The door swings shut behind me. I’m clenching my green bag so hard my knuckles are white. I stride down the cracked concrete driveway but stop abruptly next to my recently petrol-siphoned car. Should I turn left past the house of the lady who climbed in our bedroom window that one time, and go between the houses in the cul-de-sac? Or should I go the roundabout way, past the front yard (where I rescued those neglected baby bunnies), through the mini nature reserve then up the creepy alleyway?
I’m in no rush go to back home, so I turn right. Maybe the extra distance will help me clear my head.
As I walk, I can feel my throat tighten with the threat of a sob. To distract myself, I look up to see that the sun is setting. Suddenly, like someone flicked a switch, the sky’s orange glow flickers into the street lights. I smile a small smile. I always feel a bit of a thrill when I see the street lights turn on, like I have taken a peek behind the stage curtain.
I keep walking and a wave of anxiety ripples back through my chest as the argument replays in my mind. I know it’s not my turn to cook dinner, it says so on the chart on the fridge, but he says he has no money to buy food, even though he told me he got paid just a few days ago. I tried to tell him it feels like I’m always paying for everything and picking up the slack. He said I was overreacting and that he paid for stuff all the time. He paused, then noted that he never kept count when he paid for things. He didn’t even look at me while we were talking because he’d already settled into gaming with his friends. It was obvious he wasn’t going to make dinner tonight.
I could see it was getting dark. The shops would be closing soon. If I didn’t buy groceries and make dinner now, nobody would and the housemates will be mad.
I sigh, and as I turn the corner down the alleyway the street light directly above me goes out. I stop, confused in the pillar of darkness. I look around. There’s nobody around and all the other street lights are still silently humming their amber song.
Did that just happen?
I wait to see if the street light turns back on, but it doesn’t. I stand there for a moment feeling unnerved. The light turned out just as I walked under it. I shake my head and mouth the words to myself: ‘You are crazy’. Surely it was just a weird coincidence.
I can see the shops now. As I step out of the shadows I wonder if maybe he’s right. Maybe I am a bean counting miser. I’ll make dinner and he’ll see that I am a generous person after all.
When I walk home, I take the short cut.
I slip out the front door, using the glow from my phone’s screen to light the way. I’m wearing one of my few nice dresses as well as makeup for the first time in weeks but nobody can see the effort in the dark. The single pair of heels I own are waiting back inside on the bedroom floor for a date that I now know isn’t going to happen.
My soft bare feet smart against the bitumen. I tiptoe carefully onto the footpath to avoid treading on broken glass or even a syringe like the one I found in the backyard a couple of months ago.
We were supposed to leave to go out for dinner hours ago. He knew we had plans, we’d talked about it just this morning. When he hadn’t come home on time, I called his phone and messaged him a few times asking where he was, but eventually it stopped ringing and went directly to voicemail.
A fist of ice clenches in my stomach as I step carefully among the shadows on the nature strip. There aren’t any street lights in this stretch that cuts between the neighbourhood’s backyards.
Loitering in the lounge room where the housemates could see me was too depressing so I had gone back into our matchbox room and shut the door. I tried casually lying on my stomach on our bed, but I just ended up rereading the same page of my book over and over. It took two hours for me to stop holding onto the hope that maybe he was just late. By that stage I couldn’t stand being in our room anymore.
As I pad along the pathway I type out the final edition of the message I have been composing in my mind.
You promised. You promised we were going out tonight. You promised we would have dinner, have drinks and then go dancing. I dressed up all pretty and waited for you for hours and you couldn’t even message me back to tell me you weren’t coming home.
I lock my phone and let my hand drop to my side. I’m shivering with disappointment and I briefly regret not bringing a jumper. It’s a cloudy night tonight and the edge of the sky is nuclear with light pollution. I turn up the alley and lean against the side fence with a sigh. As soon as my back touches the cold interlaced metal, the street light looming over me turns off. I blink, eyes wide in the sudden gloom. I’m thawed for a moment by a slight sense of triumph. Last time, when I got home, I told him and my housemates that I somehow had made the streetlight turn off. My housemates wrote it off as a coincidence, but he said that I was losing my mind. Once is a coincidence, sure, but twice? I look up. I’m certain it’s even the same streetlight.
