Cassie and I always walked together. Saph and Cass. Wine and cheese. Rum and coke. Gin and tonic. If you asked her, Cassie was the gin. And the wine, and the rum. She used their bottles as paperweights for the textbooks in her dorm.
Sometimes we walked together to Westfield, where we dodged a kaleidoscope of plastic fiddle-leaf figs and ladies sipping lattes and squalling toddlers in the shopping centre cafés. We always checked the sushi place for specials, and prayed the two-for-five maki rolls wouldn’t make us sick.
But we savoured our last walk through uni. Future walks would be snapped off like white bone by lockdown and stopwatches (set to one hour). So we let the path of our last walk dribble long and looping and meandering and past the footy fields engorged with dew and past the law library squatted like a toaster and round the sulphurous chemistry labs that made my nose sting. Our last walk was a ripened fruit, dangling over our heads, plucked and clenched between teeth, so its sweet juice burst over our tongues and made chapped lips sting above our linked hands.
I now hover in the corridor outside Cassie’s dorm. I look both ways, preparing to cross this road between me and broken rules. We’re not allowed visitors during lockdown. The conspiracy of it all snaps the beige hallways into vivid, high-def, 1080p clarity.
Only the stock photo students on gym flyers pinned to the noticeboard watch me linger. But just in case, I plunge thumb-tacks through their lips to stop them snitching. I knock on Cassie’s door. It opens immediately.
The haze from two-dollar scented candles is lowered like a wet mouth over her dorm. My gaze snaps to her desk. There are bottles stacked on top of her piled textbooks. The menisci of the liquids inside sag low, lower than the last time I visited her dorm. That morning’s breakfast was toast with an anaemic scraping of peanut butter on top. The meal is still sitting on Cassie’s desk, glossed over with cling film. Beside it, there’s a crime scene of splashed broth ringed around a Styrofoam instant noodle cup. I smell it on Cassie’s breath when she hugs me.
I inject sunshine into my tone. ‘You should go outside, Cass. We’re allowed an hour of exercise a day. A walk would be good for you.’
Cass shakes her head at me and grins. The ice-cream cone charms on her earrings jangle by her neck. The skin over her throat is taut and trembling. She’s so close to me that I can see the festering inflammation around her congealed ear piercings. If she moves too quickly, would pus ooze out of them?
‘I’m not going outside today.’ Cassie twirls to face me, but her smile is twilight. ‘Let’s talk instead. I need to talk.’ She scoots aside a millennial-pink cushion on her bed, peels back a weighted blanket, slides under its suffocating mass, pats the mattress next to her. Come lie down.
A feeling broils in the back of my throat. But I swallow the feeling and I shove it down my oesophagus where Cassie can’t see and its acid necrotises the muscular folds of my stomach.
I lower myself onto her bed.
The sheets are stiff with stale sweat. The weighted blanket snares my legs. I remember that I have a strip of bubble gum in my pocket, which I unwrap and drop into the moist trough under my tongue. The space is wet and soft as a shucked oyster. I chew so hard that my teeth rattle in my jaw and my face muscles ache but it drowns out a little of what Cassie says. She talks with her breath fouling on the pillow.
Cassie tells me how the bottles of spirits got so low.
Cassie tells me how she’s decaying inside, rotting like her pink earlobes. I chew.
The clouds outside grow red then dark and then they’re gone, dissolved into inky night. And Cassie still talks.
When she’s finished, her honeypot eyes are molten with gratitude. There’s a candle by her nose. When she smiles at me I smell burning hair, but I can’t be sure whose scalp it’s from.
Last week, huddles of girls hunched over the bathroom sinks. We scrubbed soap into the backs of our hands, our palms, under our nails, then the backs again. We ignored posters blu-tacked to mirrors that told us how we were washing them wrong. We scrubbed them for as long as it took to talk, about cling-filmed meals and the student who forgot to mute themselves during our online lecture. The skin on my hands peeled as I laughed.
But now it’s the second week of lockdown. Those gathered girls were transitory species, gone now. I’m alone in the bathrooms as I shove my hands under the tap’s lukewarm spray and read the how-to-wash-your-hands posters.
I drift down the corridors on socked feet. Lofi hip hop squeezes through the papery walls. Clinking cutlery is a foreign birdsong behind doors. Perhaps I’ve become one of those people in nature documentaries, circling a colony of students without ever really encountering one. When I hear them, I pause mid-step with my nose upturned and lip quivering. If my ears were as long as a rabbit’s they’d twitch and flicker and capture the sounds like butterflies in a net. No one ever hears me.
I go for walks, past the empty university and dusty shopfronts. The marigolds in Victoria Park have gone to seed without anyone to deadhead their flowers. I walk beside a highway. There are no cars. The throbbing silence wedges like a chicken bone in my throat.
My phone’s vibrations in my pocket are the squallings of a dying animal. 81 missed messages from Cassie on Monday.
