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


Melbourne, Australia

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Artist's Description

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.

Artwork Comments

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