A NOVELLA IN ZINE FORM, BY JOAN WESTENBERG


When I first came to Sydney, I lived in a shared house. I was barely working, but I had a little money saved, and so I survived. I had left home in a desperate escape attempt, leaving so much behind that I could not face. I had a small room to myself, and I did not speak to my house mates. My lease was for only a few months, and it didn’t bother me that I would spend most of it alone and in total isolation from the world. There was a small corner store at the end of the block, an off-brand former 7/11 that sold Pop-tarts and two-minute microwave noodles and Diet Coke, and I would stock up on non perishable junk food late at night, when I’d be certain to avoid human contact.

In my room, I would spend my days watching porn on my laptop, reading long and bleak novels on my Kindle, and occasionally completing a freelance writing project that would top up my dwindling funds. There was a mattress on the floor, next to my piles of clothes and my books. There was a small electric heater to guard against the Sydney winter, and a single window overlooking the street, touched by a tree that was at least as old as the townhouse.

One morning, a bird began to build a nest on the outside ledge of the window. It was the perfect location for a home - it was protected from the elements, and in no danger from the occupant of the room, because I hadn’t opened the window once in all my time living there. I spent hours watching the bird. She was a drab but lively thing, full of a wild and manic energy that saw her dart from place to place with an almost cartoon speed.

I watched her finish her nest, a collection of sticks, twigs, leaves and chip packet foil, and she made it her home, next to my own shitty, mouldy room, and we became neighbours for a time. She laid her eggs, 3 of them, beautiful and perfect in every way, and she nurtured them and waited for them to hatch. It was the nexus of life, a moment of pure birth to observe and project onto, while I was waiting for a new life to begin.

Well, eventually they hatched and I had a reaction that I had not expected.

I had not cried when I had left my home, and I had not cried when I had left a boy there, and my family there. But looking at those birds, as tiny and insignificant as myself, with nothing but their mother to protect them against a cruel environment of violence and fear and danger and with only the barest comfort of instinct, a wave of emotion swept over me.

I crumpled like paper, and crawled onto the mattress, sobbing and heaving until I had nothing left to give, and began screaming silently. My tears ran dry, and my throat ached. I shivered and trembled for what felt like hours.

I stayed living in that room until the birds were gone. I carefully opened the window on my last day, and took what remained of their nest with me. I cradled it in my arms in a taxi to my next home, and for a few years I kept it on a bookshelf, and then it disintegrated and left nothing more of that moment, beyond the mark it kept on my identity.

There are some stories I have told my friends, and some I have told my boyfriend, and some I have shouted into the void online. But this is a story I keep inside, safe from the commentary, questions or analysis of the people around me, and safe from the scrutiny of reality. I do not think it is always helpful to share every piece of yourself with the world. In your rush to expose your intimate secrets and the workings of your fucked up psyche, I think you can lose a part of whatever it is that gives you any meaning at all.

The most intimate pieces of yourself are your last best hope.

I want to tell you the truth. And I hope you are ready for it.

The truth is, for the rest of your life, you are going to be running from something. It will only ever be a few steps behind, and you will feel its breath and know its teeth are snapping at your heels every day, everywhere you go. It is called loneliness. Once it has your scent, it will never give up its pursuit of you. And eventually, when you are too tired to keep running, it will take you. It will take you whole.

I have understood this for a long time. I live with the knowledge, as a terrible shadow that I cannot ignore. I don’t talk about it. Not to anyone.

They will know it one day too. It is inevitable.


I am crouched in the run-down kitchen of my home in Sydney’s inner west. It is the kind where the value is a little lower, because the decor hasn’t been updated since a period that Pinterest tells me was the 1960s. Green linoleum sits comfortably with rusted out chrome fittings. Somewhere in the background, a Google Home device, out of place in my decaying time capsule, is droning a response to a command that I’ve already forgotten.

