FOTW AUDIO PRODUCTIONS
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Getting Stuck in the Game of Life

Few women understand how great is the hunger in a man to be near femininity … Terrible things happen to men who are deprived of the presence of women – inner or outer – for usually it is the presence of woman that reminds each man of the best that is in him.” — Robert A. Johnson, She.

I.

Max at thirty-six was worried that the real world was leaving him behind. He had spent so much time in a fantasy world of his own making, of how he hoped and thought things would turn out, that he had missed out on many of the real opportunities around him, like meeting new people and travelling overseas.

Part of the problem was that he’d had an exciting childhood. He’d put on magic shows for his friends; he was a big reader and talker; he’d always made friends easily, and found that girls had mostly liked him. The adults in his life, too, had given him lots of encouragement. He even enjoyed going to school – much to the horror of some of his friends.

But as an adult, he hadn’t found life so easy: he’d been on an acne medication just after finishing high school that had left him feeling depressed, with a cluster of ugly scars on his chest. He had also discovered that life didn’t really reward good talkers; it wasn’t enough, unless that person was a lawyer or a politician – and even then, it wasn’t held in such high esteem.

In fact, the most important thing that he had learned for real success in life was stability, to work hard and be persistent. He had tried to work hard and be persistent, but his flakiness and strange ideas had brought him unstuck many times; and then when he began to see that others were succeeding where he was failing – a darkness began to creep into his soul.

Anyway, I don’t want to cast Max in too bad a light; that charm, the good talker, was all still there, and was often just waiting for an opportunity to emerge; and sometimes after work, over drinks, he would begin to say things that were funny and insightful, and the girls would be impressed, and his male colleagues would begin to wonder why the hell he wasn’t normally like that.

Anyway, Max was by himself tonight, on his way into town,

He was walking up through the backstreets of Surry Hills, having almost reached Oxford St, when he saw two teenagers coming staggering down the alleyway he was travelling up. He knew to give them a wide berth; that they were way too drunk for this early in the evening; one of them passed by, but the other, a fat guy with a shaved head and a Metal Mulisha t-shirt purposefully began to drift towards Max.

Max was by himself tonight, on his way into town, dressed up in a lilac shirt and a bone-coloured pair of chinos, black polished shoes that he had just re-soled.

Despite it being a Sunday, there was a real sense of excitement in the air. A pile of thick clouds on the horizon would light up every few minutes orange and pink, with lighting flashing inside them. It was also the Queen’s Birthday long weekend, and so everyone with psyched with an extra night out on the town.

Max jumped off at Central Station, and walked up through the backstreets of Surry Hills, the rag-trade district with its numerous publishing houses and Mexican cantinas. He walked past the King Faisal mosque, and along the street of Chinese friendship societies, stopping for a moment, to admire a converted warehouse with its French doors open on the second floor, a white curtain billowing in the evening breeze.

He had almost reached Oxford St, when he saw two teenagers coming staggering down the alley he was travelling up. He knew to give them a wide berth, that they were way-too drunk for this early in the evening.

But after the first one had passed him by, the second one, a fat guy with a shaved head and a Metal Mulisha t-shirt began to purposefully drift towards Max.

Feeling the muscles in his chest tighten, Max intuitively knew that something bad was about to happen. Once the guy was parallel to him, he pulled up, and asked Max what his name was.

Max reluctantly told him, and the fat guy just swayed on the spot for a moment, Max not sure whether he was thinking about it, or if his mind was off somewhere else – when all of a sudden the guy burst out with – “FUCK YOU MAN!”

Max instantly glanced down the alley: the bald guy’s friend had heard him yell out and was already backtracking up the alley towards them, fists clenched, ready for a fight.

Max wasn’t a coward, but he also wasn’t stupid: he took off up the alley as fast as he could, without actually running. Max knew that he dressed conservatively, and that’s maybe why they were hassling him – despite that the fact he had once dressed just like the boys, with heavy metal shirts and ripped jeans.

