Brief impression: “L’avventura”
December 22, 2014 § 1 Comment
It’s interesting to revisit a film whose first and only viewing was so seminal a moment in the viewer’s life that it was and has been considered an unwavering favourite in the viewer’s mind for years. Interesting in that those elements which initially seduced and bewitched on an almost purely sensual and intuitive level are now approached with an invariably analytical eye. Now that the packaging has been duly admired and fawned over, it’s time to see what’s inside, which in truth would be an erroneous assumption seeing as, with this and many of Antonioni’s subsequent films, form is function. On seeing “L’avventura” for the second time, the images are appreciated for more than just their crystalline beauty but for their role in externalising the interior, in being the visual analogue of the kind of spare modernist prose that can in a few choice words paint a terse yet lucid and eerily precise impression of a character’s essence, intellectual, spiritual and otherwise. Sure, the descriptive density may be low, but the accuracy of the few afforded descriptors is high, and higher still, their suggestive and implicative capacity. Similarly, the physical expanses and edifices, photographed with a challenging degree of patience, double as both the external world in which the characters materially exist and the mindscape in which so many find themselves so hopelessly lost. It’s not enough to view the physical world in “L’avventura” as being symbolic or expressive of the psychological; it is the mind of the characters that inhabit it.
The languid pacing, while often testing, is a deeply ingenious way to induce not only a meditative disposition in the viewer, but a state of mind which mirrors that of the characters in the film, characters cursed with an excess of leisure time so great that they are wont to spiral ever deeper into a vortex of their own inner conflict and despair. Rather than providing the viewer a comfortable boxed seat high up in the stadium from which to view Claudia and Sandro struggle with their dual allegiances to tradition and (at the time) counter-conventional modernity: the concurrent desire for externally prescribed fulfilment and that which is self –determined, Antonioni the director thrusts the viewer onto the lonely emotional playing field alongside the characters he has created and demands that they, that we, play as much a role in this game of the soul as does he, as do his creations. There are probably only two ways to view this film: complete engagement or complete disengagement. As a piece of cinema, this does not suffer the passive patron. It does not give unless given to, which is to say, offered one’s patience and capacity to empathise, or at the very least analyse. What also becomes clear is the artistic shrewdness inherent in the decision of screenwriters Antonioni, Bartolini and Guerra to shoot existential turmoil through the lens of sex and romance, or at least the quest for it. There is perhaps no aspect of the human existence that highlights our perennial state of fickleness, insecurity and confusion quite as unforgivingly as that which relates to the figurative heart and the literal genitals. Contained within and symbolised by the shifting romantic fidelities and sexual scruples of “L’avventura’s” central couple, the decisions and indecision and seesawing between neediness and stubborn yet fragile independence (particularly on the part of Claudia) is – to paraphrase the title of critic Pauline Kael’s disparaging assessment of Antonioni’s follow up to “L’avventura”, “La notte” – ‘the sick soul of Europe.’ The most surprising realisation reached on second viewing, however, might simply be that this film, for all its visual and thematic intensity and brooding, has scattered throughout it instances of dry humour of the kind used by deeply sad people to throw others off their depressive scent. These moments, while able to evoke a smile, a chortle or even just a transitory levity, only serve to highlight the pain belying the pleasure.
But of all the things which stand out on repeat viewing, the film’s final gesture, that of Claudia placing a hand on the head of a seated, weeping Sandro (whom she has just discovered being unfaithful to her on a sofa with a young married starlet), is suddenly a great deal richer than it initially seemed. On first viewing this action bore the scent of forgiveness. This is not to say that she doesn’t forgive him for his infidelity, granted their relationship is itself built on infidelity and the flimsiest foundations; the hand on the head could and probably does encompass a wide range of implications, and Claudia may very well be doing it for various reasons, some perhaps unbeknownst to her. But of all the possibilities, it’s tantalising to imagine that Claudia is perhaps welcoming Sandro, welcoming him to the realm of insight that she and Anna before her have been wandering through, or at the very least the realm of acceptance of the fact that something is not quite and has never been quite right with the state of humankind and with themselves. It should not be forgotten that Claudia is herself in tears when Sandro appears on that rooftop. Her distress may be related to simple betrayal, or regret for her belief, however fleeting, that something durable may have existed between Sandro and herself. Yet when she sees that Sandro, who has hitherto displayed only the slightest bit of self-reflection, is not only contrite but is clearly in the throes of an abrupt realisation that his soul is a void which will not simply be filled by sexual approval and conquest, she is relieved for his sake, though mutedly so. If the film’s central triumvirate of Anna, Claudia and Sandro are at different points along the road to modern self-actualisation, Anna is furthest along, her deep sense of crisis at the film’s outset and her eventual demise or rebirth (whichever the viewer chooses to believe she has suffered/undergone) being the catalyst for Claudia’s own existential awakening, and Sandro’s moment of painful clarity.
