One: Be honest.
Two: Always use protection, even if you don’t want to.
Three: Don’t do it in our bed.
Four: Tell the person you’re about to sleep with about us.
Five: We both have power of veto. Alex can’t sleep with Kate or Stace; Laura can’t sleep with Ned or any of Alex’s brothers.
Six: No cruising when we’re out together.
Seven: Our own sex life is paramount.
Eight: No comparisons.
Nine: Artistic freedom.
Ten: No angst.
When they’d all gone, I lay in bed and watched the city lights flicker around the rim of bush like low bearingstars. Alex lay next to me with his chest bare against the cold and his open face to the ceiling. He was drunk. So was I.
‘What’s in your heart?’ he asked.
I shrugged, evasive. ‘What’s in yours?’
The housewarming party soaked through me – tonight an old friend had laughed with a new one, Alex and I had poured tea then Pimms then vodka from giant teapots, I had sung ‘happy new bush life to you’ and kissed Alex’s lips.
‘I’d like to sleep with other people,’ he said matter-of-factly, and then, softly, ‘I’ve been heading toward an affair.’ The trees outside rushed in a sudden wind and a beer bottle tipped with a hollow clunk on the verandah.
‘Why?’ I said finally. My stomach stabbed. He rolled his gentle eyes towards me.
‘When was the last time you enjoyed sex?’ he asked.
I didn’t respond.
He reached to pull me close and I felt his lips through his beard on my neck. I shifted my pelvis from his and he sighed and fell back. Later, I could hear him scratching with insomnia, so I fumbled a consolatory hand to his penis. ‘Maybe we could try it. With others,’ I said.
He rolled on top of me and the length and weight of him pressed me into the mattress. My breasts ached. His beard hair and head hair and chest hair made a curly cushion between our skins. I wrapped my legs around his frame and focused on the endlessness of his back. He smelled like booze and bicycles.
‘This okay?’ Alex asked, and I nodded, wishing that he would throw me against a wall instead, pound me to oblivion.
I will cum, I will cum, I will cum. I repeated the slow rhythm in my head. When he did and I didn’t I frowned myself to sleep.
In the night I dreamed that Alex killed a man.
‘I had to kill him,’ he said in the dream. He stooped to gather the man’s decapitated head to put in the freezer, but then changed his mind and climbed in himself and lay curled there, like a baby.
‘Sometimes you don’t come back from being frozen,’ I warned, but he was resolute. He closed his eyes – he had already started to fall in to a coma – and I whispered fiercely: ‘I loved you more than any man.’ Then I closed the freezer door.
When I woke I saw the familiar chaos of my clothes spilling from the cupboards, felt Alex’s breath on my back, and I smiled. My drunken dreams of affairs and murder. I edged backwards and Alex engulfed me.
‘How are you feeling?’ he asked in my ear.
‘A bit hung-over. You?’
‘Good. You feel okay about … what we talked about? Our arrangement?’ he asked. I wriggled to stare at him. Those blue eyes that waitresses stopped to remark on. The Arrangement.
‘We’re breaking up …’
‘No, no, we’re just doing an experiment.’
‘What if we hurt each other?’
‘We’ll be honest,’ he said, touching a tear that escaped my eye. ‘We’ll tell whoever it is about us. We’re the most important thing here.’
‘What if you sleep with some girl I don’t like? Or Kate! We should be able to veto …’ My stomach still stabbed.
‘We’ll make rules,’ he said. I nodded slowly.
We sat inside watching gunfire on the telly, talking about how strong and brave we were – a super couple. Words of contentment flinging themselves at the TV screen. Alex’s face was bright. His beard had picked up wood smoke from the neighbourhood fireplaces and, after his walk through the cold evening, he came home smelling like fire. He sang like woodwind. I sat up in bed and told him how beautiful his voice was. He blushed and chuckled and lay down beside me
‘You’re my muse!’ he cried generously.
‘You’ve barely written a song since we got together!’ I said and convulsed with laughter. I remembered his music about other girls. Waitresses, mostly.
