Read This and Be Smarter

‘Flick Chick’

by Joanne Riccioni

Westerly is the premier literary journal of Western Australia, publishing since 1956. Westerly produces poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction from around the world, with a focus on the voice of Western Australian authors. Westerly publishes two print editions a year and digitally year-round.

Jo Riccioni has a Masters in Medieval Literature from the University of Leeds in the UK. Her short fiction has placed in competitions in Australia, Ireland, the US and the UK. Her story ‘Can’t Take the Country Out of the Boy’ placed second in The Age Short Story Competition 2010.

‘Flick Chick’ was published in Westerly 55.1, July 2010

You don’t like dusk. Everything turns monochrome and the day gets heavy with conclusion but isn’t quite done. Like one of those deep and meaningful films shot in black and white—the arthouse sort. You like the idea of them, but then you remember watching the black and white set as a child, and why would you want to go full circle? Like flares or platform shoes—not quite as appealing the second time around. At home, you always give dusk the flick. That neat little click of the light switches breaking the silence is comforting. You usually check the clock then: yes 6.05pm, so you pour the first glass from a bottle of red that’s breathing on the counter. It’s never quite as good as you’ve anticipated, perhaps because you’re too busy inspecting the yeasty loaf of skin swelling over the top of your work heels, or counting out the last seconds of daylight against the throb of the varicose vein behind your knee. Then again, it could just be the preservatives in those mass produced wines. You remind yourself that’s what you get for buying specials by the case.

You make sure you don’t drink every night. Usually Tuesdays. It’s discount night at United and you go straight there from work with takeaway sushi from Ginko’s. You don’t always choose the latest chick-flick or blockbuster, but sometimes you just need something easy that takes your mind off the MSG in the miso or the metallic taste of the raw tuna that’s a prescription for Alzheimer’s. At least in the dark you can’t see that rainbow sheen on the fish that reminds you of oil slicks and the state of the planet. Anyway, sushi’s about the only low-fat takeaway you can buy in under a minute: something to dilute the réduction of guilt that slowly simmers when you’re watching Angelina Jolie’s buttocks on the big screen. On the way home you lament the state of modern cinema: the formulaic stories, the female role models, the special effects budgets that could feed an African nation, and promise next time to make the effort and choose a subtitled movie at the Dendy. Something Robert would have approved. It’s not that you mind going to the cinema alone, it’s just that you don’t want to let your mind sag along with everything else.

Of course, you didn’t always go alone. You used to like the cinema for first dates. It avoided those restaurant dinners of insufficient silences and furtive mutual scrutiny from the bathroom door, the tiring bravado of first date flippancy. You can get a good sense of someone in the dark, without conversation. There’s the size and the weight of their presence; the quality of a coat or sweater against your wrist; the snorts and chuckles to the screen; the smell of a whisper. By the time the film was over you always know whether it was going anywhere. If you can’t sit next to someone for two hours in the dark, what hope is there for the light of day?

Well, that’s been your rule of thumb, anyway. Admittedly, there have been exceptions: Robert for one. With him, you almost got up and left halfway through Baraka. He twitched and fidgeted, scrunched and sighed so much, you assumed it was doomed. But during the credits he took your hand and spoke so convincingly into your ear, ‘When something’s this good I can’t sit still.’

‘Oh,’ you said. ‘Yes, it was good, wasn’t it?’

‘I’m not talking about the film,’ he said.

You lived together for three years. You had preferred seating at the Orpheum and nearly always agreed who should have won the Oscar. And then one day he didn’t live with you any more. Everything else was there, looking tired and rather smaller than before, but not him. He left a note saying something about life not being a dress rehearsal. After that you couldn’t believe you’d spent three years watching Indie films with someone who could end it on such a cliché.

After Robert, the years of same-sex cinema outings made a comeback. At the time it seemed the grown-up version of the sisterly solidarity you’d relied on at 15: all us girls feigning annoyance through third and fourth viewings of Greece or Saturday Night Fever while boys in the back row threw popcorn down our imagined cleavages. Secretly, you were thrilled they found you more interesting than the film and worth the popcorn. Twenty-five years later, you needed that strength in numbers again. Only this time it was less about attracting attention, than being able to blend into the queue behind those same boys who had married other, younger girls; to sit in the dark next to the small habits of long-term monogamists. Of course you weren’t the only one who needed the support of shared sugar hits and no judgements to see you through the highs of a vicarious screen life, where you re-inflated your ideals of manhood and steeled yourselves against compromise for the sake of conformity. How else could you have dealt with the key in the lock of the silent flat, the vaguely interested cat, the bedtime wine and a couple of Zoloft? There’s nothing wrong with having high standards.

