I stared at the carpet, hugging a cushion to my stomach. It was heart-shaped, with stumpy little arms sticking out the sides. Kind of creepy, when I thought about it. Usually I chucked it on the ground when I came here; I was too old for cuddle-cushions. I was too old for this place in general, really. Old enough to drive myself here for my appointments, P-Plates blu-tacked to my windscreen. They’d boot me out of the outpatient program in a couple of months, when I turned eighteen. I worried about having to start over at a new place. Did adult eating disorder clinics have cushions with arms, too?
I could feel Jamie’s eyes searching my face. She was trying to put the pieces together (tears + silence = ?). That was what they did, these psychs—they tried to read your mind. Problem was, they couldn’t, could they? You actually had to talk to them, which sucked. Big time.
I glanced up at her, then looked away quickly. I knew I should say something, but there was a brick in my throat and I didn’t have the energy to shift it.
The thing was, I didn’t even want to talk to her. I wasn’t meant to be seeing her today—they were tapering down my therapy sessions and I’d already seen her once this week. I’d only come in to see the dietician, but I’d wound up in here thanks to the flood of tears I’d delivered when I should’ve been presenting my food journal. The poor dietician had looked completely bewildered. I guess you can’t break down the nutritional value of tears.
It wasn’t like me to be such a wreck. Public displays of emotion weren’t my thing—the way I saw it, tears were best reserved for dark rooms with curtains drawn. But I wasn’t myself that morning—I was nursing a hangover and the confirmation of a long-repressed fear. And so the tears had rained the second the dietician asked how I was doing. And once they started, there was no stopping them. They were still falling now, but the tank was running dry and they’d slowed to a quiet drizzle. My skull felt like a balloon about to burst.
‘What’s going on for you today?’
Jamie had obviously given up on the wait-it-out-and-she’ll-talk approach. Her voice made me jump; it was too loud, too sudden. I missed my old psych—she was young and cool, and had nice eyes and a soft voice. But she’d upped and left a few weeks ago, right when I was transitioning from high school to uni and needed her most. It wasn’t fair…I’d been spilling my guts to her twice a week for two years, and suddenly I was expected to just carry on with someone new. Like it was that simple. If she’d still been here, then maybe I could talk. She wouldn’t judge me, I knew that. But Jamie? I couldn’t be sure.
Still, I felt bad that I wasn’t giving her anything to work with. It wasn’t her fault she’d been lumped with me, and she probably had better things to do with her morning than sit here watching my face leak. I mustered up all my energy and swallowed hard, managing to shift the brick in my throat just enough to squeeze a few words past.
‘Something happened,’ I said, my voice catching at the edges. ‘Last night. With my friend, Hannah.’
That was it. That was all I could say. The brick had shifted back up and called for reinforcements. I’d said too much already. My cheeks burned and my eyes dropped lower, no longer seeing carpet. A series of memories flashed through my mind, like the faded slideshow my nanna once showed me.
I picked at the lint on my jumper.
I slink into a bottle-shop with Hannah—the dodgy one down the road from her student accommodation. We choose wine the colour of concentrated urine because it has the highest alcohol content for the lowest cost, and laugh gleefully when we make it out without getting asked for ID…
We slurp wine from plastic cups in Hannah’s paint-splattered room. The wine makes my face pinch, but the taste improves the more I drink. And so I keep drinking…
We’re chatting and laughing and our voices are loud. Hannah’s edges are blurred and everything we say is hilarious…
Pick, pick, pick.
Hannah’s lips are on mine or mine are on hers I’m not sure which but it feels good. My lips are numb and clumsy…
Pick pick pick pick.
We’re fumbling with buttons and my heart is pounding because I know what comes next and I’ve never done it before and I’m excited and nervous and not sure it’s right but somehow it feels inevitable…
I squeezed my eyes shut against the next image, slamming the doors on the memory.
When I opened them again, a fresh stream of tears dampened my cheeks and I shook my head silently in response to Jamie’s gaze. I couldn’t tell her. I just couldn’t.
I went back to analysing the carpet, wondering what Hannah was doing now. When I woke up this morning and realised what had happened, I panicked. What was she going to think? Would she regret what we’d done? Would she be completely grossed out and never want to see me again? Had I ruined one of the only friendships I’d managed to cling onto since leaving school?
Feeling sick with shame and hunger, I’d dressed and slipped out while she was still sleeping, longing for the comfortable sameness of the clinic and not caring that I’d be too early for my dietetics appointment. On the drive to the clinic, my head was a whirlwind of worries. I was in shock—but not, I realised, because it had happened—rather, because I had let it happen. After all, it hadn’t exactly occurred out of nowhere. The signs had been there all along; little sparks catching alight, begging to be noticed. But I hadn’t wanted to see them.
