The rail lines have warped and everyone on the train dies a little bit. Sweat pools on the floor around my feet, which if I had more energy would make me feel gross and ashamed. Instead I concentrate on the speed at which sweat beads course down my shins. I have never seen this before; I wasn’t actually sure my shins could sweat. Now I know everything does. Each passenger is perfectly still, clothes soaked through, each face contorted and suspended in agony like we’re all stuck together in an antiquated religious painting. The Perils of the Underworld. The train is stopped just outside Brunswick station, and from the speaker above my head all I hear is static. Outside is a forty-three-degree day in January. We’ve been sitting here for twenty minutes.
I text Josephine, moving my fingers extra slowly. So sorry! Still on the train. Hopefully there in 10–15. Looking forward to meeting you. Out the windows stranded cars stretch in each direction, blocked by the train. I get a text back almost instantly: No worries. A large woman in the carriage with perfect posture and closed eyes says aloud “Fuckin’ hell” as she wipes her forehead with a defeated hand and everyone in earshot stirs. I feel a mounting urge to brush my teeth. I move my tongue around my mouth, first along the slick front surfaces of the top row, then the bottom. I press its sides into the jagged crags on the business surface of my top molars. I worry the retainer glued across the backs of my bottom four front teeth, inserted there twenty years ago by Dr Robertson, an orthodontist with coffee breath. Nick always tells me to start counting when the urge comes, and so I do.
Nick and I met at the University of Melbourne, and by the time I started my thesis I was sometimes up to seven, eight times a day. It started as strictly an oral thing. The brushing, I mean. I had quit smoking a couple years earlier, a habit that had gracefully entwined itself with my writing process, and brushing became a simulacrum for the disgusting, wonderful ritual of paragraph smoke paragraph smoke delete delete smoke. It then developed into a procrastination strategy before evolving into an anxiety management mechanism. How can you feel bad about yourself—and your lack of ideas and the fact that you’re a mere imposter not only as a writer but also as a functioning human—while you’re taking such thorough care of your pearly whites?
Nick was appalled. On days we didn’t see each other he’d call in for a count. I began complaining of gum recession and nerve sensitivity. One day after I’d told him I wouldn’t be joining him for gelato due to the pain that had begun to shiver up from my lower gums, he tracked me down in the office we shared in the graduate building and dropped his copy of Infinite Jest on the desk. He’d bookmarked the section near the end about an obsessive compulsive tooth brusher. I revisited it. There was blood. And psychosis. Lots of it.
The train suddenly grinds forward and I lose my balance.
Stepping onto the platform I discover the air feels cool. This lasts for a few seconds until a breeze comes, the same breeze that rushes up at you when you open your oven door. I turn left on Albert Street. This is my second year in Melbourne, and even though I haven’t spent much time in this part of town I keep feeling as though I recognize things. Shortly after arriving in 2012 a new friend took me to a cafe in which we ate breakfast, in which we chatted over flat whites, in which I finally realised shortly before we left that I’d been there before, several years earlier when I came to visit my brother, Michael, during the period that he called Melbourne home. The recognition yielded both comfort and a minor terror—not unlike the paranoid sense of being followed before reminding yourself you’re being a bit mad because you are in fact not being followed—and ever since that time I always wonder if I’ve ended up retracing steps I have no memory of, if that Edwardian iron lattice just looks familiar or if it actually is.
The people I pass on the street are slow moving and good looking, skinny topless men with bare feet smoking cigarettes through beards, thin women wearing nothing but oversize t-shirts and Doc Martens. They are dry-skinned and effortless and this makes me feel florid and damp. My tongue goes clockwise, then anti. I ring the doorbell at number 106.
A woman opens the door. Her sleeveless blouse billows, her cigarette crops precise and architectural, her fingernails talonesque and iridescent. She stands and looks at me blankly, the tips of her mascara-choked lashes encroaching on eyebrow territory. When she blinks I think first of monarch wings and milkweed, second of Venus fly traps.
“Can I help you?” she says, expressionless still.
“Hi, Josephine? I’m Alison. I’m so sorry I’m late.”
