Olivia De Zilva (University of Adelaide, Australia)
One thing that has always impressed me about you is your ability to reverse parallel park even when you don’t need to. When you have the opportunity to park in straight and forward, you still reverse parallel park your car in a way that would rival a figure skater doing a triple axel on the ice. You’re precise, clean and smooth, rolling into the parking space without splintering a single branch from the overgrown green shrub creeping down from the veranda. You don’t even have to look at the blue, green and yellow lids of the bins before you drive in because you know you won’t hit them. I’ve even seen you, on some rare and magnificent occasions (namely, after picking up your parents from the airport after their Eat Pray Love trip to India) reverse into the carport after turning off the headlights and slicing into the darkness as if you were cutting a perfect piece of chocolate cake. You didn’t hit the bins, the shrubs, the gutter or the chalk flower drawn by the toddler in the unit below us. Right now, you do the same, albeit in the overcast light of day. You don’t even look back as you reverse your beat-up Honda Civic in a perfect swoop around the poles of the veranda and back it in with enough space for us to unload our new dining table. All the other cars are parked nose in, their bumpers almost kissing the green bins lined up along the block of carports and verandas. We can get out comfortably without having to ruin the pastel pink, blue and green flowers that seem to bloom all over the concrete garden bed.
You pop the boot open and we lift out the flatpack cardboard box containing our new sleek and Swedish dining room table. It’s heavy—heavier than it looked in the store, all laid out with matching placemats and glassware. We carry the heavy load between us. I’m trying not to step on any chalk flowers, but it’s inevitable as they seem to have overgrown the available space. I can see the toddler through the window of his mother’s unit. He taps the glass with a worn-down nub of blue chalk. We walk up the stairs to our own flat. I wave at our neighbour, who is on the balcony watering her hydrangeas in a wide-brimmed straw hat. As she bends over to place her hands in the soil, her white cotton shorts sag around her tiny waist. In a fleeting second of sun, the pink and blue tattoo of her late son’s name flashes at me like a burning sunrise: “KYLE (1986-2003)” with flowers embroidered into each hastily drawn letter as if the downstairs toddler was the artist responsible. She told me once, while watering her plants and fixing the loose screw of a bird-shaped wind chime, that Kyle was a good kid who always did his best to come around and help her with the house. He was her second child and her favourite after her eldest daughter took off up the coast to marry her PE teacher and start a chain of gyms that were advertised with giant fluorescent letters on the freeway. He got killed in active duty in Iraq. She said life was never the same after that. She moved out of the family home and came here to be alone with her hydrangeas.
You lean backwards into the front door and unlock it as we tip the heavy cardboard rectangle on its side. I lean against the box and slide it through into the flat. We rest it up against the wall and scope out the best place to put it. The front room is bare except for the flat screen TV, your brother’s old purple couch and ottoman, and the kitchenette, complete with an old gas stove and sticky linoleum hiding clumps of our past meals. Until today, all our dinners were eaten on the couch with steaming hot porcelain plates resting on our knees. The final straw came when we were watching some show about teenagers living on a beach in Los Angeles. I served you some tomato soup from the stove and you flipped it onto the grey carpet because it was too hot. We argued for two days until you agreed getting a dining table would probably be better than burning your legs every time you ate tomato soup. I tried my best to cover up the bright red stain on the carpet using bleach, White King, soap, water and a foaming shampoo that made the house smell like a cheap car wash for two weeks. When the landlord came over for an inspection, I had to hide the patch with a threadbare decorative rug I found on the side of the road as hard rubbish. He walked right over it and didn’t even bother to check underneath, even though it was placed in the middle of the room with nothing else surrounding it. I guess he was in a rush that day because his wife, sitting in his black Peugeot downstairs, wouldn’t stop honking the horn and blasting pop music on the radio with her milky french-manicured fingers. He told me the house was in tip top shape despite the washing machine taking three hours to do a load and the crunchiness under the kitchen floor. I stare at the rug now, still in the middle of the room covering that god-awful stain. You’re dissembling the cardboard box, looking at all the pieces and parts that make a dining table. I see you scratch your head and squint your eyes at the tiny writing on the instruction manual. “What the fuck is a bord ben,” you ask. I have no idea. I don’t speak Swedish.