When he reached the top of the alley, he glanced back down, but couldn’t see them – but he still felt the adrenalin pounding through him. He hovered on the edge of Oxford St, and when a gap came in the traffic, he bolted across the road.

Dodging past the bouncer outside the Turner hotel, Max went straight downstairs to the men’s toilet. He stopped at the sink to wash his face; and when he looked up, he could see that he was visibly shaking.

He wiped his face dry and waited for a moment; then thew the paper towel in the bin and left the hotel through the lower entrance onto Burton St.

Walking around for a while to calm himself down, Max eventually walked up another laneway, on the Darlinghurst side of Oxford St, where a queue of about ten people were lined up outside a door. This was the entrance to the Lonely Pines Saloon, with no sign to tell people what they were lining up for, other than a plain white door and a papered-up shop-front window, and a bouncer.

But inside, down a short flight of stairs was a warm room full of dim lighting, wall-mounted animal heads, and a wooden Smoky the Bear statue standing guard in the near-unisex toilets. A friend from work, who had come along with Max one time, had told him that the bar looked like it had been modelled on the TV series Deadwood; but Max had just thought that it was a pastiche of everything Australians imagined the American Wild West to be, complete with bowls of peanuts slid along the bar by the hipster bartenders.

*

“Hey man, how are you going?” The red-haired bartender took a rag from his back pocket and wiped down the bar, catching all the loose bits of peanut shell, and shaking them into the sink.

“Yeah alright,” said Max, sitting down, and feeling glad to see a familiar face. “How are things here?”

“Not bad,” said the bartender, nodding his head. “It’s a bit quiet at the moment, though,” he said, looking around.

Max followed his gaze. “You know, it might be the calm before the storm – it’s pretty electric outside tonight.”

“Really? I wouldn’t know,” said the bartender, “I’ve been cooped up here all afternoon.”

“There’s a bit of a storm brewing I think. It might not come to anything,” and he thought of the boys in the alley; “But it makes everyone act a bit nuts.”

The bartender laughed. “Last night we had a guy who started stripping off, and swinging his pants around his head by the jukebox.”

“Bloody hell,” said Max. “Did you throw him out?”

“No,” laughed the bartender, “he was actually a friend of one of the other guys who works here, and so we helped him put his pants back on and stuck him in the corner. He fell asleep, and when we tried to wake him up, he kept saying something about the wheel of his wagon being broken.”

“That’s hilarious,” said Max.

“Yeah,” said the bartender. “That’s Saturday nights’ for you.”

“Maybe Sunday is the better night for going out,” said Max.

“Well, it’s funny,” said the bartender, “but it probably is. There’s less pressure on people to have a good time, like there is on Saturday night, and so everyone is a bit more relaxed.”

“I can imagine,” said Max.

“The problem is,” said the bartender, “is that everyone expects to pick up on a Saturday night; and when that doesn’t happen, it’s all fucking tears and aggro.”

“We should make Sunday night the new Saturday, then,” joked Max.

“I hear you brother,” said the bartender, and slid a rack of glasses out of the glass washer.

Max relaxed back onto his stool, feeling much better. He had never gone to bars by himself in his twenties, or chatted to people he didn’t know; but it was cool; there was a great pleasure in watching how things unfolded over the course of an evening.

For instance, a few minutes later, a couple of boys, maybe a year or two out of school, came up and asked the bartender for the strongest cocktail on the list. The bartender nodded casually and unhooked two hurricane glasses from the rack above his head.

He then grabbed a cocktail shaker and started adding the ingredients. Once he had done this, he sealed the lid, and shook the hell out of it; then uncapped it and poured the content of the shaker into the glasses. With a short-bladed knife, he halved a lime, making a notch in the base of each half, so that they could sit neatly on the lip of their respective glass. He then filled the half-limes with sugar, then poured a spirit over them and lit it up; the limes sizzled for a moment with a blue flame, which he then blew out.

“Okay, you can either drink that,” he told the boys, “or leave it on for decoration. But I warn you – it’s overproof rum!”

The boys scoffed at him, and the taller of the two paid for the drinks with a platinum bankcard.