So is that the crux of Antonioni’s film: to beautifully, elegantly dwell on the misery of a subset of a subset of a species, one in helpless ontological crisis? Maybe. Perhaps it is a comfort to the average viewer to see that to be simultaneously beautiful, wealthy and well-sexed does not preclude one from suffering pain of a type unique to a beautiful, wealthy and well-sexed existence, which is probably not true. The pain most likely traverses all borders: racial, social, gender, class, aesthetic. “L’avventura” clearly has no answers, no truths or revelations that will guide a person down the path of true happiness and self-fulfilment, nor does it seem in the least bit interested in providing such unequivocal nuggets of self-help gold. If there are to be found in the film, this viewer certainly missed them. But one thing seems apparent; Sandro’s tears are as much a sign of discovery and personal growth as they are of anguish. Perhaps in this moment Anna has finally been found, somehow.
Dredged up: “Ritual, rhythm, resentment” (a piece written circa 2011)
December 11, 2014 § Leave a comment
Like a tide lapping the sand and then retreating, Claire Denis’ 1999 dusty gem of a movie “Beau Travail” – translated as “Good Work” – dips in and out of a man named Galoup’s memories of his final days as a Sergeant in the French Foreign Legion, in command of a young outfit of legionnaires stationed in Djibouti, a tiny nation wedged between Eritrea and Ethiopia and Somalia. It also documents his brewing hostility and hate for a young new cadet called Sentain of whom he is envious, which he shamelessly confides to us, the viewership.
You see, Galoup’s narration punctuates the entire picture, part reminiscence, part journal entry, part amateur poetry. Early on, the palpable bitterness he exudes is striking, not only in his words, but in his voice and later, in his actions. You hardly hear the man speak directly to any of the other characters for the film’s 90 minute duration, but it’s telling that the few times he does seem to come from a place of deep resentment and inner imprisonment. In fact, twenty minutes will pass before dialogue of any consequence or narrative importance is uttered, and one would estimate that all in all there are roughly ten/fifteen minutes of dialogue, if that. But Claire Denis has no qualms inserting shots, snippets and scenes of civilian life, seemingly unrelated to the film’s central focus if only for the sake of contrast. Denis grew up on the continent, and her camera (helmed by a masterful Angés Godard) shows a certain fondness for its people. Some local women are talking shop over some rugs and mats while another group of local women have fun watching a lanky technician hug a telephone pole, mock fantasising, it seems, about the other pole between his legs. In the background, Galoup ruminates with a mixture of disdain and devotion on the nature of routine, his, theirs, the general ubiquity of it. A local nightclub is the one place where routines unite, becoming something of a ground for mating rituals. The girls dance, the legionnaires stalk, Galoup lands himself a cute young local booty-call whom we see every so often. It’s doubtful whether he has much interest in her, but at night there he is, standing and smoking, watching her do her thing, her ritual.
