“In taking leave of a group of strangers – it makes no difference whether you have been introduced to them or merely included in their conversation – you bow “good-bye” to any who happen to be looking at you, but you do not attempt to attract the attention of those who are unaware that you are turning away.” – Emily Post, 1922.
FRAGMENTS of Lydia’s evening came filtering through like starbursts. She met her friend Kathleen for drinks after work to decompress. What had started out as a momentous day in her fledgling career became another exhausting attempt to get along with her supervisor.
But Kathleen had her own news. Big news. She was drinking a mocktail, she had pointed out ever-so innocently, and this meant two things: one, she was pregnant, and two, all that irritating, carefree vivacity of hers would evaporate into a self-absorbed, baby-talking zombie, the likes of which Lydia had nothing in common, let alone time to indulge.
Laying still, Lydia was at least relieved to recall that she’d had the decency to congratulate Kathleen before drinking herself into a legless, self-pitying stupor.
As the cognitive wheels turned, Lydia realised just how many glasses of alcohol had met her lips last night.
She remembered sculling a drink in cahoots with a bar-fly stranger, insisting he drink with her in the absence of Kathleen’s voracity. Wine had sloshed beside her laughing mouth, down her chin and over the most expensive item from her wardrobe, a DKNY set. Recalling her disregard for the large, wet stain it had left, Lydia knew she’d been a mess last night… and had she really been wearing an Akubra?!
Larger shards of memory pierced Lydia’s slumber. She stirred and frowned at herself. Shrouding lights reflecting off a shot-glass and a burning sensation deep in her chest. She couldn’t remember Kathleen being there, couldn’t remember anybody’s actual face, though she was certainly surrounded by a group of people.
Another panel of clarity, revealing flannel, a heavy scent of pine aftershave and beer brought Lydia to the fore.
Beard rash on her face and the recollection of being hauled off the dance floor dared Lydia to open her eyes once and for all.
Hesitantly, she took in a roof with beige paint coming off in large bubbles. This was not her bedroom.
She turned to see a gaping mouth blowing morning breath directly up her nostrils. Fuck, she thought. Fighting a primary urge to rip away at hellish speed, Lydia instead manoeuvred herself up and away from the snoring stranger.
Panic seized Lydia. Her head was spinning with sudden fear and an obvious incapacity to operate efficiently. Where was she? Who was he? Had she?
A final porn-star image of herself giggling as the brutish male flung her on the bed almost floored Lydia.
Her mind had opted for flight and, beyond that, she was minus comprehension. She just had to get out. Even the desire for deep breaths was thwarted by a faint pungent odour that permeated the musty room.
This stranger offered no clues – no name, no voice, no history, no clothes. Just this far-too-offensive naked body that was responsible for this ache… Oh fuck, Lydia repeated.
One hand fluttered to her mouth and she prayed not to be sick. Not to wake him.
She wriggled her legs off the bed and let her body follow, her own naked and slightly sick form flaming her humiliation.
Fumbling around the room, she dressed stealthily in the dark. Gathering what dignity was left, Lydia headed for the door. Tiptoeing around the mess, she shuddered at the site of a translucent rubber lying haphazardly on the floor, its contents leaving another stain on the filthy carpet.
Pulling back her shoulders and running a shaky hand through her unkempt curls, she trekked to the door – salvaged her jacket, shoes and wallet and slipped out the bedroom door.
But outside, the nightmare continued. Another strange male peered up at her from a kitchen table. Books were scattered around and he looked baffled to see her.
Apologising, Lydia asked to use the phone. When he nodded towards a small alcove, she gratefully took the opportunity to escape his accusing eyes.
Stabbing in the numbers with a shaky finger, the rank operator quipped, “A cab to 217 Moggill Road, Indooroopilly. How many travelling?”
When Lydia hung up, she resigned herself to an awkward conversation with Mr Kitchen.
“How was your night?” His crusher-dust voice was both strong and soft.
