WHEN SHE'S STILL waiting at 8.25, she is forced to accept that he won't be arriving. A cloudy sunset seeps through half-cracked Venetian blinds, filling the room with milky gold. Thin beams of light reflect on her from the full-length mirror. She stands in front of it, motionless. Opaque streaks of carelessly applied hairspray have dried on the glass earlier in the day. Now they split her image into slices of flesh with uneven edges. Nothing in the room or inside her aligns.
This is not uncommon. By the third meeting with a man she is usually lost to reason. She thinks of a Stendhal quote she read somewhere: 'To think of the rapidity and the violence with which I was drawn towards him.'She knows she's overtaken like this too, no matter how hard she tries to pace the accelerating frames in her mind. Images of her past and future, then his, blend into theirs. She knows she shouldn't think this way, but her thoughts are fast-moving glass slides.
She begins to undress. There is no use for discomfort. She peels off her stockings: shed snake skins on the carpet, legs stripped of anticipation. She'd been so busy getting ready that she hadn't realised until now that it is two hours past the time he was due to arrive. The thing that she will never understand about men is how they can promise so much, so often, with so little intention.
NINE O'CLOCK. THE places in the room that had been daubed with gold have faded into cool green shadow, as if slowly healing bruises were surfacing all across her walls. Maybe, she thinks, it's the same capacity that can make men in war able to kill – they perceive objects and actions, without seeing the relationship between them.
As a child, she passed through war zones, sometimes more than three in a year. Her father, an ambassador, believed it a great addition to her education. And it is true that, unlike everything else she rote-learned during high school and forgot within months of completing her final exams, she will always somehow remember the things she saw then.
When she was ten he took her to visit a village in Balochistan. She remembers seeing, through the car's dark glass, mounds of sand by the roadside, weighted with jagged stone tiles. Beside them, a sign painted on rough wood in a script she couldn't read warned of something dangerous. She had pointed at the mounds, thinking them the den of some wild animal. Her father did not repeat to her what the interpreter said then, though he usually did.
Later, she recounted what she had seen to her teacher at the local school.
Honour Killing. Such a strange combination of words, it seemed to her; the phrase had to be explained. Elders had buried three women alive, sand taking the place of oxygen in their nostrils, forming soft heavy moulds of the insides of their mouths and lungs. A slow landslide taking place in their bodies, below ground.
After returning to Australia, she was unsettled by the dug-out airways of crabs and saltwater yabbies that can be seen along the beach. Dark funnels, spotting the sodden shore. She imagined women's upturned faces beneath the sand, somehow surviving, their whistling mouths hungry for air and light.
She remembered those three steep mounds again, more clearly, when she started dating and her mother mentioned keeping her stockings on and protecting her honour. The wet hands and firm mouths, closed eyes, tensed thighs and sticky clothes of those nights were nice. They seemed to have little to do with killing. But still, she wasn't sure she could trust men entirely.
She hadn't remembered Balochistan again until tonight, although there have been times when fear has flickered, unformed. The images of a flag-planted island and a speared gazelle had flashed through her mind when she lost her virginity (in the morning, flushing away soft strings of flesh, mushroom pink). Then, again, in a Vienna taxi, when she'd been on a trip for university. The silent driver had turned his sharp gaze toward her (his profile: a knife edge; the tint of his sunglass lenses: blood red). He had stared at her in the rear-view mirror, unwavering, his mouth shut tight. Outside, it was getting dark. The wood had streaked into swampy wastelands. Her heart had stopped when his pale hand reached to open the glove box and she heard a soft thud in the guts of the car, the remote closing of internal locks. In the echo of that sound she saw her life tunnel down to that road, a right turn perhaps onto a damp dead-end track, the cornflower cloth of her travel dress hitched, grey stockings ripped. Her breath had returned when she saw a sign to Mariahilferstrasse arrowing from the highway and heard the tick of the indicator following obediently. Still, when she thinks of Vienna, she does not think of the Hapsburg Palace or the gilt dome of the Ascension, apple strudel or a warm kaffeehaus: she thinks about the moments she saw the end of her life reflected in the driver's red-tinted glasses.