Having never read Herman Melville, it’s nonetheless interesting to discover that his unfinished Billy Budd, a novella about the antagonism between a charismatic, orphaned seaman and an officer, is the basis for this movie. A handful of scenes depicting the young legionnaires engaged in what can only be described as French military Tai Chi are lent a sense of gravitas, perhaps even a camp majesty, as they play to extracts from composer Benjamin Britten’s mid-century opera titled…“Billy Budd”. The choral incantations are effective in evoking something; whatever it might be, one can’t be entirely certain. Somehow, it’s likely that this flourish forces a viewer to see things through Galoup’s eyes. As much as his service might exhaust him, it’s all that he has. He very early on declares himself to be – quote – ‘unfit for civilian life’. So to him, what might be a dusty, sweaty exercise becomes – must become – a kind of ballet, some breed of modern dance; transcendent. You can see that in these moments Galoup is where he is supposed to be, in the midst of his boys, topless, in the Djibouti sun. He has purpose. On the topic of music, there are some very – one hesitates to say “cool” – soundtrack choices in this film. Not many of them, but each quite memorable. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Oliver N’Goma, Corona – disparate styles, all underscoring their respective scenes to a perfect tee. And lest it ends up forgotten, the brooding, subterranean score by Eran Tzur adds a menacing surrealism that is difficult to shake. At first, you’d be forgiven for thinking that perhaps the wind in Djibouti smokes Marlboros and slams down whisky.
Make no mistake, a substantial chunk of this movie quietly watches Galoup and his company engage in training exercises, and believe it or not, it’s riveting stuff. Throw in the sparse coastal setting, gorgeous in its arid simplicity; add the camera, like a little girl let loose amongst men, at times coming in for curious close-ups, other times gazing from a distance during moments of lapsed attention or whimsy. Shades of azure and tan fill the screen. Rows of round shaved heads back a blue sky. And boy do the scenes have rhythm, not just the ballet grills but everything. Denis is renowned for the ebb and flow of her films, the unique pacing. “Beau Travail” is in no hurry to get anywhere, but it certainly knows where it’s going. It might take its time, but calling it slow is like calling a circling condor confused. If you allow yourself to admire its grace, you soon become transfixed by it, hypnotised. Hell, this writer’s breathing patterns fell under the spell. It’s that kind of a film. One might hesitate to call it Malickian, but anyone familiar with the works of Terrence Malick will begin drawing parallels within the first five minutes.
Sentain is the titular Billy Budd. Quiet, handsome, heroic and well-liked by his peers, he arouses Galoup’s loathing. Some would say he arouses a little more than that, hence the loathing. Much is said about the homoeroticism that simmers within and beneath “Beau Travail” and it’s hard to dispute its presence despite very little being stated or presented overtly. But, frankly, is it anything more than the homoeroticism implicit in almost every war picture? Perhaps, in the absence of actual warfare and a good deal of clothing, this aspect of military life is given license to come to the fore. And for those who depend on a tangible plotline, the ‘relationship’ between Sentain and Galoup is the closest you’ll get, but towards the end some pretty interesting shit goes down. The only other ‘main character’, Commander Bruno Forestier, is a curious one. Galoup seems to harbour a measure of fondness and respect for him, but it seems the Commander couldn’t care less. He is content to just laze about watching nothing unfold, giving the impression that his benevolence is really just resigned passivity.
“Beau Travail” is exactly the kind of movie that grows on you like an oddly pleasant after-taste. It should be experienced as opposed to simply seen. Really, it’s the work of a poet whose pen and paper are in fact a camera, a handful of actors and some choice tunes. Being this writer’s first Denis film, one who’s been dying to get into her work sooner or later, “Beau Travail” is an entrancing initiation ceremony, as entrancing as the random dancing that peppers the picture.
At the behest of noobs
December 2, 2014 § Leave a comment
Nia: Babe, I’m at work.
Jez: When do you finish?
Nia: Eleven thirty.
Jez: Fuckin’ shit.
Nia: You poor thing, I’m so sorry; that suuucks.
Jez: (emphatic sigh through the nose)
Nia: How much did you put in?
Jez: Forty bucks. And I opened a Coke.
Nia: Can you at least pay for the Coke?
Jez: What’s the point of that? That doesn’t fucking help me.
Nia: Isn’t there anyone else you could call?
The line briefly goes dead, or just dead quiet.
Jez: I’m sorry the first person I thought of calling was you.
Nia: Don’t be like that; I’m just saying…maybe someone’s free like right now.
Jez: Fuck it. I’ll just bounce –
Nia: No, don’t! Don’t, Jez. Um…give me like fifteen minutes.
Jez: Fifteen? Fifteen fucking –
“Nia. Why are you sitting?”
Nia: Um, just – text me the place bye!
“Always, she’s sitting,” says Devon to who knows who. “You come to work late, then you sit.”