“Enjoy,” he said, handing back his card, and pushing the drinks towards them.

And the bartender knew what was going to come next: the boys plucked their limes from the rim of the glass, knocked them together like they were shot glasses, and drank the caramelised, overproof rum. The boys experienced a delayed reaction, as they licked the roof of their mouths, not sure whether they liked it or not; when all of a sudden, the burning sensation kicked in.

They were obviously shocked at how ferocious it was; not only the heat of it, but the bitter flavour that was coming as a slow release from the tendons of lime caught in their teeth. Grabbing the glasses with both hands, the two boys drank deep in an attempt to cool themselves down – but that was only stacking more fuel on the fire. One of them was gripping the bar and staring intensely at the bartender, as if he’d tried to poison them.

Max was trying not to laugh – it was one of the funniest things he had ever seen – he knew if he looked at the bartender, he would probably burst out laughing; so he cracked a couple of peanuts and kept his head down.

The bartender brought the boys some water. And after they had gotten themselves into a better state, they bought some beers, and left the counter, to try their luck with a couple of Finnish girls.

“What where they?” asked Max, pointing at the empty glasses.

“They’re called Fog Cutters,” said the bartender.

“Great name,” said Max.

“Would you like one?”

Ahh – no. Not yet, anyway. I might just have a vodka and lemonade to start with.”

“Sure thing,” said the bartender.

There were nights at the Lonely Pines that were so busy, that Max had gotten stuck in the corner, staring at the wall, next to a giant moose head. And on nights like these, he often borrowed a pen from the bartender, to write notes on a napkin, so that he didn’t look so stupid sitting by himself. There was a ‘Pabst Blue Ribbon’ beer sign on the edge of the bar, near where he was sitting, and so he would write a letter to his friend, that he wouldn’t bother posting, telling him about it, as it had been a kind of joke between them growing up, a quote from the David Lynch movie Blue Velvet.

But sitting by himself, writing imaginary letters and notes was a bit of a worry, and sometimes he wondered with a certain amount of fear, whether if he was becoming a loner on the scale of Edgar Allan Poe and Cornell Woolrich, a crime writer from the 1940s who used to dedicate some of his novels to his typewriter, or the hotel room he was living in at the time. Max felt that it would be ironic, considering the amount of time he had spent talking to people growing up.

In its place, however, had come writing, as a strange kind of compensation. His characters would get the chance to have the sort of conversations that he would’ve liked to have had with friends that were not around, or with people at work that he liked, but rarely had the chance to speak to.

It was also a way to say the things he really cared about, so that they wouldn’t all come spilling out on a drunken night after work, where he would find himself confessing his love for someone, or telling some noble truth about his workplace, about where management was getting it all wrong.

But that wasn’t a normal way to live – he knew that. And it was better to be on the level, and do normal things, like gossip and bitch, and tell people how you feel, rather than store it up inside for a rainy day that usually never comes.

Anyway, Max had been working on a trilogy of stories called The Bars of Darlinghurst, and he was hoping that some time in the not-too-distant future he could come in here, and see the bartender, and say, “here you go, here’s a copy of a story I wrote about this place, and you’re in it too!

*

The Lonely Pines was really starting to fill up.

There had been an AFL game going on earlier in the evening, and now the victors were streaming in wearing their colours. Besides them there was also the normal crowd of early twenties students; local Darlinghurst hipsters; overseas visitors; and people like himself, who had heard about the bar from friends, and wanted to come and see what it was all about.

Shaking the dregs out of his drink, he ordered another vodka and lemonade.

The red-haired bartender nodded and laid down two napkins in front of him, placing a shot glass on one and a tumbler on the other. He mixed the vodka and lemonade, and filled the other glass with whiskey. Max looked at the whiskey.

“Who’s that for?”

“You,” said the bartender, “On the house.”

Max couldn’t believe it: nobody had ever done that for him before; and though he usually didn’t like brown spirits, he graciously accepted it. He took a sip of the whiskey, thought that it tasted pretty good, and watched the bartender sidle off to serve someone else.

