When people ask how we met, I tell them in the Anchor and Hope, a place so named for its reputation as a place in which people sought to anchor relationships for life. At least the women were there to find love, while the men, I can’t speak for them, though he was different.
Or so I thought at that first meeting.
On a crowded dance floor where I tried hard not to see myself from the outside, to forget that my shoes pinched the back of my heels and were dangerously high on their platform wedges and the point at which our faces met was artificial because I was at least half a foot shorter than he.
Height was everything to me then. Height and the capacity to lure a man into thinking I was a great catch.
That’s what people looked for in the Anchor and Hope, but here the fishing analogy stopped because the hotel from which many a marriage had sprung was over the road from the Bryant and May Matchbox factory in Richmond and miles from the sea.
‘Let’s get a drink,’ I said to this man whose name I had not yet determined. I wanted to get close enough to my friend, Jan, the one I’d travelled with. You never went to the Anchor and Hope alone. But hoped that the one you’d return home with was not the same as the one with whom you’d arrived.
Or so was my reasoning, though I had never told Jan this. Never told her how much I saw her as my entry point into a world that evaded her as she stood alone at the bar twiddling the one drink she’d allow herself.
‘I just like to watch,’ she told me more than once.
Watch over me more like. I knew I’d have a job wriggling free of her, when the time came, but I had no hope of anchoring a man if she was my too constant chaperone.
I muscled my way through the crowd of dancers, as much as I could use my elbows to prize people apart, to make a tunnel through which I hoped my unknown man might follow as I clunked across the floor.
Platform shoes were okay as long as you kept your feet firm in the centre. If you tipped too far forward or on your heels, it was only a second before you lost your balance and fell.
‘You can go without me,’ I said to Jan. I had to enunciate each word clearly and raise my voice over the DJ’s keyboard whine.
‘No way,’ Jan said. ‘I can’t leave you here.’ I knew she’d be like that. Just like a schoolteacher I thought, all frowns and wrinkles, or worse still my mother. Who disapproved of most everything I did when it came to meeting men.
‘I know what you get up to,’ my mother said one time when I asked to stay over at a friend’s. ‘I was young once too you know.’
‘Why not leave me to it,’ I said to Jan. ‘I’ll be okay.’ I filled my eyes with all the hope I could muster. All the intention I could summon into my pupils that stared at her as if to say, ‘You do as I tell you. I’m the mother now.’
Was it so reckless of me to dismiss my driver, my one point of certainty in this crowd of uncertainties? But I held fast to my bravado. I was ready to take on anything.
His penis was crooked, I saw that first morning when he tried, not for the first time, to get it turgid. I could see between the sheets the way it tilted at an angle midway up the shaft, not enough to cause me discomfort, nor enough for him to remark on or apologise, not enough for him to suggest there was anything about him that should give rise to concern.
His name was Robert, but people called him Bob. Bob the stevedore. I had never heard of a stevedore before until Bob explained to me that his job was to manage all aspects of shipping merchandise for a large company. I was in awe. Here was a man who hobnobbed with international glitterati of ships’ captains and their wives. Here was a man who spent his days down at the harbour on board the huge vessels that docked at Port Phillip Bay, vessels bound for Germany and India and all over and here was I in bed with such a man, notwithstanding his crooked penis.
If it did not bother him then why should it bother me?
I was a femme fatale, a woman of the world, twenty-two years old and full of the confidence of my preened and perfect body. At least I had tried to make it so. Tried to fit in with the movies I had seen where women gasp and groan with delight in the arms of their lovers. Not that I had felt any reasons for groaning and gasping. Sex had been perfunctory from my point of view. A process of arousing Bob’s crooked penis until its bent corner showed and then encouraging a good deal of thrusting and sighing and all the appropriate noises that accompanied the sexual act until it was over and I could lie back satisfied in the knowledge that I gave such pleasure to a stevedore who preferred my company to that of the ships’ captains and their wives.
It was hot that day and my face burned red from too much time in the sun. We had spent the best part of the day at the Karingal trash and treasure market trying to flog a cargo of kids’ toys that someone had offloaded onto Bob for a paltry sum.
