“Are you hungry yet, Jen?” Alice asks. She stands near the sink, chopping coriander garnish in her black flower-patterned dinner dress. You scrunch up your nose at the smell of it, but don’t let her see. You did ask if she needed help with dinner, but you both knew it was out of politeness – you couldn’t stand for long since you hurt your knee a week ago while running. You roll your old school leaver sweatshirt sleeves up, and let them down again.
“Mmm,” you say. “I’m ok. How many people are coming tonight?”
“Fifteen, maybe? Some mates from work, mostly. Joe will be there, you know him.”
“Oh,” you say. “Joe’s nice.” You don’t really want to talk to Joe.
“Are you going to get changed?”
You shuffle away towards the side table, minding the way your jeans chafed your gashed knee, and lower yourself with a sigh. Running a finger along the bland IKEA wood, it swishes around crumbly breakfast remains of muesli and toast. Piles of books, receipts, and various kitchen utensils line the table surface. Alice glances over, catching on to your look of disdain.
“Do you like my mess?” she asks proudly. “I made it myself!” Your heart softens at the way she tries to make you laugh, though your mind feels dull. You roll your eyes long and hard at her, feeling drained from the effort.
“Oh? What do you call it then, this work of art?” you ask.
She pauses mid stir; you know she’s making some crap up on the spot, and you smile in spite of yourself. “I call it my taxonomy of things. Everything has its place on the table. Some things are more important than others. Receipts are on the edge of the table, so I can sweep them into the bin when I don’t need them.”
“Oh, so these go into the bin too then?” you ask, grabbing her car keys from the adjacent corner and angling for the council garbage skip, which sat just beyond the sliding doors in the backyard. Alice had hired it for when her and her partner Paul were doing renovations.
“Fuck you, mate,” she calls from the kitchen, but keeps on stirring. You heft the keys in your hand, wondering if you could make the shot from here. You raise both hands above your head, as if you were holding a basketball. You haven’t played since you hurt your knee. What you would give to be back on the courts again. The flow of the games kept your mind occupied, and you needed that more than ever. And when you were on a roll, when you went for the three pointer, when you flicked your wrist you would know already, that there would be nothing but net. Clunk.
“Jen! Did you really just chuck my keys in the bin?” You rest your empty hands on your lap.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to – I don’t know what happened – here, I’ll get them,” you say, rising from your seat. You wince involuntarily, as your jeans brush against the gash on your knee.
“No, not with your knee you’re not. I’ll do it.” Alice moves to the sliding doors and pauses, sweeping her hair back into a quick pony. You hobble over to the bin with her, peering over the edge of it as she jumps in over the side. She sifts through the contents of the bin gingerly, tossing boxes and plaster slats aside one by one until you both see the keys, warming on the corrugated iron bottom.
“Got them,” she says, spinning them around a finger.
“I’m sorry. Are you going to change?” you say.
“I probably should, hey?” she says, and heads back inside to change. You turn to the bin, placing your hands against its tough rim, and your left leg on a fat rivet bolted on halfway up the side, hoisting yourself until you’re sitting on the bin’s edge. You let yourself fall in backwards, like a scuba diver off a boat, and crash into a sea of cardboard, watching as sawdust rises around you. A puff of it catches in your eye, like a spray of salt at the beach that you knew better than to run toward, and you cry like a child with sand in her swimsuit.
“Jen?” Alice calls out from inside the house. The screen door opens and closes. “Are you out here?” You say nothing, burrowing deeper under cardboard. She hears the rustling. You hear footsteps coming closer, and see Alice sticking her head in the bin, wearing yet another flower-patterned dress, this time one in porcelain white and blue.
“What the hell are you doing? The party is in an hour!”
“I’m not going. I’m not,” you say, stubbornly wiping your eyes on your sleeve. Alice looks at you carefully, curiously.
“No.” Your fingers shake. You pick at a stain on your jeans. “Why did you get into the bin?”
“You shouldn’t have gotten into the bin. I should have gotten into the bin.”
“What are you saying?”
“I like it here, in my jeans and sweatshirt. It’s dirty, but I can take it. But you, in your nice dress – you shouldn’t have gotten into the bin.”