Nia’s sprung to her feet and has just managed to get her phone out of sight. The staff tea room looks kind of cramped tonight, especially with Devon’s head poking in and taking up space.
“Yeah, I wasn’t sure if there were any deliveries ready or anything,” says Nia.
“How can you know by just sitting? See here, Matt has a bag bulging; go see what’s he got. Matt! You have some delivery for Nia?”
“Yep,” someone yelps from somewhere unseen, presumably Matt from presumably the kitchen.
“Okay, go, now you have something,” Devon says with a refractory gentleness and an encouraging hand on the shoulder that is calculated but generally sincere.
He watches Nia slink past him in the tea room doorway, all thin long arms, black hair and no tits. He knows that he should goddamn fire the girl, but it wouldn’t be a simple ‘pack your things and leave, you pain in the ass’ deal. She’s not insolent or a brat, or combative; she’s not wilfully unprofessional or maliciously untrustworthy. He wonders if moping is a fireable offence because this she does do a great deal, the whole moping thing.
Matt says “hey” as he swings two taut, large paper bags pregnant with food-filled disposable tubs onto the counter, an invoice stuck to the stapled-up mouth of one of them.
The violence and heat of the kitchen has always put Nia off, has always made her feel kind of unwell. She sneaks a peek at her phone in case Jez has texted his whereabouts, which he hasn’t.
“Your old mate,” Matt says patting one of the bags, looking in the mood for a chat.
“My old mate? What, who?”
“Mr Good-looking Nice Smile Can’t Cook. Remember him?”
Nia’s smirk is tired. “Oh. Him. I thought he forgot about us.”
“Probably learned to cook.”
“He just happened to forget how to turn on the stove tonight?”
“Maybe he discovered that he can’t actually cook for shit, but needed six months just to be sure.”
Whilst chuckling away what little energy she has, Nia catches Devon pulling a long face in the hallway, so she kills the laughter, tells Matt that she’ll ‘catch him’ and exits out the back way. Her little 1998 Nissan is angled parked such that the windshield stares directly into The Chef and I where Devon’s patrons enjoy the redone décor and the upmarket, new, apparently revisionist Thai menu.
Before placing the bags at the foot of the front passenger seat, Nia scans the invoice to kill her curiosity:
Curry puffs x2 10.00
Kanom buang 18.90
Tung tong 9.50
Green papaya salad 14.50
Pla sam roas 36.90
Steamed jasmine rice x3 10.50
100.30 (incl. GST)
Pretty standard stuff. Must be stocking up for the next few days, she thinks, or some brief apocalypse he alone is aware of. Probably wouldn’t matter if the goods arrived a little cold then, which is convenient seeing as she’s a little behind on the delivery, time-wise. According to Devon’s rule, an order should be in a customer’s mouth, bathed in saliva, no more than forty-five minutes from the time of its being placed.
The phone shivers in Nia’s pocket and she draws it like an ace gunfighter from the old west.
Jez: Nia, are you coming or should I just bounce and deal with the consequences?
Nia: Just – hold on, Jez. Fuck, just wait.
With one hand on the wheel, she floors the old wagon into a rapid reversing arc and motors off, barely slowing at the stop sign standing not twenty feet from where she was parked. Doing something that normally makes her hurl silent curses at fellow motorists, Nia alternates between looking ahead at the road and at her iPhone’s cracked screen and soon hears herself cussing Jez for not even bothering to help her help him by letting her know, at the very least, where exactly it is that her help is needed.
Babe, I’m at work. Babe, I’m at work. She actually said this to him.
Babe: a remnant of a time when she might have been a little smitten, now an instinctual overcompensation for the fact that she no longer feels all-consuming affection or has even a whiff of animal attraction but is instead subject to something more akin to the self-punishing sense of responsibility one often bears after having purchased a faulty used car they failed to properly evaluate or made a bad bet at the races. But what does it matter? Whether for love or duty, being at the behest of a noob is a downright waste of whatever potential she might currently possess or might have once had.
At this rate she may as well just place herself enroute to 87 Deluca Close where the customer whose name she knows to be Ray (aka Good Looking Nice Smile Can’t Cook), who once made her navel flutter every time she approached his door with a bag of Pad Thai and Tom Yum and who she swears made sex eyes at a then very barely legal her, is probably growing impatient by the minute in his boxer shorts.
