Pretty Boy, Caitlin Hickson

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

‘Such a pretty boy,’ people always say when they first see me. I have heard more sentences about my bone structure and the size of my waist than about the bruises on my skin. The audience throws me roses, no matter what I do. I think they would applaud if I just stood and smiled or undid another button of my shirt.

I stand there and smile in the mirror for my instructor and she tells me to push harder. My bones are aching, and my smile is breaking but I do the routine again. I feel the ground reaching up to me, I feel it embrace me and I hear my breath leave.

The first thing I think about when I fall is my face. If I get another bruise on my face, I’ll be done for. No audience will cheer for me if I don’t look perfect. I’m not stupid, I know that’s why they come to see me. They don’t really care about my steps, my talent, or the hours I spend in this practice room.

My instructor doesn’t say anything as I stand back up.

She sends me home early. I can tell she thinks I fell in practice today because I haven’t been sleeping. To be fair, she would be right. It’s just not easy to fall asleep with my parents in the room next door, their hatred seeping through the wall like a bad smell. She tells me it’s okay to be tired and take a break, but all I can hear is my father’s voice.

He says I’ll never amount to anything.

And maybe he’s right.

The downside to leaving the studio early is that there are people at the bus stop. Boys from my school, to be specific. They’re on their way home from soccer practice, balls under their arms and mud on their socks. I shove my ballet shoes in my bag on instinct, but it’s too late. One of them sees me and elbows his friend.

‘Well, if it isn’t the pretty boy. How’s life as a ballerina?’ he asks, lips stretching into a sneer.

I ignore the nickname and push past him to stand below the bus stop sign. He doesn’t care about my dancing, he’s just bored. I don’t even think he knows my real name. I try to tune out their conversation, but their laughter carries.

It’s the same every time.

‘With that hair he looks like your sister.’

‘Hey, don’t insult my sister like that.’

‘Do you think he wears tights and tutus?’

‘Probably, you have to be at least half a girl to do ballet for fun.’

I’ve heard it all by now. But it still stings when they laugh, like all of this – my hair, my face, my dream – is all just a joke.

And the more I hear it, the easier it is to believe.

The other major downside of being let out early is that my parents are awake when I get home.

The first thing I do when I walk in the door is hide my ballet shoes. I slip into the skin of the boy my mother wants to see. The boy with good grades and lots of friends who has come home from soccer practice, or boxing, or any other acceptable extracurricular activity. We both know I’ll never really be able to be that person, but we can pretend.

She sits at the dining room table, dinner laid out and waiting. She welcomes me home almost as if she’s happy to see me. I smile back at her, forcing my eyes to stay open, my screaming muscles to act as if there is nothing amiss. But my head is spinning, and my lack of sleep is catching up to me. I’m tempted to lay my head on the dining table and never wake up again.

Instead, we talk. We talk about school like we always do. She tells me about the sons of her friends, the ones with stable careers and bright futures. I know she tells me this because that’s who she wants me to be. Then I tell her about my day – I don’t tell her I fell in the dance studio.

As soon as my father walks through the front door, I shut up. I won’t say a word unless he asks me to. His disappointment in me so quickly turns into anger and I’m not in the mood to gain any new bruises tonight.

He isn’t drunk right now, but he looks at me like he wishes he was. At least if he was drinking, he might be able to forget that his only son dances with girls and grew out his hair just to spite him.

I slip away as soon as I can to my room. It’s as I’m climbing the stairs that I hear him say my name. My foot freezes mid-step and I hold my breath. I wait for him to turn the corner. Drag me back down the stairs. And punish me for my existence.

My skin itches in anticipation. I wonder if he’ll bruise me so bad that I can’t go to the studio again. I really can’t afford to miss another practice.

But he doesn’t turn the corner, instead I hear him pull out a chair. His voice is low and not quite angry yet as he speaks to my mother. ‘All the effort it took to raise him, and the only thing he turned out to be was pretty.’

I don’t get much sleep that night either.

The next day at practice I fail the jump again.

I meet the ground and stay there.

I close my eyes and I hear the disappointment in my mother’s voice when I brought home my first pair of ballet shoes. Her longing for me to be someone else. I feel my father’s shame like the hard floor against my ribs. I smell the breath of the boys in my face, taunting me. I hear them all calling me a girl like it is a dirty word.

I clench my fists and stand back up.

I tie my hair.

I do the routine again.

This time I don’t meet the floor when it calls. This time I land.

The corner of my instructor’s mouth turns upward. Not a smile, but almost. And it’s better than a hundred roses. It means I am worth something. It means I did something right. It means I am more than my face and my waist and all the things I am not.

It makes me feel as if the marks left over on my skin from my father’s shame are worth it. His taunts ricochet in my mind as I land the flip over and over again. And each time I land his words grow fainter. Nothing can touch me here, not even him.

When my instructor leaves for the night, I stay. I practice until my eyes are blurry and my legs are jelly. I’ll catch the last bus home and then I’ll do it all over again tomorrow. And one day, they won’t be laughing anymore. One day, they will look at me and see more than my face, more than my parents’ hatred, more than someone to be teased. One day I won’t have to hide myself anymore.

At the bus stop that night there’s a girl. The first thing I notice is her face. She’s pretty in a tired sort of way. She looks like the kind of attractive girl my mother would want me to invite home – exactly the type of girl I want to avoid.

And then I notice the bruises on her legs. I can’t help it; she’s sprawled across the seat and the marks stand out in the harsh glow of the streetlight. They bloom around her knees like roses and my bruises ache in solidarity. Her hair is tied up, just like mine.

In her hands she holds a hockey stick like it’s the only thing holding her to the earth. I wonder if that’s how she got her bruises. I study her eye bags and the tight grip on her stick, and I think that maybe there’s more. Maybe she learnt to fight the same way I did, by herself against the world.

