The government gave me a place to live. It was part of a rehabilitation or re-integration program, and they put us all into this block of tiny apartments like dog boxes, with a bed and a toilet and not much else.
This was up north, so you’d always have the front door open in the sweating heat, a phone book chocked in. We’d all be sitting out on the balcony in shorts and singlets, or no singlets, bare feet up on the railing. Cigarette smoke haze lingering into the night. We didn’t speak one another, me and the other no-hopers, all eyes front and head down, learned from prison days and police questions. We just sat in and watched the days pass by in traffic tides, soaked in the red light glow from the McDonald’s across the street. The golden arches looming after sunset.
This is how I met the girl. I was walking bare foot on the median strip and feeling the flow of the cars washing by and she was waiting to cross, headed to work in her McDonald’s uniform.
‘Are you okay?’ She asked. I hadn’t even noticed her till then.
‘Yes.’ She was looking at my feet. ‘Oh. it’s okay, I live just over there. I’d seen the grass from a distance and wanted to take a walk in it. That’s probably weird.’
‘No, no, makes perfect sense,’ she rolled her eyes and the crossing started ticking and she walked away. I saw her again a couple of days later, same thing, her headed to work, me wasting hours.
‘Shoes today?’ She said.’
‘Yes. I normally wear shoes.’
‘Right. No judgement, you do what you like.’ She smiled.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked.
‘Are you serious?’ And she waited, I wasn’t sure what to say. She pointed to her chest, her name tag in plain sight. Clarissa.
‘Okay, sorry, I hadn’t even thought to look.’
‘Sure you hadn’t.’
Then the crossing started ticking and she left again. She looked back to me as she went.
I started meeting her every day, catching up, then after work too. She’d bring me leftovers from after her shift and we’d sit in the car park and talk into the night. I didn’t want to take her back to the dog box, but eventually it happened and I bowed my head, embarrassed. She walked in and sat onto the bed.
‘I like it,’ she said.
She was a big girl. Not fat, just big. When we had sex she’d sit up on top and my hands could barely cover her breasts. ‘
‘Do you know how old I am?’ She asked one night, as we lay together in the red glow. Panic shivered through me. I heard a police siren in the distance. She leaned back to get a better look at my face.
‘Don’t worry, I’m eighteen.’ She smiled and I let out a deep breath. ‘Did you seriously think I might not be eighteen?’
‘No, it’s just that you asked the question, made me nervous.’
‘No need to be nervous.’ She pushed herself up, the blanket falling off of her naked body and she leaned over me. ‘You’ve got nothing to worry about.’ Her lips tasted like strawberry lollipops.
Because her parents would be upset I could never walk her home. We’d walk to the end of her street then we’d kiss and she’s go up the hill to her house alone. I’d watch her go, watch her till she was at the front door. She’d look back in the light from inside and wave a tiny wave, just in case her dad was looking, then she’d be gone. Then I’d wander the streets at night, my head filled with happiness and purpose and I’d head back to the dog box and think of my time with her.
She made things different. Up north in the boiling heat and amongst the no-hopers. At least I had Clarissa, I thought. The rest of you, with your regrets, I’m not like you. I’ve got Clarissa. I started thinking about where I might work, where we might live.
One time she came over after her shift and she was upset. She had a key now, and she’d just come over straight after she’d finished, and she came in and she was crying, her long hair stuck to her cheeks.
‘That fucking prick.’ She said.
‘What is it?’
‘That prick, Jacob, he told me I was useless.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Jacob, the boss, you know how I was saying the other day about how he’s always flirting with Jess and Katie? Well he was doing that again and I rolled my eyes and he saw me, then he was just a prick to me all night and when someone’s order got screwed up on the drive-thru, he told me I was useless and that I was on notice.’
I felt heat in my veins, seeing her cry. I took her in, put my arms round her. She was sobbing, her words bouncing out in breaths.
‘He said I’ve been a problem for weeks, that everyone had noticed.’ I wanted to push his eyes into his head till my thumbs popped straight into his brains. I wanted to punch him till there was nothing left of his face.
‘I didn’t do anything wrong,’ she cried.
I pushed her hair away from her face, stroked her cheek.
‘It’s okay.’ I told her. ‘Everything will be fine.’
Jacob was a tall, skinny kid with a straight haircut and a mole on his left cheek and when I saw him come out I ran across the street, got to him just as he was headed to his car. This was a couple of days later, after what he’d said, and I came up to him at his car at the end of his shift, the store all dark and locked up, the car park empty.
‘Hey, Jacob.’ I said. He turned to me, held his bag up at his chest.
‘Yes, who are you?’
‘It doesn’t matter, I’m just…’ I didn’t know where to go, hadn’t thought through what to say. ‘Why’d you say that shit to Clarissa?’
‘Clarissa, she told me…’
‘Clarissa? She told you to come and talk to me?’ Jacob asked.
‘No, but she said what you said to her. Why’d you fucking say that?’
‘Why’d you say that to her?’
‘Sorry, I don’t know who you are?’
I stepped forward, closer to him.
‘It doesn’t matter who I am, but you need to not say shit to Clarissa anymore, okay?’
‘Are you threatening me?’
I stepped forward again and Jacob raised his chin. I imagined all the no-hopers out on the balcony, leaning forward, waiting to see what happens next.
‘Yeah I am, mate, I’ll fucking kill you, you talk to her like that again.’ Jacob said nothing, stared back, bag still held tight to his chest. He was breathing heavy. ‘You understand?’
Jacob shook his head.
‘What?’ I asked.
‘You get in your car and drive home then,’ I told him, started stepping away. Jacob opened the door quick, got in the car. The red brake lights beaming in my eyes and he sped off out of the car park.
‘What the fuck?’ Clarissa came in, ran right up to me. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ She pushed my chest.
‘What is it?’
‘I got fired.’
‘For you, you idiot, you threatened to bash Jacob.’
‘I didn’t threaten to bash him.’
‘You did, he called the police, and they fired me.’
‘Well the cops haven’t come here.’
‘He doesn’t know where you live, idiot, he told them I know, they’re going to go to my house.’ Then I understood. I’d fucked it up.
‘Sorry.’ I told her.
‘Sorry? That’s not good enough. You’re sorry. You fucking idiot.’ She pushed me again, then hit me. ‘What were you thinking?’
‘I wanted to help you.’
‘That’s the problem, you can’t help. Because you’re an idiot. All the shit that’s happened to you, all the things that you’ve got caught up in, like you say, they’ve happened because you’re dumb. Everyone else manages to avoid getting caught up in them.’ Then. ‘You’re a fucking idiot.’
‘Don’t say that, don’t tell me you’re sorry.’ She covered her mouth with one hand. She shook her head. ‘You have no idea, do you?’ She stood there, strands of her hair drifting in rage. Her eyes red from crying. She never looked so beautiful, so perfect. I wanted to touch her.
‘Please.’ I said.
‘Fuck off. You’re a fucking idiot.’ She closed her eyes. ‘I can’t believe I ever got involved with a moron like you.’
As she walked along the balcony and down the stairs I followed, grabbing at her hand and running to get in front of her and holding my hands up to make her stop, but she kep walking.
She met my eyes only once, when I caught her glance in the headlights of a passing car. She looked at me in sympathy. There was nothing else. It hurt seeing that, knowing I had nothing again. I lay alone in the dog box, the phone up next to the bed. Waiting. The pillow wet beneath my head.