But usually fear has just danced behind an opaque screen in her memory, graceless shadow puppetry. It's the other men, the ones she has been with, that have made her forget. At first when they stared at her she was scared, but then, gradually, their hands and their mouths stole her caution.
On a TV show this morning she heard about the development of a pill that can perform the 'inducible and selective erasure of memories'. In trials the drug has almost completely removed recollections of a traumatic event in animal subjects, leaving only imprints of happiness. The report warned that it could have damaging psychological consequences, preventing those who take it from learning from their mistakes. She thinks that perhaps she'd prefer to lose the happy memories. Often it's remembering episodes of hope that causes her the most distress.
She met him at the party of a friend. When she looked at his face, she thought of a satellite map of rugged terrain, or an EEG graph of brainwaves. He was standing in a corner of the courtyard playing with fire, passing one finger back and forth through the blue-orange blaze of a silver cigarette lighter. She didn't think she'd ever met anyone like him. That was always what she found herself thinking. Then, they all turned out to be the same: emotional flat lines.
On their first date he took her to a bar that shared her name and bought her a cocktail. It felt, despite the ice, like swallowing knives and flames. He waited for her by the bathroom door at the back of the bar and kissed her hard, there on the stairs, against the wall, his feet planted wide, his arms spread, fingers gripping the bricks on either side of her head. She had thought of the fine furred legs of the spiders in Morocco, large as a man's hand, which crept into her family's lodge one year after the rains. Splayed on the ceiling above her bed, a shifting galaxy of dark six-pointed stars. His kiss had tasted of Tanqueray. Her skirt was caught up at the small of her back. No one in the bar noticed them. She would have liked to get away.
That night she dreamed of muzzled tigers prowling in multi-level hotel suites, surprising her on plush red-carpeted staircases, their heads encased in khaki helmets so that all she could see was the condensation from their hot mouths where their eyes should have been. She held her breath beneath chandeliers, on balustrades, overhanging the pebbled paths of landscaped gardens. Once she watched from outside of her body as the figure curled around her beneath cream sheets, grew stripes and fangs and other sharp things until, where he clasped her shoulders, she bled.
THE SECOND TIME he took her out it was to an avant-garde theatre show in which no one spoke. The performers' hands, wet-painted red, left marks on each other whenever they collided. Afterwards, he drove her to the outskirts of a park and rolled her on top of him in the dark car. The zipper on his jeans clipped the skin of her thigh, leaving a trail of swollen punctures like small tooth marks.
Tonight would've been the third night. A dinner date had been suggested but it's eleven and he still hasn't arrived. She's begun to like him, more than she wanted to. She finds that she lets out a rough exhalation whenever she thinks of him, her desire rising up thick and dark as ink.
It's beginning to seem that her punishment for this strength of feeling is always the men disappearing.
In the dim room the carousel of lights from passing cars rotates her eyes from side to side. An emergency helicopter spurs overhead, buzzing frantic as an overturned beetle. She brushes out the curls from her hair and wipes away mascara, eye shadow and eyeliner. She empties her carefully packed handbag of wallet, lip gloss, condoms, mints. She knows the feeling well, the way it begins. How, in the morning, she will wake with a smile, before remembering that now she will have to hate him. How all the buildings and street signs will be renamed in her mind. Like an Amerindian map, the edge of that park will be known now, and forever, as The Last Place He Kissed Me. The whole city marked up with ghosts of us, she thinks.
She won't cry again, like the last time, but her chest feels tight. For weeks after the last man vanished, she had had to go about everything with her head slightly tilted back to keep the tears contained. If she levelled her gaze they traced powdery tracks from her lids to the corners of her lips.
Now the room is a fist clenching around her. It is a still summer night outside, windless, airless. She would like something to break. Glass, the clouds, a wave. To let the light and air in again. She has grown feverish waiting for him. Anticipation turned heavy, limbs unresisting gravity, head sinking. She wants to be near sand dunes and salt lakes. Canyons. A monsoon. To have all-new memories.
SHE PLACES HER pressed chemise back in the closet. It shimmers on its hook, swaying there beside her other dresses. All of them hanging softly like the bodies of women.
Midnight. Outside the traffic has faded to a low irregular hum. She flicks off the porch light. In the darkness she begins to pack a suitcase.