Then it comes: caltex moretoun st; on a lit up screen and accompanied by a quick burst of vibration muted by the scuffed-up seat upholstery.
Nia says, “bloody hell,” but quickly accepts that she will no longer be making a left turn at the next lights but will instead be continuing straight for another five kilometres.
The old tan Commodore Jez’s grandpa bequeathed him rests beside the fuel dispenser that’s in closest proximity to the mart which itself looks like one large rectangular lantern in the darkening night, it’s so brightly lit. Perched on his ass on the kerb edge just outside the sliding glass doors is Jez, smoking and drinking a can of Coke. Nia kills her car beside the giant freezer advertising ten kilogram bags of ice going for only three dollars a bag, bringing the total number of parked cars on the lot to five.
Jez holds out his smoking stub to which Nia responds by shaking her head.
“Didn’t realise I was smoking vodka.”
She exchanges gazes with the brown man standing behind the counter, inside the capitalist lantern. “It’s not a good look, turning up at someone’s doorstep smelling like a cigarette.”
“It’s not a good smell,” he says, overly proud of himself and smiling about it.
“I see you demolished the Coke.”
“Well,” he says, seeming almost ashamed (Nia notes with pleasure) “couldn’t exactly put it back in the fucking fridge.”
“Okay, time’s going; let’s pay.”
Jez mumbles something as he stands and follows Nia into the shop. He slows and stops as he passes the skin mags, leaving Nia to approach the counter alone.
“Hi. Number six please.”
“Number six…” says the attendant as Nia appraises the contents of her wallet and he rings up the damage on the till. “…Seventy two ninety one.”
“…no, number six; the brownish car just there.”
“Yes, seventy two ninety one.”
Nia looks at him as though she could have sworn he’d just called her mother a whore, until the obvious realisation dawns on her that Jez is far more likely to insult her mum than this man wearing a tucked-in polo shirt and a Caltex nametag that reads ‘Vinay.’
“Petrol, Coke, cigarettes…comes to seventy two ninety one –”
“Okay, okay, just wait,” she snaps at him as she snaps around in order to hurl eye daggers at Jez who appears to be eye fucking all the skin mag cover girls at once. “Jez, what the fuck?” She says in a whisper.
He just looks at her, his vacant face and hollow posture a marvellous substitute for the most apathetic shrug you ever saw. The futility of reprimanding or attempting to draw reason from such a human being is not at all lost on Nia and she wisely returns her attention to Vinay who is taking no shame in lapping up this latent spectacle that’s dropped by to disrupt an otherwise dull as shit shift.
Nia breathes out hard and long, fingers her wallet, pulls out a card and says “just on credit. Thanks.”
Mad for not being madder at Jez, Nia nothing short of careens into Deluca Close and nabs the first kerbside vacancy that presents itself, knowing full well that she needn’t walk the hundred metres from here to her destination when she could just as easily get away with double parking right outside Ray’s door for the whole of half a minute. But it seems she needs the walk, or perhaps wishes to punish herself with it, the sheer torture that it is.
Nia yanks the order from the front passenger floor and basically assaults the car with its own driver-side door when she throws it shut.
Apart from skinny black-clad Nia stomping down the poorly-lit street, there is someone else further along, a lady stepping out of a car and then burying her torso back inside, probably fumbling with something. Nia marches past and startles the poor woman who is understandably alarmed by the sound of aggressive walking emanating from so close and on this dim street and while she has her back turned. By the time lady has locked the door and begun her high-heeled horse trot towards the curve of the cul-de-sac, Nia has arrived at the door numbered 87 and knocked on it. The door opens and, sure enough, it’s Ray looking like he always has, only now freshly-shaven and reeking of several colognes, decked out in a crisply ironed business shirt and yet, despite all this, coming across as weirdly dishevelled or at the very least a little shambolic.
“Hi, I have an order –”
“– that I made like five fucking hours ago,” he spits through tight, hushed lips.
While he is eyeing the paper bags in Nia’s hand as though debating whether or not to accept it, Ray’s attention shifts abruptly upwards and beyond her. His face falls and turns sallow at a sudden and he pushes past her and jogs out into the dark yelling, “Alexia!”
