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Published June 2023Become a subscriber
I spent a few years working in cafés after graduating from art school. I didn’t see what else I could do. The work kept me moving, I was fed, had nice coffees and beers and wines, and most of all I enjoyed the many faces constantly passing in front of my eyes. The conversations were mostly silly and forgettable, which I liked. All I had to do was to keep opening my mouth, to smile and to keep my feet moving. Everything was moving. Plates were flying, cups wobbling on saucers, knives splicing, forks lifting with vigour, spoons diving from heights. So for a while, I could afford to live in Melbourne and was distracted from the more violent and gloomy thoughts that started to creep around my heart.
One of these cafés was called Zaika’s, it was a local favourite. It was a bakery owned by an old Ukrainian woman. I liked her because whenever she spoke about something she would open her eyes wide, point her index finger upwards and come really close to your face, and in that moment, as she remembered excitedly a little salacious anecdote from her past, she seemed like a young woman. She loved her customers and couldn’t say no to anyone, she loved to please. The bread and the cakes baked there were very good. At midday she would take an olive loaf out of the oven, rip it open and dip bits in mayonnaise, telling stories as she chewed. She had a lot of life in her and had a sharp tongue, and occasionally her comments would reveal a ruthless streak common in business people.
What I really liked was looking at some little old lady or a crooked old gentleman squeezed in at a small table, as they cut open their generous slice of lemon tart, smothered a sweet spoonful in cream, and put it in their agape mouth, triggering waves of delight across their face.
We, the waitresses, loved talking about sex, whenever there was a lull. So last night he asked me to bite his, she’d lower her voice, dick, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I really respect him for being able to ask me that sort of thing, but it felt cruel. We’d tell her to do it. Or we’d discuss straightness and queerness. Some of the girls loved men, others didn’t. The owner didn’t like the waitresses to have boyfriends. She thought that young men were useless lovers. What she really didn’t like was when one of us would come into work sour, or better yet, in tears, because of some guy – that happened all the time. He just fucked off and left me to deal with the apartment totally on my own, and I hear he’s already seeing someone else, it’s so fucked up, one of us would explain. We’d hug her and let her take longer breaks and have glasses of wine throughout the shift. One waitress, who was older than all of us, had no illusions about men. You’d be best off if you expect nothing, she’d say with a heavy air. I loved listening to her sharp black-and-white thoughts. Now, I can hardly remember the feeling, but back then my own heart was often seized by some sadness connected with a man, or a lack of a man.
It was on a busy lunchtime that I first noticed her, standing in a line and waiting for a sandwich. I never found out what her name actually was but I think it was Natasha, well, she struck me as Natasha. Maybe it’s not very interesting but the reason I noticed her that day was because she was wearing this dress, very simple, very elegant. Elephant grey, it was a soft expensive material – a blend of linen and silk – which for me was a mark of exceptional taste. It was the sort of colour that you could rest your eyes on, let your worries and agitations glide over. Maybe it wasn’t only the colour and the fabric, but the way it wrapped her body, which was beautiful. The dress fell loosely off her shoulders, and picked her up at her waist, as though she was held by another’s effortless hand.
I noticed the dress first, but then I started looking at this Natasha. It is not often that I can say this about someone, but I felt sure that everyone would agree that she was beautiful. Okay, we know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but this woman was unarguably beautiful, I don’t know how else to put it. In her wonderful garment, lean like a gazelle, breasts shaped like perfect tear drops, small ankles, skin like an untouched forest. Not her hips, or shoulders, or ears, or her nose – nothing in her was grotesque. And yet she was not boring. She leaned against the wall, looking out into space, and I noticed that her big full lips were moving a little, murmuring something absentmindedly. It felt to me that she couldn’t be conceited or guarded, and that somehow her physicality expressed the inner logic of her being. She got her chicken sandwich, made some small joke and walked out of the café. She was really beautiful, I said to the other girls, yeah she really was, they confirmed.
Natasha kept coming in to get a sandwich a few times a week. I noticed that she had some flaws – for example her feet were quite large and she had a heavy walk, like a penguin – but it made me like her even more, just enough of a flaw to make her seem real. At first I was really eager to serve her, hoping that by having contact with her, I too would grow to be more beautiful, as though she were a rejuvenating spa. But after a while I grew tired. I wasn’t becoming more beautiful but was simply becoming more aware of my own self, and I let the other girls serve her. I had awkwardly shaped hips, little hands with short sausage fingers, mousy hair, average face, I was clumsy and my clothes were dirty and worn. I owned a few nice things but I rarely wore them because I was afraid of drawing attention to myself.
