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Published April 2022Become a subscriber
Winner: PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers 2023
Phil and I have a make-believe housemate – we call him Allen. Allen is a real jerk. Allen never cleans the bathroom, leaves the fan on when no one’s home, and only half-empties the dishwasher. Allen lets the laundry stay out on the line for so long that all our jeans are sun-faded, and he alone is responsible for the murder of our beloved houseplant, Fernie Sanders. He never vacuums. He never takes the dog for a walk. ‘Fucking Allen,’ we say, when we wake up with hangovers and the kitchen counter is splotched yellow with turmeric stains. ‘Fucking typical.’ Allen hides Phil’s shaving cream the morning before his job interview at The Orchard, a boutique advertising agency. ‘Allen!’ Phil yells at the bathroom mirror. ‘Allen, you bastard! Get your own bloody shaving cream!’ In the end he uses mine and he leaves the house smelling of coconut, but he gets the job. On the weekend we go out for cocktails and enumerate Allen’s flaws.
‘Allen’s from Vaucluse and he grew up with a maid. That’s why he doesn’t know how to do the ironing.’
‘Allen went to an all boys’ college and misses the days he used to shave off people’s eyebrows.’
‘Hmm,’ I say. ‘I think Allen’s more sensitive than that. Allen did hazing in college, but now he says he’s reformed. He’s a Sensitive New Age Guy. But he’s still afraid of women’s periods.’
‘Right. He’s scared of female bosses and bisexual men.’
‘Jesus. Grow up, Allen.’
‘Allen tells people he read The Game “ironically”.’
‘Allen’s Tinder profile is a quote from David Foster Wallace.’
‘I bet he hasn’t even made the bed. Fucking Allen.’
And sure enough, when we get home, gin-drunk and already regretting our Saturday brunch commitment, the bedsheets are tangled and the pillows are slumped in distant corners of the room, like victims from a bomb blast. Our dog, Archimedes, is huddled under the sheet clump and seems surprised to see us.
‘Meedy!’ Phil says. ‘You know better! Off, come on, off!’
‘Actually,’ I say, coming back to the bedroom with two glasses of water. ‘I actually think it is your turn to do the dishes. Will you do them tomorrow?’
‘For you, Liz? Anything.’ He grabs me and kisses me and water sloshes onto the floor and a little bit onto the dog. I put the glasses on the bedside and fumble with his zipper and we roll into bed, struggling out of our clothes. I bite his neck and he yelps.
‘Be quiet,’ I say in his ear. ‘You’ll wake Allen.’
In the morning we lay in bed and groan for an hour. ‘Get me a Berocca,’ I say.
‘Get it yourself,’ says Phil. ‘Can I have some water? Where’s that glass?’
‘Where’s my water?’ I say. ‘You stole them both!’
The two glasses are still filled up and sitting in the sink.
‘You must have been sleepwalk-cleaning,’ I say, although the rest of the house shows no evidence of this.
‘Creepy move, Allen!’ Phil says to the ceiling.
This is the day the spoons go missing. We don’t notice it, at first. We drink bloody marys at brunch with Phil’s theatre friends, and when we get home Phil takes a three-hour nap and I lie on the couch with Archimedes for TV1’s Nineties Nostalgia Fest, catching half of She’s All That and the entirety of The Truth About Cats & Dogs. I get up to make myself some green tea with honey. There are no spoons, not in the dishwasher or the dish rack, none hidden under the risotto-encrusted pan soaking in the sink. I stack the dishwasher, slowly. No teaspoons, dessert spoons, soup spoons, zero.
‘Phil!’ I yell. ‘Do we own spoons?’
We are adults, I mean legally. We’ve been out of university for a year and both of us have landed full-time jobs: he in digital, me in copywriting, which is another way of saying we both work in advertising. We have money and independence and a chore roster marked out on a whiteboard that we both routinely ignore. And we throw dinner parties. We definitely own, or owned, at least for some period of time, multiple spoons.
‘I’m asleep!’ Phil shouts back.
