Tara Cartland is a fiction writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She was a 2013 SOYA Written Word finalist and she won the Overland and Victoria University Short Story Prize in 2012. Her other work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, and Seizure Online. You can find her on Twitter @Tara_Skye and at taracartland.com. Tara will have a story published in The Best Australian Stories 2013.
We passed him from guest to guest, couch to couch. He spoke long and loudly about happiness and suffering, and we delighted in touching him on the knee when he made a particularly emphatic point. “That’s right,” we cooed. “I hadn’t thought about that.”
Our boyfriends had left already, those of us who had them. We were regulars here, and they were not. We liked this place: large glass windows looked onto a quiet, empty street, giving the evening a still and midnight-black backdrop. There was an ornamental fireplace, strings of lights hanging from the ceiling, and women’s faces painted in high contrast on the walls. Lips. Closed eyes. The bartenders were kind, but distant. They passed us our change in silver trays; the touch of a hand therefore became more deliberate, and more exciting.
We were there for a birthday, I suspect. Whose was it? Claire? Rosie? Hilary? I don’t recall. Nor do I know who had brought the utilitarian along. Certainly, no-one had staked a claim to him. He was shared freely and with goodwill.
He was talking. We would listen, or incline our heads as though we were listening. Really, our gazes would slide down from his mouth and settle on that space between his neck and collarbone. His shirt, loosely buttoned, created shadows.
Occasionally we would lift our gazes to disagree with him. No, we said, doesn’t the pain make the pleasure better? We would not give that up. We disagreed with him for several reasons: to keep the conversation flowing; to freely study the young utilitarian’s face as we spoke; and to see his eyes soften as he smiled, his cheekbones round, his hand push through his hair.
He liked to be disagreed with. The certainty of that made something uncoil inside me. I looked around the room and knew I wasn’t alone in the feeling.
Did the utilitarian enjoy being surrounded by women? Our sources had indicated yes. Perhaps he felt, at this moment, that he was holding court. Let him feel that way, we decided in silent consensus. A generous mood was being cultivated. Melinda, sitting next to him, visibly thrilled to his hand on the small of her back, leant into it like a cat. She murmured something in a low voice, a gift in the shape of a sentence, for him alone. He smiled only slightly in return, and opened his hands to the group, seeking opinion on his last argument.
I don’t know what she said, but I caught the closed-off look on her face as she walked past me to the bar. Leaving for drinks signalled a change in seating arrangements. Martina followed her, and Jennifer took her spot. I perched on the arm of the couch, and let my hand settle on Jennifer’s bare shoulder for balance. Skin is an antidote for desire, and a small dose can be enough to stave off the cravings. She rested her fingers on mine briefly, understanding.
The utilitarian was beautiful, of course. An unrealistic beauty, a carved-in-marble beauty, a beauty that should not be believed if described in fiction. He was tall and slender at a glance, though not slight. The muscles of his shoulders and arms showed through his shirt when he moved. He was known as a friend of a friend, and lived nearby. Some of us had seen him jogging in the mornings with clean, loping strides, his white t-shirt lifting at his stomach and sticking to his back. We had talked at length of the utilitarian, of his body and his proclivities.
Perhaps we were only interested in talk, after all. Our group began to splinter into other groups. The utilitarian’s audience grew smaller. Soon we began to pick up our bags and coats, to smile tiredly and apologetically. Phone calls from impatient boyfriends were answered now. Drinks were left on the table.
I did not move, except to slide into Jennifer’s seat after she had said goodnight and kissed me on the cheek. He and Vanessa were discussing the staffing changes at the university where they both tutored. The unbeautiful have to be bold, and so when Vanessa excused herself to get a drink I laid my hand on his and asked him to come outside.
Moths butted against the lights overhead. Caught by their shadows, the utilitarian began to enthuse on the pain of insects. He spoke as if describing a battlefield. An unthinkable chasm of pain, an aeon of pain, a countless number of bodies distilled into death, and death coalescing into dust and dust wrapping at our ankles. What we do other than talk about it, I was not sure. I had stopped listening.
In this light his hair was a warm gold. I wondered what he thought of me, as plain as he was not. I held his hand by the wrist, and with my other hand pulled my dress up across my thighs. He didn’t hesitate, and he didn’t need any more direction. I rested my elbows on his shoulders, his back and my forearms against the brick wall. I felt the pockmarked brick with my fingers. Each indentation was brimming with black shadows, like the surface of dead planet under floodlights.