I loved the sorts of things Natasha wore, always simple, unpretentious and also unusual. She wore things that were flattering but didn’t over-emphasise her exceptional body. One day it’d be a large light blue shirt tucked into old-fashioned pants that hugged her hips like a wave, or a black velvet jumpsuit, or a long silk dress that tied around her torso, a high-waisted skirt with some small loose blue top or a satin silvery long-sleeve one; she’d throw on a linen scarf, she’d have silver rings on her neat fingers. Her long thick black hair fell off her head like a cliff dropping into an ocean. My favourite thing remained her elephant-coloured dress.
Through the regularity with which she came in, I knew she worked a full-time job – some kind of an office. There were various kinds of ‘nice’ offices that existed in the neighbourhood, creative studios with lots of natural light, plants and ping-pong tables. People in these offices seemed to me akin to princes and princesses in castles, clean and crisp. I didn’t know if Natasha liked her job, but she seemed happy when she came in to buy her lunch, and she must have had a decent wage to afford to buy lunch so often, as well as all her clothes. I liked that she ate sandwiches.
Sometimes she came in with a guy and they sat down for lunch together. He was extremely handsome and the girls immediately started flirting with him, but Natasha didn’t show jealous discomfort. I wasn’t enamoured with this guy, but I liked him. He too had a lean, attractive body and nice clothes, was funny and well-spoken and polite to us. Sometimes he would look at his phone for a little too long. Natasha would very lightly tap his wrist and he would smile and put his phone away.
One day I was walking around the streets. After work I often didn’t want to go home, where little would happen and where there was that thick grey carpet, my loud chatty housemates and their sad and lazy dog, and my tiny room with my laughable possessions. Instead I dragged out afternoons by walking around the neighbourhood, looking at shopfronts and galleries. By then my ambitions of becoming an artist had left me, but I didn’t lose an aesthetic appreciation. My own lack of talent and will didn’t prevent me from being able to feel joy at others’ gifts and abilities. So many pretty things were always on display. For example there was a craze about artistic ceramic objects, pastel-coloured, clunky and funny; somehow they made you feel closer to people. I wanted to pick up an object like that and hold it in my hands, but a fear would pervade me that I could break it and would have to pay for it, so I rarely did. In a gallery I’d see a smooth round white ball, or a piece of delicate see-through fabric stretched out and lit from one side, or lots of tiny photographs stuck onto a black wall in a neat order, or pieces of paper covered with writing spread out on the floor, or some kind of video flashing on a big screen, or a small screen, and sounds, hard and soft, coming from the ceiling or the walls. I’d smile and feel modest, pleasant emotions rise in my heart.
It was then that I found it – the dress. I turned into a street where I had never gone and saw a small clothing store. It was peaceful inside. The walls were dark and the shop was intimately lit, just enough to see the garments, but not enough to be horrified at the sight of oneself. The garments were few, swaying on the racks like melancholic birds. I saw it right away, Natasha’s dress. Incredibly, it was in the sale section, fifty per cent off. I couldn’t believe it. I flicked through the pieces: they had my size. Everything happened extremely fast. It was as though I was operating in a dream. I took the dress into the dressing room, made sure it fit me, paid for it, and practically flew home, carried by wings of must-have-been-fate.
In my room, I ripped off all my clothes and stared at my naked body in the mirror in the fading evening light. It didn’t seem terrible, my body, it was shapely. I put on the dress. I liked it on me, it was flattering and felt comfortable. I lay on my bed and closed my eyes, holding myself in my arms.
For a few moments, my head was completely empty, as though there was nothing in the world and I was floating in a blurry expanse. I thought of how I too was a penguin, in ice- cold water, swimming to some distant shore. Nothing, nothing, nothing – I, a small lone penguin. And then it came – in a turgid rush, unbearable, violent, horrible, horrible. What was it? Walls collapsing like cardboard, my bed dissolving, all the books and clothes and pots and pens and shoes and shelves in my room crumbling, disintegrating; where, who was willing this, where was I? What was this pain coming over me? Despair inside? Or outside? I clutched the sheets, I was sweating, I realised that the sheets were wet, I was weeping.
