I had decided to go to a party. Everybody told me that it was far too soon to be out and about, but I couldn’t imagine spending another day cooped up in my bed, or sorting belongings, or anything really. More than anything, I wanted to get drunk and dance and talk to strangers who didn’t know about any of it.
By nature I didn’t know any strangers, so I called my friend Emily to arrange it. She was a good enough friend not to refuse me, but not good enough to babysit me all night and make sure I didn’t make any bad decisions. I was meeting her in an hour, so I sood in a towel and trimmed my fingernails over the bin in the kitchen, watching the clippings slide down between Dominos boxes and oily napkins. It was good to
be clean, I hadn’t been in a while. I had taken some personal days, as suggested ever so kindly by my boss, which meant that I was underperforming and I looked like shit while doing it. I knew I looked like shit those first few days: red eyes and lank hair and yesterday’s clothes, but it helped to have somewhere to be. I had chewed the skin at the side of my thumb, leaving a raw patch that burned slightly when I washed my hands.
Rhea’s hands had short fingers, short nails. Wide, warm palms and forearms covered in angry oven burns and cuts. Her whole body was patchworked like that. Webs of tan lines from different bikinis interlinking over her back, freckles splattered over her nose and shoulders, silvery surgical scary criss-crossing under her belly button, a tattoo of a rabbit on her thigh.
She’d had the ileostomy when she was eleven. She had been a sickly kid: pale and underweight, scared of sports and boys and loud noises, avoiding birthday cakes at parties on account of the terrible stomach cramps she got almost every time she ate. She was the youngest in a large Greek family, she told me, living in a bustling multi-generational home in the outer suburbs of Melbourne—always able to give her helping to a hungry older brother or uncle, concealing for months that she was frightened to death of her body and of food. By the time she was ten, she would spend several nights a week doubled over on the toilet, passing blood and whimpering in pain.
Eight months later she had the stoma constructed, the strange white bag attached to the side of her abdomen, and food, after that, was like a revelation. There was no more fear in it. Textures, tastes, aromas. Each and every one of them was hers to discover, to create.
I got so fat that Summer, she told me as I sat at her kitchen table finishing a report, that even my feet grew three sizes.
Rhea taught me everything I knew about food, about taste. Growing up outside of the city, I had never had Thai or Indian food before I met her, and never put enough salt or olive oil on anything I made. We went on a trip to Germany together during my Summer break and ate fatty pork knuckles dripping with gravy and roast potatoes with golden, leathery skin. The next year she went to culinary school and would come home with pastries and purees and stir-frys thickened with cornstarch slurry.
The party was for the birthday of somebody named Ollie, held in a sharehouse in Newtown. Walking into the hallway, I was assaulted by the loud techno music coming from a speaker in the living room. On a table beside the speaker, I took a plastic cup and filled it with boxed white wine, swallowing it in a few sips and refilling my glass. I walked out to the back garden and sat on a wicker chair beside a man unconvincingly smoking a cigarette. He had a long face and a chin that veered to the left, slightly underdressed in a blue t-shirt and joggers. My age, probably.
Hey he said.
Hi, I replied.
We sat in silence for a moment.
I only smoke when I drink. He said. How do you know the host?
Then who do you know?
Emily. She’s got red hair.
I don’t know her.
Oh. Actually, I’m not sure that she’s here.
I live here. He said, I’m housemates with Ollie.
I was aware that I was boring him, but felt unable to think of my own question. I looked over my shoulder.
Are you looking for someone?
No, I said.
Is something wrong?
No, I said. It’s not about the party. My best friend died last week.
The music had gotten louder.
My best friend. She died, last week.
He didn’t respond for a moment, so I gave him another to see what he would say. Then, the impulse to rescue him kicked in.
It’s okay, she was sick for a long time. I was prepared for it.
It wasn’t so much a lie than it was less than mostly true: she was sick, I wasn’t prepared. What’s your name? I asked him.
Max, he said.
Nice to meet you, Max. I said, does that mean your room’s upstairs?
Rhea and I had moved in together after I graduated university and got my first job at an accounting firm in the CBD. At the time, she worked at a trendy restaurant in Barangaroo, pulling her wild hair into a bun and packing her knives up every afternoon to go to work six nights a week. She would come home a little after three most nights, putting our shitty K-mart pans on high heat and filling the house with the intoxicating smell of fried onions, sausages and slightly stale bread seared in the leftover grease and smothered with butter. Other nights she would have loud sex with Tony, a heavily tattooed dishwasher from work, and I would cover my head with a pillow and vow to have it out with her in the morning. Of course, she was always still asleep by the time I left for work.
Upstairs, Max lay me on his dirty sheets and unzipped my jeans, sliding them off my legs as he climbed on top of me to kiss my neck. He had long, pale fingers, slightly cool to the touch. I tugged on the hem of his shirt and slipped my hand underneath it to feel the ripples of his stomach. He shivered, then shrugged his shirt off over his head as he walked over to his desk drawer.
She wasn’t scared at first. Rhea thought that it was another colitis complication, and that she’d maybe need a revision surgery. She had lost her appetite again, and would wince with the pain of her stomach cramps in the evening. Eventually she called out of work, lying on the couch with a hot water bottle and watching endless reruns of Modern Family. I told her I could pay the rent, she wouldn’t have to worry. But, the night after the diagnosis, she told me she was moving home. Stage IV colon cancer, spread to the bowel and the bladder. We booked a plane ticket and lay in bed beside each other, awake. Neither one of us was brave enough to cry.
I went to visit her three weeks later, bringing a cardboard box full of clothes and Ottolenghi cookbooks. Her father brought us cups of milky tea and biscuits and we flipped through the pages together, bookmarking recipes for pan-fried salmon and Iranian herb fritters. Her appetite was all in her eyes, though, she looked far thinner and paler than the last time I had seen her. She was propped up in her wire framed bed in flannel pyjamas, a lumpy, hand knitted shawl over her shoulders. As the afternoon turned blue and cold, we looked through the window she used to sneak out of as a teenager. The leaves were thinning, it was the beginning of Winter.
I told her the gossip about our mutual friends, that Tony had broken his parole, and we drank more cups of tea, listening to her grandmother yell at her nephews out in the hallway. It was strange.
While Max took a shower, I found my clothes and walked to the bus stop. It was quiet tonight, nobody about. I unlocked the door and let myself in, walking to the kitchen and pouring myself a glass of water. I felt drunk and slightly sick. It was still strange for the house to be so quiet at this time of night. The air was too clean smelling.
With that thought, I pulled a cast iron pan out of the cupboard and put it on high heat. I put in a few glugs of oil, watching it smoke slightly as it formed a film over the bottom of the pan. I rummaged through the freezer, digging out half a packet of hash browns and frozen sausages. They hissed violently as they hit the pan, spattering up onto the countertop and making the house room smell warm and savoury.