We carry on with life, sans spoons. I keep meaning to go to Big W and forgetting about it, and then Phil starts stealing cutlery incrementally from the kitchen at his work, and we decide we don’t actually need more than four spoons, total.
Friday night drinks at The Tipple are now a regular fixture. It’s exciting to have real jobs to complain about and enough money to drink pinot gris past happy hour. We get there before the rush and secure two swivel seats at the front window so we can stare out onto the footpath at all the people with silk blouses and mortgages and opinions about the economy. ‘Do you think we could pass for them?’ Phil says dreamily.
He clinks his glass to mine. ‘Allen,’ he says, ‘is a wine snob.’
‘Allen thinks Japanese whiskeys are overrated. But only because he read it in a men’s magazine.’
We reflect. My pencil skirt is slippery on the bar stool and the sky is doing that red-gold Sydney sunset. I feel like I’m melting, but slowly and pleasantly. Phil takes a noisy wine gulp.
‘Allen self-describes as “an audiophile”.’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘And he has the complete discography of The National memorised.’
‘Wait!’ says Phil, laughing. ‘What’s wrong with The National?’
‘You know,’ I say. ‘You know. That The National sounds like, umm, a Catholic school boy discovering atheism? Like…pretending not to cry during Robin Williams’ speech in Good Will Hunting?’
‘I liked Good Will Hunting!’
‘But you know what I mean? How The National sounds like awareness-raising for the stats on male suicide?’ I pause. ‘Too far?’
‘No, I hear it.’ Phil swirls his wine, all moody resignation. ‘The National sounds like a Polaroid of your pilgrimage to Hemingway’s cabin.’
This is why I love Phil.
‘But I do still like The National.’
‘That’s okay,’ I tell him. ‘You’re bisexual. It’s not the same.’
October is ending. We want to throw a party that is sort of a Halloween party but is mostly a party for no reason, and so we hose down the plastic lawn chairs and make rice paper rolls and buy two boxes of Banrock wine: goon, but fancy goon. Phil and I go as Thelma and Louise, but our friends assume we’re cowboys. Everyone turns up late, dumping their bags on the bed in the spare room. Archimedes is chill but he begs for party pies and then throws up in a potted peace lily.
‘Can’t wait till Allen moves out,’ Phil says dramatically.
‘Who’s Allen?’ say four people.
We explain. Allen’s kind of a slimeball. He describes himself as ‘a gentleman’. He thinks all his exes are psycho.
‘But is he good in bed?’ asks Jolene, who is dressed as Ginger Spice.
‘He’s afraid of cunnilingus. But his family is rich. He has an excellent credit score.’
‘Does he have a type?’
‘Girls who wear feathered headdresses to music festivals.’
‘I think he’s my boss,’ says Richelle, who ‘works in sales’ for Billabong, which I recently realised is different to working in retail. ‘Does he talk about business getting “actualised”? But he also talks about the time he got “enlightened” on ayahuasca?’
Phil finds this very funny. ‘Actually,’ he says. ‘In that case, I work with a floor full of Allens.’
‘Jesus,’ says Jolene. ‘Keep me on the dole.’ But later in the night she says she got offered a bit part on Neighbours, so it’s hard to feel sorry for her.
In the morning there’s a scattering of bodies on the sofas, the spare bed. I collect glasses and dead bottles in a fugue state while Jolene makes coffee. We discover the dishwasher is broken and do the cups by hand. Phil emerges at noon, looking like his eyes have been sewn shut.
‘I forgot to tell you,’ I say. ‘Allen told me you were going to vacuum the floors tomorrow. On account of how my parents are coming to stay next weekend and on account of how I did them last month.’
There’s a fraction of a second where Phil’s face gets all closed-off and contrarian. But he catches himself. ‘I wish I knew when Allen was going to reach adulthood, you know?’
In the afternoon, when everyone is gone, we smoke the rest of a joint that Jolene left on the windowsill, which softens the hangover and has the effect of making our clean apartment seem miraculous and beautiful. I take a shower and Phil sits in the empty bath to keep me company, but my brain fogs over and I can’t keep the thread of our conversation, and when I tune back in Phil is singing a made-up song.
