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All those mornings, our bodies slicked with a sugary sweat. Pure alcohol. You could’ve tasted the night before just by licking our wrists. Stella arcing back so the girls could do body shots from between her perfect breasts. The men drinking and watching, You’re a flexible little thing, aren’t you, sweetheart?
We were inexhaustible in those final few months, throwing ourselves around every chance we got. Our heads might’ve rolled off and we wouldn’t have noticed. Mine probably did. Amanda and Stella started dancing at the Foxhouse two or three nights a week because the money was good and our rent was insane. Then it was three or four nights. They’d show up at the studio in the morning still smelling of tipping dollars. It’s okay if you’re smart about it, they said, stretching at the barre. If you don’t hate it enough to start looking for ways to forget about it.
You should think on it, said Stella, who was spending half the week as Lola.
That accent. They’d eat it up. Amanda was Ruby from Thursday to Saturday.
A swan dive, I guess you could call it.
Sometimes I want to tell you about this, but I won’t. How the hours slammed up against each other. I’d never seen so many sunrises. We’d peel away our damp costumes and step straight into three-dollar g-strings that were only good for a few nights, until the lace was discolored with sweat. The other girls at the club told us we should stick to darker colors: black, navy, even red. Then we wouldn’t be going through so many pairs. But we knew what we were doing. Pale blue. Sugar pink. White, white, white. Let them think we were angelic. We knew how to be angelic.
And she had this way of swiveling her head round like an owl to talk to you as she drove, except not like an owl because the skin of her neck creased up in folds and she looked so old when that happened, though she wasn’t, not then, and Luke would lean over and say, Watch the road, Mum.
And what I’ll remember of this time is split vinyl and continental breakfasts, fights about who gets the passenger seat, a wallaby cracked over the head with the jack handle and none of us talking till Lismore even though we know she’s done the right thing.
We pull in silent to the motel, a low, sandy-brick L shape, with all the doors facing onto the car park and the car park mostly empty, mostly dark. Our room is No. 17 and there is a TV that only gets two stations and one double bed, which my brother and I fall into fully clothed with only our shoes kicked off. But something wakes me a few hours later and I panic, forgetting where I am. I go over to the window on shaky legs and see her from the back, standing out by the road. A blond in denim pedal pushers and white tennis shoes, standing in the light of the motel sign, like the ghost of 1967. Ghost of her younger self, holding a slim beer bottle down by her hip, fingers round its throat like she wants to swing it at something.
In the dark of the room I find the bar fridge, take a bottle of cola from inside the door. Luke lifts his head from the pillow and says, Eli, don’t you drink that. Those cost like four times as much as they do in the shops, and I say, Shut up, I’m not going to, and I go back to the window. Try to stand the way she does, the bottle dangling loose from my fingertips. Like I don’t care if I drop it. Like I don’t care about anything. She stands like that for a long time, just looking out at the road like she’s waiting for someone to come pick her up.
In the morning there are flecks of rust-colored hair dye in the bathroom sink, and Luke takes one look at her and says, That’s not going to change anything, Mum, because he’s older and sharper than I am but he still gets a slap for it, so we’re all silent in the car again, all morning, and I wish the radio still worked.
When we get to Brisbane, she’s telling us, You won’t even remember. And I don’t know if she’s talking about Dad or the slap, or the wallaby or Victoria or that she was ever a blond, but in any case I know she’s lying, ’cause she’s got her lips pressed into a pale line and her eyes fixed hard on the road.
When I write of a house now, it is only ever the one house: its smell of smoke and old wood, foxed books, dried blue gum ripped lazily from the overgrown yard. Perhaps you haven’t realized this yet. Because in one story, I’ve sat you at the monstrous kitchen table, its surface a forest of knives, their tips driven into the southern mahogany. The empty knife block hidden among them like the woodcutter’s empty cottage. And in another story, we are crouched behind the ruined shed, among the blood and the feathers, and from here the kitchen cannot be seen. Stand in the birdless aviary (you know where we are now, don’t you?) and you won’t see me lying on the slate floor, won’t feel my hands on either side of your face. You won’t hear me saying there isn’t a single thing I feel sorry about. It’s only ever the one house, but it’s shifting, unmappable, and I can never get far enough away to see the whole of it.
Josephine Rowe is an Australian writer of fiction, poetry, and essays. Her short story collections are How a Moth Becomes a Boat and Tarcutta Wake. She currently lives in Montreal.