But you really do prefer to go to the cinema alone now. No need to be magnanimous about the choice of film, no need to pretend your friend has not put on weight, or that her latest cyber date is more interesting than the trailers. No need to suspect that your dismal sympathy for her might be self-pity. Which, of course, it isn’t, because you have so much more in your life than she does. There’s just a point when solidarity of the spinsterly sort becomes too close for comfort. It reminds you of that awful euphemism of your mother’s: women of a certain age. She probably got it from Jane Austen or the Brontes. But you only truly understood what your mother must have meant by it when you were with Nicole watching Million Dollar Baby and you bumped into Stuart Simmonds. You’d been holding Nicole’s handbag in the foyer while she went to the Ladies. Stuart had his arm round his new wife, who looked too small and young for the enormous belly that swayed before her. She spoke a few bubbly sentences about the baby’s due date and probable names, but all you could look at were her straight, unstained teeth, like a teenager’s with the braces just removed. He asked if you had come alone and you laughed and said, ‘Oh, no!’ That was when Nicole returned, taking her bag from you and tucking your coat label into your collar at the same time. Stuart raised his eyebrows and pulled his lips taut into what was meant to be a smile. But it was the way he so diligently held out his hand and pointedly said, ‘Nicole, is it? Very pleased to meet you,’ that made you see what he was seeing. Two women of a certain age. Sometimes, you wish it were that simple.

After that you thought about Stuart for a long time, how still he was during your first date—Dangerous Liaisons—the way he made love to you on your stairs afterward. You never needed the movies much, you and he, just each other in the dark. Or perhaps that’s just your memory of it. It was a long time ago, after all. You might be confusing it with a film you saw. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter. Four months after it began he told you he was going back to his wife and kids. That cut. But not as much as being overlooked in the running for the new family.

And now you’re losing your teeth. Last week the dentist mumbled through his mask that you needed two root canals and a crown. He held that little stainless steel pick on the exposed nerve of your molar as he told you the cost. It’s not the money that matters. You’ve done all the things single women of a certain age should do these days: private health insurance, topped up your pension, paid off your apartment, invested in blue chips to cover the nursing home fees. The financial adviser tells you that you’re in good shape. You remember his eyes on your breasts and feeling a little excited, even as you cringed at the nylon crackle your thighs made rubbing together on the way out. In the mirror of the Ladies afterwards, you saw a shirt button had popped off and was dangling by a thread, the mockery of a favourite bra, once white, now dishrag grey, peeping through. Well, perhaps that blouse has shrunk a little since you bought it. That’s what you get for buying cheap clothes made in Asian sweat shops. It’s amazing what the poultice of a Belgian Chocolate Connoisseur ice cream and 27 Dresses can do for burning embarrassment.

Really, it’s not like you’ve never had a proposal. Marriage, that is. When you worked in Singapore in your thirties, your housemate proposed. Michael, the American architect, found the 1920’s blackand-white terrace, which crumbled and cowered under the shadows of condominium blocks, and told you he could only share with someone who truly appreciated it. On Sunday afternoons, the two of you would escape the clack-clack of mah-jongg games from the balconies overhead to watch anything at the Lido, luxuriating in the air-conditioning that didn’t come with the colonial charm of your house. You’d collapse into the velour seats that smelled of pandan leaf and hokkien mee, refusing to let your hangovers take hold by sipping the margaritas that Michael poured from a chilled thermos into plastic martini glasses. The cinema with Michael was never just about watching the film. Half way through he’d be shouting insults, perhaps at the projectionist for cutting the sex scenes in Leaving Las Vegas, or perhaps at some unsuspecting Singaporean for dealing with phlegm during the great kiss in Before Sunrise. Afterwards you’d toast your superiority with more margaritas at Harry’s until you fell into a taxi and then into the gutter outside the little house, the last vestige of architectural integrity in the jungle of development which you were both being paid to fertilise. One night he sang to you in the smooth tenor voice that Mom and the Lutheran choir back in Iowa had so carefully nurtured. At the end of Abide With Us, the Day is Waning, he sang, ‘Marry me, marry me, marry me, Sarah. Have my babies and make it all OK.’ Then he dropped his head onto your lap and fell asleep, while you pulled out his tight child’s curls, listening to the mosquitos under the strelitzias. You really did love each other. It was such a shame you had to refuse him. ‘We could get married, Michael,’ you said, ‘but you’d still be gay.’ Anyway, you could never have married anyone who talks during the movie. Eventually he met a nice Jewish boy. They still send you Hanukkah and Christmas cards from Seattle.

Yes, you really do prefer to go to the cinema alone these days. Then you can concentrate on the stories. No black and whites. Just the glorious technicolour ones that stop a little short of real life. You don’t mind going home in the dark. It’s the dusk you can’t stand.

The State Library of Western Australia promotes literacy for all ages. To this end the ‘Read this and be smarter project’ has been developed, providing a short piece of writing from Australian publications every Monday to Friday to read on your commute or lunch break.

Westerly acknowledges all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as First Australians. We celebrate the continuous living cultures of Indigenous people and their vital contributions within Australian society.

Westerly’s office, at the University of Western Australia, is located on Whadjak Noongar land. We recognise the Noongar people as the spiritual and cultural custodians of this land.

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