The lady who had been trailing Nia is now walking back to her car, Ray pursuing her barefooted and repeating her name. He catches up to her and seems to be battling and failing to win himself an audience with her. It’s like a pantomime, all gesticulations and no sound apart from half murmurs and mumbles carried on a barely-there breeze; all that Nia can deduce is that this Alexia isn’t too happy about Ray having Thai delivered to his place; either that or his baby smooth face and collared shirt are somewhat offensive to her, or maybe she thinks that she is being cuckolded by a titless, teenage delivery girl.
It’s over quicker than Nia expects and with a slightly disappointing lack of histrionics. Ray watches Alexia enter her car and drive off. It’s only on his walk back to 87 that Nia realises that he is wearing dress shorts and that this may very well be the straw that broke Alexia’s back.
Ray murders Nia with his eyes as he approaches and she smartly stands aside to let him enter his home.
“…how did you want to pay for this?” Nia squeaks from behind Ray, who turns around and looms over her like a gargoyle’s shadow.
“What was that?”
“I was just wondering how you wanted to pay for the food –”
“I’m not paying for any fucking food. What fucking food? You mean the food that turned up late and ruined my fucking evening? You can take the food and go fuck yourself with it; fuck off.”
Ignoring the avalanche of fucks, Nia stands her ground, not so much from resolve as from being a bit stunned.
“Sir…I can’t leave without payment. Is the thing.”
“Then sleep here.” He hurls the door in her face and assaults something inside, something likely – hopefully – inanimate.
Against her better judgement Nia persists with a series of knocks, none of them thankfully answered.
For some minutes she proceeds to wander back and forth across the two big windows at the front of the unit like some caged beast, the light inside Ray’s place stabbing its way out between the folded blinds. Nia is all of a sudden alarmed by the current paucity of thought that has overtaken her. As her hand is being lightly steamed by the contents of the paper bags, her mind is doing absolutely goddam nothing.
“Nia, so long you’ve been gone,” is how Devon greets Nia as she walks into The Chef and I through the back door, carrying Ray’s unpaid-for food.
Nia stares at him without response, nervous in a way that is unusual for her in his presence.
“He didn’t pay,” she says simply.
“He wouldn’t pay for it, the food.”
“Why?” He takes a step forward and eyes the bags. “Did you take the wrong thing?”
Devon non-maliciously snatches the bag with the receipt stapled to its mouth and peers at it, mouthing ‘curry puffs’ and ‘kanom buang’ before he walks off towards the counter, leaving Nia feeling sick and on her own, with one bag in her hand. She can hear him quizzing Janice and Matt about the order in his usual fussy manner.
Nia cracks open the staff room fridge and finds a largely undrunk bottle of water which she pours into herself, making her innards feel only sicker. Devon walks into the room without anything in his hands.
“You were gone half an hour, Nia,” Devon begins. “It doesn’t take half an hour to drive to Deluca, Deluca is just around the corner; how does it take you half an hour?” he says in a stutter of exasperation.
“It didn’t feel like half an hour.”
“But it was a long time. I remember thinking, where is that girl?”
Nia is looking at different regions of the staff room floor.
“Are you well, Nia? If this job, you’re tired of it, you can always –”
“It wasn’t half an hour.”
Devon looks at her as though his mere gaze could crack her like an eggshell.
“The order, there was no problem with it, so what…he decide he doesn’t want to eat anymore or what? You don’t want to eat, you take the food, you pay the money, you put it in the fridge…but he refuse totally. Why?”
Nia may or may not notice that her right leg has now begun to bounce. Devon certainly does; he’s eyeing that right knee.
“Can’t we just store it?” Nia suggests.
“No. We don’t do that anymore here. The customer, either he pays or…you can take the food home like a…like a…” Devon has something on the tip of his tongue. “…like a…souvenir.”
Devon simply looks at her and she suddenly knows where he’s going; where he’s just gone.
“I don’t want Thai food as a severance package, I want to keep working. Please. I’ll pay for the food.”
“Is not the point.”
“Okay, then I’ll get him to take his food and I’ll get the money. Okay?”