I saw Natasha: gigantic and powerful, like Athena, her colossal arms spread out, her fragile smile and her enormous lips, murmuring. She was moving towards me as though descending from the sky. I fucking hated her. I wanted to grip her in my hands and shake her, a dull doll that I never wanted to play with. I knew something: I had been unhappy but I hadn’t known despair, I had known bitterness but I had never known hatred. In an instant, I was changed. This female spectre was stifling me and I couldn’t breathe. I caught a fragment of my own face in the mirror – I was – beautiful? Disgustingly. A waxed green apple with no qualities. Gripping my face, I rocked backwards, falling, I forgot that I had a body at all. My eyes shut helplessly, salty hair stuck in my mouth, jaw tight like a shell of an oyster.
I fell asleep. And when I woke up, I had forgotten a part of myself forever. That really is possible, despite what they say.
Years passed. I never would have guessed that things would work out for me. I got a job, moved out on my own, met a man, etc., etc. I got all the things. Now I’m pleased with myself. After I bought the dress, I never saw Natasha again. Sometimes I still think of her – where is she now? It doesn’t matter. I wear that dress to parties, and people tell me I look beautiful.
I was afraid. I heard myself speak. I was speaking and listening, I was doing it fine, but the whole experience was unpleasant. I did not want to sound like that (coarse, vulgar, even my throat felt as though it was full of sand); I wanted to say something different, to lead us towards at least a single pure thought, or to be led there by this woman. Instead, we were circling around, repeating ourselves.
‘He was so manipulative, and it took me almost ten years to realise. It was an abusive relationship! Not physically, but emotionally – hard to pin down.’
‘He was manipulative, he was abusive,’ I echoed. I did not know this man, but yes, perhaps I did know.
‘He was manipulative, he was abusive, he…he made me feel…he ruined me for years, he made me feel – nothing but a vast emptiness. He made a rat out of me, he…I tried to ignore it, I hate to put blame on people; but one morning I woke up as though pinned to my bed by a cold iron on my chest, and I thought, every morning I wake up like this. And I just cannot believe that I let a man change me.’
‘Let’s go, let’s get out of here,’ I stood up and banged the empty beer glass against the wooden bench. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I lifted my arm like a captain and cut through a cloud of smoke that was perched above us. She lifted her big sad eyes, rose in steady motion as though lifted by a rope, and followed, her body limp and servile. As we squeezed through the groups standing by the bar, I saw men’s heads lift and many beady glistening eyes fix on us, like frogs watching out for flies. ‘Let’s go, let’s go,’ I mumbled.
Once we were out of there, Daisy covered her face with her hands and started rapidly talking in a monotone stream. The sky had a dirty shade of red at the bottom where it met the brick buildings, the air wasn’t fresh, yet it was still better to be outside than inside. Through Daisy’s hands I was catching sharp little fragments: ‘I never should’ve said anything, please don’t tell anyone, especially the sex stuff, he was a beautiful man, you know I didn’t mean any of it, you understand what love does to you.’ I put my arms around her shoulders and led us down the street, and in that moment I thought her stupid and weak, but I longed to love her and I knew that if I judged her I would make my own life unbearable for myself. A cab pulled by and we got in to be taken to the beach, and Daisy continued hiding her face in her hands. I spent whole minutes inspecting what I could glimpse of my face in the driver’s mirror. No matter how long I spent hoping to see my own face, I never could. We were both so absorbed in the course of our evening neither of us took note of who the driver was, but that’s what we paid for, a choice to discard even the most basic human decency.
We got to the beach. ‘Let’s swim,’ I said. Daisy didn’t want to swim, it was a cold night and we didn’t have our swimmers on, but I was unstoppable. Normally I hate swimming in the ocean, everything about it scares me deeply; but after a few drinks I dive in fearlessly, with abandon and hope. I took all my clothes off and plunged myself in, frolicking in the waves like an awkward fat salmon. Later on, I’d be proud of this. Daisy freed her face from her hands and sat on the shore, silently fingering the sand and doing her best not to weep. The cold water sobered me up, reminding me of my laughable situation. ‘Daisy! Daisy!’ I cried.
I didn’t see her the next day. She wasn’t really a friend. We saw each other maybe once a year, whenever she had trouble with men. She could never figure it out, she was often lonely. I was lonely too, but I’d been lonely for a long time. On the weekend she called me again, which was unusual, ‘What are you doing tonight?’ Nothing. ‘Nothing comes out of nothing, nothing adds up to a long nothing, doesn’t it,’ she said thoughtfully, and she also mentioned feeling stupid about the other night, talking and talking like that. I told her there was no need, I don’t judge her, though I said that mainly to appease her as of course I did judge her, as all sane persons judge each other daily, meticulously and without regret. She suggested we do something civilised, like watch a movie. Okay!