By the time you’ve set down the skeleton of the stornäs, our neighbour has stopped watering her hydrangeas and gone inside to smoke a cigarette. I can smell the cheap petrol station smoke through the dry wall and hear the blaring of network television commercials for vaginal fungus. You’re crouched on the carpet holding the tiny screws and bolts in your hands. Your phone is set up against the sleek wooden table face, translating Swedish to English with a woman’s robot voice. Born ben means table legs and you start to screw the long slats of wood into the face of the table. I ask if I can help, but you shoo me away because my shadow is blocking the dim light. I sit on your brother’s purple couch and turn on the television to block out the awkward silence hanging in the air with the stale cigarette smoke. Re-runs of Everybody Loves Raymond are playing on repeat. I sink into the uncomfortable cushions and watch Ray fumble his way through the comfortable domestic bliss of a wife, three kids, and his parents living across the street. We live quite the same as Ray in his domestic bliss. Except your parents don’t live across the street. They do visit enough, though: your mother carrying a glass casserole dish in her blue and white oven mitts and placing it down on the kitchen counter while complaining about the damp in the wall, and your father falling asleep on the couch wearing a cardigan and jeans with an elastic waistband.
Ray makes a joke about his brother Robert being soft. Robert retaliates in his booming baritone voice while clutching a stuffed pink bunny. Their parents, Frank and Marie, barge through the door wanting to know why Ray isn’t eating the leftover turkey from Thanksgiving. His wife is, as usual, exasperated in the kitchen, pacing around the brightly coloured cabinets and wringing her hands. You’re still crouched on the floor, though the table now has one leg attached.
In the fading light of the afternoon, you resemble Ray with your confused, hangdog expression. Your thick black hair, like his, is swooped over your forehead. You could be Italian, or Greek, or something more foreign than you are. Your skin is so tanned, much more than my own ethnic olive. I remember when I met you at that stupid costume party. I came along with my seat partner from Economics 101. I can’t even remember her name, but I do remember the fact that she left me in the corner to go pash some guy wearing a skin-tight Power Rangers suit. You walked through the door looking all Italian or Greek or whatever you are. You headed straight for the clothes line in the backyard and put your mouth around the plastic nipple of an aluminium wine sack while all your friends egged you on until you choked red failure down the front of your white toga costume. You looked a bit like our tomato soup stained rug, all grimy and stepped on. You fell into a bush while your friends took their turn suckling wine from a plastic nipple and whooping whenever someone fell blacked out on the grass. I walked over to the bush because I had nothing better to do. My friend had vacated the premises with the Power Ranger in her sporty little coupe.
You were curled up in the bush with your red-stained toga covering your face. You looked like a home-brand Dionysus with the eucalyptus wreath wrapped around your dark hair. I poked you with a stick to see if you were still alive. Some part of me hoped you weren’t so I wouldn’t have to make small talk with a drunk person, but you opened your eyes and saw me standing over you like a looming shadow. At that moment, I could have never imagined you as the guy who could reverse parallel park in the darkness. You pulled me into the bush and I could smell the tang of spoiled red wine on your breath. It was a wild moment, one of our most adventurous, as we started to kiss in the middle of this foreign backyard while people scrambled around us, drunk from cheap wine.
Your lips were chapped and dry, mine tasted like strawberry chapstick. I remember hooking my hands around your neck because I thought you were going to float away. Two kisses, several fucks against the wall, an argument about paint and a meeting with your parents later, we moved into our 1 bedroom flat in the row of yellow brick townhouses for two hundred dollars a week. I domesticated you from that drunkard in the bush to the obedient, cuffed jean wearing man crouched in front of the scramble of metal screws. If I put a leash and collar on you and walked you on all fours, you’d look no different to the fan-tailed golden retrievers jogging alongside their trim owners. You whimper as you accidentally pierce your knee with the allen key.
I prepare dinner in the hope that there will be a table to eat it on. Three legs are screwed on now. Your tongue wipes your bottom lip as you screw the born ben in a perfect movement, mirroring the precision of today’s reverse park. Raymond is still playing in the background. This time, Ray has gone on a fishing trip without telling his wife. He’s in the car with his buddies and woebegone brother who moans about not catching any trout. The scene cuts to his wife, Deb, preparing lemon chicken for her three small children, who clutch at the bottom of her jeans and scream for candy. Cue Marie and Frank barging through the door to tell her that they must move in temporarily because a squirrel got caught in their air-conditioning unit. Laughter track, theme music, another episode starts to play, but not before the same advertisement for vaginal yeast pops up on the screen, urging women walking their poodles not to ignore the signs of thrush.