Alice sighs, moving close. She rests her chin along the side of the bin, and looks down at you. What am I going to do with you, everything about her seemed to say. In the lowing sunlight you see her round face, the ages that have gathered in her eyes, perhaps a year for each time you would get into her metaphorical bins. She lets her arm dangle inside the bin, as nonchalantly as a fisherman’s line, her fingers flexing, like live bait on a hook.
“Does it hurt?” she asks.
“Not just the knee?”
“Not just the knee.” Not just the knee, but all the things that you had been running from.
Alice sighs, hikes up her dress and jumps back into the bin. Crunching across the cardboard sea in her low heels, she tears away the flap you lay under, and sits down crosslegged beside you, you who lies like a floating dead man under the cardboard waves.
“Where else?” she asks. You touch your head, your lips, your heart, the way you used to in church as a kid, feeling small again, but this time sadder. Nothing about that felt blessed. Not even when it didn’t leave a mark. Alice reaches over, and hugs you tight, just for a moment, leaving you no time to wallow in it.
“Come on, get out. I’m getting out. My fingers are getting pruny,” she announces, tugging at your arm.
“I can’t. Everything hurts,” you say. Every mismatched part of you coils together as you burrow deeper under the cardboard.
“What are you doing? Waiting to fall apart?” Alice says. You look up at her solemnly.
“Well, you can’t,” she says matter of factly. “People don’t fall apart. Things do. If they fall apart, and I can’t fix them or they become worthless, I’ll throw them away.” She gestures vaguely in the direction of the messy ikea table.
“Remember my taxonomy of things? Those receipts on the table are the first to go, according to the taxonomy, and maybe I’ll keep everything else for awhile, but eventually I won’t need them, or they’ll fall apart, whichever comes first – but eventually I’ll throw all of them away.” Alice pauses for breath, patting you on the cheek.
“But here’s the thing about people, Jenny baby. No matter how broken or worthless they feel, they don’t fall apart. Not even when wearing things that fall apart, like a ratty leavers sweatshirt, do they fall apart.” You lie there, feeling your muffled breaths soften the cardboard, slightly bewildered at the Salinger-like spiel that just escaped your best friend’s mouth. Alice gets up, dusting herself off.
“I’ll be back,” she says, climbing out of the bin and going inside. Soon she pops her head over the bin ledge.
“I’m not getting back in there, Jen. The party’s in half an hour. Come out if you like, or don’t – but I’ll leave this here for you in case you do.” You hear a short clink on the outside of the bin; Alice’s footsteps walking away; the screen door shut.
Dusting off the cardboard, you push yourself gingerly to your feet, and peer over the edge of the bin. Hanging off one of the rivets is yet another of her numerous flowery dresses. This one is black but covered with sunflowers, an odd combination of sombre and optimism. A funeral dress that looks beyond the funeral, you think. Still covered in bin dust, you slip out of your sweatshirt, kick off your shoes so you can crawl gingerly out of your jeans. You hold them tight to your chest for a second, then release them onto the cardboard and feel as though they’re gone now, carried away by the waves. You hop to your feet and slowly make your way across the cardboard sea in your underwear, limping a little as you go.
You step on the rivets again, with your left leg, and lift your right over the bin ledge. The contortions of it all makes the cut on your knee crack and bleed, in droplets that hit your sock. You grimace at the hurt of it, but swing both legs over and lower yourself back onto solid ground. You slip on the dress, feel the cool cloth coat your shoulders, and survey the courtyard. The twinkling fairy lights, strung across the green verandah rafters, the drinks and covered canapes set out on the bench. You can hear a man crooning on the stereo in the kitchen, a dense, soulful tune. There’s a whole world out here, one with meaning that’s not so easy to take apart. One with you in it. There’s a whole world out here, outside that shipwreck universe of a bin.
Janelle Koh is a writer, and law student in Melbourne. She is also the Managing Editor for De Minimis, the unofficially official law school paper of Melbourne Law School. She spends her free time building legos, and annoying her sister. You can find her on Twitter and on her blog.