“But why he didn’t take it; what did you do? You were gone such a long time.”
“I don’t know, but I’ll try again. Can I just try again, please?”
Ignoring Devon’s tone, Nia grabs the paper bag at her feet and starts for the doorway, pushing past him. She finds the bag with the invoice stapled to it sitting on a workbench in the now empty, closed-for-the-day kitchen. Devon can still be heard calling her name from the hallway, and as Nia is opening the back door her boss rushes into the kitchen and says “Nia!” in a way that makes her finally come to a halt.
Devon cocks his head to one side and dresses his face with an expression of gentle reproach.
“I don’t like this,” he says. “This I don’t want. I want this to be a new restaurant. This –” he gestures at the food in her hands, “– is not new, is old. I’m tired of this, Nia. I like you, but I’m a businessman; I run a business.”
Nia’s gaze fixates strangely on his nose, dropping in and out of focus.
“You don’t worry about the food,” Devon tells her. “Enjoy it; is my treat.” He’s hoping to god and all of god’s alternatives that she’ll say something, which she doesn’t. “I’ll write you a very nice reference.”
He concludes with “go home, Nia. Rest.”
Devon walks out of the kitchen to presumably attend to his few remaining patrons.
It’s uncanny how mercifully free streets can be when one’s mind is anywhere but on the road ahead. Uncanny, that is, when one does not find oneself ploughing into something. From Nia’s point of view she might as well be ploughing into some void.
The phone kicks up a sudden stink in Nia’s pocket. She shocks herself by slowing down to take the call, decelerating to the upper fringes of the legal 70 kph so as to more safely captain the car with just the one hand.
Jez: Whereabouts are you?
Nia: At work. Why?
Nia knows for a fact that he’s just shrugged. He’s the kind of person who would shrug in a discursive capacity while on the other end of a line.
Nia: Did you just shrug?
Almost immediately, Nia expires deeply through her nose, annoyed at her herself for coming out with a sentence playful and wanton enough for Jez to latch onto as evidence of her having forgiven him for doing whatever it is he thinks she thinks he has done wrong; as proof that everything is O.K. now.
Nia opts for an abrupt change in tone.
Nia: What is it Jez?
Jez: Why’s it got to be anything?
Nia: It doesn’t. But what is it? I’m driving.
Jez: Was just thinking about your tits.
Nia: Right. I hope they’re thinking about you too, but I need to drive.
Jez: Come over later.
Jez: Don’t be frigid.
Nia: Fuck you. I said maybe, that’s enough. And I’m driving.
Just before she kills the connection, Nia can hear Jez flapping his loosened cheeks rapidly back and forth, emulating some kind of propeller. This kind of inane shit would have normally teased a laugh or a smile from her, coming from him at least, but at the moment it’s quite possibly turned her scowl into a frown, the same frown that decorates her face as she beats Ray’s door with her fist.
She cruises his still-blinded windows behind which a dim light shines. While she’s at this, the front door whines open and Ray half steps out.
“Why are you harassing me?” he says.
“I just want the payment.” She holds up the bags. “I brought your food. Please take it. I can’t take it back.”
Ray looks at her hands, then at her face.
“What, you’ve been driving around with that for the last hour?” says Ray.
“There’s nothing wrong with it.”
As though she just realised her arms had dropped back down, Nia offers up the food bags once again.
Ray fixates on her face. “You really fucked up my evening.”
“I wasn’t that late. But I’m sorry.”
“You were late enough to fuck up my night; do you have a problem with accepting that fact?” he says with a sudden surge of hostility.
“I’m sorry I fucked up your night,” Nia says; diplomacy under duress.
During the exchange Ray has somehow edged his way from halfway in the doorway to being four feet from Nia in the tiny courtyard. Ray weirdly asks her if she’s had her dinner.
“I’m not too hungry.”
“After ruining my shit, the least you could do is help me not eat alone like some old spinster. My shout.”
Nia intermittently fears that this dinner table silence portends some latent sexual intent on Ray’s part, as though he is subtly expressing his dominance by way of inexpressiveness; by being comfortable in his own domain on top of being older, taller and more testicled. Alternatively, it might be some form of punishment by awkwardness, like being forced to have dinner with the school principal for detention.