I escaped to the city I’d just moved away from and sought out Dee to tell her about The Arrangement. Dee had one with her boyfriend.
‘Oh you’ll be completely overwhelmed,’ she advised, as we perched on her bed and I jiggled with confusion on a quilt the replica of my Nana’s. Something was wrong in my gut.
‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘you’ll fuck someone else and everything in you will be awakened and you’ll be obsessed for, like eight months. Then you’ll just get over it and write.’ I looked into her dark, sardonic eyes and over her body that had ‘been there’.
‘I’d feel like I was having an affair,’ I said.
‘You are. It’s just one that you’re allowed to have.’ She grinned. She wants to sleep with Alex, I thought.
Dee had a party that night and I moved close on the dance floor to Max from uni.
‘You know, everyone thinks we’ve got a thing,’ I said. He stared at me uncomprehendingly. Four: Tell the person you’re about to sleep with about us. ‘I’ve got an open thing with Alex now. We’re calling it “The Arrangement”.’ I laughed and waited, swaying. He said nothing, just put his hand on my shoulder and pointed me around the room to take in all the people I could now have.
The next day turned hot, and burned on into the night. Alex picked me up from the train. We swam in our naked, available bodies in a holidaying neighbour’s pool. I duck dived and raced Alex underwater. The bottom of the pool was invisible, only present when you scraped a nipple or a finger against the grain. From under the water the world was an off-green, the sky and trees appearing as nightmarish grey blobs, the clouds iridescent. I swam close to Alex and wrapped my legs around his huge frame. His cold dick floated between us. He crawled out and hurled himself down the waterslide, giving a short giggle each time before the huge splash, his chest and beard heavy with water. I felt full in my stomach and let it sink me to the bottom, then fought my way to the top with my last scrap of breath.
We hauled junk from the city, junk from the street, junk from the bins to the bush and didn’t stop until the place was like our city house again. I couldn’t go to the toilet in the dark without tripping over and Alex couldn’t exercise on the lounge room floor – stretching his giant’s body from one end to the other – without bolts/nails/things stabbing him in the back. We went over The Arrangement, perfecting the rules, until my resolve cracked and I lay naked on the bed crying hopelessly. Alex watched me.
‘I feel like I’m the only grownup in this relationship,’ he said. I bawled until we were both exhausted and he kissed my wet face.
‘You’re beautiful,’ he said, ‘and I love you. I love you. I love you.’ Three times, like a spell. He fell asleep snoring and I stumbled to the couch. Some animal — a possum? Bat? Rat? — charged up and down the carpet and then took refuge beneath me. I leapt and returned to Alex, running, and he opened up his sleep-hot arms and mumbled that he would always protect me, then snored powerfully, protectively, into my ear like a little kid, like a lover, like a father, all at once.
My period didn’t come and I woke before the sun to sit in the swarms of bugs, killing them occasionally. A rat pressed itself against the glass and stared in at me on its way from one roof to another. Nausea drained from my mouth to my legs until they ached with illness I vomited up my lunch and vomited up my dinner. I pissed into a cup and dipped the stick and sat on the edge of the bath watching the blue lines appear. Positive. But I was well in the mornings. It was only late in the day, after all the food had filled and refilled my belly, that I vomited again and again and again.
I had dinner with Dee in the city. The oil glistened on my roti bread and the curry looked like spew. ‘I feel like there’s a universe inside me,’ I said.
Later at a bar, clutching an untouched beer, I turned to her. ‘Doesn’t my body look amazing?’
‘It looks the same as always,’ she said. ‘You’re just pregnant.’
It took a train ride, two breakfasts and a greasy lunch, four ibuprofen and one paracetamol, two midday naps, two showers, several cups of tea and some diarrhea before I felt I could talk to Alex. Inside me matter was pulling together, becoming nuclear in my gut. Hydrogen nuclei fusing to helium nuclei. This must be how scientists feel, I thought, when they look out at space and realise that life is possible. We’re not alone.
