When you stop at twenty-three

When you ask me how many I start counting, but lose track at twenty-three.

Do I have to count all of them, or just the significant ones?

You try to hide your surprise, but I catch the tail end of it flash across your face.

You mean there’s more?

I rest my head against the back of the chair and close my eyes. You clink the wine bottle against my glass, and begin to pour. I don’t say a word. I hear you scrape your chair back, and start carrying the dishes over to the sink.

You know that wherever I’ve gone, I’m not coming back for some time.

I’m thinking of the first one. It had lime green walls the colour of the forest surrounding it, and spiders the size of my hand. I lived there for my first seven years, and never stopped checking the ceilings for those eight legs clinging to the paint above my head. At night I would sneak my transistor radio under the pillow, and listen to Elvis as I tried not to fall asleep. I was convinced the spiders would come for me when I closed my eyes, my face pressed into the frayed cotton sheets.

I was always a nervous child.

At house number four we kept a goat in the back yard that would poke her head into my bedroom window. She ate my Charlie’s Angels T-shirt, but I forgave her. Actually she only chewed on the Jaclyn Smith side, and I was secretly proud she had good taste, even though my mum yelled and swore for the hundredth time to get rid of her.

House number seven had pink plastic flamingos in the front yard. I was just old enough to be embarrassed, and used to kick them down until their wings were poking into the soil next to the driveway. No matter how many times I did this, they were always upright again by the time I left for school. No-one ever mentioned this over the breakfast table.

It just wasn’t our way.

I open my eyes enough to reach for my wine glass, and see you sitting opposite me. You have your leg crossed over your knee, and you’re smiling.

You’re often smiling.

It has to be said, I am not.

Which house were you just thinking about?

There is so much affection in your voice that I almost close my eyes again. I take a much bigger gulp of wine that I intend to, and place my hand against my chest to push down the cough that surges up my throat.

The one when I was twelve, I think. With the flamingos.

You laugh.

I wish I could’ve seen you kick them. Always fighting, hey?

I smile with my eyes closed, and take you with me.

There was one when I was seventeen, after my folks threw me out. It was in an area of Melbourne known for its backyard amphetamine factories, and strange smells would always find their way in the windows.

I hear you rustle your cigarette packet.

I remember I had all these feminist books on the windowsill: ‘The Ethical Slut’, ‘Jane Sexes It Up’, ‘Bitch Goddess.’ I had all their spines lined up, so they could be seen from the street. So everyone would know what a hardcore little punk I was.

Even without opening my eyes, I can tell you’re laughing. I hear the matchbox open, and smell the sulphur burst as you strike one.

But there’s one house I remember the most.

You exhale, and I can smell the smoke curling near my face.

That old wood house, the winter I was twenty-one. The one by the railway tracks.

I know you’re not laughing now.

I’m not sure of the right words. I take another sip of wine, and open my eyes to check the bottle to my right. I know there’s another one under the sink, and I think I might need it.

What happened there, babe?

You’re so gentle. I hear the tone in your voice, although you already know the answer to your question, and I almost reach across the table for your hand.

I say winter, but it lasted two years.

I take a sip of wine, and hold it in my mouth for a moment before swallowing.

It was winter when it started though.

I can almost feel the floorboards sagging under my feet. In my mind I can still hop from one to the other, knowing instinctively which ones are rotting, and which ones are safe.

The thing no-one ever realises, I tell you, is how slowly it starts.

You clear your throat, and take another drag on your cigarette. You try and do it slowly, try and do it silently, and this fact isn’t lost on me.

One morning you stand at your front door, and you look out at the street. And for the first time, you think: “I don’t want to go out there.”

You’re watching me, the cigarette snagged between your fingers.

And before you know it, I say, it moves from “I don’t want to go out there”, to “I can’t go out there.” And suddenly it’s two years later, and you know every single crack in the living room ceiling, but you can’t remember the last conversation you had with a stranger.