Matthew and Clinton cooked the hell out of whatever this is she’s eating; the tung tong she guesses by means of elimination. Nia will freely admit to not being particularly enamoured of Thai fare. Perhaps that kitchen she so hates/hated killed whatever allure the cuisine might have once held for her.
Nia makes a note to thank Ray at least once, while scooping an unexpected second helping of papaya salad, for the meal he has so graciously provided (omitting the ‘graciously provided’ part, tactfully). He grunts “no worries” and refills his already half-full mouth.
As she is wont to do, Nia very suddenly releases her fork and nudges her plate away by half an inch to signal – more for herself than anyone – that she is done, turning her head to watch Ray who apparently doesn’t mind being watched as he eats.
“Was that your girlfriend?”
Ray waits till his mouth is slightly less packed. “Soon to be ex. Officially.”
“Because of – ?”
His not answering is precisely the answer. Nia looks away, guilty but only for the briefest instant.
“What, doesn’t she like Thai?”
Sudden laughter and a mouthful of jasmine rice is the kind of poor combination that lands Ray in a fit of coughing and scratchy nasopharyngeal clearing as he tries to dislodge a grain that’s presumably found a home somewhere in the back of his nose-throat. After a few minutes whose awkwardness is nullified by the unselfconscious flailing of a man with rice in the wrong part of his head, Ray downs a quarter bottle of beer and silently belches. He then explains that he had invited his now-ex to his place to try to dissuade her from quitting him, like Ennis Del Mar was so desperate to do with Jack Twist in “Brokeback Mountain”. As an illustration of his sincerity, and of his willingness to develop into a holistic male whose cooking was favourably comparable to his tyre-changing and beach cricketing prowess, Ray decided to treat her to a meal prepared by his own hands. Or rather, one he’d hoped to prepare.
“I didn’t plan it very well,” Ray says as he tries to figure out what he would next like to eat.
Nia drinks from her glass of water somewhat shyly, as though Ray has been politely insisting. She watches Ray eating for a moment.
“What if you’d gotten away with it?” Nia says.
“Gotten away? You make it sound like a…heist,” Ray replies with a somewhat pinched smile.
“Well…you were gonna cook for her, but you didn’t and ordered Thai instead.”
“I started cooking,” he says, pointing in the direction of the kitchen sink from which some pot handles are sticking out like drowning hands waiting to be saved. “I wasn’t sucking my fucking thumb for eight hours before I called you guys.”
Nia is quiet for a moment.
“I just figure it’s the thought that matters, not the food. Like…even if you’d made shitty roast and veggies, wouldn’t that have been better than take out?”
“Well…the point is that we were supposed to have dinner and talk; me cooking was just to add a bit of texture, but at the end of the day it comes down to you being fucking late and, basically, that’s it.”
Nia stares at him sideways, debating whether to retort.
“I wonder if she would thank me.”
“Thank you? For what exactly?”
“For, like, exposing your lies,” Nia says, trying to conceal her dead seriousness with teenage jocularity.
Ray sits up and glowers at Nia. He wipes his mouth with a serviette and continues to eat. “What are you, the moral fucking police or the delivery girl? I ordered Thai, not bullshit feminist justice.”
“No, I’m the delivery girl,” says Nia with a mocking meekness that seems to be lost on Ray, thankfully. She pats her belly and downs the rest of the water in the glass. “I deliver gender-neutral justice.”
Ray stares at her from a hunched position and chews.
“I think I’m gonna head,” she says with a groan of satiety.
Like a gentleman, Ray pays for the food, standing in the doorway. Before Nia has even turned to leave, he closes the door on her. Nia carefully lines her wallet with the notes and bulks it up with the coins.
Walking to her car which she parked at the mouth of the cul-de-sac, Nia briefly glances through the four messages she had felt buzzing through into her pocket one after the other while she was sharing dinner with Ray. She can’t quite decide whether, by ignoring these as they came, she was being polite to Ray or rude to whom she believed to be the sender. Sure enough, all four are from Jez, appropriately inane and poorly spelt, telling her to speed things up and make an appearance in his bedroom; that her tiny tits are on his mind.
She replies that his tiny dick is unfortunately not on hers.