‘I need to be different,’ I tell Phil, tearful, as he folds me into bed.
‘What?’ he says. He touches my forehead, like I’m feverish. ‘What do you need?’
All I know is there’s a terrible wrongness sitting on my chest, mute and heavy like a stubborn cat. This happens sometimes. When I was in high school I would feel it the night before exams, as though the test had already happened and I was sitting with the uncorrectable idiocy of my mistakes, and nothing, not even doing the test, would set things right. It feels like having a spyglass that looks directly into the moment of my death, and the me that is still me is trapped in a terrible puckered face with bad-smelling dentures and I know I have frittered away my entire life. But I can’t say that. Instead I say, ‘My hair is still wet.’ Phil doesn’t catch this.
‘Other people need to be different,’ he says. ‘Not us.’
A week goes by. Mondays are awful in the world of adult jobs, but so are Tuesdays, and also the other days. We drink wine and watch Netflix when we eat dinner, and we try not to annoy each other about the dishes, and somehow things stay clean enough. But on Thursday Archimedes goes missing. I am inconsolable. We stand on the road in the early evening and yell down street alleys.
‘Meedy! Sir Archimedes Snufflepaw! Come home and we’ll feed you peanut butter every day! Meedy!’
Phil walks me home with his arm around me. I chew a hangnail with Terminator-focus.
‘He’ll turn up,’ says Phil. ‘He’s a collie. They’re the cleverest kind.’
‘And the bravest,’ I say.
‘Yeah. Meedy’s real brave and smart. I bet he had to go save someone, you know? Or solve a crime. He’s way more competent than we are. He’s probably busting up a drug smuggling ring as we speak.’
My parents turn up with their suitcases that evening. My mother strokes my hair while I lay on the sofa. ‘Did you leave the back gate open?’ she asks, both sympathetically and unhelpfully.
Phil walks into the room holding a teapot. The carpet is very clean. ‘We’re blaming Allen,’ he says.
‘Who’s Allen?’ says Dad.
‘Our dropkick housemate,’ says Phil, glancing at me. I shoot him my dagger-eyes. I don’t want to play Allen. I just want my dog back.
‘Here,’ says Mum. ‘I’ll rustle up some food for us. We’ll call the shelter in the morning.’
But Archimedes is not at the shelter. Phil draws up a classy-looking MISSING poster in Illustrator and prints off a ream at work the next day, and in the evening my mother and I wander round the neighbourhood, stapling Meedy’s sweet face to telegraph poles. Mum pats me periodically, like I’m the dog. I aim for a brisk, no-nonsense smile, but my eyes keep watering. ‘He’ll turn up,’ says Mum. She gives me a long look. ‘You know there’s always a space for you back home, don’t you, if things don’t work out here?’
‘I thought you liked Phil!’ I say.
‘We do, we do. We just…’ She trails off, staring up at a pair of sneakers strung over a power line. ‘We worry sometimes.’
‘We’re doing fine for ourselves,’ I say. She frowns at my tone. ‘My job’s fine. Phil’s job is very stable and the management is actually very chill. He’s really committed. Last week we bought a Nutribullet.’
‘Sometimes kids move out of home for a few years,’ she says, carefully. ‘And then, for whatever reasons, they need to move back for a period of time. And that’s okay. I just want you to know you’re always welcome back home.’
I punch the stapler to a telegraph pole with both hands. ‘Christ, Mum.’
The weekend is meant to be Quality Family Time. My parents came all the way from Adelaide. We go to yum cha, the Opera House. I keep thinking about Meedy throwing up party pies and how I never followed through on my promise to take him to the dog park. Sunday night I am making in-person enquiries at the local shelters when really I should be driving Mum and Dad to the airport, and Phil has an improv thing so he won’t be back till nine. Mum tells me not to worry, they’ll manage. She leaves me at Paws For Thought Animal Home and goes to meet Dad back at the house and collect their luggage.
‘Let me know, alright, sweetie? When he turns up?’
