Emily Paull is a third-year Creative Writing student at Murdoch University with an unnatural fondness for Cheesecake. She also makes terrible puns.
You can find her blog at https://elimy.blogspot.com
Adam closed the book, the covers snapping together emphatically like a full stop. “Friendship is worthless,” he said with a dismissive shrug. “It is nothing more than a parasitic exchange of pleas for attention. If you want to make it in business, you must cut all ties.”
The crowd gave a polite burst of applause. Someone coughed. Adam adjusted his watch; ten minutes until he could go.
“Imagine how much more you could fit into your day if you didn’t have to deal with other people’s problems,” he went on. “If you didn’t have to check your Facebook. Imagine how much more money you could be making.”
Adam took a sip of coffee. Cold. The mug had a mysterious stain on it too. It was his agent’s not-so-brilliant-idea: put him in a ‘specialty’ bookstore. Even worse, it was in his old suburb, the one he’d lived in during University. The whole store smelt like wet pine, his favourite smell in the whole world before he’d realised that it was also the smell of failure.
“Does anyone have a question?” he asked. Half the crowd had already been there when the reading had started. His very own captive audience. A balding man raised his hand.
“Yes, you up the back,” Adam said.
“Well, I was just sitting here wondering... I mean, efficiency is good and all, but don’t you ever feel like something is... missing?”
Adam picked at his cuticles and sighed. He resented the way that the man had filled the word ‘missing’ with such mystical significance.
“No,” he said. “Anyone else?”
A slight murmur travelled through the crowd. Adam looked at the counter. The sales girl was shaking her head, face hidden under a cap. He shrugged it off, doing a few rotations of his shoulders. “If that’s it, then I guess we wrap up early. I’ll wait around for a few minutes and sign...”
“Wait!” came a woman’s voice. She was obscured by a group of forty-something book-clubbers who had claimed the only stools available in front of the till. “I have a question.”
Adam strained his neck to try and see her but one of the book-club ladies was wearing a very inconsiderate hat. He liked eye contact. It was easier to be intimidating if you could see the other person’s illusion shatter through their eyes.
“Go on?” he prompted, reverting to method two: staring at his shoes.
“What inspired your book?” said the invisible girl, her voice high and thin. Uni student. He sighed.
“What do you mean ‘inspired’? It’s not an epic fantasy.”
More muffled talk from the crowd. She spoke again.
“How do you expect any of us here to take what you have to say seriously if you don’t even believe in your own theories for any particular reason? Did you just write this book to make money?”
Adam pinched the bridge of his nose. “Is this some kind of a joke? Did my agent send you?”
“Are you avoiding the question?”
“It’s all in the book, sweetheart. You’d know that if you’d actually read it. And now we’re really out of time.”
The forty-something book club was heading right for him with their Sharpies. Adam picked up his jacket and looked down at his shoes as he walked. Autographs were not part of the deal; he’d already told his agent that. By the door, Adam knocked into a display of fantasy books.
“Fucking Robin Hobb,” he muttered.
The little bell over the door tinkled as he burst onto the street.
The suburb had been different when he’d lived there six years earlier. Instead of balding fat men, it had been filled with students; sometimes dreadlocked, sometimes pierced, and more often than not, trying to consume their bodyweight in caffeinated beverages. The best coffee had come from a place called The Bean, a converted corner store with lace curtains on the windows and framed movie posters from the 1940s all over the walls.
For an eighteen year old, he’d been scrawny. He wasn’t handsome up close, but from a distance, he was ‘alright’, or so said Annabelle. But Adam was okay with that.
“Hey!” Annabelle sang out as she swung into her side of the booth. “Sorry I’m late!” She pushed something across the table. It was a slim notebook with post-its sticking out on all sides. “I made some notes.”
“That’s okay,” said Adam, not looking up— the laminate on the table was so shiny he could check his teeth in it. “And thanks.”
“I finished your story in one go,” Annabelle said, tucking her blonde hair behind her ears with both hands. “I loved it.”
He looked up. “Even though it was science fiction?”
“Even though no one kissed anyone else in the entire thing.”
Adam looked at his knuckles. “Wow. Coming from you, that actually means a lot.”
Annabelle leaned over to pull a textbook out of her bag; Introduction to Psychology. It was possibly the biggest book Adam had ever seen her with. Her singlet gaped a little and Adam tried not to look at her bra: black with little embroidered roses.
“Have you ordered yet?” she asked, opening to a page with worksheets folded inside it.
“Okay,” she said, closing the book again. “I’ll get you the usual then. My shout.”
