every Saturday. They would stop planting trees for lumber, feeding animals, and growing food and flowers for a few hours to mourn for the innocent and the simple life I led, before going back to their farm and waiting for the next funeral. My stomach had turned to knots when the words slid from my brain: ‘I hate it that our toilet keeps clogging, that our fridge never does what a fridge is supposed to do, that every corner I look the ants are having a meeting. There are different ways of living, and of dying. And I want us to experience them.’
I notice the guy looking at my orange-toned lips. ‘It must’ve been such a difficult reality for you to deal with,’ he says, moving closer to me, ‘your beauty is breathtaking.’ I know he lies. I’ve never been beautiful, with my lantern jaw and long slender nose.
I sit a bit forward in my armchair with one leg crossed over the other at the knee. He tips his tongue to gently caress the delicate area behind the lobe of my ear as his fingers move on the brim of my cleavage. He then cups his fingers around the bottom of my breasts while his other hand softly separates my legs and his fingers slip inside me, sliding in, pulling back, and then sliding fully back in. I will myself to be silent and still even when he pushes himself inside me, in and out, in and out.
When I wake up in the morning, he is gone. It is 7 am. There is a long straight hair lying on the pillow. I pull out a brown hair from my head and look at the contrast between them. So, it had been there before we entered the cottage last night. Maybe from two nights ago, when he was with another girl my age, after smoking pot, the same way we did last night. The raw of three white shirts and the shelves next to them in the partly open closet are gazing at me. I pull myself out of bed and head towards the kitchen where the guy has left a note on the countertop: It was great to know you. I had to attend an early morning meeting so I did not wake you up. Have a wonderful life ahead and I hope our paths cross again. P.S. the checkout time is 11 am. Cheers, R.Z.
The car key holder is staring emptily into the pizza box, along with the remains of the green salad, a few chips, and dregs of red wine at the bottom of the glasses. I take a shower; my skinny body gives off the strong lavender odour of the soap I use. Nothing seems to take off the smell of spice and the Indian restaurant I have been working at recently.
I check my phone. There is a message from my manager: Hi Michele, could you come to the restaurant to cover for Akshita? She’s called in sick.
I part my lips slightly and fill them in with an orange lip liner. It is eight twenty-five. I make myself a coffee and carry the black mug over to the window through which I can see the leaves blowing down from the Japanese maple trees onto the ground. My windbreaker is slung over the back of a chair covered in blue and yellow flower chintz that clashes with the red curtain behind it. A mirror is hanging above the window. I coil my wet hair demurely at the nape of my neck before running my fist through the mirror, shattering it into a hundred pieces. I fold my scarf in half, place it around my hand that has never been delicate, and walk out towards the orange, red and crimson foliage that is moving light-heartedly.
Hasti Abbasi holds a PhD in literary/cultural studies and creative writing from Griffith University. Palgrave Macmillan published her monograph ‘Dislocation, Writing, and Identity in Australian and Persian Literature’ in 2018. Her literary and creative work has appeared in Antipodes, Verity La, Mascara Literary Review, Hecate, TEXT, AAWP, Southerly, Bareknuckle, and Hunger, amongst others.