"It's like in Star Wars," I said, buttering a crumpet. "You know where Luke goes running home to his aunt and uncle's farm, and they've been set fire to by the Storm Troopers? Do you remember what Luke does? He goes back to Obi-wan and he says, 'I want to be a Jedi, like my father.'"
"Robbie, I want to move out," said Maria.
I choked on the crumpet.
"I'm serious," she said, blinking back tears. Maria is so beautiful, she makes me want to stand outside her bedroom window in the rain, holding up a tape deck playing Peter Gabriel's song In Your Eyes. That's my favourite scene from the film Say Anything, starring John Cusack and Ione Skye. It's about being true to your heart.
"You have to be true to your heart," I told Maria. "But at least let's talk about it." I shrugged into my suit jacket. "Okay? Whatever's wrong, I'm sure we can talk it through. Tonight. I promise. Okay?"
Maria didn't say anything. I tilted up her chin and kissed her mouth, saying "Love you, honeybunny," like in Pulp Fiction. I was confident I could help Maria work through whatever it was that was troubling her. That's my job, after all. I smiled at her and walked out into the clear Bondi morning.
It's never far from my thoughts that most of the people in the world would consider my life a continual holiday. It's not that, of course, but I will admit that it's pretty great. I'm one of the luckiest people I know.
For a start, I live in an art deco building with high ceilings, polished wooden floors and an active and responsible strata council. It's just off Campbell Parade, the broad avenue that runs along Bondi Beach, Australia. As I like to joke when I'm entertaining guests from overseas, it may not be Hollywood but you can see it from here! I always get a laugh out of that, as people enjoy my cosmopolitan sense of humour. It makes them feel that they live an exciting and cosmopolitan life as well.
Some people call Campbell Parade, Shambles Parade. Not me. I love the busy hum of roadmaking equipment at work. It sounds like Capitalism. I love the thought that we are all caught in a world wide web of commerce, that people everywhere are merrily engaged in optimising their lifestyle choices, that products and services are multiplying and spreading out across the globe.
I guess I am a little like William Randolph Hearst in that way. Hearst was the newspaper proprieter on whom Orson Welles based his film Citizen Kane, which many expert critics judge the best film ever made, and I agree. Hearst built this enormous mansion in California and filled it with precious art objects from around the world. Where he couldn't buy the real thing for any money, say with a Pompeiian villa or some such, he built an exact replica. I can't tell you how much I admire that sort of attention to detail. It's something I try to emulate in my own career. Melanie Griffith's character in Working Girl would have to be another inspiration of mine. I meditated on this and other thoughts as I caught the bus into the city.
At eight forty, I stood in the fern-fronded lobby of Paradigm Partners and Associates and took a few deep breaths of the clean conditioned air, as I always do. Unusually, though, Carl Steadman was lounging in a doorway in an exquisite suit -- Prada, who did the costumes for the Montagues in Baz Luhrman's flashy adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. I can't fault Carl's taste.
"Ah, Robbie. A word?" he drawled. When they make Paradigm: The Movie, they'll have to get Anthony Hopkins or John Malkovich to play Carl: he's so clearly evil. (I'm hoping they get Tom Cruise or John Travolta to play me.) I took the chair in his office. He lounged with his arms folded.
"How is everything, Robbo?"
"Fine, grand, couldn't be better," I said robustly, though I happen to dislike Robbo as a form of my name.
"Things okay at home? Nothing you want to tell me about?"
Paradigm Partners and Associates is the best management training company in all of Australia. I am employed there as an associate management consultant, and, at least in part because of the tremendous spiritual sustenance I derive from the cinema, I'm very good at my job. I'm so good that I hope to make partner at a young age, as Carl, it is true, did before me. So I could guess where this line of questioning was leading.
"Things are great," I said.
"Glad to hear it," said Carl. "Thing is, Robster, there may be some staff changes shortly."
"Ah," I said, nodding knowingly.
Carl looked at me steadily. "Performance is going to be critical from here on in. I'm sure you know what I'm talking about. Word to the wise, eh?"