She looks at me, sizing me up. I know she sees the ballet shoes in my hands and how I carry them like they’re the only things that matter. I tighten my grip defensively. When people see the shoes, they always follow up with questioning looks and laughter. But I’m too tired to even pretend to hide them tonight. I prepare myself for the insult, praying she’ll just ignore me.

She’s looking at me and she doesn’t look at my face, or even at my shoes, but rather at the yellowing bruise on my elbow.

Then she moves over and leaves room for me to sit.

‘I like your shoes,’ she says.

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NiKKi, Hiroki Kosuge

18th April, 2014


I went to church on Good Friday. A man standing by the lectern preached about the importance of choice in our lives. Then, we sang a hymn. Every single believer but me sang pretty well.

The preacher said, ‘Anyone interested, please come over here.’ The believers flooded to the lectern. They were asked to choose either a black bean or a white bean. Some took a black bean in a transparent plastic cup. Others took a white bean in an opaque plastic cup.

After having completed the countdown of three-two-one, they swallowed their own beans hastily.

At that moment, the floor underneath the believers who swallowed white beans cracked open and they fell into a deep pit. Those who chose black beans seemed to be relieved and returned to their seats contentedly. The preacher said, ‘You see? This is the importance of choice in our lives!’

Just before leaving the church, I looked into one of the deep pits by the lectern and heard a voice: ‘I should’ve chosen a black bean.’

28th April, 2014

No Woman No Cry

I saw a woman weeping in the train. Her face was reddish and slightly swollen with alcohol. Then her phone rang. While she was talking she only said, ‘Why?’ Hanging up, she started sobbing again. She cried like an animal. She opened the window, and threw the phone to the outside of the train.

The phone pinged, and was run over and killed. The louder she cried, the more brilliantly her tears dropped on her light-blue dress, and shone.

Finally, her body was completely covered with her tears. They looked scaly. She had become a large fish. After flopping on the seat several times, she leaped through the window and dived into the water under the Harbour Bridge. She left behind her tears, which were as hot as melted iron.


 11th May, 2014

Mother’s Day

From the bus, I saw a woman in the cemetery. She was polishing a tombstone, kneeling down on the ground. She was the only one in the cemetery. The tombstone was shining like a gray gem while other graves were deserted, or broken.

I arrived at the Shopping Centre. There was a huge arch of pink balloons and flowers for Mother’s Day. There were a lot of people carrying flowers in their arms. The petals of chrysanthemums in their arms were rigid as soldiers. I bought eggs and milk, and left, wondering how cruel Australians were, since chrysanthemums are only used in funerals in Japan.

On the way home, the bus passed by the cemetery again. Nobody was there, but a fresh bunch of flowers were left in front of the shining tombstone. The flowers were swaying like a giggling child, blown in the wind. I wondered how many mothers were lying in the cemetery. Then I remembered my own mother, Nanohana, who was named for a flower that blooms in spring, and was proud of that.


29th May, 2014

A Shovel

I happened to find a shovel at a museum shop, which was heavy and reminded me of my childhood. When I was a child, I was afraid of shovels. Every spring, without any good reason, the heavy lumps of iron were given to us, and we were forced to plant sweet potato seedlings. We dug, until the teacher told us to stop. The teacher said, ‘We’ll harvest in the autumn,’ although none of us asked when to harvest. I didn’t really want to harvest, because I knew I would have plenty of food in autumn even without sweet potatoes. I would rather have washed my hands as soon as possible, and have run away from the garden named after the manga character in which I was least interested. The hole I made looked like a grave for me. I didn’t like adults or children.

A museum attendant asked me if I would be interested in gardening. I smiled, looked at the shovel with a floral pattern and then asked her if I could make a grave with it. The staff was appalled and stepped back, but assured me, ‘If you want.’

30th June, 2014

An Over-Familiar Possum

I went to a swimming pool in the city. My goal was to be able to swim fifty metres. I managed to swim forty-five metres today. I am almost there. However, as I forgot to bring my goggles, my eyes became bloodshot and everything I saw became hazy. Even after I had left the sports centre, I couldn’t see things clearly.

Later, I went to a Turkish restaurant. The restaurant was filled with smoke. Rubbing my eyes, I ordered a kebab. A waiter asked if I needed a regular salad. I couldn’t read the menu but could only see his white teeth shining dimly. I left the restaurant, groping for a beacon outside.
The street lights were the strangest. I could see a dim ring around the light. It looked like a halo, and I regretted that I went to the church frequently these days despite the fact I was a Buddhist.

Walking at a snail’s pace to the station, I passed through Hyde Park. There was an extraordinarily huge possum. The possum looked at me as a beggar. I remembered that I had a Tim Tam and opened my bag. However, because of haziness, I couldn’t find it. The possum seemed to be really irritated. Finally, I found a Tim Tam and threw it to the possum. However, the possum rejected it and said, ‘Mate, can I have a durry?’ Then I finally found that it wasn’t a huge possum but a homeless person. I apologised to him and scurried back to my home.


13th July, 2014

An Accidental Indian Dance Instructor

As I make it a rule to write outside on a sunny day, I went to a park. When I was sitting on the bench and writing, I could see two girls dancing an Indian dance. One of them was Indian and another girl was Chinese. They seemed to be practicing for a performance. The Indian girl was teaching the Chinese girl. As they had danced for more than an hour in front of me, I realised that the Indian dance consisted of four patterns.