I live alone, a state of affairs that makes me unique among the people that I know, and is attributable to a kind Aunt in Bathurst who is not precious about the rent. My house is on a quiet street, lined with trees, nestled among the rows of other small cottage style homes from 60 years ago. There are cafes in easy distance, and a train station as well. It’s quiet on the weekends, when it is home to couples who walk their dogs when they go out to eat breakfast, and there are no artistic experiences threatening to impose themselves on me without warning.

If you walk for twenty minutes in one direction, you will find yourself in Newtown, where they tell me that there is a beating heart and a sense of life, and if you walk in another you can stand and watch the gridlocked chaos of Parramatta Road. My street has a name, and my suburb has a name, but they do not have a face or an aspect that commends them to memory. When I first moved into this house, it was because I wanted to live alone and I did not want to share it with my boyfriend. I wanted it to be a place where I could blend into the walls and become a part of the fixtures and the decor myself, and become lost in time along with them. I want the line between Michael and Michael’s home to become so blurred as to make us entirely indistinguishable.

I am rummaging through the fridge, looking for beer. There is a mismatched selection, glass bottles of Stone & Wood and cans of Tecaté. Beers worth drinking, and beers that are barely drinkable. I fish out a few, and turn to the oddment of glasses lined up on the kitchen top.

I open the cans and bottles with more care than I need, pouring their contents into glasses that I quickly rinsed in the sink. I finish each pour, and when I can kill time no longer, I give them a final, cursory wipe, place them one by one onto a tray and walk into the living room.

Genevieve is there, sitting on the threadbare couch I’d found once in Strathfield and claimed as my own. Tyler sits on the floor, his back against the wall. I hand out the drinks.

I sink into my favourite chair, a creaking wicker number from Bunnings, leaning back into it and contemplating my glass. Tyler reaches over and gently brushes his fingers against my leg, a sign of love that he knows would not go so far as to violate my discomfort with all forms of physical expression, but will remind me that he cares.

Genevieve wears black as though it were designed for her, by talented visionaries who invented the concept just to bring out the best in her eyes.

I’ve known Gen since the first year of University. We were drinking buddies, and we’d spend hours at the bar on campus, Gen with an endless supply chain of gin and tonic, and me with $10 jugs of Sangria.

She used to be an artist. Or at least, she went to art school. She does not paint anymore. She tried teaching English in Japan for a while. Now she works for a company that allows people with disposable income to book dog-walkers using their smartphones, and she detests going to work. She has a boyfriend, somewhere, but she only brings him out for special occasions involving gratuitous photos.

Tyler is a couple of years older than us at 32. He works for an advertising firm. He says his job is 90% a calling, and 10% a punishment for a past life. Tyler speaks in 270 highly quotable characters as though he has had Twitter surgically implanted into his brain.

That’s my boy.

We met at a house party.

He was handsome, and he talked a million miles an hour. And I was thrilled to listen.

He had so many ideas. That first night - in between picking at the threads on a black T-shirt with SONGS ABOUT FUCKING emblazoned on it in thick white letters - he talked with an incredible level of passion and knowledge Japanese noise artists and about Brothel Creeper shoes and there was something in his excitement that hooked me.

He’s like that. He becomes so caught up in his latest obsession that he adds it to his identity for a while, trying it on like a new coat, whether it’s a punk band from the 1970’s, or a vintage gameboy he picked up on eBay, or the Tao Te Ching. And it used to be so exciting, to be around him in his passions and become caught up in things I’d never imagined or heard about, but lately I can’t shake the feeling that if you stripped all of this away, there wouldn’t be anything of Tyler left.

It’s not that he’s shallow. It’s that I think he’s deliberately experiencing the world on a controlled emotional level that doesn’t allow for anything that isn’t obscure and pressed on multi-colored transparent vinyl.

I think if I’m honest with myself, Tyler and I may have been approaching our use-by-date for over a year.