My thoughts are interrupted as my phone buzzes in my hand. My insides freeze with equal parts hope and dread as I see the name.
I never promised, I said we MIGHT. You remembered our conversation wrong. I already made other plans tonight and I am busy. Please stop texting me. Go to bed, you’re not well. We can talk when you’re feeling better.
I read and reread the message then slump against the fence. I try to think back to this morning, and the exact words we had used. I was sure that he had agreed to go out tonight. Wasn’t I? Maybe I did remember wrong. I look up at the dead streetlight above me. Maybe I am losing my mind.
It’s late. I’ve been sitting cross-legged on the bed balancing my laptop before me for hours and my knees are stiff. I finish summarising another source for my thesis and look around me. The room is chaos. I haven’t had time to clean or do washing for weeks.
I wish furiously that I had a desk of my own, but every time I’ve suggested sharing the one in our room I’m reminded how important his hobbies are. He’s sitting there now, gaming, even though he’s supposed to be up for work in a few hours.
I take a deep breath but it doesn’t stop the feeling that the walls are closing in on me. I have no space. I have no time. Words are pressing against my breastbone and I can’t hold them in any longer.
I call his name quietly so I don’t wake up the housemates. He doesn’t respond, so I get up off the bed. My knees creak as I walk behind him. I put my hand on his shoulder and he says ‘What?’ without turning around.
‘Can we talk?’ I say, in a half-whisper, conscious that everyone else is asleep.
He groans and pauses his game. ‘Well?’
I gesture around at the room. Clothes are everywhere, the carpet is greying with dust and beside the bed an outrageous number of glasses have accumulated. I know the housemates are getting frustrated that I haven’t been doing as much as I usually do.
‘I’m really busy with my thesis at the moment, and I’d really appreciate it if you could help me out by doing some of the chores…’ I trail off. My words, now they’re out, are much meeker than they felt inside me.
He takes off his headphones and places them deliberately on the desk that I’ve coveted for so long.
‘That’s not really very reasonable to ask, you know. I’m actually very busy right now. I’m working two days a week and I’m trying to get my music career going. You have plenty of time. You’re not busy at all.’
The dull roar of anxiety inside me has reached screaming pitch. I take a step back and stumble over the corner of the bed. I’m not busy? I’m not busy?! I work a full time job and study full-time. I barely sleep so I can meet the deadlines of my thesis and until this point, I’ve been the only one doing housework.
It takes me a couple of seconds to realise that these words have erupted from me and hang in the air between us. I flinch, waiting for one of the housemates to tell me to quieten down, but there’s silence.
I turn and snap the lid of my laptop shut. I slip on a pair of well-worn thongs, grab my phone and walk out of the room with my computer under my arm. If I can’t study here, I’ll find somewhere else.
I slam the front door but I’m too far down the pathway before I consider it might have been too loud. I stride through the hush of that familiar walk until I get to the turn off to the little alley way.
I sit down on one of the wooden barriers separating the alley from the park and without missing a beat, the street light above me turns out.
‘For fuck’s sake!’ I shout, and the birds that had started to chatter are quiet again.
I open my laptop and connect the wifi so it’s bumming off my phone. I’m going to settle this once and for all.
I beat the search term on my keyboard: street light turns off my boyfriend doesn’t believe me.
I scroll through the results. The first few hits are about something called Street Light Interference Phenomenon. I keep reading until I see something else.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline. A page called What is gaslighting?
After I stop reading I look up. The dawn is sweet apricot and the darkness is gone.
Image: Mikael Kristenson
Angharad is a Law graduate with a Masters in Asia-Pacific Studies. She started out writing for ANU’s Asia-Pacific Studies faculty publication Monsoon and the Law faculty magazine Peppercorn. She has been web editor and feature writer for Lost Magazine. Angharad is passionate about books, bunnies, South-East Asia and the Pacific, human rights, the environment, modern culture and all things avant garde. She also runs an extremely self-indulgent book review blog at Tinted Edges.