1. Make a loop with fingers

2. Bend knees

3. Shake hips

4. Tilt neck.

The Indian girl (I named her ‘A’) did two-four-three-one-three-four-four-two, while the Chinese girl (I named her ‘B’) did two-four-one-three-one-four-three-one. ‘A’ did two-four-three-one-three-four-four-two again, but ‘B’ did two-four-two-three-one- four-four-one. ‘A’ did two while ‘B’ did four. When ‘B’ did three, ‘A’ did four.

A: three-one-three-four-two-one-three-three-two-one-four.

B: three-one-three-four-two-one-three-three-two-one-one.

So close!

Then a strong wind blew my papers away. ‘B’ kindly picked them up, looked at the B4 sized papers on which numbers from one to four were scribbled and tilted her neck.

That’s it!


14th August, 2014


I took a wrong train. It was a night train to go to Melbourne. I had plenty of time and didn’t have anything to do but sleep. My face reflected in the window was as black as a portrait drawn in Indian ink. It wasn’t easy to sleep.

I looked at an obese man sitting on the other side of my seat. He had been talking to himself, while looking at his computer screen, ‘Crap…Crap…Crap…’ I looked into the screen and found he was watching a film. It was a film of his own life.

He was a child who was lovely, smart and vulnerable. He could get high marks in any subject, but wasn’t good at playing any sports. One day, he was chosen as a rugby team member by lots. It was obvious he was the poorest in the team. He didn’t practice and was absent on the day of the rugby match, because he didn’t want to show his poor rugby playing. Next day, nobody blamed him, but he blamed himself. He reckoned himself a loser. He graduated from school and got a job in a construction company, but soon quit. He stayed indoors and kept on eating. He believed he was always starving despite his body swelling like a balloon.

He clicked a rewind button and started watching the film again, murmuring, ‘Crap… Crap… Crap…’ Then, our eyes met. He said, ‘What are you looking at?’

After an awkward pause, I said, ‘I’m lost.’ He said, ‘So am I.’


 15th September, 2014

This Is No Longer A Bus Stop

When I got to the bus stop, there was a sign. It said this was no longer a bus stop due to the changed road conditions. I found an aged couple sitting on the bench. I said this was no longer a bus stop. They looked at each other, laughed and said that was why they were waiting here.

Again, I said this was no longer a bus stop and therefore the bus wouldn’t come no matter how long you would wait. The husband studied me and then whispered something into his wife’s ear. His wife slightly nodded and opened her bag. She fumbled her red enamel bag and took out a piece of a yellowish paper.

It was a timetable. However, I couldn’t read it because there were so many small holes in the paper. Again, I said the bus wouldn’t come, folding the paper. They burst into laughter. I was disgusted with them and started walking. After a while, however, I felt sorry for the couple. Both of them must be suffering from dementia.

After having walked for a couple of minutes, however, I heard a thundering sound. Looking back, I could see the bus stop flying across the sky, like a skyrocket. The couple in the rocket-like bus stop waved to me with big grins. Then, I realised they had been waiting for the moment the bus stop would no longer be a bus stop, literally.


16th October, 2014


She called me and said she wouldn’t be able to talk for more than ten minutes because she was now imprisoned. I was really surprised because she was my best friend and was unlikely to commit a crime. I asked what she had done. She said she set the woods on fire, which wasn’t intentional. I suggested that she should have claimed that she was innocent. She said she couldn’t because it was true that she had set fire to a palm tree in the woods. I asked her why she had set the fire on the palm tree. She answered she was falling in love with the tree and couldn’t forgive it for reaching its branch to another palm tree. She confessed that she was about to lose her marbles whenever the palm tree quivered its leaves in a blowing wind. When she was about to say something, the telephone was disconnected. I wondered if she had already become crazy.

Afterwards, I told this creepy story to my partner. ‘It’s crazy to fall in love with a palm tree, isn’t it?’

My partner, a eucalyptus, didn’t say anything as usual. I hugged him tightly, closed my eyes and then enjoyed his clean scent.


 4th November, 2014

Coy Carp

There lives a coy carp in the Sinobazu pond within Ueno Park in Tokyo. No one has seen it swimming. Hidden under waterweed, seemingly, it keeps still. It has a hobby, though.

The coy carp is into Twitter now:


#Shinobazu Pond

Water is lukewarm.


#Shinobazu Pond

Am afraid of Dengue fever.


#Shinobazu Pond

I wanna go to the beach someday.


There lives a coy carp in the Shinobazu pond within Ueno Park in Tokyo. No one has seen it swimming. Hidden under waterweed, seemingly, it keeps still. It is an ambitious carp, actually.


 16th December, 2014

Wednesday, the Day of Loneliness

Mr Sato our boss is now often absent on Wednesday. It’s quite okay because he is just taking his paid leaves. He’s within his rights.

One day, one of my colleagues, however, told me Mr Sato’s secret in a cafeteria at the company.

She said in a low voice, ‘A friend of mine saw Mr Sato in a park on Wednesday.’

After looking around carefully, she added, ‘He was on a swing there. Alone.’

I didn’t know if I should laugh in the moment like this. I just imagined a middle-aged man sitting on a swing by himself.

I thought it would be the ultimate loneliness.


 6th January, 2015

Beer & Beach

Mum would tell me when I was a child that life originated on the bottom of the ocean. Then I wondered if we would ascend into the sky like balloons when we died.

I had a friend called Jim. When I first met him, we were final-year students at the university. He was the kindest man I had ever met. We would often go to the beach on Sunday. Jim would tell me the names of birds floating in the clear sky. I would talk with him about my dream of becoming a poet. He would never laugh at my callowness. It may be just because both of us were intoxicated throughout the summer, though.

‘I must be strong to be a poet,’ I said.

‘Poets must be vulnerable,’ Jim said.

After we got drunk, we would exhaust ourselves swimming at the beach.

When the summer was over, Jim left the town in order to get a job in a city on the east coast. On the day he left, we promised to meet again. I haven’t seen him since then.