Alex and I sat at either side of the stained wooden table, our fingers tracing the ring marks from every cup of tea we’d ever plunked down. Alex had brought paper and pens, and he held my hand tightly. We can do anything together, said his face.
‘You’ll have to be my brains,’ I warned him. ‘My body just wants to give birth.’ Our hormones lashed out and clung to each other. The father of my child. The mother … Alex’s body said: protect, protect, protect. Mine said: love, love, love. We said: is it financially viable, artistically sound, creatively suicidal? We talked, reasoned, made lists.
‘We can hardly look after ourselves!’ we said. The rat and all its children scuttled in the walls. The sexy rules of The Arrangement were replaced before they’d started.
One: Our fridge is broken.
Two: The house is filthy.
Three: The rats keep eating the bread.
Four: Our clothes are also being eaten by something else. What.Moths?
Five: We’re getting an abortion
Six: Flies circle overhead.
When I told Mum she sobbed with her face in her hands before asking finally in a voice much, much younger than I was: ‘Is that even legal?’ Outside, three pigeons sat with their fleshy breasts hanging out over the suburban fence. Alex and I spent a solemn night in my parents’ clean house amid the suburban sounds: dishwasher sounds, computer sounds, organic fair trade peppermint tea sounds. We woke to a stupidly sunny day.
We drove to the city.
‘I don’t think that babies have souls until they’re born,’ said Alex, navigating our car through traffic like we were a ship avoiding rocks. I stared out the window with my fingers splayed on my flat gut. This is a baby that likes salt and mornings, I thought, this is a boy.
When it was done the baby was gone. Put in a bucket and then where? The clinic doesn’t tell you. Not us. Not the woman who arrived alone, complaining that it was her third this year. Not the girl who woke from the anesthetic at the same time as me and stared right at me for a moment with widening eyes before they filled with tears and she cried out for her mum through the tongue guard.
How does one dispose of an aborted fetus? So effective. Instant. A universe ending.
I woke up and was completely alone with my empty body. I sat with chattering teeth in the post-op waiting room listening to the anti-abortionists chanting outside. I remembered that, before I had the operation, Alex saw the ultrasound the doctor was trying to keep hidden from me.
‘Oh, it’s tiny,’ he’d whispered longingly, ‘like a cartoon.’
Alex turned 31 and I forgot to get him a present. We were always out of toilet paper. The remains of our baby leaked from me. Outside it was still and grey. I mucked out the fridge with rubber gloves, retching at the grey slime that slopped into buckets. Alex put poison out for the rats and they all disappeared, except for one that wandered psychotically into the lounge room — half its face mutated by sores — and tried to charge at Alex before creeping away to die behind the couch. I fiddled with the endless buttons of Alex’s tall man’s shirt and unzipped his pants. He smiled down at me sympathetically and I let my hands fall away.
‘I’m afraid to have sex with you,’ he admitted.
I had a dream that Alex and I were part of a Chinese prison camp that was also a theme park. There were log games and bright rooms, and we had to navigate them. If you were served oysters on a bed of rice and greens, it meant they were going to kill you next. Alex and I got lost in the house of mirrors and missed dinner.
‘Could we have something to eat?’ we asked a girl wearing a theme park t-shirt.
‘Have I offered you oysters yet?’ she replied.
I retreated to the city and lost myself in another party. Troy slow danced with me in the kitchen and bit my neck. I pulled away from him, ran upstairs, and stared at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. My eyes were wide and enlivened – like ecstasy eye, like sex eyes. Back downstairs he was dancing alone in the darkened living room, splay legged, his tiny body writhing around like some junkie rock star.
‘I liked dancing with you,’ I yelled over the music.
‘Yeah, that was sexy,’ he said. We biked back along a street Alex and I had lived on. Memories of shopping and movies and wobbling home from the pub shimmered on the nature strips.
‘Are you a serial monogamist?’ Troy asked and, because I didn’t know what that was, I laughed knowingly.
‘I just broke up with someone too,’ he added.
‘Alex and I haven’t broken up,’ I insisted.
