<p>Her message box is empty. She stares at the blinking cursor for a long time. Then she types: Poem for a Boy I Don’t Know.</p>
The morning after the dog disappeared, the girl sits on the back porch with a plate of peanut butter toast, drinking coffee. The sun comes down hard and bright against the back wall of the shed. Washing hangs stiff on the clothesline. Lena sits nearby on the porch, rubbing her eyes.
“Jamal asked me to come to Sydney,” says Lena.
“Will you go?” asks the girl.
“I don’t know. Maybe. Probably not. It’s all so dumb.” Lena puts her head between her knees.
“It’s dumb,” the girl agrees.
Jamal is not coming back to Melbourne. The girl knows this. Lena knows this. Still, Lena is always waiting. The two housemates like to laugh about it together on the lounge room floor until they prefer to talk about something else. They talk about ants instead. How can creatures so tiny exist?
After Lena retreats inside the girl sips the coffee and watches the sunlight hit the tiny hairs of her arm. Caffeine races through her veins like quicksilver. The abrasive aftertaste of peanut butter clings inside her mouth. Sunlight sets the hairs of her arms alight. She is an apparition, a ghost hovering in the sunlight, phantom-limbed. Her fingertips fade and fade into infinity. She reaches out to touch the beams of the porch. Wood slams against the pads of her fingers. Finite, she is inarguably finite.
She finishes the coffee and wonders where the dog is now.
Backpack nestled in the rubber-mesh nook connecting the two tram cabins, the girl turns her head to face the sunlight coming through the window. Her body is slim and shapeless in the large t-shirt and boy’s shorts, flat enough to fold like paper against the rubber.
Her gaze flicks from face to face in the cabin. Locks of hair, angles of jaws, hollows of eyes – one, pale-skinned with a dark oily fringe, gazes out the window on the other side of the tram. Skinny in jeans and thin worn coat, skin perfect and unblemished, brow angled, dented like a rat’s. There is something of Him, the boy she is looking for, in the darkness of the hair, the shock of it against the pale skin. Him? Who? Who is she looking for? – but the stick-body, the rat-brow, belong to someone else.
The tram is stuffy and crowded. The air smells of boot feet and salami. People cling to green vertical poles like barnacles, swaying from overhead handles like clumps of seaweed in the current. The tram slows and the doors peel open. People shuffle slowly inwards as more press in from the openings, the newcomers blinking slowly as if adjusting to darkness, arranging themselves in various positions to fit the human jigsaw puzzle. The tram crawls through the congested traffic into Parkville.
The takeaway coffee in her hand ebbs warmth into her skin like a small animal. People press in on her from all sides. She wishes she had a friend’s clothing to wear, the smell of them to overpower the sweat of strangers and salami. She clasps the cup to her chest, feeling the warmth against her fingertips and sternum: the limits of herself.
The doors slide open. She steps off the tram and into the yellow light. The caffeine has taken her body. She is fading again.
A series of wide paths cross the expanse of lawn at the university. People bare their limbs bravely to the potent sun, walking languidly across the paths on their way to late lunch or afternoon classes. Fat-leaved trees fringe the lawn. The shade there is cool and swollen. The sun cannot reach its fingers beneath the branches. In that coolness, the girl laughs, resting her finger at a point on the page.
“So, that’s where Milo comes from,” she says.
Ben glances up from his textbook and looks at the girl with a half-smile. She has learned that half-smile already, in the short months that they have known each other. His lips stay closed, his neck juts forwards like a bird, his eyebrows peel back towards his scalp.
“What?” he asks.
“‘Milo was a prodigiously strong wrestler from Croton, in Italy.’ I guess that’s why it’s called Milo. The drink, I mean. Because it makes you strong, or something.”
He laughs. “Oh, sorry. I had no clue what you meant.”
She laughs, and apologises too. They apologise to each other a lot. He apologises when she misinterprets the point of a story he recounts. She apologises for following aloud whatever abstract train of thought comes to her head. It is a game of sorts: to assert and backtrack, then pick apart the meaning of each other’s sentences as if they could be dissected like the small prone bodies of rats. It is the game that comes before the sex. But what will come after that? Attempts to express something deeper, something… but he will misinterpret, and the game will go on.