Some years later, I really became a poet.

Jim became an ornithologist, I heard, and died of lung cancer at twenty-seven.

I have forgotten his gentle voice, sunburnt skin and coy smile. We didn’t take any pictures in that summer. All I can remember now is the taste of bitter tides, and that we did believe we were immortal while we drank beer on the beach.


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A Void Dance, Suzanne Strong

Drunk on the adulation of the humming crowd beyond the blinding white, and the tequila shot he had downed, he staggered, then leaned into his characteristic seductive sway, exaggerating each step.

‘Wish you, wish you were mine…’ His voice was deep and textured and his mouth touched the microphone intimately; his breath was loud and heavy as he examined the faces of the thousands of hungry people before him. A void, an emptiness was present in this stadium, masses of humanity, seething and moving, arms up, around and reaching out to touch him in some way. Their need as great as his; it was an unspoken exchange between them, a brief affair, a salacious ‘one night stand.’ Thousands of women and men’s faces, adoring, some crumbling under their emotion, ravenous for his gaze or acknowledgement even if for a second, like lions pacing waiting for their sinewy carcass at the zoo, a tinge of desperation mingled with violent objectification. The exchange was mutual.

He fixed his gaze on one tall blonde woman; her slender arms and fine shoulders excited him, her eyes looked back at him unflinching, strong and seductive. He wondered if they would meet later. Inside he felt this familiar falling feeling, like in his dreams very often, this sinking sensation in his gut he used to have when hurling himself off a cliff into the river of Ku-ring-gai National Park. Though that had been exhilarating, this however, was not. It was more like an ache, an abyss, an anxiety and an imperceptible void. It was usually only momentary.

Until he turned his back on the crowd and faced his band, catching the eye of Tim who was beating his skins with characteristic ease and flair, like he was himself dancing on top of each of them. He shot Dylan a satisfied grin. The song climaxed and they strummed the last remaining chords. Silence only for a moment, then the band resumed the next song, the drums lead and Jai came in with deep, driving bass. The crowd roared, thousands of people he would never know.

On this expanse of wood, with lighting, erected amplifiers, electric guitars and bass, a mass of drums, lights and images streamed across the audience, he felt he could exist here forever. His body was robotic in its sensuality. His missed his long dark hair that used to cover his eyes, now he ran his fingers over the shiny wetness of his bald head. He was neither conscious of his body nor acting deliberately, as if he left his body when he performed, occupying a space above himself hovering over the circus below and perceiving himself from the outside.

His father used to line up all of his children and demand one by one they stated what they had achieved that week, made to justify their worth. Dylan remembered his father’s closed fist slamming into his face; full and hard like a plank of wood that reverberated sheer pain through his sinuses and nasal cavities. These memories were fierce but it was his father’s words that haunted him more; no one will ever want you, look at you. Dylan knew his wife, Sophie, loved him and Zac and Angel…but there were the women…always an insatiable desire for this. Sophie understood mostly; he always made sure she knew that he loved her and never would leave, but you know, he was who he was, ‘Dylan Johnson.’ Flashes of their more vehement fights recently, unsettled him now, but he reassured himself of her loyalty and love.

Sweet guitar chords, deep bass and the driving of the drums reverberated around him as a tangible landscape and delivered him away. As the song faded Dylan turned to Jai, Tim and Michael who all stood next to him now and they all linked hands and bowed.

His ears rang as he walked off stage. Even though he had worn earplugs, it never seemed to totally block out the wall of sound that remained. Back stage there was an ecstatic vibe, people sipping champagne, chatting with band members, leaning against the wall, women playing with long strands of their dyed red hair as they focused on every word that Jai, Tim and Michael were saying and laughed in shrill tones.

Dylan laughed. ‘Ahhh boys,’ he thought. Images of those three from the past, flashed brief footage across his mind, everything they had been through, the births of both his children, Michael’s recovery from drug addiction and subsequent divorce and the death of Jai’s sister.

‘Great show.’ He patted Jai and Tim on the shoulder as he passed.

‘Fuck yeah.’ Jai embraced Dylan in a magnanimous hug.

‘As always,’ Tim answered with a cheeky expression.

Dylan smiled at both of them, that expansive, enigmatic grin curling at its edges that had appeared on many magazine covers, newspaper articles, online and television talk shows.

Their manager David tapped Dylan on the back.

‘Hey man, Sophie gave me this to give to you.’

‘Weird, thanks mate.’

‘No worries. Pretty old school, old school love,’ David said chuckling.

Hearing her name shot a painful sensation through him that he couldn’t explain. The sight of her handwriting on the envelope unnerved him, he didn’t know why. Smiling briefly at a brunette and blonde on the way, Dylan went to his dressing room. He could party soon. Sitting down before his mirror, he poured himself a scotch and opened Sophie’s letter. He sipped the scotch relieved there was a momentary break from everything. Opening it, he heard her voice as he read:


Hi Luke,

I can’t do this anymore. You treat me like shit, your behaviour with women after shows is disgusting and you tell me I should be okay with it, your drinking, the pills, parties, your mood swings, irritability and rage. I’m exhausted in every way. You treat the kids badly and you’re competitive with them, especially Zac. I thought I could handle the women and sometimes I hoped you would change, but clearly you don’t want to. You always say you can’t do ‘normal.’ What you mean is you want to do whatever you want, and fuck what I need. When you say you love me, it passes right through me as if I’m a ghost. You don’t seem to know what love is. None of this fame shit is real, Luke. It used to be just us facing everything. When we met years ago, you chased me, wanted to prove your worth to me, doing things to please me, telling me you’d make it . I never understood this. I loved you already, Luke Johnson, quiet, shy and gentle. You were always Luke to me. Now I don’t seem to know you at all. You’re not the man I loved 10 years ago. I miss him. Was this ever you? I don’t even know. I’ve been so alone for years now. You act as if I’m lucky to be with you. You’re so arrogant. Your personality changes — Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at times and it scares me when you yell and throw things. It’s the same look you get when you see a new woman you want to chase. I don’t want Zac to think this is how he should be or Angel to put up with this. You really don’t care about me or anyone else, especially your kids. Whenever I raised your behaviour and tried to leave in the past, you’d argue, yell and blame me. I have to leave, for myself and the kids. Don’t try to find us. It’s best we don’t see each other for a while. I’ll ring you so you can talk to the kids.