At times, I think we are still experiencing love. During cold mornings, shared brunches and late nights in front of the TV. Or at least, if not love, it’s companionship. But there’s so much unsaid between us now, and Tyler looks at me sometimes with a hurt in his eyes that feels almost judgemental, with enough forgiveness to make it distasteful, and it doesn’t square with my take on his usual deliberate suppression of the profound.

It is a cold day. People describe winter as grey, but that’s a miserable and half hearted cop-out. Grey can be defined by a hexadecimal colour code, but this is colourless. As though every shade of the rainbow has been removed, leaving an empty monochrome in its place. The heater isn’t on - Tyler and I will fight later about the freezing temperatures of my house again, and he’ll raise the same arguments in favour of bodily warmth against my personal interest in frugality.

We’re having drinks on a Sunday afternoon. We have drinks every Sunday afternoon. I think when we first started the tradition it might have been fun. We’d pick a new pub every week and laugh at the awful acoustic music and eat hot chips and get wasted and roll into work on Monday morning with a vicious hangover. Lately, it’s been beers at my place and conversations that are uncomfortably quiet.

Gen says,

“Do you know what I want, more than anything in the world?

“I’ve always had this daydream about escaping. One day, disappearing. One day, just being gone and leaving nothing behind, like I was a ghost who’d been called home or something.”

“I didn’t go to work on Friday. I stayed home, and killed time for a while and this restless freak-out just wouldn’t go away.”

“I walked around the house and then I walked outside and wandered for an hour, just in the neighbourhood, and I looked in my mailbox and the mailbox was full of cards and stamps and things like that, like I was just some faceless person who lives with a name attached to random and unwanted pieces of paper and scraps of cardboard.”

“And I couldn’t shake this idea of just vanishing.”

“I wrote down all the things I wanted to do if I were actually going to disappear.”

“I’m not even sure what it is that keeps holding me back. I tried to move away before, but I was always just outside the borders of myself, and close enough to come back home when I chickened out.”

“There’s never anywhere I want to go, and there is nowhere I want to stay.”

“I went out onto the balcony and just stared down at the city.”

“It started to get dark. It’s been so long since I’ve seen another side of me, another version of this human being, and I felt more distance from myself than ever before.”

“I started to think about who I could be, if I wasn’t here. If I sold my shit, and got on the bus and just ran out of here. I imagined this girl with long dark hair and red lipstick, living somewhere new, and the more I stared at her, the more I wanted to be near her.”

Gen falls quiet, and I don’t know what to say. I want to tell her that it is normal to feel that way, but what the fuck do I know about normal, and what the fuck do I know about anything except that suddenly I want to disappear too, and I am somehow jealous that she has found a way to articulate it before I can.

Tyler looks uncomfortable. He shifts, changes position and drinks.

I say,

"People think they can build their own adventure and have it their own way and operate it with a custom designed safety switch. But that’s not living. Living is recognising and embracing and living through the risk. The risk is out there. Real life hurts, and it hurts more than anything else we’ll ever experience. We say it’s short, but it’s the longest thing we’ll ever experience.”

“And the risk of death, of pain, of loss, of failed hopes and shattered and busted out and broken dreams is what makes all of it worthwhile, and it’s what gives any of it meaning.

“I’m terrified of the risk, but without it, what would matter? In the safety and security of a fucking theme park, where’s the joy of survival? Where’s the joy of paying your rent off your own back, and keeping the lights on when you thought that the bill was too far gone for you to manage?”

“I don’t think that you need to be standing on a mountain top or buying crap in a temple full of tourists. I know people who’ve done all those things, myself included, and it didn’t mean shit — you can’t try and control the world, and make it “just right” and make it all fit the way you think it ought to. That’s not in its nature. And you can’t wash the risk out and make it safe and still call it an adventure.”

I finish my monologue. I wonder if Gen can see through it.

I have long passed the days where I was able to provide any comfort for my own inner voice of panic and fear with my spin, and so I have learned the hard way not to believe myself.

