TRAVELS WITH NINA

is the online portfolio and journal of Australian travel writer Nina Karnikowski.

Chapter One

I’m going to die.

Or vomit. Which is the same thing really, since vomiting would be social suicide given where I am right now.

My legs are wobbling, my palms are sweating, my breath (which doesn’t smell great) is coming out in short, sharp bursts. My head’s been pounding constantly for the past six days and I swear my vision’s a little blurry, too.

It’s just not fair.

Everything I read about these ten-day juice fasts told me that by day seven I’d be feeling fresh, energetic, sparkly-eyed, and super-dooper skinny. Like Nicole Richie skinny. But I’m just tired, angry, and kind of farty. It’s really embarrassing actually. I have to keep shuffling into the fashion cupboard pretending I need to check if all the bits and pieces for tomorrow’s cover shoot are in so I can just let it all out.

I keep asking myself why I’ve been torturing myself like this, consuming a lawn-mower bag’s worth of blended “greens” (kale, parsley, spinach and other foul-tasting healthy things) through gritted teeth for the past week. Which is silly really, because I know exactly why.

This is my big break, you see. My chance to take the world of magazine journalism by storm, to prove my worth and to start moving up the food chain (or famine chain, as the case may be) here at Aspire magazine.

“Margaux, sweetie.”

That’s my editor, Vicki. She’s sloping up to my desk in that funny way of hers, razor-sharp hips pointed forward like missiles, leaning back at a 45 degree angle, with her matching razor-sharp black bob and razor-sharp black suit. At least I think it’s her. It could also be the angel of death come to tell me it’s time.

I bow my head and pinch my cheeks a few times, like they used to back in the olden days before they had blush, to make myself look a little healthier. I’d hate for Vicki to think I was struggling with this cleanse thing. It was my idea, after all, so I’ll be damned if I let her know I’m on death’s door because of it.

“Vicki, hi!” My voice wobbles a little, making me sound like I’m about to cry or something, but I’m sure she won’t notice. She’s too busy staring at her razor-sharp nails, the way she does when she’s about to tell someone something she knows they won’t like.

“Darling, look,” she says. Wow, she’s really staring like crazy at those nails. “We’ve decided to… move that story. You know the one? You were going to try one of those juice cleanses… we were planning to shoot you submerged in a tub filled with green juice for it? Yes, well, hold off on torturing yourself for that one won’t you darling, because a fabulous story has just popped up about wedding rings, about how they’re so passé and how it’s now going to be all about wearing little red pieces of string around our wrists – like Madonna, with her Kabbalah thingame jigger – as a symbol of commitment. It’s really fab so we’ll run that now and your story… later. Maybe in a few months?”

She turns on her Manolo-clad heel and slithers away before I’ve even had a chance to process what she’s just said. She speaks so damn fast and near-starvation has rendered me rather sluggish, but I think she just said…

Bloody hell. I know exactly what she just said, and exactly what it was code for. It was code for: “You’re never going to get the chance to write that story, but I want to make sure you don’t leave the magazine because you’re so damn cheap and you do all the stuff no-one else wants to do, so we’re just going to pretend for a little while.”


I look at the half-drunk bottle of juice sitting on my desk, a shade of green only slightly less electric than antifreeze, and angrily push it into the bin. I miss, of course – I’m as weak as a baby kitten at this point – and the green sludge glugs onto the grey carpet. As I kneel down to mop it up with some makeup coated Kleenex from my handbag, I start to simmer.


For four years I’ve been a slave to this magazine, first writing for free, then for the exact equivalent of the dole (I calculated it), then for exactly half of my husband Ryan’s wage. As a landscape architect, that ain’t all that crash hot, either. I occasionally write little bits and bobs – news snippets, mostly, that no-one else wants to write, and get promised the occasional feature story, but only when nobody else wants to write them.


“We have a fabulous story for you, one that’s just so… You!” Vicki will say. “It’s about Brazilian waxing. You know, how it’s so last year, how pubes are the new black. You get it, right? You’ll do it?”

Of course I do it. Every. Single. Time. And I love it! Well, I actually hate it, but I love seeing my name on the stories. A 100-word story about the latest perfume on the market that smells like leather bathed in Tuscan sunshine? There I go, clipping it out of the magazine and sending it to mum because it has MY name on it. A 500-word piece on why wood’s the new chrome? I rip that shit out and frame it. Seriously, I did that once – put it in an actual frame and hung it up behind our bathroom door so I could gaze at it while I was on the loo. Not because it was any great literary masterpiece, mind you, but because it had MY name on it. And the bigger my name is, the happier I am.

Anyway. Any other day for the past four years, I wouldn’t have given today’s story slash a second thought. “September!” I would have cried merrily to all and sundry, “I have a fabulous story about juice cleansing coming out in September!” while knowing, in my heart of hearts, that it wouldn’t ever see the light of day but being satisfied with the fact that I could tell all my family and friends that it would. By the time it was meant to have been coming out they would have all forgotten about it, anyway.