Dylan threw his glass smashing it completely on the wall; golden brown liquid drew crooked lines down its whiteness. Tim and Jai appeared at the door. Dylan covered his face with his hands.

‘What the fuck, Dylan?’ Jai said.

Dylan didn’t raise his head. After a pause he said, ‘She’s left.’

‘What? That can’t be true, she’s left before man, don’t worry she’ll come back again,’ Jai said putting his hand on Dylan’s shoulder.

‘Sorry, man.’ Tim said.

Dylan didn’t say anything and picked up his phone. Dialling Sophie’s number he knew it would go straight to message bank. When it did, hearing her voice was painful. He sought to veil his heightened adrenalin and the familiar inflection of aggression in his voice.

‘Come on Sophe, you know everything is not as simple as this…Just speak to me, I can come to where you are, we can talk about it.’

He slammed the phone down sending items on the dressing table flying.

‘She won’t talk to me,’ he yelled at Jai. ‘I need to find her, I’ve gotta go…’ He made for the door staggering past Jai, who grabbed him.

‘You won’t be able to find her, man.’ Dylan struggled to free himself. Jai held him.

‘I will. I have to…’ He pushed Jai against the wall.

‘If she doesn’t want to be found she won’t be,’ Tim said.

‘You have no idea what I’m going through. Stay out of it.’

‘She’s come back,’ Tim said with concern.

‘This time is different, she’s determined,’ Dylan said walking out the door. Jai followed Dylan onto the street.

Dylan stood on the sidewalk of Kent Street, inner city Sydney. The din of traffic, people’s voices and laughter from nearby restaurants and clubs provided a cacophony of sound, in the cool evening air. Dylan bent over and nearly threw up. Jai approached him.

‘What the fuck am I going to do?’ He looked up from his hunched over position.

‘Don’t know mate, but I’m here for you.’

‘I feel safe with Sophie. What if she really does leave me?’ His eyes were wide and his face crooked with fear.

‘I don’t know Dylan, but maybe you should think about how she felt with you.’

Dylan and Jai walked to a bar on George Street. Dylan rang Sophie’s phone repeatedly, with no reply. After many drinks they found their way back to their hotel in Elizabeth Bay. Jai stayed with Dylan, downing more shots of vodka in his room and listened to Dylan’s bleary-eyed ramblings about Sophie and their fights recently and how it couldn’t be over. Eventually, Jai went to his own room to sleep.

Sitting on the end of his bed, Dylan blinked through the haze of copious amounts of scotch and vodka. He did take cocaine on occasions but not this evening. He wept lying face down on the bed. Everything seemed to be caving in on him. He felt like he couldn’t breathe. He took out the picture of Sophie and Zac and Angel in his wallet and traced their faces with his fingers. Tears obscured everything before him.

Images of his mother’s peaceful features, her green eyes when the essence of her life left them and she breathed her last, overwhelmed him now. His mother, his only safety was gone. Now this overwhelming grief swept over him, as if it had happened again. An insurmountable emptiness, pain and abandonment seemed to cave him from within – only this time he didn’t think he could survive it.

He went to the drawer next to his bed where he kept his pills, sleeping pills mainly, though he had others for anxiety and depression as well. He examined the bottle. Opening his mouth, he swallowed a large handful of the small white pills with a shot of vodka, and laid down on his bed. Closing his eyes, he imagined his mother in her floral dress that played in the wind, hanging washing in their backyard and smiling at him in their swimming pool. Picturing Sophie or his kids was too painful. He surrendered now; the fight was over.


‘He’s tortured, Jaz,’ Sophie said to Jasmine sitting in her living room late that evening. ‘Do you still love him?’

‘Love him? I think love became fucked up a long time ago, Jaz. I feel numb, nothing. There were times he was humble and pleaded with me and for a while he would be different, and then it would go back to how it was, switched sometimes in a moment, like a split personality. He doesn’t seem to have a conscience. I’ve realised something though, Luke’s addicted to the fame, attention, women and can’t feel good about himself without it. Me? I’ve been addicted to him.’

‘Sweetheart, you’ll be ok. I’m here for you.’ She touched Sophie’s hand.

Jasmine got a call on her phone, ‘What? Luke? In hospital? What for?’ Jasmine listened to her husband David on the phone and turned to Sophie whose face was distraught.

‘He’s in hospital, Sophe.’

‘What? What do you mean?’ Sophie said, rising to her feet from the couch as if it was an involuntary action.

‘He overdosed on sleeping pills.’

‘I can’t breathe Jaz…’ Jasmine took Sophie in her arms. ‘Is he ok?’

‘He’s ok, Sophe, it’s not your fault.’

Sophie cried into Jasmine’s shoulder.


He opened his eyes as the scent of her perfume permeated the room, embracing him. She looked smaller, frailer in a way he couldn’t define as she walked towards his bed. Like a flower separated from its source; browned at the edges and with petals precariously threatening to fall. Her shoulders seemed more exposed, the bones in her neck protruded from her green singlet, her body so familiar and beautiful, had always provided a sharp pain inside, bitter sweet like something he longed to possess mixed with dark regret, and inner unworthiness. Her hair was down, barely brushed, she had no make up on, and her green eyes regarded him with a weariness he had not seen in her before. Darkness framed her eyes. Dylan could barely look into them they seemed to blink away tangible pain. Tears traced her cheeks.

