Sometimes I see you on the street. Your round face stands out within a sea of faces and my heart skips a beat. You were so much older than me then, an ancient twenty six years, when I was only nineteen.
Do you remember the bookshop where we met, Halls Books, with its wooden floors and no cash registers on display? Money flew through the air overhead in sealed capsules along electrified wires to the office on the top floor where Mrs Beebe counted and stored the take.
I worked upstairs in the second hand books section where the staff were school leavers like me, most of us destined to ship off to university at the end of the holidays, except for you and Glenice, whose left eye wandered.
You once bedded Glenice, or so you told me, several months later when we first became an item, almost a year after that first day when I met you, when I stole down to the section of the store where the full time staff sold paperbacks and you caught my eye.
You called me ‘Frenchy’. I, who was no more French than a kangaroo, but the name held such charm. It had a flirtatious ring such that I found myself sneaking down to paperbacks just to see ‘the man from novels’, as I named you in my head.
Then one day, out of nowhere, you asked to take me to the movies, to see the Satyricon and my heart was in my mouth with excitement. But I was a good girl, still living at home, and I needed first to ask my mother.
She looked at me twice. I had never asked such a thing before. I had never allowed myself to take an interest in boys, not since the one in my second final school year whom I met at a dance, who came home for dinner one night and then flirted with my younger sister. I dropped him in a flash and decided I would not go out with boys until I finished my education.
‘What film? My mother asked, as if that might give her a clue as to how to reply. When I mentioned the Satyricon she stopped stacking dishes in the cupboard.
‘Say no,’ she said
‘I can’t,’ I said.
‘If you can’t say “no” now, when will you ever?’
I went to the movie. All those naked bodies, and the story lost on me. It mattered only that I sat in a dark picture theatre beside you and when it came time to go home you held my hand as we crossed the road.
We went down to the beach and sat in the sand before you took me home. You held me close when I felt something hard against my thigh. What could it be?
I was a child of innocence, a child raised in a good Catholic family against a backdrop of a drunken father who pulled out his penis from time to time and threatened us with it.
I must have blotted out any memory of that and of what a hard-on might mean, but I didn’t tell you. I played along.
You were kind in those first few visits. You took things slowly and spared me the indignity of losing my virginity on a sandy beach between the rubbish bins and the run of beach boxes where the sand dunes rose.
Losing my virginity came later well after you had decided to quit your job and took yourself off to Tocumwal to work in a pub there. You’d had a crisis of confidence. Somewhere in my archives, I still have a letter you wrote to me from the pub,
‘Dear Frenchy…I miss you.’
It was easy for me then, after you came home, to visit your house in the middle of the day when I should have been back at my house studying for exams.
One day, you called me on the phone, come on over, you said.
I did not say ‘no’.
You answered the door draped in a towel. You took me to your bedroom and invited me to take off my clothes and join you in bed.
It hurt, and there was blood. That’s when you told me about Glenice and how after sex, she bled for hours. It was in her parent’s holiday house and Glenice had invited you down for the day while her parents were away. She was older than me, more experienced, but it had been her first time, too, and she bled on until you both freaked out and you took her to the hospital.
This story left me with my first dose of doubt about you.
No need to worry on that account. In the end, women were not my rivals. Women weren’t horses. You could not bet on them.
In time we moved in together but every Saturday and often during the week, I lost you to the racetrack. At first, I didn’t mind. You won often enough and from your winnings we could survive; me, on my student scholarship and you on your winnings. One day, rich, the next poor. So poor I had to study for my psychology exams by candlelight after they’d cut the electricity.
Finally, when I graduated and took my first job, I promised you I’d support you so you could go back to study, to make something of your life beyond that of a professional gambler. You chose the police.
Of all the institutions in the world. The Commonwealth police were different from the regular force, you said. No traffic duty, no commonplace burglaries, but there you were stuck in a sentry box on St Kilda Road night after night and some of the lustre went from your eyes, while a young medical resident from my work asked me out.
I said ‘no’ at first, but then decided to give it a go.
And you and I came to a grinding end.
After the first ‘yes’, I took infidelity to new heights and kept it from you when you went off on training courses. One day, I found a note in your handwriting and scrunched up on the floor, a list of what was wrong between us.
Top of the list: ‘You don’t love me anymore’.
I stopped loving you just as you had started to love me.
After all those years of me adoring you and you taking me for granted, the tables turned. One evening after we’d spilt, the telephone rang and interrupted my fitful efforts at sleeping.
‘You fucking bitch,’ your voice down the phone. ‘You fucking bitch.’ Your words trailed off. Time slowed down. Was this a dream? Was this a phone call in my sleep? In a minute I would wake up.
‘Everyone knows what you’ve been up to. Everyone knew but me. I’m the last to know.’
I found my voice but the words were croaky.
‘What are you talking about?’ I knew what you were talking about but I wanted to deny it even as I knew it was true. I wanted to think it didn’t matter. I wanted you to think it was nothing. That I had betrayed him. I had slept with another man. Slept with. A euphemism. Had sex with, fucked, shagged, you name it. I had gone off with another man while you were away for weeks on end. You’d expected me to sit at home, the good and loving girlfriend, the good and loving partner, always faithful.
‘I’m coming over now,’ you said. ‘I’ve got your stuff. You can have it back. I never want to see you again.’
The dial tone buzzed in my ear. I held the phone close. I could not believe you’d rung off without me talking you round. I dragged on my dressing gown.
Good, I thought. You’ll be here soon. I’ll settle you down. I’ll soothe you with a few gentle words. I heard your car pull up in the carport below. I looked through the blinds. You opened the car door and flung the books and clothes that I had left behind as a mark of our relationship.
When we had separated three months earlier, we had agreed on an amicable split. We had agreed to go our separate ways, that we would each be free then to explore new relationships, but from time to time we could renew our relationship with the occasional one nightstand.
I pulled up the blinds and swung open the window. ‘Come up,’ I said. ‘Don’t just throw stuff there. Come up and talk.’ You kept on throwing books, my old grey cardigan onto the plie, my CD case, my walking boots.
I held my voice low. I didn’t want to wake the neighbours. ‘Please talk,’ I said again to you, the silent man whose arm moved up and down like a piston as you threw the last of my shoes onto the pile. You slammed your car door shut. You hadn’t even cut the engine. You reversed without looking up to see me.
That was how we left it. The end of the scene. The death of a four-year long relationship. My first ever.
Forty years later I look for your face in each crowd. It hasn’t aged one bit. It still has that boyish glow, as if your horse just won first place at Mooney Valley. And we can take ourselves off to a top restaurant and spend the next day in bed.