“Oh hi! No worries,” she says. “You know you look nothing like your photo. Your hair is a completely different colour.” She awaits my rejoinder and I am at a loss; that photo was taken a week ago, when I decided it was time to start looking. I touch a strand near the front, twist it around my index finger and look at it, searching for a difference, searching for a response. When I say nothing, she continues. “This heat! Come in come in come in!” She steps back to make space for me, holding the door open with one arm outstretched so that when I enter the doorway it’s like I’m entering an embrace. Her perfume reminds me of how Michael and I used to rub our wrists and necks with the paper perfume sample flaps found in the fashion magazines that littered ubiquitous small glass tables in the various waiting rooms of our childhood. They had always already been opened, the scent faded and degraded to a lingering sweetness. It’s a marvel our mother took us with her anywhere. Anyway, Josephine smells like one of those flaps.
She leads me into the living room, which is mercifully cool.
“I know it’s hot, but would you like a cuppa?”
The idea of hot tea makes me want to cry, so I say, “Actually a glass of water would be lovely.”
The house is fairly new and very clean, the walls an elegant grey contrasting ornate white mouldings and trim. There are fabric swatches covering a dark wood dining table with a sewing machine set up at the far end, countless spools surrounding it, standing guard. There is a small den off the front of the living room with a bay window, which is clearly a study of sorts; it brims with books, shelves, textile projects in progress and stacks of loose-leaf both free and bound. I decide Josephine is interesting and refined, an intellectual and an artist.
She brings me a glass of water. Her pearl grey blouse is nearly the same as the fabric of the sofa, so that when we sit down she and the sofa seem to become one.
“This is a very nice room,” I tell her. She thanks me and tells me she really thinks it reflects a lot about her as a person. The way she says it, though, it sounds like she’s asking me a question. “I bought it about six years ago?” she says. “It’s a two bedroom? You’d be taking Lucy’s room, which I’ll show you when we do the grand tour?”
Josephine and I were matched by an online house-hunting service called Flatmate Finders. Going through my matches each day makes me feel like I’m dating. How disappointing when they meet all your criteria while you meet none of theirs, how thrilling to find profiles that do not use phrases like I enjoy a laugh (or chat or yarn), a shared meal (or a movie or a TV binge) and a cheeky glass of champas (or wine or a pint) from time to time, but I like to do my own thing too. I had to Google champas. Now that I’m here in her living room, sitting side-by-side with her on an overstuffed grey sofa with our knees pointing vaguely toward each other, it feels even more like dating. We chat about likes, dislikes, and utilities.
“I love to sew,” she says. “I make purses. Handbags? But I never really finish them?” Her face is warm and she laughs at herself, so I laugh with her, because she is nice and I know what it’s like to sometimes not finish things. I look again at the fabric strewn on various surfaces in the room and see quite clearly now that they are bags in various stages of incompletion. My tongue finds my front teeth, just briefly.
“I love your accent,” she says suddenly. People comment on my accent frequently, and it’s taking me a while to get used to the idea that I have an accent, as well as the fact that people are so forthcoming about commenting on it. I am glad when she asks me where I’m from rather than guessing, as most people do. Most people guess wrong: Ireland, England, the States, and once, Holland.
“I’m from Canada,” I tell her. “The west coast originally.”
“I love Canadians,” she says as she sits up straight, her eyes opening a bit wider, lashes flaring. I find this claim to be both hyperbolic and unlikely, until she goes on to tell me that she used to live with a Canadian. “My first housemate here was from the west coast, too. Vancouver. She was such a good housemate. We’re still great friends.”
I tell her that I, too, know a few other Canadians here, and that my brother spent several years here as well.
“Amazing,” she says.
There is a pause as we sip our water. I can feel it warming up in here, the cool contrast from when I first stepped inside waning. I can feel a trickle of sweat running down my chest and notice the watery rings on the coffee table left behind from our glasses. Josephine settles more deeply into the sofa and folds her hands in her lap. She is thinking of something to say next. So am I. I want to ask if the house has air conditioning, but I don’t want to be rude so I just put my empty water glass on the table and stretch out my legs a little to air out the backs of my knees. I wonder if she feels she already knows enough about me, if she’s reached the necessary judgement of a complete stranger, as if it were possible to know enough about a person in fifteen minutes to be certain that they would be a good candidate to move into your home, to share your shower, to drink from the same glasses, to eat from your fridge, to possibly engage in minor reciprocal snooping.
I manage to break the silence first. “Where does your old housemate live now?”