Bob, whom I came to realise not only assisted ships’ captains and their wives, but also dabbled in some private attempts at retail sales as well. Things that ‘fell off a truck’, as he liked to say, and along with his crooked penis, his crooked bent as the handler of someone else’s lost goods did not trouble me.
I was in love. He might as well have been a ship’s captain himself for all the glory he exuded and all the promise of a better life somewhere beyond the narrow confines of my home and life in suburban Cheltenham.
I had hoped to travel alone with Bob that day but his friend Eddie from the flats where Bob lived, a gay guy who was as in love with Bob as I was, not that either would have said as much, insisted on coming along and Bob was happy for the help.
I was good at talking to customers, but Eddie was good at the heavy lifting. So, there were three of us at dinner in the Thai restaurant where I drank two glasses of wine fast and the waiters were slow to bring food. On the menu, the chilli prawns looked delicious, but I had not thought that the word chill meant as hot as they turned out to be. I had never been to a Thai restaurant until this day and had no idea about tastes other than your ordinary Australian or European fare.
‘You’ll like them,’ Eddie said, and Bob agreed. ‘Go for it.’
I nearly burst into tears at the first bite. A whole prawn’s body which I tore off and into my mouth to the flames that burned my throat and a sense that along with my sunburned face, I might explode.
‘Water.’ I grabbed for the water bottle and pushed aside my wine glass. I could not eat the stuff, but I was hungry. Hungrier than I had imagined until those first sips of wine when my body told me I needed sustenance to stop me from going under and I was angry.
There was no bread in this Thai restaurant, nothing to sop up the taste or get rid of the pain. So, I guzzled water and spooned mouthfuls of plain white rice into my mouth by way of comfort.
‘Why didn’t you tell me that chillies were so hot?’ I asked Bob as we crawled into bed that night. Under the blankets and alone my stomach still aching from the mess of wine and white rice before and after the chilli assault.
‘You think you’re so sophisticated,’ Bob said. ‘Such a woman of the world, but I can see through you.’ My heart skipped a beat. What could he see? What did he know about me? My cheeks burned beyond the heat of the chilli and the sun. ‘You fake orgasms,’ he said. ‘You’re a fake. You just pretend.’ Even in the dark, I could see the profile of his nose against the white wall beside us.
I wanted to blame it on his crooked penis, to say that maybe he too was lacking in the sex department but that was way too cruel, so I stayed silent. ‘When women orgasm, their necks go red,’ Bob’s mouth opened with each word. ‘You can see the real thing. But nothing happens to you.’
When people ask me where we met, I say the Anchor and hope. Anchored to the notion that things between us could be as bright and shiny as a new born baby, I hoped to fit Bob as a permanent fixture into my life but as the weeks passed by I could not get beyond the idea that he thought me a fake just because I didn’t do sex the way he liked and he could not consider that not only was his penis crooked or his habits outside of work hours with those things off trucks but also that he lacked in emotional intelligence. That’s what I came to call it in the years that followed, after we had broken up.
Bob once had a wife and her name was Marlene, back in Rhodesia where his stevedoring days began. He had a wife whom he thought had loved him until one day he came home and found her in bed with another man. The usual story. He ordered them both out. Packed his bags and within days was on board a ship to Australia. He was not one to trust women with his heart, only his body, but I was one to trust with my heart leaving aside my body. My body was the one place he could not get inside, no matter how hard he might have tried. And in time I met him one last evening for a supper of toasted cheese and tomato, his favourite and nothing too hot about that.
‘Why don’t you ever talk about your feelings?’ I asked. He stood with his back to me at the sink to rinse the last plate before he stacked it to dry alongside the cutlery that stood upright in its steely canister.
‘I don’t do feelings,’ he said.
‘Everybody has feelings,’ I said to his silence. Then something snapped inside of me. ‘I’ve had enough of this.’
I stepped out into the night. Stalked down the steps of his flat with its chewing gum wrappers and cigarette butts in every corner and took off for the railway station and the two-train trip home to Cheltenham. I could hear the rattle of a train in the distance and looked up to the wall of sky, punctured by the tops of trees and apartment buildings as a few lonely stars glinted at me.