He patted my shoulder and showed me the door. I didn't let my feelings show, but privately, I was elated. A partners was going to retire! That had to be it! And Carl had alerted me that I was in the running to replace whoever it was. I wouldn't have credited him with so much generosity! In fact, I'd always had the impression Carl was out to get me. I must have won him over at last!
I beamed at the potted ferns, took another deep breath of sweet Paradigm air, and walked into the classroom to face my first group of the day. I felt like Clint Eastwood or Harrison Ford.
"Ladies, gentlemen," I said, "Show me the money!"
By the time I got home Maria's suitcases filled the hall. I followed a trail of used tissues to the bathroom. Maria was weeping and gathering her pots of Body Shop goo into a Qantas beauty bag -- a present from my last deductible junket.
"Maria --" I began but she interrupted at once: "Please don't, do you think I'm enjoying this? I'm not you know!" she said. "It's hurting my heart! Don't you see I have to?"
I sat down on the toilet. "No."
"No what?" she said. "I don't see," I said.
"I'm so unhappy," said Maria simply. As she talked, she started to sob again: "All the time when you're not here I just cry and cry. I wake up in the middle of the night and try to cry quietly so I won't wake you 'cause I know you have to work, but you, you don't even wake up! I don't blame you, don't think that, I don't because I love you but I'm falling apart and nothing makes sense and I think I'm going crazy. I have to get out! I have to! Don't you see? Say you see!"
I thought I might be having a heart attack. My chest ached. I swallowed a few times and said: "Why didn't you tell me any of this?"
"What didn't I tell you?" asked Maria.
I realised suddenly that she was right. I had known about the crying and the nightmares, but first I'd thought she'd be better as soon as she finished her final exams, and then I thought she'd be all right when she found a proper job. She'd been living on Austudy and the dole and on money I gave her, but she didn't have to pay rent, I could support her and she was welcome to it. When she got a job she could pay me back and that would be one less thing on her plate. I told her that.
"Idiot boy," she said gently. She held out her hands and I stood up clumsily and hugged her, and then I knew everything was going to be okay.
But Maria untangled herself and picked up the beauty bag.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Goodbyes are awful," she said, and the tears started running again from her eyes and nose, but she ignored them. "There's chicken and stuff in the freezer, I did a big shop today. Just stick it in the microwave, okay?" She went into the hall and I heard her gather up all her suitcases, and then the door clicked.
The flat was suddenly very quiet, and also quite dark and cool. All her clothes were gone and the coral coloured bed linen that was hers, though she'd made the bed again with some old striped sheets of mine. She'd packed her copies of The Prophet, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and Emotional Intelligence, all of which I'd promised to but never read. She'd taken the cucumber cleansing milk and the Vitamin E cream and the tampons from the bathroom cabinet, but she'd left the Neurofen, which she took for period pain and I took for migraines. I poured myself a glass of water and took two Neurofen.
I realised I had just been wandering around the house and touching the places where her things had been. Not that there were that many places, because all her stuff together didn't add up to much in the scheme of things. I put the Neurofen in my pants pocket, closed the bathroom cabinet, looked myself in the mirror and said firmly, "Get a-hold of yourself, Quinn." Then I went to the lounge room, poured myself a neat whisky and made myself sit down opposite her empty Papasan.
"This is grief," I said to the empty air. I meant the stinging feeling on my skin, like I was bathing in pins, and the dull ache in my diaphragm, though actually it felt more like I was sickening for a cold. But it was grief all right.
I thought about grief in the cinema. All that came to mind was Juliet Stephenson's session with her grief counsellor in Truly, Madly, Deeply, where she mops up this flood of tears and apologises because it's the end of the hour. Fine, I thought, and checked my imitation Rolex, which I'd picked up on that same deductible junket in Singapore. It was 7.30, and as it happened it was a Monday night, so that gave me an hour to grieve before Four Corners at 8.30, which I always watch because I think it's important to be informed.