‘Oh, Dylan,’ she said barely audible. She took his hand.

‘You never call me that,’ Dylan said, looking down at her fingers in his.

‘I’m so glad you’re okay.’


‘Are you ok?’ she asked.

‘I’m ok,’ Dylan said, forcing a smile.

‘You need help.’

‘I know,’ he said.

Dylan was pale, the lines in his face looked like crevasses, deep, chasms concealing underlying truth. Apparatus was attached to his chest, small round circles with winding chords, an IV in his wrist and a machine monitoring his heartbeat displayed green lines of security. He looked at Sophie as if he was a child craving his mother.

‘Please get help. Think of Ange and Zac. We can’t lose you.’

‘I know. I’ll try.’ He glanced into her face. She said nothing. ‘I know you’ve heard it before, sometimes we all need a wake-up call. I’ve always been doing my best, Sophe you know that.’

She looked down and let go of his hand.

‘What about us?’ Dylan didn’t like the sound his voice made uttering these words.

‘I don’t know. It’s more important you think of the kids. I should let you rest. I’m so glad you’re ok. I was so worried when I heard. I’ll bring the kids in tomorrow, okay? They really want to see you.’ She kissed her hand and placed it on his. ‘So glad you’re okay.’

‘Thanks Sophe. I love you.’

Sophie smiled slightly, though she did not look into his eyes. Her lips formed a straight line and her gaze became vacant like seeing an abandoned house on the inside when all human inhabitants had left. Dylan had not seen this in her features before. She stood up and left, leaving only the scent of her presence. He closed his eyes—he did not want to see, anymore.


Download a pdf of A Void Dance

Dancing Shoes…, Suzanne Strong

Edges crumpled in triangles on two corners of a fading poster, plastered onto the door of the Rio Rhythmics Dance Studio. Proud vivid feathers stand at attention to the sky, mingling with shimmering sequined head dresses on bronze kissed women’s heads, winking glittering bra tops, barely concealing nipples, exposed skin, silver navel ornaments falling to tasselled tenuous briefs. Arms outstretched, hips moving like some other force was in control, like the women were as artificial as they appeared, warming themselves in the adoration of men, ‘Stepford Wives,’ breathtakingly beautiful and robotic male creations.

Genève and I both saw it and looked at each other, and laughed. The same question on each other’s faces; what were we doing here? A Latin beat and melody drifted down the corridor getting louder as we climbed the stairs. Reaching the top, we saw Juan the Dance Instructor, who smiled at us from across the room.

‘Hello ladies. Come in, make yourselves at home,’ he said in a dense Latin-American seesawing accent.

His body was like a muscular figurine, dark and well defined; through his brief singlet top most of his taut, hairless chest could be seen. His tight, black pants revealed a pert spherical bottom. He was the cliché of a Latin Lover/Dancer, walking over to his side of the room. He smiled at us, looking us up and down, what else would you expect?

‘We’ll make Latin dancers out of you girls, if it kills us.’

‘It may do so too,’ Gen said, laughing. I glanced at Gen, grateful she was there with me, as she always was.

Around the room, people were stretching, some were staring awkwardly into the middle, a middle aged couple looked like they were trying to rekindle their love, instead, they regarded each other awkwardly. A single mother and daughter, in school uniform, also stood uncomfortably looking at Juan. There were the two pulling up leg warmers, in tights and long t-shirts, their hair frizzed up and pulled back by white bandanas (what was this, an episode from Flash Dance or something? And it was a sizzling hot Brisbane summer, after all!)

Another middle-aged couple stood as if they were about to go on stage for a professional performance – their bodies held in the rumba position ready to launch into a routine. You just wanted to walk up behind them and say, ‘Hey, lighten up.’

‘This is a beginners class, isn’t it?’ I asked Gen.

‘Supposed to be,’ she said, also looking at the couple.

Juan called everyone’s attention.

‘Hello everyone, welcome,’ he said, his white smile passed over everyone like a midnight beacon over the dark surging ocean.

A guy who would’ve been mid-thirties with dark curly hair, vibrant blue eyes with lines around them that reflected kindness and a delicate smile like a swallow, whispered to his blonde friend who was wearing board shorts, a t-shirt and no shoes. They looked how I felt; out of place.

‘We’ll start with the basic moves, and then later we’ll get you to dance with partners.’

A drumbeat reverberated, percussion began to frenzy and the charango drove the rhythm of the music as Juan clapped his hands and moved his hips in circular motion, clicking his tongue and saying, ‘Let’s get moving.’

‘Whoa, I hope he doesn’t expect us to do that,’ I whispered to Gen, watching his gyrations and referring to his clicking abandonment. She laughed quietly.

His body was a robot as his hips traced circles in the air, while his upper torso remained static.

‘This is what we do in Latin Dance, the basis for all of our dances, this hip movement. Aussies find this hard to do,’ he said, moving his hips from side to side in perfect formation.

‘Move your hips, not your upper body…’ We began moving and Juan walked around us, touching some of our hips, males and females moving them in the right direction. Then he got us walking around in a circle, while moving our hips. Most of us were struggling, the experienced couple were moving with precision. Genève and I looked at each other and laughed.

‘Australians are so uptight they do not move their hips much, we Brazilians do it all the time,’ Juan said, laughing.

After multiple circles around the studio and watching ourselves in the mirror, Juan allowed us to break. Some of the people were breathless and going various shades of light maroon. One lady was sweating and so breathless she could’ve been a candidate for a heart attack.