Max felt a warm glow in his stomach, and could sense that he was actually relaxing into his stool, with that pleasant blend of music and friendly chatter flowing into his ears, and filling up the empty parts of his heart. He finished off his whiskey, and started on the vodka and lemonade. An attractive girl, who he had noticed coming in earlier, pushed through the crowd into the spot beside him. She didn’t notice him straight away. She leant across the bar to get the bartender’s attention; and as she did, her breasts brushed against Max’s arm.

Max reflexively pulled back, knowing that it had been unintentional on her part — but he also felt a tingle shoot up his arm as the crushed fabric of her top pulled away from his skin.

Sorry,” said the girl, leaning nearer to him so that he could hear her over the rising volume of the room, “It’s getting way too busy in here for a Sunday night.”

“Tell me about it,” said Max, a grin breaking across his face.

“What are all these people here for?”

“Who knows?” said Max, congenially.

They both smiled and the girl looked around, taking in the decor. “Sort of a weird mix of eras, isn’t it?”

Max nodded; and trying to impress her, he pointed up at the Barn Owl hanging from the ceiling on some fishing wire, spinning back and forth in half circles, in the breeze from the industrial fan. “It’s strange to think that that was once a living thing.”

But she didn’t hear him, having just caught the bartenders attention.

Max’s ears pricked up at the mention of a “fog cutter.”

“I might have one too,” said Max to the bartender.

The girl glanced back at him, and for a moment Max was worried that he’d done the wrong thing: men weren’t meant to copy women; it was weird thing of pride, however bogus it might have been.

But she smirked, and turned back to the bartender, flashing him a V with her fingers.

Nodding, the bartender went to work, replicating his earlier efforts for the two boys, placing two drinks down in front of them a few minutes later. The girl went to open her handbag.

“I’ve got it,” said Max. “I stole the idea from you anyway – so I should pay.” And he gave the bartender a fifty, and told him to keep the change, even though he wasn’t sure there’d be any.

“Thank you,” said the girl, and snapped her clutch-bag shut, as she sat down the stool next to Max.

They admired their cocktails for a moment; before Max repeated the instructions the bartender had given the two boys.

He blew out his flaming lime, and then knocked it back, expecting the worst; but was pleasantly surprised when he didn’t wince.

Following his lead, the girl brushed the loose strands of hair out of her face, then brought the lime to her lips and tilted her head back. Max noticed that she had a long slender neck, and broad shoulders; her hair was pulled back in very loose bun, almost like what was once known as a Gibson Girl, while leaving a fringe, which Max thought suited her beautifully.

She winced; and wiped the sour expression from her face with the napkin that had been under her drink.

“Mmm,” she said, “I’m not sure about that!” Then, with her eyes darting around the room, she added: “I’m not sure about these heads either. I think hunting is cruel – and it’s probably bad karma to have all these heads everywhere!”

Max pursed his lips; he didn’t really know what to say. The heads hadn’t really bothered him outside of occasionally giving him the creeps, when he sat too close to them.

Before he could think of something to say, the girl said:

“Don’t worry, I’m just being silly.”

“No, I don’t think you are,” said Max.

Recatching the loose strands of her hair behind her ears; she took another sip of her drink, and then asked Max what his name was. Max told her.

“Really – just Max? It’s not short for anything?”

“No,” said Max sheepishly, “I think it’s just a name that my Dad liked.”

“Well, Max,” she said, extending her hand. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m Alison.”

“Alison – nice to meet you too,” he said, shaking her hand, careful not to be too vigorous.

They swizzled their drinks together for a moment, silently, before she asked him what he did for work.

“Do you know TBS?” said Max. “The television station?”

Alison nodded.

“Well they also have a radio station as well – though people don’t seem to know it.”

“No, I’ve heard of it,” said Alison. “They broadcast in different languages.”

“Yes,” said Max, his voice rising slightly. “That’s it. I work in their radio library.”

“And what does that involve?” she asked, placing her drink in her lap.

