This was Tuesday afternoon. Autumn, late May. The trees were yellow and red. I was wearing a scarf and walking out of the library, almost colliding with Clem.
I’d known Clem for ages, since we were both ten. We had a lot of connections, having gone to high school together, our family being friends. But I hadn’t seen him for a bit, and I didn’t know he’d moved down to Canberra. He’d grown his hair out and his eyes looked brighter. His cheeks were pink. He wore white and black.
As it turns out, he was living in this dingy apartment on Northbourne Avenue. It was known as being where all the junkies lived. There were signs in the windows. We could see them from the highway, driving by in some crappy car, listening to like, some stupid hard-style thing that someone would always put on. I’d driven passed loads of times and now I thought of Clem in there, lying on his floor. Reading, I suppose.
-Do you still read? I said, as we walked toward the park
-Oh you know (tugging at shirt) bit of Hunter right now.
-Like the movie?
-You know. The super druggy one.
-The loathing one?
-Yeah. God I hate that movie. It’s so dumb.
Clem said his room had cockroaches all through, so I said we’d best go to the park. It was absolutely freezing cold. I gripped my beanie over my head and pulled it down, tugging at my scarf. We sat down on a park bench but his joint wouldn’t light because of the wind and it kept falling out of his hands. I didn’t really care about the whole thing either way, and began trying to eat the cheese and vegemite sandwich I’d gladwrapped in the morning (too mushy). Clem was (predictably) getting heaps sulky. He’d rolled it really badly, the bud was going everywhere, his lighter was out of fluid: a whole myriad of circumstances. I eventually relented and suggested we just go to his (which was across the road) because surely the bugs weren’t that bad.
The weather outside morphed into a violent thunderstorm. We pressed our noses against the stained window to watch it. There were dirt stains all across it. The rain whacked the glass. Clem held my hand like a little kid. I looked across, and saw him blink slowly: wide-eyed, brown-eyed, dark-lashed. Acne-stained. We lay on the floor and listened to the rain hit the roof. Mould on the ceiling, dripping down. Time slowed.
He said (after a long time),
-Do you have plans tomorrow?
I said I didn’t, because I usually had Wednesdays off.
-Right, okay- and rolled over to get up.
-Well I have this dumb liberal internship thing
Clem was going through his cupboard.
-And tonight, I have this meeting for debating.
Clem was going through all of his jacket pockets, kicking stuff around from his floor to get there and generally making heaps of a mess.
-Because I got into the top tier team. Although I’m not third speaker, which sucks but like-
(Clem sighed, turned the radio up, blaring).
What was Clem doing in Canberra? I realised that I hadn’t even asked. He’d always been very mathematically orientated, when we were younger. But I couldn’t imagine him studying.
-Are you studying?
(Clem turned from his desk, distracted)
-I thought you’d be doing something…
He asked me to close my eyes, I could hear him fumbling around. I was very aware of his presence, sitting in front of me, on the bug-ridden carpet. He put his thumb on my lips. I began to breathe quicker, more aware of oxygen and its presence in my own blood. He pulled my lip down, and placed his thumb on the ridges of my bottom teeth, then under my tongue. I didn’t open my eyes. We both sat in silence, cross-legged, rain pumping away outside.
After about ten minutes, he said, abruptly,
-Well that’ll be fine, I think- and closed my mouth, standing up.
There was grime on everything and, predictably, it was all whirring and turning multi-coloured. He’d given me acid, of course. Ugh, how boring! I was so tired of Clem. I remembered in a whirl how often he did things like this. I suddenly recalled all the nights he’d made us drive from house to house, because he’d heard someone might have bud, and I sat in the car for hours. I had forgotten, of course, because in age his face had turned more angular and beautiful. I was so dumb at times.
-I’m missing debating, I said, miserably.
Clem gave me a disdainful look, spitting the last of his tab out into the bin.
-Right. Do you have a car?
-Yes. But we can’t drive it.
-Is this your bag?
He grabbed the keys out of my bag, closed the door behind him. The acid was kicking in, big time. The thought of moving from the floor to the door rendered me near paralytic. I began to panic and get trapped in a really shitty trip.
Clem came back after some time, picking me up and carrying me outdoors over his shoulder. It was still raining. There was water all over my face and in my mouth. Swimming through the sea, underwater car in the distance. Submarine, water breathing, air tube. Clem stared at me. His face was expanding over my own. We were kissing, or interlocking. The car was streaming right down the road, the sky encased in a river.
I looked up, strapped in the passenger seat.
-Aw shit May! Shit!
I realised that I’d been rolling the same cigarette for an hour, two hours even. I puffed my cheeks out
-Just ran a red light.
We were on the Hume Highway. Ultra barren, rotting landscape. I paused for a long time, lighting the cigarette, as if nicotine could smack me back to life.
-Are we… not in Canberra.
Clem looked at me, disdainful again, shaking his head.
We slept in his car that night, on the side of the road. The acid waned, the moon shifted around the sky. We were both talkative, alert. I was jittery and smoking continuously. The air outside was so cold it iced my teeth. Clem’s hand was on the side of my face.
-You know, your face is very symmetrical.
-Yeah. Like the…
-Like the, you know, the golden. Golden ratio. (He said solemnly)
The sunlight was curling around his face now, interjecting eyes with more light.
-What are you even doing in Canberra?
He leant down to the floor, opening up his backpack, pulling out the books (‘Mathematics and Applications’). They looked especially beautiful and crisp, in that morning light.
-Maths. Sorry, I felt dumb saying.
-I’m dropping out, anyway. I finished off my lease this week, for the apartment.
He flicked on the radio, trying to get some reception. I looked at my eyes in the rear view mirror.
-Do you mind that you missed debating?
-Oh no. This is much nicer.
I put his hand so that it interlocked with my own. He began to draw on my thigh with a pen, like
After a few hours of this -dozy, sleepy, lightness, petrol smell – Clem widened his eyes and said,
-Oh, but did you want me to drive you back? (Because we were still on the side of the highway, we’d been there for ages).
-Oh no, that’s really fine Clem. We can just stay.
And so on.
Image: Angus Gratton