When I get home it’s ten p.m. and the lights are off. The National’s ‘Don’t Swallow the Cap’ is blaring through the Bluetooth speaker. ‘Phil?’ I say. I switch the lights on and the speaker off. The place is empty, but the dishwasher makes a little ‘ta-da’ noise like it has a surprise for me, and it does, it’s working. I tug it open and steam billows out, the dishes pristine. Dad must have fixed it. Actually the whole place looks much cleaner. I imagine my mother scrambling to pack her suitcase and vacuum at the same time and I can’t decide who I’m more pissed at: Mum, or Phil, or myself. In the corner of the bedroom, the dog bed has been shaken clean of fur. I run a bath and practise holding my breath for as long as I can, peering up through the floating black curtain of my hair.
On Flexi Friday, cutting through Hyde Park after work, I see Archimedes on a stranger’s leash. He’s distinctive, for a border collie: dusty brown patches instead of black, pale-blue eyes. ‘Archimedes!’ I shout.
Meedy looks up, barks happily.
‘Hey!’ I yell at the stranger, lengthening my stride. He’s at least a hundred feet away, heading for the edge of the park. There’s a fountain and then some trees between us. It’s a warm spring day and several people turn to look at me, even people with earphones. ‘Hey, dognapper!’ My heels sink into the grass and I kick them off. ‘Hey! Dog thief! Stop that guy!’
The stranger cocks his head like someone is calling him from the opposite direction. He steps onto the footpath and turns onto Elizabeth Street.
I run through the park calling, ‘Meedy! Meedy!’ I can see the back of this guy’s head, his dumb grey baker-boy cap disappearing into a wave of pedestrians crossing the street. I weave through the trees. By the time I reach the park’s stone gate, they’re gone.
‘You alright, miss?’ A cop in a fluoro vest and bicycle helmet is right there, lounging against the gate. He looks ridiculous, the way cops on bikes do.
‘That guy, who just left? He stole my dog!’
I explain the situation, still panting. I can’t describe the guy: a white male in a baker’s cap. I spend a while describing what I mean by ‘baker’s cap’. I never saw his face.
‘Did other people in the park witness the incident?’
The cop speaks loudly, like I’m elderly or deaf. ‘The gentleman stole your dog.’
‘No – oh, that was a week ago. He didn’t steal it from me just now. He went up that street.’
‘So you saw a man you didn’t recognise walking a dog that looked like your dog.’
‘If you go now, I bet you could still reach him on your bike.’
The cop regards me coldly. ‘Don’t have my bike with me just now, I’m afraid.’
I stare up at his helmet. He stares down at my stockinged feet. I stalk off without another word. My shoes are where I left them, tipped over in the grass like two blackout drunks.
Phil finds me at home, face-down on the bed. I relay the story numbly. ‘But you’re sure it was Meedy?’
‘I think I’d recognise my own son.’
‘You’re cute,’ he says.
I flop onto my back. ‘He looked happy, too. He looked like he was having a really nice walk. He didn’t need us.’ My phone rings. ‘Will you get that? I’m not done here.’
‘Hello?’ Phil passes the phone to me, mouths, ‘It’s your mum.’
‘You alright, sweetie?’ she says. Her voice is too high and sweet. I feel like a toddler.
‘You find Archimedes?’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘He’s doing great.’
‘Oh, thank goodness. Well, I was just calling to give you my love, and to say we loved seeing you and Phil, and we’re very proud of you, okay?’
‘And please pass on our thanks to Allen for letting us stay in his room. It was very neat. We were a bit flustered, heading out, so we didn’t quite catch him. I hope he wasn’t offended.’
I sit up. ‘Allen?’
‘We thought that must have been him in the shower when we left. I heard the water running.’
‘Mum, you slept in the spare room. Phil was joking about having a housemate. It’s just us two.’
There’s a long pause on the other end of the line. Phil is giving me question mark eyebrows. I can hear Dad’s gruff voice in the background. ‘Must have been Phil home early,’ he says.