“She married an Aussie and moved to the country and I hardly see her. It’s funny how life is, don’t you think? She comes here for the experience, meets the man of her dreams, has twins, has a destination wedding, and—” She smiles and shrugs and it means c’est la vie.
She is waiting for me to agree with her, to nod my head at her philosophizing and say something like exactly or totally, but something in me has constricted. My tongue slides back and forth between upper and lower molars. Josephine notices the tremor in my mouth but says nothing, just watches the slight shifting of my jaw.
“This might sound a little crazy,” I say. “But did your Canadian friend by any chance work in architecture?”
“Yes,” Josephine says, drawing out the word. There is caution in both her tone and facial expression. I notice a smudge of mascara now beneath her left eye. “A draftsperson.”
“Is her name Jen? And was her wedding in Hawaii?”
When Michael lived in Melbourne he had a Canadian friend, too. Her name was Jen and she was from Vancouver and worked in architecture and when I came to visit we spent quite a bit of time together. We went to see an Almodóvar film at Cinema Nova. We went for dumplings in a laneway. I even spent Christmas and New Years Eve with her. I also know that Michael, long since back in Canada, recently went to Jen’s wedding in Hawaii. I already know about her, about the Aussie hubby and twin bubs. I know her.
“Yes! Jen! Oh my god, you know her?”
I explain the connection and we look at each other, baffled by this coincidence. Then, she gasps. “Wait,” she says. “Your brother’s not Michael, is he?
I hope I am smiling, though it feels like I’m gaping. “He is.” I say words like wow and amazing and I find this to be a bizarre conversation to be having with a stranger I’ve been paired with by an algorithm.
“I love Michael! So tall and handsome. You know, now I can see the resemblance. You are very, very similar.” Josephine stares at me for a long time, and the smile drips from her face until the look she’s left giving me is perplexed and accusatory.
“We are,” I say. “People often say that.”
“But it’s not necessarily how you look,” she says, concentrating still on my face, tilting her head to the side. “It’s the way you speak, the way you move.”
It seems there is nothing left to say. I notice that Josephine is sweating. Her foundation is sliding, clearing space around her overflowing pores, exposing the greyish blue pouches under her eyes. She smiles quickly, the way strangers do when they pass on the sidewalk, open and closed with a raising of eyebrows, and I can see lipstick on her teeth. I emit a noise that is both a sigh and laugh. Just as she does the same, a key turns in the lock and the front door swings open. Butter-coloured light slices through the room, and I realise how dark and heavy the air is, how the windows are almost entirely obscured by piles of things: books with titles like Chicken Soup for the Female Entrepreneur’s Soul, uneven stacks of ragged gossip magazines, the unfinished bags with pins sticking out of them in every direction. They look violent.
“That’s Lucy,” says Josephine without turning around. “She’s the one leaving.” Lucy peers at us through the silence. Still without turning around, Josephine says, “Stay out of your room for a bit, okay? You can just wait in the hall while I show Alison around.”
Lucy drops her bag and comes to sit with us in the living room. We both say Hi. “So, you might be moving in.” She is telling, not asking. Her face is red from the heat and sullen. My tongue twitches around my mouth like an insect in a jar.
“Let’s go upstairs and I’ll give you the tour,” says Josephine. She lifts herself off the sofa with effort, coming unstuck. Her blouse now clings to her with moisture. On the grey back cushion she leaves behind a triangular wet patch, jagged as a giant arrowhead, and on the seat a love heart. I stand too and look apologetically at Lucy.
“Actually,” I say. “May I please use your bathroom first?” Josephine points and I excuse myself.
I stare in the mirror. My teeth feel too big for my mouth. There is something dark and troubling about such encounters. Again, the feeling of being followed, of a shadow—the past—lurking. I once ran into an old friend from Concordia University, whom I hadn’t seen for years, on a crowded train platform in Kyoto. It turned out we had both moved to different cities in Japan the previous month. When I first saw her I doubted my perception, and when our eyes met there was a distinct pause, a moment in which we both second-guessed the possibility of such fortuity. Because really, how is something like this possible.
I am stealthy as I open and close cabinet doors, as I move products to search behind them, careful to return them to their original positions. I find what I’m looking for in a top drawer: a small forgotten spool of floss. Waxed. Mint. It’ll do. I help myself. After all, she’s a friend of a friend.