I can hear my voice getting faster.

You can’t go shopping, you can’t answer the doorbell. Even standing next to the window makes you sweat, until you find yourself one day crawling on your hands and feet just to get to the goddamn mail slot.

We’re staring at each other now. Both of us are frowning, but it looks more natural on me.

Call it agoraphobia if you want, give it a fancy Greek name, but you’re still just a shut-in.

I run my finger around the rim of my wine glass, slowly.

Anyway, that’s the house I remember most.

And for the first time in years, I almost reach for a cigarette.

When you stop at twenty-three by 

I’ve been taking dance classes recently, in a working class inner Melbourne suburb where I used to live. For almost twenty years I’ve avoided that part of town, not wanting to go back to those memories for even a second.

But you can shut your eyes and stomp your feet as much as you like, and still some ghosts never fully go away.

I love the words that fall between the cracks; where I have to roll my sleeve up, jam my arm down into the darkness, and yank the stories up by their hair.

I write with black coffee, and bare feet.

Both seem to help.

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  • scottimages
    scottimagesover 2 years ago

    I’ve written a dozen comments here, and scrapped every one. I just don’t have the words.
    Except possibly to say, thanks. When people write like you do I’m reminded that I’m not in the world alone.

  • Rosemary, what a gorgeous comment; it’s made me smile, so much. The years I wrote about here were ones in which I felt utterly, horribly alone, so to finally be able to make sense of them through ink is a relief. I think that’s why we all read, to feel connected to our world, and each other…I just hadn’t quite realised that’s perhaps why I write, too. Thank you for that.

    – bellmusker

  • Michael Alesich
    Michael Alesichover 2 years ago

    Reading this opens a small window into another life. Without it I would be unable to feel what it’s like but with the words i am both enthralled and nervous. Your words have a tendency to draw me in as though meditating and I’m thankful that you have shared this.

  • AmandaWitt
    AmandaWittover 2 years ago

    Powerful ending, this piece starts out in one way and ends completely differently.

  • jemimalovesbigted
    jemimalovesbigtedover 2 years ago

    I can never, ever share enough how much I love reading your words dear Bell (because I don’t have the words)… the most profound thing is that I don’t visit RB very much these days, but it seems that when I do, what you have written resound in my soul so perfectly for the moment I am in at the time. Your words always resonate with me and it is a wonderful thing to be on my side of the screen and being able to take them in. xx

  • Matt Penfold
    Matt Penfoldover 2 years ago

    So much said and so much implied, in a package that paints tangible pictures and leaves the reader wondering about what else happened and why… Always a treat to read you, Bell.

  • berndt2
    berndt2over 2 years ago

    An incredible work (I was going to start his comment with the word “another” but the thing is all your stories are so uniquely special that it would seem a near-insult to be grouped together by a lazy choice of word!) – really powerful and never less than gripping (I even felt some icy dread there, and the environment I was reading this in should have made that pretty impossible!)

  • LindaR
    LindaRover 2 years ago

    I wish I had the words that adequately express what is like to read your writing, how you create experience, so tangible, it’s simply inexplicable in one line, or twist, I went from here to there without ever leaving my chair, I’m transported…
    I thought twenty-three was a number of a different kind of count ;) I can feel every bit and know it well enough, you’ve nailed it so very well, Bell…bravo for your heart, your grit, your ink you so generously share xxx

  • Lisa  Jewell
    Lisa Jewellover 2 years ago

    Oh Babe,
    there is much to say but a comment here does not do it for me. I will say this much, you write so tangibly, the reader (me) feels as though I’ve invested a part of me into the story beyond reading.

  • Cosimo Piro
    Cosimo Piroover 2 years ago

    I have said it a thousand times, Bell… your writing is as real as I breathe… xoxo

  • Teacup
    Teacupover 2 years ago

    as ever I get lost in your words and images… as always I sit silently long after I have finished reading…
    another powerful piece…x

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