‘Was Phil home early?’ asks Mum.
I cover the phone. ‘Did you swing home Sunday evening, before Mum and Dad left?’ Phil squints.
‘Are you okay, Liz?’ Mum sounds breathless. ‘What’s happening?’
‘Yeah, Mum,’ I say, uncovering the speaker. ‘It was just Phil, home early. He didn’t realise you guys were still here. Glad you got back safe.’
I hang up.
‘You alright?’ asks Phil.
‘You weren’t home early,’ I say. I stand and crack the bedroom blinds, stare out.
‘Sunday night. Someone broke into our place. Took a shower.’
‘Hold up,’ says Phil. He reaches out his arm, brings me back to the bed. ‘Slow down.’
‘You got home after I did,’ I say. ‘You went out for drinks after improv. You said the new member was so unfunny you were signing up for memory-editing.’
‘Are you sure that was Sunday?’ He squints. It’s like he’s trying to solve a terrible maths problem. ‘Can’t have been Sunday.’
He snaps his fingers. ‘Jolene. You gave Jolene a spare key.’
‘So she broke in and took a shower without telling either of us?’
We sit there, holding our elbows. The evening’s still bright. Somehow all the bedroom furniture looks too shiny, like props made for a TV show.
‘It must have been me,’ says Phil. But he looks baffled.
‘Let’s get out of here,’ I say. ‘Let’s go get drunk.’
We go to The Clare, where one of Phil’s workmates has a DJ set. The place is packed with advertising bros. I can almost see the coke wafting from the speakers. I down two gin and tonics and find Melinda, Brian’s wife, who explains she has a baggie in her bra, so we go to a stall together and use the lid of the toilet and my expired Dendy Film membership card. I secretly despise Melinda but she is tolerable once we’re on coke. Together we watch the guys play pool but it is too slow, we go upstairs to dance but the music is too weird, we go back to the ladies’ for another round and the tiles are slick fluorescent white. I befriend a butch woman named Samia at the bathroom sink and start explaining the plot of The Truth About Cats & Dogsto her.
‘You just have to pretend, or like, in the world of the narrative, I guess, we have to take it for granted that Janeane Garofalo is fugly and undesirable because she’s short, but it’s a massive imaginative leap to make, you know? And you have to pretend that Uma Thurman is conventionally attractive.’
‘The chick from Pulp Fiction? She’s hot.’
‘But she’s hot like an alien is hot, you know? She’s like a sexy alien?’
‘I took some molly, what about you?’
‘Coke, do you want some? Hey, Melinda, are you taking a shit or what?’
‘I’m good,’ says Samia. ‘Don’t worry about it.’
‘She’s not even here. God. I’ve been abandoned again. Samia, I feel like we have a real connection. Fuck. I have to find Phil.’ My heart’s banging in my throat. ‘You know someone stole my dog?’
‘Who?’ Samia chews her lip. Her eyelashes are so long.
‘A guy named Allen stole my dog!’ I grab my purse. ‘I have to go find Phil!’
It’s all smoke and darkness and pink and orange lights on the dance floor. Phil’s jumping and ducking with Brian. I grab his hand. ‘I need air!’
On the patio Phil bums a cigarette from a leggy drag queen. ‘Do you think Brian’s queer?’
‘I don’t have time for this!’ I say. ‘I have to ask Mum about Allen!’
‘Nope, no, no, bad plan.’ Phil twists the phone out of my grip. ‘Your make-up is everywhere, Liz, you look like a raccoon. Hey, hey come back!’
He follows me down the fire-escape stairs. I hail a cab and we clamber into the backseat. Phil tries to hug me but his t-shirt is soaked through with sweat and I push him away.
‘You okay?’ His eyes are huge.
‘Meedy left us.’ I can’t explain it, but I can feel it, I know it’s true. I’m suspended between oracular calm and a rage I can’t name. ‘He left us for another life.’
‘Liz,’ says Phil, but he breaks off, chews his lip. I check to see if I can keep my hand level. The city gushes through the windows and then we slow, we are home.