Naked in Troy’s room, I couldn’t feel his tongue or his touch, but only the bones of his thin hips tapping against mine. The smoke on his breath. His eyes that didn’t love me. Eight: No comparisons.
‘I’ve wanted to fuck you for the longest time,’ he said when I straddled him awkwardly.
‘How long?’ I wanted to know, but he didn’t answer. I wondered if he’d been watching me whilst I’d seen only Alex. I wanted to tell him that he was beautiful. But it was easier to screw and laugh.
His bed was a homemade mezzanine jammed up against the ceiling. I kneeled over him and held his cock in my hands. ‘If I was a plaster-caster, I’d make art of this,’ I said. I tried at first to open the condom packet by attacking it with my teeth. It wouldn’t unroll. He calmly removed it from my hands and smoothed it on. I was dry. I forced him inside me. He slammed his hips up and slammed my head against the roof. He laughed. I laughed. He rolled me off him and I was lost in his bed until he grabbed at my legs and positioned me kneeling. I was dry. He was inside me and gave a stinging slap to my arse with his palm. I laughed. I pushed back. He bit my back and thrust and thrust and came and I didn’t. He pulled out of me. I rolled over and looked.
‘Where’s the condom?’ I asked.
He shrugged. ‘Don’t worry I’m clean. I just got tests back …’ he yawned, ‘last weekend.’ He reached for the lamp and we were in darkness. I felt him collapse on top of me and erupt, immediately, into snoring.
In the morning: water and a few kisses. His body curled around mine like a leaf – that perfect face, that perfect cock, those perfect teeth. I touched the tattoos that banded his arms and stretched in orange spirals down his back. When he went to the toilet I took a quick inventory of the bedside table that was hammered to the edge of the bed: water glasses, books on film, photocopies of something that looked suspiciously like a spiritual journey. The missing condom was there, foetal, beside the pillow. A neat row of a dozen sunglasses watched me from the floor.
‘I feel like someone has beaten me up,’ I giggled to Dee on the phone. Inside the clinic, people with genuine ailments coughed and frowned in the waiting room. I perched uncomfortably on the plastic chair discovering new bruises every way I sat. I thought about starting a band.
The doctor didn’t have time to know why I wanted the morning after pill. ‘We couldn’t find the condom,’ I said. He raised his eyebrows. ‘He says he’s clean but maybe I should have some tests?’ I smelled like beer. I smelled like Troy. The nurse leaned close and took blood from my arm. My phone rang again and again. It was Alex.
He left the mountain and came down to the city to see me.
‘I’d like to start The Arrangement,’ I announced over Thai noodles.
‘I’ve been thinking about that too. I guess we just need to convince other people to have sex with us,’ he laughed.
‘I mean … I have … started The Arrangement.’ His eyes widened then he smiled and sat back in his chair with relief. ‘I’m so happy,’ he said and laughed. ‘But I knew just by looking at you.’ I felt my face and grinned.
We were having sex on the floor of the lounge room. Giggling, our dinner cooking on the stove and the bush house clean and warm. I straddled Alex and he smiled into my eyes. His gaze drifted over my bare shoulder and stopped.
‘What’s that?’ he asked. I covered the fresh bite mark, purpling in the light.
‘I … had sex again,’ I told him.
‘Last night. When I was back in the city. I went out—’
‘That same guy.’ I lifted my hips and he slipped out of me. He stared at the bite. Twice, that meant. Twice with Troy. The look on his face ripped my heart out and threw it on the floor.
‘But this is the first time we’ve had sex in weeks,’ he mumbled, confused. Seven: Our own sex life is paramount.
In bed, Alex whispered into the dark: ‘No matter what happens, we will always be friends.’ But later he talked in his sleep with such an aching, violent longing that I woke and couldn’t believe it was him: ‘I want you so much. So much. You don’t realise how sexy I think you are. You are so fucking, fucking beautiful.’ And I wished that he was awake when he fought for me like that.
Laura Jean McKay won the 2011 Alan Marshal Short Story award.