“Well, it’s mostly cataloguing work,” said Max. “But sometimes I look out sound effects for the broadcasters, like rockets launching, or horses running at the Melbourne cup.”

“Sounds like an interesting job,” said Alison.

“It is,” said Max, although he was fairly low on the pecking order at the station. He often made suggestions to the managers about programs, and different things that they could do, that he knew about – but nothing much ever came of it.

Alison took a long sip of her drink and then rested it back on the bar.

“So, what else do you do?”

Max hesitated for a moment; “What do you mean? Like hobbies?”

“Any hobbies or interests?”

“Well, I like writing,” said Max.

“Cool – what do you write about?”

He made a funny expression, a kind of embarrassed smirk, where he put his hand on the side of his face, and said, “Sort of romantic stories, but with weird things that happen in them.”

“Have you had anything published?”

“Not really,” said Max. “I’ve actually been writing them to turn them into audio stories.”

“Like radio plays?” she asked.

“Sort of,” he began – and then suddenly changed his mind. “Actually, no, more like films, but just without any images.”

“That sounds awesome,” said Alison.

Max nodded, and he wanted to keep talking about it, but he was worried that it would quickly become boring to her; the thought crossed his mind that she was maybe just humouring him. It was usually not the sort of thing that girls were interested in.

But he was wrong; Alison asked:

“Can I hear one somewhere? Do you put them up on a website or something?”

Max removed his wallet from his back pocket, opened it up, and removed a cache of cards, and shuffled through them. He found what he was looking for, and handed her a dog-eared business card. Alison smoothed out on the leg of her denim pencil skirt, before bringing it up next to one of the candles on the bar.

“Durham Ridge Audio Stories?”

She smiled and studied him for a moment; she could see that he was happy, and knew that she was part of that happiness. “And I can keep this?” she said, smirking, stretching out the moment for as long as possible.

Of course,” said Max; and for a moment, he felt like a real writer.

But it was short-lived; all the drinks had caught up with him, and he realised how badly he needed to go to the toilet. He excused himself, nearly stumbling over the stool on his way to the bathroom.

*

He was drunk, happy, rapping the wall with his knuckles as he pissed, staring wild-eyed out the window at the feet of people passing by in the alley behind the bar.

He could only just remember the last time he had felt this good – and that was in a grey area of his life that for the last two years he hadn’t wanted to think about.

When he got back from the toilet, he found Alison sitting away from the bar, at a table she had seized on after a couple leaving, with two new drinks, tumblers full of a red liquid over hefty ice-cubes.

“What are these?” he asked, as he sat back down.

“Negronis. Haven’t you had one before?”

“I don’t think so,” said Max.

“They’ve got campari, sweet vermouth, and gin in them. They’re more my kind of bitter,” said Alison.

“Cool,” said Max, and he sat down.

They started talking again, a conversation that fitted very easily, partly because they were a little bit drunk, but also because they were easily connecting. Max hadn’t gotten on with anyone so well for a long time. Plus, he liked the way she looked. She was very attractive.

He soon learned that she worked for a finance company; but she also liked restoring old clothes. She bought dresses and coats from wherever she could, and worked on them at night, replacing worn parts, restitching the lining, and generally strengthening the clothing, giving them a new lease of life. She had even travelled overseas to look for special jackets in countries like the Czech republic; and she felt like that she was just beginning to make a bit of a name for herself; she’d had people message her from overseas wanting her to repair special things, as well as helping a local theatre company spruce up their period costumes.

“I didn’t study it, or anything like that,” Alison explained. “I learnt it mostly from my Dad, who was an upholsterer. He had a big industrial sewing machine in his garage.”

“Really?” said Max. “Did you ever think it was strange that your Dad knew how to sew?”

“No, not at all,” she said. “I remember there was a couple of boys in my class that liked to sew. Besides, what my dad did, industrial sewing, is different. You make the upholstery for cars, and stuff like that. My Dad even made a couple of tents that we used when we went away camping.”

“That sounds like a useful skill.”

“It is, ” said Alison. “Actually, I’m thinking of studying it properly, and making it into a real business, as soon as I’ve got enough money saved.”