Inside, Phil locks the door behind us. It’s too quiet.
‘I can hear the fridge humming,’ whispers Phil.
‘Why are you whispering?’ I whisper back.
‘I feel like there’s someone here,’ he says, in a normal voice. ‘Hello? Is anyone in here?’
‘Jesus!’ I clamp my hands over his mouth. He giggles.
‘I’m kidding, I’m kidding.’
The darkness is cloth-thick. Anyone could be here, a whole crowd of people waiting behind the sofas to jump out and say SURPRISE. It is 2.30 a.m. ‘Come with me,’ I say softly. ‘To turn the lights on.’
Phil finds the hall light, then the bedroom, leaning into the room but still holding my hand, same for the spare bedroom. We check behind the couches. ‘I’m fine,’ I say to the fridge. ‘I’m fine, I’m paranoid, I’m fine.’ We sit at the tiny half-table in the kitchen with a glass of water each. Phil raises his to eye level and looks through it.
‘I’m not Allen,’ he says. ‘You know that, right?’
I can only stare at him. His eye is big and wobbly through the glass.
‘What are we talking about right now?’ I say. ‘Have you been playing pranks on me?’
His puts the glass down and then he laughs. ‘Oh, god,’ he says. ‘No. Liz, of course not.’
My shoulders feel like they’re trying to hug my ears. Phil folds his arms on the table and plants his forehead between them.
‘It was me,’ he mumbles into the table. It takes me a minute to hear him. ‘I left the gate open. That Thursday when I left for work. That’s how Meedy escaped.’
‘It’s your fault?’
I push my chair back. The air is too bright and the glass of the windows is so dark. It’s like being inside a lightbulb. ‘I need to shower,’ I say.
‘Liz,’ he says. ‘Liz, I’m so sorry, please forgive me.’
The bathroom is cool and dark and quiet. I shower with the lights off and sit on the tiled floor and fume. The sobs take me over suddenly, like I’m in shock, but I’m not in shock. Meedy is gone and it is Phil’s fault, and this is awful, but I am not surprised, and this is a second awfulness, how not surprised I am. Relationships have costs, Mum says, and you have to decide what you are happy paying, what you are willing to tolerate. I don’t want to be furious with Phil. I don’t want to lose him on top of Meedy.
I leave the shower and walk into the kitchen streaming water all over the lino. Phil is hunched at the sink, submerged to his elbows, soap bubbles twinkling. I wrap my arms around him, pressing my chest into his back. ‘Leave it,’ I say. ‘Come to bed.’
‘I’m useless.’ His voice catches. ‘You’ve been doing everything.’
‘I haven’t,’ I tell him. ‘You’ve been stepping up. I’ve noticed.’
‘No,’ he says. ‘I haven’t.’
I look over his shoulder at the window above the sink, meet his eyes in the glass. Behind us are the shadows of the kitchen furniture. A water droplet snakes down my back like a shudder.
‘Leave it,’ I say, firmly this time. ‘Please.’
He lets me lead him to our room. I climb into bed, still damp, turning the sheets cool and clammy. Phil shucks his clothing, turns the light out. My body is jangly, percussive. Some other self will think all this through tomorrow, feel everything tomorrow, take action tomorrow. I’ll get up at nine, even if I have a hangover. I’ll visit all the animal shelters again and knock on all the doors along our street. Somehow, I’ll find our dog. I drift into a half sleep and wake with a jerk, feeling like I’m falling through the air, again and again. Down the hall there is the clanging of pots, the squeak of the tap, water splashing. Phil’s arm is warm and heavy on my ribs. Something is wrong, some new thought is waltzing towards me slowly and elegantly. I sit up and listen. Nothing. At last, I discern the near-silent drone of the fridge. It hums on and on, busily cooling its occupants, the jam jars and olive jars and withered celery resting snug in its belly. It’s so steady and quiet, I might never notice it again.
Ren Arcamone is a writer from Sydney. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and an alumna of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. Her work also appears in Gulf Coast. She lives in Iowa City, where she is at work on a short story collection and a novel.Read more