Her sandals thwacked on the tiles as she crossed to the counter. Adam smiled to himself and counted how many guys in the shop turned to stare at her.
The barista handed Annabelle two mugs the size of soup tureens. As he helped her with a tray, he scrawled something on her napkin. The look on the poor guy’s face – a basset hound left behind while its owner went for a walk. Adam laughed.
“What’s so funny?” she said, sliding back into the booth and sloshing coffee over the sides of the mugs. She re-tucked her hair behind her ears. Adam pointed to the cup. The barista had drawn a heart in her cappuccino foam using chocolate powder.
“So? That’s just part of the service.” Her eyes slid over to the top of Adam’s coffee – double shot, low foam, no sugar cappuccino with soy milk – there was no powder. “Oh.”
Adam snorted with laughter. “And look at your napkin.”
Annabelle unfolded the white napkin. In Sharpie, the barista had written ‘Josh’ and ‘Call me!’ and his phone number.
“Shut up. Don’t start.”
Adam laughed silently until his stomach muscles tensed and he had to take a deep breath. “You Annabelle’d him!”
“What have I told you about using my name as a verb? I just broke up with Liam. I’m still grieving.”
Adam took a hasty sip of his coffee and burned his tongue. Annabelle picked up her mug and just held it against her top lip without drinking. He could see her counselling herself- oh sweet Jesus, she was clearly comparing her break up to the death of a loved one. Seven stages- anger, fear, denial... shit no, what were the other ones? He watched her glare at the barista like it was his fault and decided to lay low. Adam just wasn’t good at the comforting friend routine, not when it came to broken hearts. He didn’t get relationships, nor did he want to. Faking a cough, he opened his notebook.
“Sorry,” Annabelle said, her voice all broken notes.
“Damian’s entered me in a short story competition but the catch is they want me to read aloud...”
She licked her lips. “Do you want to know what happened with me and Liam?”
“What? No. The guy was sleeping with his tutor. The whole campus knows that.”
She sighed. “We were in an open relationship.”
Adam flicked through his notebook. “Is that a ‘new age’ way of saying you were okay with him sleeping around?”
“He had to be okay with me doing the same.”
Adam’s eyebrows narrowed. “Did you?”
“You can’t be in an open relationship unless both of you act like you are. It’s a behavioural contract.”
Annabelle scowled at him and filled her mouth with coffee. She swallowed.
“So I’m a bitch for breaking up with him then?” As she talked, her hands flailed around everywhere. Should I go out and have a fling too, Adam? Who should I fuck? You?”
Adam gritted his teeth. “Stop it. You’re acting like a crazy person.”
“Did I make him cheat on me?”
“I don’t know.”
He turned his attention to his story, wondering what comments she’d made, but she’d written them all in fluoro pink and he couldn’t read them. He slammed the notebook shut and slumped back in his chair, waiting for her little tantrum to play itself out.
“Adam, I don’t think—”
“Do you want my advice?”
She nodded and slurped at her coffee, leaning on the table with both elbows.
“If you want something, you have to ask for it or it won’t happen. If you want loyalty, you make it official. You don’t say open relationships are okay if you’re really a monogamist. Which you are.”
She bit her lip, but a smile worked its way through her stormy expression. “You’re right,” she said, exhaling. “If the whole writing thing doesn’t work out, you could always write self help.”
He groaned. “Shoot me now.”
Adam reached into his satchel and pulled out two tickets. He slid them across the table. “You’ll be there, right?” he said.
“Of course.” She looked down at the tickets— horribly amateur with that someone-in-the-English-Department-just-got-Microsoft-Publisher feel. “Front row, centre seats. Who should I bring?”
“Anyone,” said Adam. “I just need you there.”
She finger combed her hair a bit and then shook her head so blonde cascaded all about her face. It was as if she’d shaken the melancholy out of her whole body.
Adam looked up. He’d been lost in thought. Ralph Jenkins appeared on the adjacent balcony, brandishing a paper in one hairy butcher’s arm. Adam didn’t budge. He’d thought the whole point of living in luxury apartments was not having to deal with your neighbours. Or the chest hair that peeped out of their Bonds singlets in the morning.
Adam looked at Jenkins the way one might a second hand car, seeing only what was wrong with him. Who did he think he was kidding with those highlights?
“I took the liberty of looking at your paper, and guess what? Someone reviewed you. You’re in the Herald!” said Jenkins.
Adam threw his pen down. He hadn’t been writing anyway, only doodling. Someone had once told him that a piece of paper that wasn’t totally blank was much easier to work on, but clearly they’d been full of shit.