Gen and I retrieved our water bottles, chatting about how we were finding it when I suddenly became aware of someone walking towards us. I turned to see the dark man with his blonde friend. Uh oh, I hated these awkward conversations, particularly with men. I was so out of practice.

The dark haired man introduced himself as Mark, looking directly at me, his smile lighting up his features, and the man with straw-coloured hair was David.

I introduced us and leant against the mirror behind me.

‘You guys done this before?’ David asked.

‘Nope, can’t you tell?’ I said.

‘You’ve been fine,’ Mark answered.

‘Gen’s got it down pat. It is going to take me longer because I haven’t danced since high school.’

‘Not really.’

Juan began clapping his hands and started calling out to the group. ‘Now is time for partner dance.’

Juan came towards us and paired up Mark and I, and Gen and David together. Then he continued on pushing together people in an authoritarian voice. We were told to stand in close proximity to one another, lacing our fingers together in a coat hanger like shape. This stance I hadn’t been in since my wedding waltz, which should be more aptly termed a wedding sway. And look how that had turned out. Six months since my marriage break up, but I still felt sick and adrenalin pulsed through my legs. It felt as if I was somehow betraying someone.

Mark and I faced each other. Awkwardness directed Mark’s limbs as he shifted his weight, and his eyes dropped every now and then. I avoided looking directly into his eyes that were both gentle and alluring, but seemed confronting to me. It was a strange feeling being close to another man other than Steve, and now, feeling jittery around someone. Then his words collided around my mind; ‘fuckin’ bitch,’ ‘slut,’ and I felt his hands around my neck…I hadn’t thought about Steve for a while, but every now and then these scenes played as a short film before me. Breathing in, I returned to the here and now. Mark looked at me in an inquisitive manner, questions clouding his face. Looking down at my shoes, I sought to hide my emotions. My gaze turned to the middle aged married couple next to us and I smiled. They smiled back, then turned and glared at each other.

‘You okay? It’s not going to be that bad dancing with me,’ Mark said with a crooked cheeky smile.

‘Of course,’ I said, laughing, ‘I’m a bit nervous about how I will be as a dancing partner.’

‘You’ll be fine,’ he said, squeezing my hand.

‘Pull your partner a little closer,’ Juan called.

Mark’s warm hand rested on the curve of my lower back, he pulled me close and tightened the embrace. Adrenalin filled my limbs, how ridiculous I thought. Less air separated us now, our bodies close, I looked at the contours of his neck bones, his hands were large and somewhat cold from sweat, and his warmth touched my chest. Goose bumps rose tiny round mountains on my skin. His cologne surrounded me, strong and delicious like fresh wood shavings on a carpentry floor. His breath touched my neck and I wanted to relax into it. He looked into my eyes. I looked away. Faint lines around the edge of his lips formed a kind smile.

‘No really, are you okay?’

‘Yep, sorry about that. I’m elsewhere.’

Juan called out commands and we sought to follow. Mark was better than I thought and we moved well together. I focused on the steps, the movement of my legs and feet in unison with his, and the movement of my hips under his large hands. Shifting my attention from Mark, I honed in on Juan’s words to everyone.

Mark and I stumbled. Juan came over and corrected our positioning and movements. He positioned our bodies closer together, we started the Samba, which involved steps forward and backward, and was elegant. Then we moved onto the Rumba, which included a circular gyration of our pelvises and hips together, reminiscent of certain other human actions. Now that was not a little awkward, I was already nervous enough.

Alternating turns and being spun out from Mark and around, movements of our hips in sensuous unison, our cohesion didn’t always work but was extremely humorous. We couldn’t stop laughing, but sought to maintain composure when Juan looked over. Sweet strumming of guitars flamenco style, individual high-pitched plucked notes and honey harmonic male voices serenaded our steps. Juan kept telling me to look into Mark’s eyes. So I did. Over the forty-five  minutes my inhibitions dissipated. Gen and David were next to us, we all chatted and laughed as we sought to emulate the dance, but mostly made mistakes.

When Juan said, ‘That is it for couple work tonight,’ I was disappointed.

‘Thanks, everyone. Give yourselves a clap, you did very well.’

I clapped sheepishly, glancing at Mark, chuckling as our stumbles replayed in my mind. He smirked back.

‘Thanks Sade, you were a great partner.’

‘Except for the bruises on your feet.’

‘Yeah, except for that.’ He winked at me and I smiled feeling self conscious in a good way.

‘How did you guys go?’ Gen asked us. ‘Looked like you had heaps of fun.’

‘I did,’ I said.

‘Me too,’ Mark agreed.

David and Mark said they’d see us next week. Mark turned briefly and caught my eyes, then disappeared. Gen looked at me, turning her head to the side, and said in a singing voice, ‘He looked nice.’

‘Yeah, he was.’

I drank from my bottle, trying to seem nonchalant.

‘Looked like he liked you.’

‘Don’t think so. Even if he did, watch him run when he finds out about my life.’

‘You’re so cynical.’

‘Not cynical, just realistic.’

‘Uh huh.’ Gen rolled her eyes.

I pulled her into a hug. ‘You’re a great friend to me,’ I said, remembering the night I turned up at Gen’s house distraught and with my children, after I had left. She embraced me and took me in.

We walked towards the stairs and said our goodbyes to Juan. Descending the stairs, we returned to our lives again. Gen to her husband and three children, and me to my children and my veterinarian practice not far from here. The following week moved quickly: school drop offs, my daughter’s soccer training, my son’s art classes, my violin lessons, working and on the weekend brunch with Gen and Simone, while Steve had the kids for the day. I hadn’t let him have them overnight, didn’t know if I could trust him. He had taken them to the museum this time.