I drank my whisky and settled down. "Very well," I said. "Grief, do your worst." I opened myself to the possibility of grief, which I imagined as the alien queen stalking Ripley through her spaceship, or Billy Zane chasing Nicole Kidman around that yacht. I felt a bit foolish. I'd always somehow felt that grief was women's business, like dying in horror films, or Maria's self-help books.
That prompted an uncomfortable thought. Maybe I'd not so much disregarded Maria's unhappiness as singled it out for my love. Maybe it was not in fact Maria I loved but her great sorrow, her spasmodic trips to the 7-11 for Sara Lee Black Forest Cakes and Pringles, the subsequent wretched purges and her pathetic attempts to conceal the evidence. This line of thought made me feel a bit uneasy, so I had another drink.
For me, men's business was very different. It was like the beginning of The Godfather, where men are lining up to kiss Marlon Brando's ring in a darkened room, while the women outside laugh and dance. Men bear a lonely burden. It seemed to me that Maria and I were like a ship or yacht, with me at the helm and her clinging to the mast like starlight or St Elmo's Fire, lighting my way. I thought about St Elmo's Fire and Molly Ringwold, whatever happened to her, or was I thinking of Ally Sheedy? I sighed and looked at my watch. 7:42. Was that all?
I had another drink. I thought of another instance of cinematic grief, in one of my favourite films of all time, one which, like Citizen Kane and The Godfather, addresses itself to the question: What Is A Man? -- Apocalypse Now. When the picture opens, Martin Sheen is suffering greatly in a hotel room in Saigon. I feel like that, I thought, impressed with my new emotional candour. Yes. That is how I feel.
Then I thought, wait: is Martin actually grieving, or are we dealing with simple alienation here? No matter: my point is that the river which unifies the whole film is life and is also woman, because to truly know a woman takes your whole life. But you must not yield, as Marlon Brando does, to the seduction of the river, or you cease to be a Man.
But not yielding itself contains the possibility of loss. I thought of yet another Brando film, Don Juan de Marco, with Johnny Depp threatening to throw himself off a building for his lost love, and then of the first Lethal Weapon with Mel Gibson putting his pistol in his mouth and Franco Zeffirelli, according to legend, watching the scene and exclaiming: "Aha! Hamlet!"
I sighed again and shifted in my chair because one buttock had gone to sleep. Bondi's long afternoon was fading at last. I reached over to turn on the reading lamp, but when I flicked the switch it stayed dark. I looked down and saw that Maria had taken the power board into which the light and the stereo and video and TV had been plugged. The appliances were mine but Maria had paid for the board. So petty! That's when her leaving me hit with its full force. I dropped my glass and bent over, groaning as though I had been shot.
That night was very bad. Waking up the next morning was worse. When I remembered that she was gone I made an awful noise like a dog hit by a car. The sound scared me. I climbed soberly out of our futon and popped a few Neurofen.
At the bathroom door I stopped. Between me and the shower there stood an impenetrable barrier. I simply could not lift my hand to open the door. It felt as though tremendous weights were pinning me to the ground. The pressure did not ease until I had backed away. So I slathered my armpits in Rexona Sport, put on my suit and left for work.
Carl Steadman was in the lobby again: "Hey, Big Rob." I muttered something in reply. The faces of my class terrified me. The history of cinema deserted me in the hour of my need. I took deep breaths and Neurofen whenever I had a moment alone. I worried for my work. Management is my craft, the thing I would seek to instil in any son I had, like baseball in Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. I tried to put grief out of my mind, to dissociate my professional from my personal life. When I got home, though, I still couldn't open the bathroom door.
By Wednesday afternoon I smelled like roadkill. I skipped the X-Files and stood in front of the bathroom door, willing myself to turn the knob. I called on the spirits of Scully and Mulder to make me strong. No joy.
On Thursday morning Carl was lying in wait for me yet again. "Quinn," he said shortly. "My office."
He barely gave me time to close the door. "Is there a dental problem," he said, "or have you been ill?"
