Ashley Kalagian Blunt (Macquarie University, Australia)
Fragmented, chopped up women, breasts exposed, eyes askew, faces mutilated, some past recognition, in harsh, sometimes garish colour … and yet too often their misplaced mouths hinted at a smile, as if they approved.
Anne regretted coming to the exhibition but the thought of being at home made her shoulders tense, her jaw clench. She’d thought the gallery might be soothing, but a chattering crowd had come to worship Picasso. Someone – in cherry-red stiletto boots, as if this were a bloody catwalk – had jostled her, just a nudge, really. Anne assumed she didn’t merit an apology because, in her ballet flats and saggy grey cardigan-dress, without even a dusting of concealer over her splotched face, she was invisible.
‘There you are – come here, what do you reckon about this?’
Kaori turned to lead Anne through the little clusters of chatting patrons, her straight black bob bouncing with her stride. She’d lived the same three and a half decades as Anne, but had come through them more youthful, buoyant even. She wore turquoise cockatoo brooches and tops that showed off the waratah tattooed over her collarbone and surely had more problems than just the hopeless men she met online. She steered Anne to the boxed text accompanying Head of a Woman.
‘Women are machines for suffering.’ Picasso’s comment to a mistress, one of perhaps hundreds.
Anne had assumed Kaori would explain the finer details – she was the artist, she’d suggested the outing. But Kaori was more interested in the write-ups than the visiting works.
‘So what are men then? The machinists?’ Kaori’s laugh came out as a huff. ‘If two of your partners went mad and another two killed themselves, you have to think that maybe you had something to do with it.’
Anne reminded herself that a fake smile produced the same hormones as a real one – she’d read that on a health blog. But she felt as though her facial muscles had suffered partial paralysis. The past and future stormed her thoughts.
The future: inevitable, loveless, in which she scrubbed shit-flecked toilets in the houses of women who wore cherry-red stiletto boots and lived alone in a low-income unit with a wilted aspidistra.
The too-fresh past: an undercurrent of violence. When that afternoon’s shouting had become ineffectual and her rage had thrust her towards Marcus, she’d managed to rein it in enough to keep her hands off him, to avoid shoving him against the wall. She lunged for his stupid baseball cap instead, intending to express herself by hurling it on the floor. He flinched, his hands blocking her. She rocked back on her heels. That was when he held up a fist as if aiming for her jaw. That was new, the reciprocity. After 14 years, her black temper was eroding the natural calm that Marcus exuded like pheromones.
Maybe we’re always at risk of destroying what we care about most.
She was already late to meet Kaori. She’d kicked at the shoes sitting by the door on her way out, scattering them. But she was calm enough not to slam the door, thinking of the neighbours, and calm enough to say an automatic though hollow thanks when someone stepped out of her way on the station platform. Was this also a mid-thirties symptom – the passion was seeping out of her rages even as her aggression built? Ten years ago, she would have sat down on the Central Station steps and wept.
Kaori had turned her frown from Picasso to Anne. ‘Are you okay? You seem… off.’
What could she say? Don’t ask? That was always an invitation to ask. Anne felt it less and less appropriate to share her inner thoughts – yet another gap widening between her twenties and her thirties.
‘Fine, yeah, it’s just the – this loan I’m after, the paperwork is a bit … bureaucratic.’
Lucky in love – in not marrying a faithless, egomaniacal Picasso; unlucky in everything else, including four previous business ventures. Cactus bouquets, interior landscape design, bookcase gardens. She wasn’t short on ideas.
Thanks to Marcus’s job, it didn’t matter if Anne ever succeeded at anything – as long as he didn’t follow through on today’s threat to throw her out. She’d long suspected it would come to this. His brain ran on tax codes, audit paperwork, profit margins. A different universe. Still, hearing the threat was like receiving a cancer diagnosis.
Kaori took her at her word – it was that kind of friendship. With a sympathetic eye roll, her attention flitted to Jacqueline Rocque. Anne followed her gaze: royal blue canvas, a crimped neck like a giraffe’s, Jacqueline’s face warped into horse-like features. Anne, before: I should understand why he’s famous. Now: the content mars the talent. But what had Jacqueline thought? Picasso’s attention was a form of passion she’d never know.
She wondered about the man who did Picasso’s taxes, pictured him in white button shirts with yellowing collars, one tie for each day of the week. His favourite brand of pen was practical, economical. He liked minestrone soup.
Anne’s pocket had yet to vibrate with any word. She didn’t want an apology even – just some indication that Marcus cared if they ever spoke again. She’d managed all the convoluted application forms herself except the damn budget. He hadn’t listened, just started sticking in figures before she could explain herself. The gap between failed explanations and assumptions was a hair trigger.
When Kaori squeezed her goodnight on the gallery steps – ‘and good luck with the paperwork, love!’ – Anne returned inside to slouch on a lowered toilet lid, passing time.
At 10:53, she edged the door open, expecting – hoping – to step into darkness. Instead, Marcus sat at the table, illuminated by his laptop.
‘Hi.’ His face was dark, his shoulders rounded, but his voice carried itself light, almost casual.
She turned to drop her bag, recalibrating. She wanted Marcus to reach out to her, to acknowledge that they both had to work on things. Relationships didn’t stay a course; they got better or worse, and better only with effort.
‘Guess what? I finished the budget.’ In a normal voice, as though everything had always been fine. Maybe he was a better actor than her. Maybe not.
‘You finished it?’ She’d left screaming at him to just forget she’d ever asked for help.
‘Well, I built a model, so you can put in your numbers and work out what’s best. See, here are your expenses …’
The scattered shoes sat in their pairs along the entrance mat. She stood beside him as he navigated the spreadsheet. He’d colour-coded it, added explanatory notes so she could do the sums herself.
‘I’m not quite done. I’ll finish it off and come to bed.’ He returned to the screen.
In the bathroom, she soaked a cloth in cold water and pressed it to her eyes. A sigh rippled through her like a shudder. That was it then. That was what she got, a spreadsheet. It was who he’d become as he headed toward middle-age: a man of spreadsheets. He hadn’t called or texted, he hadn’t apologised. But he had tidied the shoes, relegated the tremor to the past, then spent the evening reviewing pages of government financial criteria to build a spreadsheet.
Marcus was never going to call just to hear her voice. But if she could accept this spreadsheet in the spirit it was offered …
Ashley Kalagian Blunt is a writer and stand-up comedian. Her work has appeared in Griffith Review, Kill Your Darlings and Right Now. In 2015, she received a Varuna Fellowship for her travel memoir of Armenia. She’s currently completing a Master of Research in creative writing at Macquarie University.