Tyler has learned it too. He won’t look at me. There is a growing edge in the room. We sit in silence. A long, painful silence, full of pronounced vulnerability.

Gen leans over and hugs me, and so I suppose it has meant something, however small. She’s quiet for a while. Gen smells like sandalwood.

She fishes in her bag for her phone and calls an Uber. Tyler says he’ll share the ride.

He announces that it’s starting to rain. He collects his things, and pretends to make a fuss of leaving, and they pile into a sedan. The rain grows heavier, and I find myself hoping that it lasts.

My routine is simple. I am working for a small startup in the city, and every day I come to work early, on the train from the inner west, to go to Thunderhawk. It is a hole in the wall cafe, and I mean that literally - a hole in the wall with a few stainless steel chairs and a countertop to lean on, barely protected when it rains. Every day I order a coffee and a toasted cheese sandwich, and sit there leaning on the grimy counter, waiting for Gen to show up.

I was drinking at a combination of my favourite bars last night and I’m in a black mood today. Listless and yet vicious, wishing pain on anyone who so much as brushes against me, walking with my hands thrust in my pockets and my head down and my steps heavy. There is a non-zero chance that I am still drunk, I think. But realising it doesn’t help me feel any more human.

I hitch my bag up on my shoulder and walk into the dining room of the Chinese place next door to Thunderhawk as the cleaners open it for the morning scrub. They let me use the bathroom. It helps to be a regular wherever you go, and it helps to stop and talk to everyone you see.

I splash hot water on my face and rub it into my eyes, trying to banish the cloud out of them. Gen will know how rough my night was, by my damp hair and shirt.

She is waiting when I walk out. She is dedicated to her short, cropped hair, perennially dressed in Dr. Martens and a crop top and a wide array of pea coats.

Most of the time, when Gen and I are together, we talk in reams of coded language or we take turns ranting and listening, or we sit and stagnate and choose not to talk at all, and instead to signal various shades of emotional distress to each other in glances, rolled eyes and an aura of heaviness and sadness and loss.

It’s something I have noted in our circles. All of us. We talk in such strange ways, and I wonder if we are having conversations or if we are merely interacting.

It’s an incredibly nuanced thing, a good conversation. It’s not something that happens by accident, but it’s not something that can happen through careful orchestration, and nobody really knows how to fake it anymore. It’s ultimately a dance that takes years to learn properly, but it’s a dance that we are never actually taught.

We learn how to have conversations through observation. We watch, and listen to our parents and the adults around us talking, and we just start to respond to them, and then they respond back to us, and we assume that we are conversing. But there’s so much more to it than that.

The way you talk to and talk with people defines your relationship with them, and your relationship with yourself, and the way you both feel, divorced from any games or feints or false niceties.

I order a triple shot long black. It is the only way to deal with my job. In an hour, I’ll be ensconced in an open plan office, with a ping pong table and the relentless positivity of my more entrepreneurially minded co-workers.

And when I get home, I will need to face a boyfriend whose only requirement - that I spend time with him - feels like a demand from the Gods that is beyond my mortal ability.

When Gen and I reach the point in the morning’s interaction where there is nothing left to communicate, wordlessly or not, we walk through the rain to the dilapidated and constantly renovated cultist’s HQ that we called The Hub. It’s a building classified by those of us working in tech and in startups as a “co-working space” - full of starry eyed bright young things between the ages of 18 and 30 whose vision, both physical and metaphysical, has been completely compromised by over exposure to high resolution screens and their own Kool-Aid. We kiss and say "goodbye darling" and 'I’ll text you" and vanish onto our separate floors.

I work in marketing, for a company that uses highly advanced blockchain algorithms to track fruit and vegetables. Their production, transportation, delivery, freshness and - this is my favourite part - their authentic adherence to patented genomes.

When a farmer grows a Kiwi fruit somewhere in a shipping container housed hydroponic systems in Tangiers, our software is used to ensure that the fruit has been grown according to the relevant licenses for live produce and that it is delivered in a condition suitable to be consumed.