“Don’t sound so surprised,” he said. Jenkins shrugged and threw the paper across the divide. It landed next to Adam’s potted lime tree, sections sliding out like entrails. Adam tried to shuffle the thing back into something that resembled a paper. He placed it atop his doodle pad and flicked to the entertainment section, reaching for his breakfast.
The Adam Bedeman Method: Business Bible or Repressed Teen Angst. Don’t be fooled!
Adam began to choke on a piece of toast. He looked for the by-line, eyes bulging out of his head. He had to massage his throat just to make the food go down.
“When asked about events which inspired this so-called business revelation, Mr. Bedeman panicked, leaving this writer to believe that he has a secret he doesn’t want his reader to know.” Adam read aloud to himself. “What the...”
Ralph chuckled and re-entered his own apartment through the sliding door. Adam reached for his iPhone, skimming the contents page of the paper for a number he could call.
“Herald,” a woman’s voice said. “Please hold.”
The night of the competition, everyone had been there. His tutor came to see him backstage, making him feel pretentious, as usual.
“I knew you were special, Bedeman,” Damian said, giving a rare smile and showing his crooked teeth. “If a seventeen year old, a first year under my tutelage can win this competition, the University will have to give us more funding.”
“I’m eighteen...” said Adam, pointlessly. The tutor shrugged.
“Not if they interview you. If they interview you, you’re seventeen. It’s inspiring, it screams ‘child genius’.”
Adam nodded, all the while thinking the man was a prat. A beatnik fifty years too late, with no talent. The tutor gestured to Adam’s notebook with a cigarette. “I love that you brought that ratty old thing. So authentic. I love it.”
Outside the dressing room, in the auditorium, the crowd burst into applause.
“You’re up!” said Damian, getting to his feet.
Adam nodded. His stomach felt full of mercury. Full of something. He got out of his chair and headed for the stage door. Damian lit the cigarette and gave Adam a thumbs up.
Annabelle’s voice ran through his head. If it doesn’t work out, you can always write self help.
He stepped through the curtains. The lights trained on the stage blinded him and made him sweat needles. He held one hand up to shield his eyes and the crowd laughed. He could hear them but could barely make them out.
Annabelle had promised weeks ago that she’d wolf-whistle when he came onstage. Had he missed it?
“Um... hi...” Adam’s voice died against a wall of stagnant air. He positioned himself in front of the microphone and tried again.
“I’m Adam. I’m a first year.”
He paused, to get his breath and to give himself time to fill his dry mouth with saliva. He pulled the notebook out from under his arm and fumbled opening the first page. The book flew to the ground.
“Shit,” he said.
The crowd laughed again, harder this time.
Adam’s cheeks turned bright red. He snatched up the book.
“I wrote this for Anna. She’s sitting...” Squinting through the white light, he searched for her in the front row. A strange tingling filled him from stomach to fingertips.
“She’s... she’s not here but I wrote it for her anyway.” And the crowd became one unified voice. “Aww,” it said.
Adam’s iPhone buzzed its way through an epileptic fit. Adam, who had dozed off in front of Spicks and Specks, woke in shock. He struggled to answer it.
“Adam Bedeman,” he said, wiping a snail’s trail of saliva off his cheek.
“Adam, how’s it going?” said a woman’s voice. A real estate agent? An insurance broker?
“Sorry, who is this?”
“It’s Anna. You asked the paper to have me call you.”
His blood felt thick, like detergent. “Anna who?”
“Laurenstein. Shit, Adam, it hasn’t been that long.
Adam couldn’t slow his thoughts down for long enough to gauge how he was feeling. Nauseous, mostly.
“There was a problem with my review?”
Adam leaned his head on one hand. “I wanted to know why the writer of the article thought they had the right to publically psychoanalyse me. But you’re the writer. You always did try to shrink my head.”
“I don’t think they would print a retraction for a book review. And I didn’t write anything that wasn’t true.”
“You were a psychology student. How did you end up writing reviews?” Adam could hear the crackle of a landline connection and her steady, normal breathing, so he waited.
He found himself imagining her home – white carpets, peach curtains. A Maltese terrier. She was pulling him in like a fish on a line. Eighteen-year-old-Adam spoke with twenty-four-year-old-Adam’s voice. She had the answers to his questions. “Have coffee with me then. I want to know.”
She sighed. “I guess.”
The Bean was nothing like it used to be. Everything was terracotta orange. Annabelle sipped and avoided his eyes like a suspect on trial. He’d never realised that she dyed her hair, but now her roots were showing.
