The Space Between Stars
Grace Elizabeth Elkins (Deakin University, Australia)
It was eleven in the morning when my phone, rattling like a jackhammer against my purple Ikea table, was finally able rouse me from a strange, deep slumber. I had missed my class, a phone call from home, and my morning alarm – never snoozed or silenced – had rung intermittently for hours to no response.
It was spring. Warm mid-morning sun streamed in through the narrow gap in the curtains, bringing with it a temporary beauty to my shitty student studio. There was a wine glass with remnants of red wine clinging to a crack left on my bedside table. I gagged slightly at the taste of stale wine the air. I pushed myself up and was struck by a throbbing pain in my wrist. I cradled my wrist close to my chest and tried to think.
I sat on the edge of my bed. There was a quietness in the air. A quietness in my mind. Not in a peaceful, mindful sense, but as if the world was withholding something. As I moved through the motions of the morning, my body was heavy. My thoughts were tangled and sticky. Then I looked in the mirror.
I stood in cotton hipsters staring at my own reflection. I saw a body that I didn’t recognise, the outline of a hand that did not belong. I couldn’t imagine being in that body. I reached for my reflection, hoping to reconnect. Shades of red, violet, black and navy decorated my skin. Indigo patterns mapping a path of a story I did not know. I was marked. My arms, my breasts, my thighs.
I tried to remember.
I met Neighbour long before I lived in that building. I had rehearsals for a play An Ideal Husband, being put on by the university theatre company. He was a graduate student, older than us and when he laughed, he had the beginnings of crow’s feet in the corner of his eyes. He had a sharp silhouette and wore a brass ring on his thumb – etched with leaves. His hair was so uniformly neat that it sometimes looked like a drawing. I remember the curl of his words and how he swore in Russian that time he stubbed his toe.
Neighbour and I lived in studio apartments next door to each other for nine months. We were friendly at first, but it took time before I considered him to be an actual friend.
There was a party. A good party on a cold night. Bradley’s 21st. Icy wind bit at flushed cheeks. Inside the bar, the heat of bodies was like a kiln, each touch was fire. Dancing. Drinking. Two shots of tequila. A glass of $4 sparkling. Neighbour. In the shadow of intoxication, under coloured lights and caramel smoke, Neighbour looked good. We danced together for a while. His face was wide and squarish, his teeth glowed in the dark. His hands, large and slightly damp as they held my waist to his hips. No matter how the flicker of the lights tried to extract iridescence from his eyes, they remained solid.
We kissed briefly, because that’s what you do.
I pushed him gently away with a laugh.
Later, under the twinkling lights of the city, he drove us home.
I remember standing in his doorway. A glass of bottom shelf red in one hand, listening to the rumble of my kitchen kettle joining the hum of the corridor at night.
“A top up whilst you wait,” he said, filling my glass to the brim, “It’s better than tea.” His eyes were dark like the lake, they did not change when he smiled.
I finished my wine. I laughed. I said goodnight.
We laughed once, that we were friends born out of proximity. That if it weren’t for the random nature of university housing allocations, we never would have known each other.
I thought that I was so lucky to have known Neighbour.
It wasn’t instant. It took this one clusterfuck of an afternoon in which I spilled a mug of tea on my laptop, frying the circuit board and two major essays along with it, before we actually became friends. That day, there were a lot of tears. Neighbour must have heard them through the wall as later that night he knocked on the door with a bottle of sloe gin and the contact details of his mate – a certifiable computer repair genius. It was the catalyst we needed. After that, I would linger in his doorway whenever I didn’t want to study, and he would eat my leftovers when I’d made too much. Every now and then, he would join me and my friends for drinks on the balcony.
Nothing I remembered matched what I could see in my reflection. There was pressure building behind my eyes and I tried to blink it away, but it wouldn’t budge. It felt like I had fallen from a cliff, leaving my insides behind. My body – hollow – was accelerating towards the ground. I waited for the crash, for memory and pain to overwhelm me. But it didn’t come.
I remembered the night, from walking into the city until standing in my doorway about to go to sleep. This could not have happened, this – whatever this is – didn’t happen. I had a good night. I smiled, crookedly, at the girl in mirror. I needed to keep moving. From the pile of clothes on my desk chair I found a sports bra that held my tits close and almost flat and the largest sack of a t-shirt I owned. Hiding in plain sight.
I went to work. It was a hard shift, I couldn’t concentrate. I burnt my had twice on the espresso machine and made oat milk lattes with soy and served some poor professor a long black with a pump of blue heaven instead of a splash of vanilla. I walked into the corner of a table: pain from the collision was dull and deep as the corner dug into a bruise on my thigh. I pretended I was fine and apologised to the customer for messing up her latte art, smiling through the hurt, trying not to remember the shape of that bruise. The pain was enough to get me out of my own head, to remember how bruises usually form. Falling. Crashing. Colliding. Maybe I fell and stood up again? For a moment I let myself believe wholeheartedly that that was how the markings happened. I wasn’t some sort of victim, just a clumsy drunk. It was moment free from questions.