I slice hard carrots on the chopping board, each more uneven than the last. Our next-door neighbour is outside on the balcony again; I can hear her gruff voice complaining about how her ex-husband has met a new and more exciting bottle-dyed blonde who works at the supermarket. I boil the carrots in water on the stove. The lumps of orange mass gurgle in the pot and I hear Raymond complain about his wife’s pepper steak in comparison to his mother’s. You start swearing as you’ve screwed something on backward. I get the grocery store crumbed schnitzels out of the fridge and fry them in an old pan, drowned in a pool of olive oil. The sun is still peaking from behind the clouds and the young toddler is drawing more flowers. His mother stands on her tiny mound of lawn in her dressing-gown, reading a magazine. The new couple in the flat next to her argue in a distinct and sharp foreign language while they put the milk cartons in the yellow recycling bin. The woman clutches at her husband’s red and brown polo shirt, pointing a nail into his belly. Did he get another woman pregnant? Was he pregnant? Or had he been eating too much KFC? I always see discarded red and white takeaway boxes overflowing from their bins. And I’d see him lick his fingers whenever he saw me leave to go to work in the mornings.
The schnitzels hiss in the pan and I flip them over as the carrots begin to soften. The störnas is assembled and you stare proudly at your handiwork. The black sheen and skinny bord bens supporting the smooth, flat face of four hundred dollars of wood is a dream come true. I can’t wait to eat our meals over the matching red plastic placemats every day. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, we can meet here and talk about the comings and goings of our day. We’ll be like the couples you see in the movies: Ray and Debra arguing over undercooked lemon chicken. You place your hand on the table and look at me as if we’ve just delivered our first child. It’s perfect in every single way.
I flip the schnitzels one more time before I plate them up with the carrots. You’re already sitting at the table on one of the recycled chairs we found at a thrift store. They match quite well despite their chipped black paint and uneven legs. You put a tea-towel underneath a chair that is particularly unbalanced and everything almost looks as good as new. The red placemats float against the black face you keep smoothing with your tired hands. We haven’t yet bought a tablecloth, but that all comes later. We’ll take it one step at a time until the flat has matching hand towels and toilet paper and framed pictures of our holidays nailed onto the walls. I place my hand over yours to validate your afternoon’s hard work. You look at me and smile with food all bunched up in your cheeks. I take small bites of my dinner and watch Raymond. Underneath the table, I can feel your knee moving up and down in a new act of freedom from the scalding plates. Now your mother could put at least ten casseroles on the table without feeling disgusted by the state of the kitchenette. We could lay our clean clothes on here when they’ve come out of a 3-hour wash. I think I’m going to put some flowers in the middle so the room always smells nice when we come home from work. You finish your dinner, scraping your plate into the bin and dumping it in the soapy water bubbling in the sink. Before an ad about washing powder starts flashing on the screen, you sink into the deep purple of the couch and begin to fall asleep. I dump my own plate in the sink and spray the table until I can’t see a speck of dust. I don’t think this whole cleaning business will last long, but for tonight, the novelty is something that’s quite thrilling. Being a house-proud working woman with new furniture makes me as excited as Raymond catching a big trout from the river. I wish you could snapshot this moment and we could keep it as a postcard forever. I sit next to you on the couch; your head’s stuck to your shoulder. In this episode, Raymond is arguing with his wife about having his friends over to watch the football. I slink into the folds of your body until I can feel the schnitzel crumbs that have fallen in amongst the cracks of your jacket. You snore softly as I clutch your bloated belly like a soft toy. Raymond has a secret party at his house while his wife is visiting his sister. His hangdog expression is even more pathetic amongst the mess of pizza boxes and beer cans flooding our screen. He turns to the screen and shrugs his shoulders. Another ad for vaginal thrush plays and I get up to wash the dishes. You stir and open your eyes to see me arranging the placemats around the table.
“Am I dreaming?” you say.
Your eyes droop closed as I attempt to scrub out tiny oil stains left by the schnitzels we ate for dinner.
“We have a dining table,” you mumble sleepily.
“We have a dining table.” And it seems as though with that statement, you’ve lost every inch of your former self that fell drunkenly into a bush wearing a toga.
“Goodnight,” I say, laughing as I set to work spraying harder than ever.
You’ve already fallen asleep.
Olivia De Zilva is an Honours student in Creative Writing at The University of Adelaide. Her work has been published by The Adelaide Review, The Adelaide Film Festival and HybridWorld Adelaide. She was awarded the university’s John Harvey Finlayson Prize for Creative Writing in 2018. Olivia currently co-runs the monthly-poetry series No Wave in Adelaide and released a chapbook of poetry called ‘wonderland’ earlier this year. Her work focuses on ideas of domesticity and how the mundane can be made into something beautiful.