“How’s your life?” he asked, like a Coles cashier.
Adam didn’t answer. He thought about the last time they’d sat there.
“What happened to Liam?” He saw her gaze shift to over his shoulder and turned, expected to catch her ogling the wait staff. Instead, he found he was looking at a woman with a baby.
“Same old same old. I think he’s married.”
Adam wanted to laugh, but didn’t. He picked at the laminate on the table where it was coming loose.
Annabelle tucked her hair behind her ear. “How the fuck did you end up writing self help, anyway?”
Adam smiled. “Because you told me to.”
“No, I’m serious.”
For the first time, they looked at each other. Her eyes widened.
“Do I get royalties then?”
Adam opened his mouth and closed it again. His watch said five pm; time to organise dinner, but he didn’t want to leave.
“Come over,” he said.
She raised her eyebrows. “Okay.”
Under the sink she found an open bottle of Bourbon. He poured some into two tumblers and topped them up with Diet Coke.
“Cheers,” he said, clinking his glass to hers. She took a mouthful.
“You have crow’s feet,” she said. “You’re an old twenty-four year old.”
Adam wrinkled his nose. “You’re older than I am.” “Ah but I didn’t abuse my youth with... what were those things you were always going on about? Oh yes... goals. I don’t look a day over twenty!”
They teetered on the edge of laughing but couldn’t tip over it. Adam tried to sip from his glass, but it was empty.
It got later and the bottle slowly emptied. Annabelle showed no signs of wanting to leave. At first they’d talked about people they’d both known. Whatever happened to so-and-so? Oh really? No! You’re pulling my leg. But they’d only known so many people. Around eleven, Annabelle suggested a telemovie but there was nothing on, so they watched the ads. The television blared as the hours ticked over. They tried to keep talking, but the room was warm and her voice grew thick like honey, heavy with the pull of sleep. And then, Annabelle’s head dropped onto Adam’s shoulder and his skin caught fire.
“Jesus!” he said, finally knowing how it felt to be Annabelle’d.
He got up and lowered her onto the couch, stretching her out flat. She immediately curled up into a little foetal ball, arms and legs tucked in. She looked so small and uncomfortable on the leather, but he had no pillows or blankets to bolster her with. Adam went to his own bed with an empty feeling in his chest.
Hours later, he woke to find she had climbed into bed beside him. They weren’t touching, but she’d curled into an S shape, facing into him like he was a shield. He rolled over onto his back and her eyes flicked open.
“Why did you blow me off at the competition?” he asked.
She rubbed her eyes on the back of her hand. “You wouldn’t understand.”
Adam rolled over.
“I was with Liam,” she said.
“Was that all you cared about? Boyfriends?” He pulled a hair off his lip and flicked it away. A subtle shaking of the mattress told him she was crying.
“I didn’t want to be alone,” she said.
When he woke the second time, eyes glued with sleep and opening only under duress, she was gone. Adam didn’t know whether to cry or feel relieved. Not wanting to feel how warm her side of the bed was, he got up. Instead of eating, he cleaned his bathroom, immersing himself in Selleys and Easy-off Bam and enjoying the way that the soap scum wiped away like the erasing of a memory.
It was only when he got to cleaning the mirror that he stopped. Where he’d expected to see an old man, he saw a boy with messy hair. Putting the Chux cloth down, he leaned on the counter and took a deep breath. Handsome-from-a-distance, he’d been. But wasn’t that how it was with most things? Like Annabelle.
Once, in his first year, he’d gone to class with her because she was worried about sitting alone. He’d been happy to do it. Never having had a sister of his own, he idolised the idea of being someone’s guy Friday. But when they’d gotten there, a bunch of beautiful people who had claimed the back row called out to her and beckoned with black, filed fingernails. There had only been one seat left. She looked at Adam and widened her eyes like a puppy.
“Please Adam,” she’d said. “They’re in my tute. And we may have to do group assignments. You want me to make friends, don’t you?”
And Adam had just pinched the bridge of his nose and taken a seat somewhere off to the far left of the lecture theatre.
Now he used two fingers to pull the crow’s feet around his eyes taut but he still looked hard. He was used up. He’d become a cynic, inside and out.
That afternoon, he searched through boxes from his uni days for his old notebook. It was so tattered that the cover felt like cloth, not paper. As he turned it over in his hands, shredded post-its fluttered to the floor. The spine was warped with clutch marks.
Adam started his computer. He opened a new Word document. And he wrote until he understood what had been missing all along.