That evening at my house I put on an old noir film for her, it was called Laura, and in it a male detective investigating a murder of a beautiful, talented young woman, spends a day and night at her lavish apartment, smelling her clothes, reading her diaries and letters, and staring at her portrait, and he rapidly falls in love with her. The detective is hard and blank, and the absent woman is soft and blank, and the love that grows out of this blank collision is very strange, but entirely enviable. The apartment in the film is full of exceptional objects that fill the frame: little decorative bottles, a mosaic cigarette case, ancient vases, an attractive clock, lamps, curtains and paintings, and many more big and little things. ‘Life is not like this,’ suddenly said Daisy. ‘Days and hours stretch out and you wait for someone to love you, but where are you all that time? Ah men, all these men.’ I looked at her. She laughed. She was delicate and giraffe-like, with a long pale neck and waves of chestnut hair. Her lips were always an unnatural dark pink, as though she had just eaten a handful of raspberries, and her eyes were big like soup bowls, bowls that scooped up memories and feelings and stewed them. She had a strange voice, it had so many shades to it that it was impossible to remember; you couldn’t bring up her voice in your head. I admired her beauty and I wanted something like that. I didn’t think that I was beautiful, though it is hard to make that kind of judgement about oneself. She fell asleep on the left side of my bed, and as I was falling asleep on the right side, I imagined that her legs were my legs, that her lashes were my lashes, her ears my ears. In the morning she complimented me on the tastefulness of my apartment, and my humble approach to materialism; I would think about this comment in the years to come with much pleasure.
We saw each other two more times. The first time was when we went to the symphony and I fell asleep for ten minutes in the middle section of the performance, a fairly standard and boring rendering of some Schubert hits. ‘Drinks! Drinks!’ we were both excited about drinks at the intermission. Again, she talked of the legacy of her abusive relationship and we tried to solve it together, but we ended exactly at the point where we started, the previous time. These discussions are not about solutions, they are never solution-oriented; such discussions are in themselves poetic structures, with sinuous passageways that sometimes connect to lower and higher planes and sometimes turn back onto themselves, and in these discussions a participant must give in to the rhythms and the tones, therefore repeating certain statements over and over again (he was abusive, he was manipulative). The statements don’t mean anything. The discussions are pretzels, and one must console oneself with the pretzel’s soft curves.
The second time I saw her was at a party. We went there because Daisy knew that there would be several young men attending. I was in an irritable mood and hardly opened my mouth. Daisy lit up, because the truth is, she absolutely adored the company and attention of men. When there were men around, she liked looking at the men as she talked, and for a long time I didn’t like going out with her if I knew there’d be men present, I wanted to be with her on my own, until I came to expect it and started to enjoy looking at her, looking at the men. She made sure to tell her stories quickly, looking the men in the eyes, and they listened and smiled. She drank, she talked, she looked the men in the eyes, she returned many of the men’s smiles. ‘Goodbye,’ I squeezed her elbow, ‘have a nice night.’ ‘Goodbye darling.’ Daisy couldn’t hide her secret pleasure at being left alone amongst the men.
I thought about Daisy a lot, but not always with pleasure; I thought about her diligently, earnestly. I valued her immensely, but I didn’t trust her. I wanted to love her completely, but it’s hard to love someone you can’t trust. Maybe she was just being careful.
The last time I heard from her was when she called me some time later: ‘It’s going well,’ she said. ‘Before, I didn’t even know it was possible, it existed, such niceness. But it does! It does! I had cold feet at first, and he was so upset, that sweet man, but now… Now, things are going swimmingly. We both have our lives, you know. Very independent. That’s because I can really trust him. I could even have another lover, or let him have a lover – it’s that kind of relationship, we just trust each other. But we’ll see. How are you?’ I looked out the window of my room. The front garden was a sinister boxed space with weeds and grasses taking over the little designated area of soil. In those weeds and grasses there were snails, worms, slugs, caterpillars, bugs, I don’t know. I had many days stretch out in front of me, the days would soon fill with words, exposing the contours of passing time, and I would keep trying to remember my own face. ‘I’m pretty good,’ I said.
Alena Lodkina is a Russian-born Australian filmmaker. She directed and co-wrote her first feature film Strange Colours (2017), which debuted at Venice Film Festival. Petrol (2022), her second feature film as writer and director, premiered at Locarno Film Festival and later screened at the 52nd edition of New Directors/New Films presented by the Museum of […]Read more