“That sounds great,” said Max, genuinely impressed. He began to wonder if maybe he was attracted to girls who could run their own business. It wasn’t your usual “I like blondes with big tits” type; but it was a type nonetheless.

“So,” she began with a broad smirk, a few drinks later, “You’re not going to invite me home so I can see your studio?”

Panic shot through Max. “I can’t,” he said after a moment, and a look of embarrassment crossed his face.

“Why? Are you married?” And for the first time that evening, she felt a tiny element of doubt about him.

“No, it’s not that,” said Max, and he went quiet again, unable to offer her an explanation.

Alison was deeply curious, but didn’t want to push him; that doubt for a moment, sat there, and then it dissolved; she thought that maybe he lived with his mum, or in a horrible looking bedsit that he was ashamed of.

“Well,” she offered, “Maybe we can go back to my place. I don’t usually invite strangers home, but really, you don’t feel like a stranger to me.”

“Don’t I?” said Max.

No,” she said, shaking her head: “I feel like I know you pretty well.”

Max couldn’t believe it. All he could say was, “I feel like I know you too,” which sounded a bit corny coming out of his mouth. They grabbed their jackets, and on their way out, Max stalled for a moment, fumbling with his jacket, hoping to catch the bartender’s attention – the bartender spotted him, and he leant over the bar to shake Max’s hand, which made Max feel special, and impressed Alison – that camaradie of men.

II.

It was a sign of something special when a woman invited you back to her place. It was a few notches above her gently touching you on the arm while talking; and a few below asking to use your tooth brush. Although he hadn’t been that successful with women in the last few years, Max still felt like he understood them. He’d been in a long term relationship through most of his twenties, which had ended only a few years ago.

But understanding women – and giving them what they wanted – were two completely different things; and it had taken Max a long time to learn this.

As they walked up Oxford Street together, Alison linked her arm with his. Each time she went to say something, she would unhook from him, using her hands as she spoke, and would rehook at the end of what she was saying.

They turned down Barcom Ave at the traffic lights after the church, to walk down behind the hospital.

Beyond the cyclone fence of the hospital, clouds of steam rose from industrial vents in the wall and an eerie orange light lit up a freestanding Federation building that was home to half the cities medical records, and a giant fig tree, whose roots were probably breaking up the clay pipes beneath their feet, threw a long shadow towards them.

“Don’t you think there’s something ‘Eraserhead’ about all of this?” she said.

“There is,” said Max, and he took it as a good sign, as it was the favourite director of his friend he had writing his imaginary letter to.

It turned out that Alison lived down near the edge of Rushcutter’s Bay in an art-deco block of flats. It wasn’t much to look at from the outside; the brickwork reminded Max of the family home he had grown up in.

Alison checked her letterbox, and tapped herself on the head, and said, “What am I doing? It’s Sunday night!”

She took out her keys and lead him up the stairwell to flat number 3.

Then opened the door and let them in.

Inside was beautiful; she had decorated her flat in a subtle and lovely way. A framed poster of a vintage Campari ad on the wall sat next to a timber bookcase; in the corner, a plush couch the colour of red lipstick and a polished timber dinner table by the sun-room window.

“Sit down,” said Alison, “I just need to use the bathroom.”

Max walked over to the couch, and sat down. Once she left the room, Max felt one of those excitement surges again, and he stood up, and let himself drop backwards into the couch. He bounced back up, just as he thought he would. He looked over at her bookshelf, and a voice came into his head that said don’t you dare look at any fucking books! and so he glanced out the window instead to see that there was a party going on in the block of flats opposite.

He heard the toilet flush, and saw the light go out in the hallway as she came back into the room.

“Are you hot?” she asked. “It could be just the walk, but it feels like its really humid tonight.” She pushed up the sun room window until it reached a natural stop. There was a smell of seawater, and the hypnotic sound of clinking yacht masts floating up from the marina.

“So,” she said, “what would you like to drink?” She walked over to the kitchen and opened up the fridge.

“I don’t mind,” said Max.