"I, uh, we've been doing some renovating. You know how it is," I said. "Haven't been able to use the bathroom for a day or two."
"Yes, well, I realise that's difficult," said Carl. "Take time off if you have to, but don't come back in until you have."
"I don't need --"
"Look," said Carl. "I warned you about the retrenchments. The directors are having a long, hard look at our bottom line. Lack of personal hygiene is more than adequate grounds for dismissal. Do I make myself clear?"
I walked straight out of his office and caught the bus home. I was kneeling before the knob with my eyes closed, trying to draw on the Force, trying not to cry, when the phone rang.
"Robbie?" My heart exploded like a nail bomb. It was Maria. "Howya doing?" she said.
"Grand, never been better."
She didn't answer. I tried to imagine her holding the phone, and realised I had no idea where she was. "Where are you?" I asked.
"I'm staying with Kate."
She stifled a giggle. I went insane.
"Jesus, Maria! Are you in love with her?" I screamed. "Is that what this is? Do you love her? Do you?" Tears ran down my face. I clawed at my hair.
"Oh, Robbie," said Maria sadly. "It's just a place to crash till I get myself sorted out."
I fell to my knees, gasping. "Oh," I said. "Sorry."
"Look. Do you want to meet for coffee? Or is it too soon?"
"Why don't you come here?"
"No," said Maria. "Somewhere public."
"So I don't make a scene?"
I took a deep breath and sat down. "I'm sorry. I don't know why I'm being such an arsehole."
"It's just, I love you so much."
"I thought I was the hero, you know? Turns out I was just the dumb cop who misses all the important clues. I'm so stupid I didn't even know what genre I was in!"
"You've lost me," said Maria. "I mean, I don't follow."
"Doesn't matter. What about that crepe place you like? Tomorrow?"
"Don't you have to work?"
"I'm taking some time off," I said.
"I think I might give it away," I said, astonishing myself.
Maria surprised me even more. She said: "I think that would be great if you would."
After I put the phone down, I walked to the bathroom. I put my hand on the doorknob. It turned without fuss. I turned both the taps on full and had the longest shower of my life.
Seeing her again was like sitting in the cinema when the curtains roll out wider and the studio logo comes up. Your heart clenches like a fist, knowing what you're about to see will change your life for ever. Other peoples' eyes followed her, like she really was a movie star. The whites of her eyes were white and not bloodshot any more. She gave me a hesitant smile.
"I'm not coming back to you, if that's what you think," was the first thing she said. I winced. "I'm sorry," she said at once. "I didn't mean it to sound like that. I --"
"What?" I asked.
"I'm going to London for a while. To work. Travel, maybe."
I thought, No! I thought, But I need you. I thought, Is Kate going with you? I swallowed, and said: "It sounds great. I hope you have a really good time."
The relief in Maria's eyes hurt me. Was I really such an ogre? I put the question to her.
"No, silly," she said, and took my hand. "I do love you." We both gulped a bit at that. "Just sometimes two people can be perfectly nice and can love each other very much, but it still can be not right, you know? It's nobody's fault."
She was much more self-assured. I felt very far away already, a part of her past. If it was her grief I loved, now what? The grief had burned away. New Maria was a warrior princess, like Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2. But how could I grudge her her new life? She wasn't even my type any more.
"What will you do, if you don't go back to Paradigm?" she asked.
"I thought I might make a film," I said. Maria raised an eyebrow. "Actually, I saw where the video store is looking for someone," I said sheepishly.
She dimpled and said: "Christian Slater in True Romance."
Not my type? With those five words she broke my heart all over again. "Oh, that's it exactly," I said, reaching out to her. She took my hand and squeezed it, but in a friendly way. I tried to smile.
After she had gone, for good this time, I spent some time studying my coffee cup. I thought, I must remember to get a new power board so I can plug the video back in. I thought, I'm out of Neurofen, but then I decided not to get any more. It occurred to me that we're all of us like Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects, making up the stories of our lives out of the bits and pieces of things we find lying around us. I glanced at my imitation Rolex and asked for the bill.