94 on Tuesday.
108 on Wednesday.
Cassie’s messages are umbilical. They reach through my phone and feel around blindly for me. They try to peel back my scalp and stamp their contents on my brain. But I leave them unopened because I know what kind of messages she’d be sending whilst fifteen standards deep. I saw her in the bathrooms yesterday. I mumbled that I’d been busy with assignments and left without washing my hands.
They say that birds sing in the morning to let each other know they made it through the night. Birds sing, Cassie sends messages, and I tread detours on my silent walks to stand outside her dorm.
I now rest my forehead against her door and mash my pink toes together. I’ll wait here until I hear the rustle of McDonald’s takeaway bags, the scratch of a lighter or the smell of those two-dollar candles. I’ll wait for a bird to sing on the other side of that door, to tell me she’s made it through the night.
My phone’s alarm pings, but I’m already awake. I roll socks onto my feet. Tug my phone from the charger with clean, red hands. My brain rattles between the four white walls of my dorm, it rattles between the piles of underwear on my desk and my plate crumbed with yesterday’s lasagne.
I stare at the ceiling. There’s a crack in it. I’m sure it wasn’t there before, appearing overnight like a spiderweb scrawled across plaster. But maybe it’s always been there, just unnoticed because I’ve never stared at the ceiling for so long. I half close my eyes and drift through that crack in the ceiling and then I’m standing in front of the washbasin in the bathrooms.
The midday light through frosted glass is like too-milky tea. There’s a pimple on my chin and I pop it with nails bitten to the quick. I wipe my fingers on pyjama pants. I need to pee but the bathroom’s beige tiles are tessellated with puddles of water. I tiptoe between them to keep my socks dry and the pads of my feet go grey with dust. I stretch my arms out for balance. Step here, not there, is there a mosquito in that puddle? ‘Saph.’
It’s Cassie. She’s sitting on the floor of one of the communal shower stalls. But everyone knows that you can’t touch the tiles in there, it’s a petri dish for Sarah’s tinea. I stagger backwards and mosquito-y water soaks the heel of my right sock.
But something’s wrong. Cassie sits with her back against the wall and knees pulled to her chest. Water drips from the showerhead and slides down matted clumps of hair. Her pyjamas are drenched and they pucker at the armpits. She pushes bare toes into the drain and they look like red jelly beans.
‘What on Earth are you doing, Cass?’
‘I decided that I’d wait for you, since you aren’t answering my messages.’ I tread across the damp tiles. When I sit beside Cassie on the shower floor, water soaks the seat of my pyjamas. The reek of old bleach on tiles mingles with the alcohol dribbled down Cassie’s front. It makes the buttons on her flannelette shirt sticky. My face goes hot like it does just before I puke, so I upturn my palm into the stream of icy water dripping from the shower head and splash it onto my cheeks.
‘Why won’t you open my messages? What have I done to piss you off so much?’ ‘Nothing.’
‘Then why are you ignoring me? I need to talk, Saph.’
There’s that feeling again, bubbling in the back of my throat like it did on her bed. But I recognise it now. It’s a stream of words. It’s been spooling inside me for weeks, growing longer and tangling and turning rancid in that soft squishy part of my belly. But if I tug it out now, I’m sure I’ll choke on the words as they unravel. So instead, I stare at my hands as I scratch mouldy grout from around tiles and roll the grains between my fingers.
‘Saph? Are you listening to me?’
Ah. That’s it, that’s the thing. I don’t want to listen. I don’t want to let those messages sit on my chest like a disease that’s scarred her lungs, so now they’ll scar mine. But then Cassie kneels over me. Her bruised knees brace on the wet floor and she pushes back my head and opens my mouth and hooks the words on my tongue with her pinkie and pulls. The words spew out of me, like a never-ending ribbon yanked from a magician’s sleeve at a kid’s birthday party. I double up and cry over my stomach because I’m sick from the pressure of the kinds of messages she sends while fifteen standards deep and I’m sick from the pressure of my words being tugged out of that pit where I’ve hidden them. And then Cassie’s arguing, yelling, balling my words in her fists and hurling them back at me and against the tiles and shoving them down the drain like wads of hair from my scalp. And then she’s gone. The door to the Level 2 girls’ bathroom slams after her. I’m left cupping the words in my lap.
I tug the shower tap on. Warm water drums on the back of my neck and douses my pyjamas and makes my socks translucent-white as squid skins. It’s my first shower in a week. My head lolls to my chest as I watch those festering words twirl down the drain.
I make as much noise as I can when I return to my dorm. I slap wet feet on the carpet and jangle the door’s latch as I open it. I clatter dirty plates together when I wash them in the empty communal kitchens. I crank the volume of my speakers so high that even the crack in my ceiling seems to shudder.
Let someone else be the one to listen for Cassie, to mark her signs of survival. It won’t be me.
This piece was an entry in the 2022 Honi Soit Writing Competition.