“Well, I have pinot gris, a bottle of moscato; I also have some beers that a friend left behind . . .”

Max felt a sharp, short stab in his heart. A friend?

She then checked her freezer.

“Also some vodka . . . I’ve got lemonade that could with it.”

Alison looked over at him.

“I could drink them all,” said Max. “What are you having?”

“I feel like something cool,” she said, and brought out the bottle of moscato. She waved it at him; “You too?”

Max nodded; and she poured a glass for each of them, and carried them over with the bottle tucked under her arm. She handed Max a glass – and Max, quite unaware, knocked it back in three quick gulps. He set the glass down on the coffee table and said, “You know, this is a beautiful place.”

“Thank you,” replied Alison, as she refilled his glass. “I don’t own it but the owner is an old Jewish lady who rents it to me cheaply; she also let me redecorate it too. Not a lot of landlords would let you do that. I am hoping that one day I can buy it from her; but if not,” Alison shrugged her shoulders, “then it doesn’t matter. I’ve had a nice time living here.”

The breeze coming through the window felt good on Max’s skin; and without even noticing, he slid his shoes off. When he realised that he was in his socks, he suddenly became self-conscious, and apologised to Alison.

“Relax – that’s completely what you should be doing; you didn’t even notice me take my heels off, did you?”

“No,” said Max, and he glanced at her feet; she had them tucked beside her on the couch.

“Do you want to listen to some music?”

“Okay,” said Max.

“What do you like?”

“Well, almost everything,” he said. “I used to hate Country and Western when I was a teenager – but after hanging out at the Lonely Pines, I don’t even mind that now.”

“Well, I imagine working in a music library, you’ve probably come to appreciate a lot of things.” She wheeled through the songs on her iPod until she found what she was after; she plugged a cable in from her stereo. “Hopefully, you’ll like this, too. It’s Finnish accordion music – but it’s really cool.”

“I’m sure I will,” said Max.

They were laughing, talking, ploughing quickly through the bottle of wine, and were soon muddling vodka and lemonade in tumblers, slicing up lemons and sprigs of mint on the coffee table. Max was telling her stories about some of the jobs he’d had in the past, some of the customers he’d had to deal with; as well as dumb stuff he had done himself, like waking up drunk in a park at night; or trying to teach drum’ n’ bass moves to dubstep kids at a club.

“I can’t imagine you doing anything like that,” she said, gently touching him on the arm.

“Well, you’d be surprised,” he said. “I’m actually really different, to what I used to be like when I was younger – I used to smoke like crazy when I was a teenager. One of my friend’s used to joke that I smoked so much, that I used to leave her room looking like a pool hall, ”

But instead of laughing, like he thought she would, Max now saw an expression on Alison’s face that matched momentarily how he had felt earlier on when she had mentioned her friend leaving the beer behind – and it was then that Max was sure that Alison liked him.

“Then how did you become so serious?” she said, trying to push the conversation away from anything else that might diminish her feelings for him.

But that was enough to knock the wind from his sails, and for a moment, he felt very hurt; he didn’t really see himself as serious, and it wasn’t really a quality that he liked very much; but maybe that is what he had become, and he had to accept that – even though he wanted to be a normal guy; easy going, able to weather life’s problems without becoming overwhelmed by them. They were the qualities in a man that women – all cards on the table – really wanted.

And she must have sensed that he was hurt, as she jumped up, went over to the kitchen, and lit a candle in a hurricane glass, turning off the lights, as she brought back over to the coffee table.

“Okay, so you used to smoke. But that can’t be all you’ve done. Tell me something else, something not bad for your health this time!” she joked.

As he spoke, she leaned closer and closer to him, until she was resting against his shoulder. Max noticed that her eyes were closing slightly, and he knew she was thinking of other things, not what he was saying, but perhaps what he was going to do next.

And so he leant in to kiss her.