Lydia averted her eyes. She couldn’t explain to this stranger how out of her depth she felt, that she had never done anything like this before. She wanted to explain. But he wouldn’t care, she thought. He probably wouldn’t even believe me. Lydia was desperate for a familiar face, instead she managed to find a voice.
“Okay… I think. How was yours?”
As he stood up for coffee, Lydia saw just how high his body stretched. He possessed a formidable size and held himself upright. But a casual gait belied something else. Perhaps friendliness, Lydia thought hopefully.
“I was here studying for most of it, unlike you and Scrubs.”
Scrubs? Oh God, Lydia thought. A beer-swilling, flannel-wearing cowboy called Scrubs?! What the hell did I drink last night?
Mr Kitchen waved a can of instant coffee at her suggestively. Lydia closed her gaping jaw and shook her head gently.
“I guess this means you’re not staying for breakfast? Scrubber will be disappointed. I do hope you left him your number.”
Before Lydia could retort to his jibe, a soft breath off to her left heralded the entrance of a third person.
Oh God, let me die. Burst a blood vessel in my head, I really won’t mind.
A lanky girl took in the kitchen scene with moist, blue eyes. Her sunlight-coloured pyjama set should have been illegal so early on a Saturday morning. Mr Kitchen smiled calmly back at her.
An impatient horn outside was mild relief for Lydia.
“That’s me. It was nice to meet you,” she said, scuttling out of the room.
Realising she had run into a sleep-out, with no obvious exit, she backtracked a few paces.
Mr Kitchen was having a hard time not laughing out loud and Miss Sunbeam chose to shoot daggers at her. He pointed to a doorway off to the right. Lydia bolted and booming laughter followed her out.
It wasn’t until Lydia was back in her apartment, had let in some fresh air and was sipping a strong, black coffee, that she took stock.
Refusing to cry, Lydia winced instead. How could I have been so… stupid? So reckless?
Looking around her apartment, she was soothed by the unfettered lines she had co-ordinated. Slimline furniture. Compact lighting. Quiet, natural colours. She leant against the wall.
It would be okay, she thought. Shit happens, but it’ll be okay.
The dark memory of a brown mattress and opened cupboards revealing limp jeans and too much flannel brought her back sharply. Lydia slid down the wall. Her black skirt caught and she slumped to the floor, the cool tiles freezing her behind.
Tucking her face into her hands, Lydia began to cry silently.
What’s going on?! I don’t understand? That’s not like me, it’s not who I am. It’s not who I ever wanted to be! Where… what… how did I end up there!?
From the floor, the unit was less soothing. More cold. More uncaring. Lydia tucked her knees in close and squeezed herself against a soft breeze from the windows. For the first time in a long time, Lydia wished she were home.
At home, this didn’t matter. Back there she wasn’t the failure, she was the Golden Child.
One-night-stands weren’t condoned at home, but at least she could apologise. At home, her family would forgive her.
But I’m here, Lydia reminded herself. And here, I don’t even need to apologise. This is where I’ve always wanted to be and look what I’ve done?! Professional women don’t do that. They don’t get plastered and wing home with some fucking cowboy!
Lydia swiped furiously at her cheeks.
I don’t have time for this. Lydia yanked herself off the ground. She straightened her skirt. Besides, she thought, I have to go home today anyway. By six this evening, I’ll be missing this apartment.
A buzz on the intercom sealed Lydia’s resolve and she went to let Kathleen in.
Handing over a gift wrapped in delicate tissue paper and decorated with glitter, Kathleen watched Lydia carefully still in her black number.
“For your beloved sister.” She paused. “When’d you get in, Sweet?”
Lydia moved to the kitchen and put the box on the counter, judging her answer, realising she hadn’t yet changed.
“You look like shit. Hon, have you been crying? What happened? He didn’t…”
“Oh no! He didn’t. No, not that. I just… I, um, went back to his place.”
Kathleen’s minx smile withered away at the sight of Lydia’s trembling lip.