Yes, it makes it cost substantially more. Fuck it. It’s not a charity, despite our company value of “changing the world in a measurable way.”

Tyler has messaged me. I haven’t read it. He’s liked several of my tweets too.

I think communication between two people is about how you observe and make rituals of the small things that nobody is ever going to notice, that still inform who you are — and what you value.

The small things in your relationships. The small, small things.

If you look after the details, you can build a relationship that is about strength, care, love, affection, attention. If you forget the details — sometimes you can forget why you were in love at all.

And if there are no words left between you, whether they’re shared in conversation or even an exchange of basic information about your emotional status and the meteorological conditions you experienced throughout your day or that you expect to experience on the weekend, I give it six weeks before you know that you hate each other more fully than you ever thought possible. Even if there are no specific wrongs or hurts that you can pin-point.

It’s been raining for days. I’m sitting here today looking out at the storm as a distraction from my own portals into the void (iPhone, MacBook, iPad, Apple Watch). Sydney’s storms can be a worthy performance of the wrath of the immortals when the conditions are just right. Blankets of torrential downpour sweep across the streets, almost completely obscuring the queues of gridlocked traffic. The wind and water pressure blow umbrellas inside out and drive anxious and terrified looking people into hiding beneath awnings and inside small alcoves and doorways.


Gen and I have slept together. It's a part of the rich tapestry of our shared narrative. I'm not entirely sure of the date range, but I know that something was happening with Syria in my Twitter feed.

I have told Tyler that this happened once, and only once.

In fact, it happened multiple times. There was simply the one occasion.

Tyler calls it my straight experiment. He says being bisexual isn't a thing. He says that he's glad I tried it, so I know for sure that I want to fuck men.

Sometimes I think about trying to explain it to him in further detail, but I avoid confrontations with Tyler, and this part of me in particular feels far too raw and personal to open up to his analysis.

When you meet someone at Uni, that first full break over Christmas is the test of your relationship; you either actively spend time together, grow and thrive, or you completely abandon each other at the end of November and return as total strangers in February, unable to recognise each other and uninterested in rediscovering your spark. Gen and I had forged our friendship by going down to the coast on the week of the break. We borrowed her parents' spare car, an old but beloved hatchback, and drove through an unseasonal storm, with rain lashing the roads and obscuring the windscreen enough that we were forced to pull over every half hour. We laughed and shrieked with panic as trucks and semis screamed past us, rocking the car and convincing Gen that we were at death's door.

I'm assuming it was pure adrenaline coursing through our veins that led to us having sex on a squeaking, ridiculous bunk bed as soon as we had dumped our bags in the dilapidated and incredibly cheap hostel that we'd chosen for our stay. Half way through our second attempt, the bed's noise became so impossible to ignore that we dragged a mattress onto the floor to finish, and then held each other and laughed. Later that night, when the rain had stopped, we walked together down the winding streets to the shore, and we stared at the lights in the distance, the glowing fireflies of oil tankers and iron ore ships anchored out in the dark. We held hands, and kissed, and we wanted each other. We went to McDonald's on the walk back, to stop for french fries and ice cream cones.

We spent most of the trip in each other's arms. But at the end of it, there was an unspoken agreement that we had not fallen in love, and that we would not fall in love. When we arrived home in Sydney, we were friends in the unique and completely honest way of people who have had sex and are comfortable with the decision to never have sex again.

Tyler does not know any of this. Tyler understands that we once did it in a youth hostel on Uni break. He understands enough, and does not need to know more. He is comfortable dismissing any part of me that finds women attractive on either an emotional or physical level, and I am uncomfortable challenging him, and so we go on.

However.

One thing I remember quite clearly about that trip together.

I woke up at around 1am, the night before we were to drive back, and Gen was sobbing violently. I drew her close to me and held her there, and waited for the crying to stop. She whispered and whispered, and none of it made sense, and it changed the dynamic of our relationship on a far deeper level than the clumsily accomplished sex ever could have.