Now, as long seconds trudged by, the silence broken only by the obnoxious ticking of Jamie’s wall clock, I cast my mind back and gave those sparks the attention I’d starved them of. A dream about holding hands with Hermione, at the age of eleven. An obsession with Mary Poppins’ eyes at thirteen. The burning shame in my chest when, at age fourteen, my friend’s mum made a passing remark that lesbians just weren’t normal. A questioning email sent to my own mum at the age of sixteen, and the mess of emotions I felt I was dismissed as being too young to know. The fire in my abdomen when a girl who took me under her wing at boarding school invited me to sleep in her room after a movie night. I’d spent the night in a state of half-sleep—my body pressed hard against the scratchy brick wall and my hands tucked firmly into my armpits—petrified I might accidentally brush her skin with mine.
Each time a spark had ignited, I’d quickly stamped it out and brushed the ashes under the carpet. It was easier to ignore them than to face the prickly questions they raised. Besides, nothing had ever actually happened. Not like last night…
Again, I screwed up my eyes against the memory.
‘What if I guess what happened?’ Jamie suggested, tugging me back to the present. ‘If I guess right, will you tell me I’ve got it?’
I hesitated. Could I do that? Could I admit to her what I did, if she managed to guess? Not seeing a better option, I nodded. She would probably never get it right, anyway. It was too weird.
She smiled. ‘Okay, let me see …’
My heart began to race, bouncing erratically against my ribcage. What would she think if she figured it out? That I was disgusting? Weird? Abnormal? That’s what Dad would think, if he found out—that I knew for certain. He’d made his views perfectly clear after Mum left him for a woman. From that day, he never spoke her name again, preferring to call her The Dyke. He even christened her car The Dykemobile, practically spitting the word each time he saw the little red Holden emerge over the hill after my sister and I had spent a weekend at his place. I wanted to ask him not to call it that. I hated the word ‘dyke’—it sounded sharp and dirty, coming from his lips. But I stayed silent. He already thought I was too much like Mum.
‘Hmm …’ Jamie’s voice broke into my thoughts. I jiggled my leg, starting to panic. I should have kept my mouth shut. What I’d done wasn’t normal. If she guessed right, she’d want to puke.
I pulled the stumpy-armed cushion tight into my stomach. I wanted to puke; to expel the messy, knotted feeling in my guts. I mentally revised the contents of my cupboard, listing the foods I could binge on the second I got home.
Jamie leaned forward slightly. ‘Okay, first guess,’ she said.
I fought the urge to run.
‘Did you and Hannah … kill someone and throw their body in a ditch?’
I shook my head quickly, staring wide-eyed at the floor. It wasn’t anything that terrible!
She took another guess. ‘Did you and Hannah … drink each other’s blood?’
I shook my head again, the corner of my lips turning up slightly. It wasn’t anything that weird.
Her tone changed as she made her next guess—the one she’d clearly been leading up to, the one she’d suspected all along. ‘Did you and Hannah … make out?’ she asked.
A tiny nod.
‘Did you have sex?’
I looked up in surprise, my eyes meeting hers. She said it so casually, like she was asking what I had for breakfast (though, in a place like this, that wasn’t necessarily a casual question). I examined her face, but there was no sign of horror. I gave another tiny nod.
‘So … what’s so terrible about that?’
I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.
What was so terrible about that? Suddenly I wasn’t sure. What had I done wrong, really? I hadn’t murdered anyone. I hadn’t turned vampire. I’d made out with a girl—a girl I liked, a girl I’d been friends with for over two years. We went a little further than I was prepared for, but was that really the end of the world? As I sat across from Jamie and began to spill words instead of tears, I realised that it wasn’t. That, in fact, it might just be the beginning.
When my time with Jamie was up, I wandered across the road towards my little red car—the one Mum handed down to me a few months back. My head was buzzing with possibility and uncertainty; with hopes and questions and doubts. Did I just like girls, or did I like guys too? Had my shame about these feelings fuelled my eating disorder? What were people going to think of me? Were things going to be weird between me and Hannah now?
I didn’t have the answers. I wasn’t sure what my label was. I had no idea if denying my feelings had caused my issues with food, or if things would improve now I’d acknowledged them. I couldn’t predict how others were going to respond when they found out. And I had no idea if Hannah was okay with what had happened, or if she’d want to do it again. The only thing I knew for sure was that, no matter what, there were people out there—people like Jamie—who would take me as I was, whoever that might be.
As I reached the car, my phone vibrated and I hastily retrieved it from my bag. It was a text from Hannah.
‘Hey, are you okay? Just wanted to check you’re cool with what happened last night? Because I am, for the record.’
A quiet smile cracked the dried salt on my cheeks, and my fingers shook slightly as I typed my response. ‘I think I am too.’
I slid behind the wheel of The Dykemobile and started up her engine.
Ashleigh Hardcastle is a Western Australian queer writer and psychologist whose work has appeared in The Big Issue, Lite Lit One, and OUTinPerth. She has been a fellow at the KSP Writer’s Centre and a participant in the CBCA Maurice Saxby Creative Development Program. This story is based on her own lived experience and she is proud to report that she continued driving the Dykemobile until the day it sputtered its last breath.
From Bent Street 3