I hadn’t tried sloe gin before that night.
It is still probably my favourite drink.
But I just can’t stomach it anymore.
When I got home, I didn’t dare look in the mirror. I didn’t want to see the shapes that were left. Where they were left. I sat on the floor of my shower, knees to my chest, there I cried. The sound of water pattering down on the tiled flooring and my bare shoulders provided shelter; no one could hear me. He could not hear me. I rested my forehead against the jutting out bones of my knees, balanced precariously on a clifftop. I closed my eyes and hoped to disappear completely. As the water began to pool around my feet, I listened to the voices reverberating within my skull. How could you? How could he? It’s fine. It’s fucked. Kill him. You brought this on yourself. Some voices began with their pragmatic lists and morphed into something sinister, some were angry, others laced with grief. I listened to their scolding and gently pressed a thumb into the discolouration on my thigh.
The suede bucket seats of the university housing office held me snug as my legs jittered and my stomach churned. For the past ten days I had been working my way through my list. It was a list of things I needed to do to make this all go away. Pharmacy, check. Notes on physical condition, check. Avoid all common areas, check. Since that morning, the nightmares hadn’t stopped, it didn’t seem to matter if I was awake or asleep, I could still feel this sickening shadow. But I didn’t know anything for sure. I had no memory.
The table in the centre of the room was a regal wood, one that feigned significance and intelligence. Oak? No, something darker. Mahogany? Open collar, dark grey suit pants the dean was visibly uncomfortable. It felt like he was standing far away. He paced around the room, leaning against furniture at a steep angle before quickly springing back up. It was like a choreographed routine on how to appear casual when not. I felt bad for the awkwardness of the conversation. The Dean was notorious for knowing stories no-one meant him to. Rumours had begun to spread, it seemed unlikely he hadn’t heard about my behaviour. Even so, our conversation danced around the room, it twirled with the stress of looming assignment deadlines and my plans for the next year. I told him I wanted to quit, and that’s when the conversation stopped dancing and fell to the floor. The Dean moved to sit in the armchair across from me, he hesitated before sitting decisively and reaching for my avoidant gaze.
‘I… I can’t really do this here anymore. Everything is falling apart.’
‘Has there been a trigger, an event that has made things more challenging for you?’
‘Something happened, I think. But I–’
‘Are you wanting to make a complaint?’ The Dean’s shoulders pulled back. He braced his elbows on his knees, hands clasped, bracing himself for impactful listening.
‘N-no. It’s just that lately, I’ve been afraid to be in my room. Or out of my room, or asleep.’
‘I don’t know.’ It was a pathetic answer, how could I be so pained by something I don’t even know. But I had rehearsed, I had my list and I knew what I had to ask. ‘I just… I need a new room.’
There was no need to fuck around with unanswerable questions, or to try and prove something that could never really be certain. I just needed to be away. To have a space where I could stare into the yellowing galaxies imprinted into my skin and scream. The Dean could give me a room. I knew there were spares; he could give me air.
Two flights of stairs were enough. At least, for a while. I moved at night and in the early hours of the morning. As I packed, it was no longer clear whether the voices I heard were the chorus of friends, counsellors and university staff or my own mind taking on their echo.
‘He really was a good guy,’ they said.
‘You had a crush on this guy for how long, something finally happened, and you ran away?’ they said.
‘You did kiss him, maybe you actually wanted it,’ they said.
‘You were drunk; you did something dumb. It’s not a big deal,’ they said.
‘You must have led him on, probably couldn’t help himself. Poor dude, getting punished for it,’ they said.
‘Prove it,’ they said.
I had trusted my instincts just enough to know I needed to get away. But what if I was wrong? I didn’t know enough to be sure. How could I deny the voices their power?
When Neighbour waved at me from the bike racks, it was cordial, neighbourly. We lived in studio apartments next door to each other for nine months. We shared small talk about assignments and mundane chit chat. I wanted so badly to be as exciting and as European as Neighbour. I wanted so badly for him to like me too.
My new studio apartment had no fairy lights. One time, I had guests for dinner. We toasted to new beginnings, but when they left there was a void that ached behind my chest. I drank the rest of the wine, lying on the floor. The ceiling light flickered with office-issue fluorescence, its harsh hue casting unfriendly shadows on corners of my mind. I wondered what Neighbour was doing upstairs. Whether he was drinking gin with the girl next door, whether his presentation went well, if he even knew what he had done.
When Neighbour waved at me from the bike racks, I felt my skin grow tender. See, the bruises never actually fade. They simply seep through your layers. They become part of you.
Grace Elizabeth Elkins is a writer and teacher, living and working on Boonwurrung Country. Fascinated by the resonating impact of the small moments in our lives, Grace writes truth-adjacent fiction with a poetic bend. She is currently undertaking her MA in Creative Writing and Literature at Deakin University and is working on her first novel.