In that moment, she was like a cracked bowl, that had been repaired with molten gold.

Gen’s boyfriend is proud of his new sweater. It’s a fine knit. I know how much it costs. Everyone at the table knows how much it costs. It’s one of the topics he returns to between glasses of wine. We’re on the waterfront. I am staring at the lights of the harbour, and distracting myself from the conversations going on around me.

Gen’s boyfriend has a name too. His name is Jacob. He and Gen have been dating off and on for about six months, and their relationship has never been important enough to either of them for it to have become volatile. It is instead uncomfortable. I wonder if Tyler and I are uncomfortable like that. I think that at least we are not entirely indifferent. Gen and Jacob tend to ignore each other. While he plays with his phone and mentions his cryptocurrency holdings, Gen tries to explain something to me about photography. The night feels like it is never going to end. And we are still waiting for the first course.

I can’t pinpoint who in our group first pitched the idea of tonight’s dinner. I think when you have a circle who are close enough, you reach a point beyond group scheduling and you seem to organise dinners and activities as a herd instinct. And so we’re here, and there are oysters coming, and Jacob is going to provide us with his deep expertise on all subjects related to expensive seafood. His aesthetic is best described in his own favourite word - “Bougie” - and I wonder, sometimes, if he isn’t a highly dedicated performance artist. Which at least that would explain him more than trying to reckon with him as a three dimensional human.

I realise I have shifted my focus from the lights to watching Jacob talk, and I know that Gen can read exactly what I’m thinking. Not that my view of her latest catch is any secret - I have told her he’s an ass, and told her at length, and it’s a sign of our ordained friendship that she has been able to shrug at me and keep fucking him without my insights having the slightest impact.

There’s a natural dip in the conversation - a story has finished, someone has wrapped up a comment on the menus or the lighting. And the people at the table are shuffling the items in front of them and waiting for somebody to break the quiet that is settling on us all.

“I want to ask you something,” Gen says.

I am convinced she wants to move the conversation as far away from Jacob as possible.

“I want to ask all of you something. Imagine you’re in the future, a near future, and you’re a version of yourself after all of this. After you’ve stopped working yourself to death and not sleeping, and after you’ve given up reading emails on the weekend, in a world where you have already burned out and come crashing down and then picked up the pieces.”

“I want to hear about that version of you.”

I realise that she’s serious.

“I’ll start,” she says.

“After I have burned out, and started again, I am living in the country, out in Western Australia. I’m on a small property, so far from the nearest KFC that you’d never ever see its logo, and barely connected to any form of technology. I am a little older, but only by a few years, and I think the stress has put a grey wash through my hair earlier than you’d expect.”

“I am raising bees, out in the wilderness.”

“The benefits to bees: they pollinate our flowers, and bring a little beauty to the planet. And they produce honey. Delicious sticky honey that makes everything better. That’s honestly more worthwhile than anything I’ve done in the past two decades of my life. There is more meaning in the work of a single of my bees than in any part of me.”

“From my small colony and farm, I can see my neighbours’ canola and wheat fields, seas of gold and yellow and crisp brown. It’s quiet out there, and I can follow a simple routine, waking up, tending to the bees, harvesting honey, and reading a book. I have a computer that I use to sell produce on a little online store. My customers keep in touch with me via emails that I reply to only when I have the time or the inclination.”

“In the winter, there’s a fireplace in my home, and I sit in front of it to warm my toes and drink mulled wine. I am completely alone, with no reason to think about the outside, and I am so far out of touch with politics that the entire world order could have shifted and I would barely hear about it.”

“I’ve wanted to live like that ever since we visited a farm when I was a girl. I was 7 or 8, but I remember every single detail. I remember it being perfect and I remember the absence of noise, every kind of noise imaginable had been utterly banished, except for the sounds of the bees and the wind. After the burn out, that’s where I want to be.”