It was what he had been wanting to do to someone for six years; and instead of balling his eyes out, which is what he thought he would do, he felt many of his problems lift. He felt very serious; but in a good way. He kissed her, and kissed her, closing his eyes; opening them; letting her hair brush over his face.He felt her push forward, her breasts connecting with his chest, while arching back her head,so that he could kiss along her neck. He pressed his hands into the hollow of her back, and pulled her to him, and kissed her as much as he could, over and over again.

And then, in the next moment, they were lying down on the couch, Max’s hand sliding along her stockings, massaging her pubic mound with the ball of his palm, and then running the back of his fingers along her stomach.

She was pressing into him with all her strength, and Max hooked his fingers over her hips, into the top of her stockings, and began to pull them down. She slid up onto the armrest to let Max remove them properly, hanging onto the head of the couch to keep her balance. As Max slid back up, he began to kiss her through her black panties, licking through the fabric, before sliding right back up to kiss her on the lips again. She hugged him tightly, and whispered, “It’ll be more comfortable in bed,” and they both stood up: she picked up the bottle of wine; and without saying a word, led him by the hand down the hall.

This was the nicest feeling in the world to have his limbs entwined with someone that he really liked; and who he felt liked him too – even though he didn’t know much about her, what things made her happy, or pissed her off.

But he was happy.

And so was she.

Feeling her fingers clasping around the back of his neck, Max realised that he was back in the game again; that game of life, whose gifts could not be bought, but were hard won by showing courage; at the very least, trying, and not giving up so easily. He knew he was at the very beginning of it again, and for this particular gift, he just prayed that he could make it last for as long as possible.

And he did okay. He woke up a few hours later, needing to piss. Without turning on any lights, he felt his way along the wall, out of the bedroom, along the hallway, and into the bathroom.

He stood in front of the toilet, pissed, and then looked out the window, which was open in front of him at head height. He leaned out slightly to look across the park, and out to the bay, to the boats that he could hear earlier, rocking on the water. In the distance, he could see the ghostly white pillar of the South Head lighthouse.

It was one of those rare moments where he felt glad that he was him, and nobody else. Those moments usually came with a sense of having made a right decision, whether it was by luck, or on purpose.

He took one last look, and pulled himself back in and washed his face. He then retraced his steps, this time unaided, back to the bedroom to see Alison asleep in her bed. She didn’t look like a stranger to him either, he thought, even though he knew that she was, in a way.

He got back into the bed, without waking her up. But she must have sensed that he was there, because a few minutes later she nestled into the crook of his arm. Max laid there quietly for a moment, before closing his eyes and going back to sleep again.

III.

The next morning, Max woke up as the sun was coming in through the window; for a moment, he looked at the wall, the corner of the room, and panicked, wondering where the hell he was. But then he saw Alison sleeping soundly beside him and it all came back to him.

He wondered what he should do. His stomach was rumbling, but he didn’t want to wake her up. Very briefly, a terrible thought came into his mind that maybe she was just pretending to be asleep, so that she didn’t have to face him. But it didn’t last long; he knew that it wasn’t one of those experiences.

Still, not wanting to wake her up, he quietly slid out of bed, picked up his clothes and his wallet, and put them on in the lounge-room. He then rummaged through his wallet for a piece of paper and found the receipt from picking up his shoes the other day.

He flipped it over, found a pen in a mug on her coffee table, and began to write a note to her. Though not exactly sure what to say, this is what he wrote:

Hi Alison, thank you for last night. I had a great time. I’m sorry that I didn’t get to say goodbye to you, but I woke up early (I’m a light sleeper!) and didn’t want to wake you up. I hope you enjoyed last night as much as I did, and I hope that I can see you again. I really like you!

He wrote down his phone number, then “Max”, then added an extra “x” after his name, for a kiss.

Reading over it, his heart raced: he thought about underlining the word really – but stopped himself, not wanting to get too crazy about it. He carefully placed the note on the table, and anchored it down with the mug of pens.

He then put on his shoes, checked that his wallet was in his back pocket, and left the house, hoping that he would get to see her again.

Without really knowing where he was going, he walked down to the water, and bought something to eat. He walked around the bay, admiring the boats on the water, before catching a bus back into the city, back home.

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