Stretching on the dance floor again, my senses became heightened as I noticed Mark across the room but no David. Someone was standing behind Mark. Then she appeared, tall, dark haired, and wearing black pants and a fitted yellow singlet. She was leaning in close to Mark, chatting and laughing.

Typical. Of course he wasn’t single. He smiled and waved. I waved back and turned towards the mirror, not knowing where to look.

‘Looks like we’ll have to get new partners, David’s not here and Mark has a new partner,’ I said, nudging Gen.

‘Yep, looks like it. Attractive, isn’t she?’

‘Yeah,’ I said, wondering why she had to rub it in.

Juan approached and paired us up with two guys standing nearby, looking lost on their first class. Peter, my partner, had ginger blonde hair, white skin with yellow tinges on the edges of his face, and garlic emanated from every pore. Dancing with Peter was like slowly receiving dental treatment with no anaesthetic. Juan intervened on many occasions to no avail. After an eternity, Juan called a break, winking at me. I walked over to Gen.

‘Scott would be jealous of what I saw you guys doing,’ I said, patting her on the shoulder. A hand touched my arm. Uh oh, not Peter. Turning around, I saw Mark’s smiling face and his partner standing next to him.


‘Hello, how are you?’ I asked.

‘Great thanks. Hey, this is my sister, Therese.’

‘Hello,’ I said, feeling relieved and addressing her directly, ‘you guys danced well together. The talent must run in the family.’

They both laughed.

‘Yeah, we’ll probably dance with different partners next week. I was just helping Tess get used to the class.’

‘Such a nice brother. Though you looked like you knew what you were doing.’

‘I have done a little before,’ she said, surprisingly shy for someone so striking.

Mark explained David had the flu, and Gen said to pass on our regards.

Suddenly, Juan clapped his hands again. I sighed. Not back to Peter again.

Mark put his hand on my arm again and said quietly, ‘Hey do you want to have a coffee with me sometime?’

‘Sure,’ I said, managing a shy smile.

‘What about Friday at Café Tempo, 10:30am?’

‘Sounds good.’

‘Here’s my card if there are any problems.’

I looked at it – he was an Environmental Engineer for the Queensland Government State Development Department.

‘Okay, cool, thanks. Better get back to my partner, you know.’

Returning to Peter, an involuntary smile formed on my face throughout his pushing and shoving with me around the dance floor. Juan hovered close to us. He saw it was a lost cause.

‘I’ll match you with different dancers next week to compliment your skill level,’ he said, and smiled knowingly at me when Peter had turned his back. I suppressed a giggle.

My feet ached and I was pleased when Juan said class was over for the evening. Mark and his sister left pretty quickly, waving as they went.

‘See you on Friday,’ Mark called.

‘Sure,’ I said.

‘Ohhh, a date?’ Gen asked when he had disappeared.

‘We’re having a coffee.’

‘Really? Hmmm, well let me know what happens, okay?’ she said, raising her eyebrows and the tone of her voice.

‘Will do.’

Wandering along Vulture Street, I looked into Avid Reader bookshop as I passed, trying not to look ahead to Café Tempo. Then I saw him; sitting outside, his dark abundance of hair framed his face and his eyes focused on the newspaper below him. As I got closer he looked up and smiled. We greeted each other with a kiss on the cheek. I sat down at the table and a friendly waiter with blonde straight hair took my order and left. All I could think was Mark only likes who he thinks I am.

‘How’ve you been since Tuesday?’

‘Good thanks.’

‘Good to hear,’ he said, smiling at me in a contented manner, sipping his flat-white from the edge of the white china cup.

‘There’s something you need to know Mark.’

‘That sounds ominous.’

‘It is a bit.’

‘Okay, spit it out – all ears.’ He turned his face directly towards me.

‘I have two children and um…left an abusive marriage some months ago.’ I looked into my coffee cup. I hated pity or people knowing my business, but I had to be honest.

‘Oh. I’m so sorry to hear that. Are you okay now?’ His tone of voice quietened and held a tender inflection. He put his hand on my wrist and looked into my face.

‘Thanks. I’m going well now. It’s much easier than it was at first. I’m happier, stronger now.’

‘Must’ve been horrible. How are your kids taking everything?’

‘Yeah, pretty well, I think. I let them see him every second weekend in the day. They have told me they feel happier now than before.’

A cool change fell over our coffee date like a brooding grey sky and southerly breeze. A characteristic Brisbane storm brewing on the horizon had rolled in and now started to pour with rain. I couldn’t gauge his thoughts.

‘Mark, if you’re uncomfortable with this, it’s cool. I know it’s a lot to adjust to, before you just thought I was a single woman.’

‘Yeah, it is a lot.’

‘I don’t expect anything, I just like you…’ I felt vulnerable.

‘I like you too,’ he said, ‘you know that.’

‘I realise things are more complicated than us liking each other. It’s not like when we were young, hey? Sometimes I wish it was. I was hoping we could still get to know each other, but I totally understand, whatever you want.’

‘I’m not sure what I think, Sade. I’d be happy to get to know each other and see what happens.’

‘Sounds good to me.’

Mark finished drinking his flat-white. He asked me about my kids, what they liked to do, where they went to school, what they were like. I answered him, all the while noticing his difference. Not cold, but changed. Who could blame him? It was a lot to absorb. After a little while, he said he had to go.

‘Okay, see you then,’ I said.

I watched him walk away. He had my business card and we agreed we would see each other at dancing. We’d see after that. The day was moving on, its hot breath becoming more stifling. Who knew what would happen? All I knew was I wouldn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on it. I was free now. I looked at the photo of my kids on my mobile phone. Closing my eyes I saw endless blue surrounding me.


Download a pdf of Dancing Shoes…