“Where does the money come from in this fantasy?” Jacob asks.
“You’re not going to make a living on Etsy selling $10 jars of honey.”

Gen tells him he’s missed the point. I can feel the prickly beginnings of a fight, and so I take my turn.

I talk over their bickering and I keep talking until they’re paying attention.

“After my burn out,” I say, “I am an artist. I paint portraits and watercolours for small commissions and to pass the time. I have a studio in a run down shack near the beach, somewhere far away. Spain maybe. I liked Spain.”

“The walls on the outside of my studio are blue, but faded and flaking, and sometimes I go outside if the weather is clear and I touch up small cracks of the painted wood as a side project. The people from the nearby town come and visit me sometimes and I make them tea and they sit with me while I paint. We walk down to the shore, or up into the sand dunes and follow the water’s edge.”

“People remember my paintings because they don’t threaten, and they don’t ask questions, and they’re precisely the sort of thing that should hang in Dentists’ offices and waiting rooms and inoffensive hotels, all of which are prime customers for my website.”

“You and Gen ought to sell bundled packs of honey plus paintings,” Jacob says. Tyler laughs. I keep talking.

“And so I paint, and I dabble in faintly commercial art, and it’s a life a little like Gen’s. Quiet and inoffensive and safe and secluded.”

“But at night, when everything is still, I go into my hut and I paint something darker. I pour a little of myself onto the canvas every time, and I try and drag out of me every feeling and thought of stress, pain, fear, anxiety, panic, nervousness and desperation that has made my body and my soul their home. I drag them out of me kicking and screaming to stretch them on canvas after canvas. And my hope is that one day, I’ll have taken out the last of it, and I can carry those tortured canvases down to the beach and set them on fire and sit in front of the raging and burning flames and feel peace.”

“After that, who knows. After that, I’m not even sure I could paint anything again. Maybe in that future I dive into the water and swim out into the ocean and I’m picked up by a boat and whisked away to a life of adventure.”

“I don’t know why we have to talk about this,” Tyler says. “It’s depressing. You always do this.”

“Well what about you?” Gen asks. “Who are you, after the burn out?”

Tyler says, “I’m not burning out. I love what I do. It’s an extension of my personality and it makes me happy.“

“But you’re tired too Tyler,” I say. “Some nights when I’m with you, you don’t sleep. I know you don’t. You’ve been sick like a thousand times this year because your immune system doesn’t want to have anything to do with you anymore. And that manic fucking energy, it just takes over…”

“I don’t know about burning out,” Jacob says. “But I know what I’m going to do after all this. After I cash out and have enough to hit financial independence and retire early...”

“That’s not the question,” Gen tells him.

“...I’m going to put everything I need in one backpack and I’m going to get on a different plane every single week with a laptop and go anywhere they’ll sell me MDMA and see every festival and sleep in front of a pool. No governments. No bullshit. No rules. No schedules. Just me and the next horizon.”

He knocks back a glass of wine that anyone else would be sipping. He waves to the waiter for another.

“And then I’m going to buy a big place on some island. Or maybe I’ll buy an island. And wait out humanity wiping itself off the fucking planet while you paint and raise bees and jack off in a wheat field.”

Jacob is drunk, and I think he’s a little upset that he didn’t feature in Gen’s post-burn out fantasy. Gen looks embarrassed, Tyler looks sullen, and the night is going exactly as anyone could have predicted. We keep trying to make moves at breaking into another conversation, but it’s over. Eventually, Gen tells us she’s going to put Jacob in an Uber, and she walks him out of the restaurant.

She comes back in, and starts to get her things, and I tell her I’ve handled the bill. And then Tyler says, “I know who I’ll be.”

“I know who I’ll be after the burn out.”

“I thought you weren’t going to do this,” I say.