Silence eases back in. A breeze rustles the pages beneath her fingers and throws shadows spinning across their backs. The sun disappears behind a cloud.
“The dog is gone,” the girl says after a while.
“Lena’s dog, the one that was at our house.”
“Oh, that one.”
“It’s weird. The house feels so vacant without it.”
“Wasn’t it only there for a few days?”
“Yeah, but I got used to it being there. He was so dumb, but I got used to him.”
A group of students come and sit on the benches nearby. A girl loudly asserts that she is giving up carbs. She is going on an all-protein diet. She is good at regulating her portion sizes. You don’t burn fat if you eat carbs.
Today Ben has brought the girl iced coffee in a plastic cup. She likes the coolness against her fingers, but the caffeine, at three in the afternoon, makes the edges of her brain feel spiky. Blood pulses thinly through her temples. The voices of the students come loud and jagged. Ben’s body is too close to her on the grass. She cannot concentrate on the words in front of her.
The sun reappears. She looks out across the lawn at the pale faces passing by, one after another. Inside the margins of her book, she has secretly recorded the words of the girl on the bench, to keep something for herself.
The house is silent. The makeshift water bowl, an old takeaway container, still sits by the back door. The girl goes into the lounge room and sinks into the couch.
The dog was dumb. Not in the sense that it was unintelligent, but in the way that it forlornly wandered the house, seemingly incapable of coming to terms with its new surroundings. After Lena’s mother had dropped it off, Lena, seeing its shaggy matted hair, took a pair of scissors to it and trimmed all its hair. But it looked all choppy and more mangled than before. The girl listened to the clack clack clack of its claws against the hollow floorboards as it went up and down the hallway. After Lena left in the morning, it sat for hours on her bed barking at minute noises on the street. It only stopped when the girl got up from her desk and placed her hand on its small shivering body. She couldn’t help but find it pathetic.
One day, it was dry and hot enough to soak through the walls. The girl felt bad for leaving the dog in the house, so she took it outside with her for a walk. It stopped every twenty seconds to sniff at brick walls and halted, mute and anxious, when other dogs passed nearby. Its name was Jet, like the rock band. She said the name aloud as she walked alongside the dog down the hot street. Strangers seemed less strange with the little dog around; concrete footpath and brick walls less imposing, less abrasive. She talked to the dog, talked emptily, but talked nonetheless. It was comforting, to have the little being following behind as she crossed the empty ocean of the park.
She jumps up from the couch and pours cereal into a bowl. The sound of flakes hitting the edges comes like hard rain.
Her message box is empty. She stares at the blinking cursor for a long time. Then she types: Poem for a Boy I Don’t Know.
The garbage truck is back. It isn’t Monday yet but the truck is grinding against the pavement outside, only a handful of meters from her bedroom window. She lies in the half-space between consciousness and sleep and wishes away the coffee she had that evening. The squealing and banging comes in through the doona pulled around her ears and bounces around inside her skull. She is counting rabbits, brown rabbits that dart by one after another out of nowhere, counting the hours left until the morning when she can have her next coffee, counting to one hundred to lull herself to sleep and beginning over again when she still isn’t. Bang – the rabbits scatter. She jogs after one, reaches down to touch it, finds choppy and mangled hair. The little dog is following beside her as she walks the length of a long dusty road, the stars swinging in an enormous arc overhead. Why has the garbage truck come when it isn’t Monday? Ninety-nine, one hundred and four… she backtracks and begins again at zero. The squeal of the truck fades into the night. The little dog trots quietly beside her. Either it knows where they are going, or it plans to follow her wherever they are going. Either way, that seems good enough to her. She speaks its name aloud: Jet. The word goes out across the empty expanse and disappears. Overhead, a clear half-moon giggles as it creeps across the sky, winking knowingly at the slowly-spinning earth below, where she lies low and waits for the morning.