“We are talking about that dishy Italian behind the bar, aren’t we?”
Kathleen put her hands over her mouth in mock horror, big wooden bangles clacking together. “You dirty girl! Who’d you end up with last night?”
“What time did you leave?” Lydia stalled. Back in the lounge, they took up opposing positions on the pair of sofas.
“Around 11pm. I think you were still on the wine then. As I was leaving, you were having an in-depth conversation with the bartender about teenage drinking. Like you never did it, most amusing. Listen, have we got time for breakfast? Haven’t eaten yet, I’m starving.”
Kathleen jumped up. Lydia opened her mouth and vomited.
The pool of methylated liquid in Lydia’s lap prevented her from moving. Kathleen dashed to the laundry and armed herself with a bucket and a sponge.
“Tip forward. Tip forward but don’t you dare get any of that on me. No, Lyd! Use your skirt like a funnel. Tip it forward!”
“I am. Oh God, I’m going to be sick… again,” Lydia moaned.
Kathleen broke into a fit of giggles. The bucket slipped and the flowing mess spilled onto her hand. Retching, she dropped the entire thing onto the floor.
The two girls sprung apart. Kathleen shook with silent laughter, her entire cheesecloth outfit jiggling.
Lydia stood sombrely, taking in the scene. Kathleen having far too much fun at her expense and the vomit that had splashed onto her peppercorn-green couch. She started sobbing.
“Oh baby! I’m sorry,” Kathleen pulled her in for a hug then thought better of it.
“Was it bad, was it? I’m sorry. You should have come home with me. Oh Lyd-sweetie, don’t cry! It’s not the end of the world. So you slept with him, big deal! It doesn’t make you a slut!”
“Oohh, honey, please,” Kathleen giggled. “What is it? Why are you getting so down about this?”
Lydia composed herself and looked sincerely at her friend. “Kath, do you recall seeing a guy hanging around me? Wearing a cowboy hat?”
Concentrating, Kathleen nodded.
“Oh dear… oh dear. I’m sorry, Lyd. I’m not laughing at you! Oh dear, mm-hmm. I’m sorry. So who was the lucky man?”
Lydia realised that she was too far gone to start a lie now.
“His housemate said his name was Scrubs.”
Kathleen’s face grimaced with repressed hilarity. Lydia watched as her loyal and most trusted friend gasped for air. An enormous cackle cracked off the walls as Kathleen doubled up, both hands over her face. Lydia began to smile as Kathleen’s face turned fire-engine red.
“Yeah, okay. It’s so very funny for you. I don’t even know the guy’s real name!”
Kathleen hiccupped back her chortle. “You want to?”
“Hell, no. I hope to God I haven’t given him my number or anything. But, you know, I don’t even know his name.”
“Come on Lydia, it’ll be okay. What are you freaking out about? You did use a condom, hey?”
“Yes, God! But, my mum is going to be absolutely mental.”
“You’re not telling her!” Kathleen helped Lydia mop the mess into a bucket and went to dispose of it in the laundry. “Why would you tell her you had a one-night-stand?” She called back.
“I’m not, but it doesn’t matter, she’ll know.” Lydia went to the bathroom to slip on a new blouse and charcoal trousers, gargling mouthwash as she went. “But,” she said after spitting in the basin, “she probably woke up in a cold sweat in the early hours of this morning and began some bloody prayer to protect me.”
“So she does care then?” Kathleen had leant against the doorframe.
Lydia snorted as she stuffed deodorant and toothpaste into a small case. “Yes, she wants me safe long enough to make it home for Elsie’s wedding. Beyond that, she just wants to abuse me for it.” Lydia took her overnight bag from Kathleen’s shoulder pointedly.
“You’re not carrying that. Need I remind you, you are with child?”
“Heavens,” Kathleen mocked. “Ah completely forgot – what with your scandalous story an’ all.”
Peta Jo’s debut novel ‘Wedding Etiquette for Ferals,’ is available to buy online from Amazon here.