Tyler says, “If all of this gets to be too much, and I crash and burn, I want to be a mover. Someone who takes your furniture and your life and packs it all up neatly into boxes where everything fits and everything makes sense, and installs it all somewhere else, somewhere fresh and new where it isn’t full of memories.”

“My future self works a few days a week, going through the bits and pieces of other people and carrying them, and breaking a sweat over them, and then goes home to an apartment where everything is bare and empty and he sits on the floor in a space where nothing holds any significance at all, and imagines it filled with somebody else’s collection, and imagines the life they live.”

I ask him what it means, and he shakes his head.

“I don’t think that’s how this game works,” he says.

I don’t go home with Tyler tonight.

Sometimes when I am alone in my house, I believe that I am without age, and that I have always been here, but that the world feels as though it is long gone. I walk through the rooms of my home, up and down the white painted stairs. I am alive in every moment, and every breath. I know that I am. And yet.

Every second, when I am excruciatingly aware of its passing, feels like a hundred years. When I have experienced that hyper-awareness while having sex with someone truly incredible, or staring at a horizon I’ve never seen before, this is a gift. A great gift. But when the moments are empty, echoing spaces, where there is no one left to paint in that hint of gold that could tell me, “this time is your treasure”, it is the cruelest thing imaginable. Here is where I can sense that all the warmth I have is being slowly sucked from existence and it leaves me shivering.

And because I believe in my heart that no path is ever going to be the right one - and that nothing is ever meant to be - a feeling has developed in these fragments of time, that nothing I do could possibly matter. My story seems as though sometimes it is not even about me.

I wish there were a way to make everything pass just a little faster.

Maybe the truth of it is that we are all reaching for something that we know we’re never going to be able to grasp. Maybe the truth of it is, that’s okay.

There used to be a skatepark out in the hills back home. Perhaps it’s still there, I wouldn’t know anymore. It wasn’t on the bus route, but it was near enough, and if you followed the signs you would find it tucked behind a community centre that the council had long given up on maintaining. When I was sixteen, my friends and I would sit out there, and drink Budweiser out of a can and eat take away cheeseburgers from the corner store, and watch each other skate. We would listen to punk rock and hardcore and skate bands on a portable iPod speaker dock, and we’d talk.

We’d talk like we’d just invented it, in the way you do when you first start to feel things that you can’t explain, or don’t want to. We were all each other had, and we all meant the world, and we needed each other - or at least, that’s how it felt. On some of those nights, we would walk across the park to the playground, where we’d have a clearer view of the sky, away from the flood lights. We would not share this with each other, but we knew we all wanted to look up and see the stars. There was something about that great darkness that was both frightening and freeing.

We were all each other had, and we all meant the world, and we needed each other.

And I think looking back, there was a point in our time together that we stopped caring about each other and we started to pretend to care, and we could all sense it and we did not recover. I know that the moment came, where caring became a habit, or a tick, or a ghost, and we went through the motions, and we pretended that we gave a shit.

Years later, I don’t talk to any of those people. Years later, I think if I tried to remember their names, I’d be challenged. A few nicknames stand out, but these are now supporting characters, rather than people, rather than actual real human beings who once touched and impacted my life.

Why do we spend so much time pretending that we care about people when the fire has already gone out? We do it to make other people feel better, or to avoid a confrontation, or to meet some standard of who we think we’re supposed to be. If we were good people, we think, we’d care about this thing, or this person, or this idea.

And so we stay in relationships that we’ve long outgrown, taking up our places on stages where we no longer belong, acting out our parts.

This is cruelty itself — to pretend to somebody that they deeply matter to you, that you love them more than you do, that they mean to you more than they mean. This is cruelty that transcends indifference in its malice, because indifference may be felt and reasoned with, but when you simply lie, and pretend that the love and empathy and sympathy and joy are there, you are hurting another person.

In a way that they may never understand, or even realise.

Sign up to receive the latest additions to Matchsticks. And a finished Zine, on completion.


Twitter: @joanwestenberg

Email: joan@joanwestenberg.com