And then there’s the factor of my desk. Or, should I say, what’s on top of my desk most days come 10am. Party invitations. Those seductively shiny beauty product bags. Bottles of French bubbles from restaurants or designers I’ve written little snippets about. The occasional piece of designer clothing. It’s a friggin’ goldmine. A goldmine that makes it virtually impossible for me to stay mad at my situation, even when shitty things like this happen.

I shakily pull myself up off the soggy floor, green juice dripping from my heavily discounted Isabel Marant embellished vest, thinking that this time around, no amount of free Chanel nail polish and no 26-point byline can make this feeling go away. Just then, Tara from the mailroom shuffles past and chucks a big, creamy white envelope on my desk. The paper stock is just stunning, I think as I run my fingertips over it and rip it open with a sigh.

Margaux Kirke’s presence is requested tonight at… blah blah blah… thank you to our sponsor Bollinger…

I look down at the green-juice filled bin and consider hoiking the invite, but the thought only lasts for about two-point-five seconds.

Who am I kidding? There’s no way in hell I can say no to free champagne.

***

It’s a work do, the launch of some fashion brand in a new warehouse bar in Kings Cross. I’m feeling all kinds of amazing in my skinny Balmain jeans and vintage floral kimono, dripping in silver jewelry and feeling every bit the boho-chic queen I’ve tried so desperately for years to become. The who’s who of the Sydney social scene are all here, and as I work my way through my second glass of French bubbles, the last remnants of today’s angst seem to just fade away. I look around at the models, DJs and designers surrounding me, and at the three Burlesque dancers humping a pole on stage beside an enormous tank housing two Siamese fighting fish with the fashion brand’s logo attached to their tails inside, and smile. Yep, this is how the other half live. And I’m one of them.

“That’s what they’re saying,” a slightly sozzled, and very gay, street style photographer is no-so-subtly whispering into the middle of our snug circle. “One day she was the Editorial Assistant and then BANG, the next day there she was, in the EDITOR’S chair!”


We all give the appropriate oh-no-she-didn’t oohs and aahs and tut-tutts and shoot tart glances over at the girl in question, an auburn-haired fashiony type with impossibly long legs and a whole lot of attitude. Bloody easy for some, I think resentfully. I wonder who she had to screw to get that position.


“I mean, seriously,” continues the photographer, leaning viperously into the circle and gesticulating with such fervour that the champagne starts slopping over the lip of his glass. “Who does she think she is? Three months out of uni and suddenly she’s the fucking EDITOR? Ugh, they only put her there because, like, everyone else quit, and either she’s too dumb to see that or she’s just an opportunistic little… Hiiii!” he beams, as the redhead breaks into our circle in a cloud of expensive perfume and cigarettes, Hermès bangles clanking on her wrist.

“Darling, you are just fabulous. Fabulous!” enthuses the photographer, holding her admiringly at arm’s length before hastily pulling her close for some air kisses, putting him in the perfect position to shoot the rest of us a wide-eyed ohemgee look over her shoulder.

“It tooootally has just been, like, the most amaaaaazing break for me, you know?” enthuses the redhead, letting a stream of smoke out into the centre of the circle and clank clanking her bangles some more. “I mean, I don’t really know, like, what the fuck I’m meant to be doing, but seriously, like, it doesn’t seem to matter, you know?” She giggles, and the rest of us nod in faux-appreciation while lavishing more faux-congratulations upon the girl. It’s verging on physically painful. I mean here I am, starving myself to near death and putting up with all manner of indignities to try to move up the corporate ladder, and this bimbo just magically plonks herself into a bloody editor’s chair? Ugh.

I shove the aggravating thoughts aside. There’ll be time for them later. Right now, I have to focus on the task at hand. Which – apart from keeping myself upright (three glasses of champaz on a stomach that’s been virtually empty for seven days is proving to be a lethal combination) – is to heap more compliments on this dipstick because who knows, she might one day snag me a fabulous new job on her magazine. I’m just about to open my mouth to tell her how terrifically thin I think her wrists are looking when Ryan sneaks up behind me, grabs my arm and pulls me out of the circle whispering, “These people are evil,” into my ear.

We get a few metres away, and I’m just about to launch into a tirade letting Ryan know how his actions may have just ruined my entire career when…

“Margaux?!” A shriek zips across the room. I spin around to find Cara, Fashion Assistant Extraordinaire, swaying towards me. Last time I saw her, which admittedly must have been 18 months ago, she had gorgeous waist-length dark blonde hair framing her impish face. Now, however, it’s cropped short and bleached a yellowish white, ala Annie Lennox. She looks horrible.

“You look incredible!” I enthuse as we air kiss and hug one another.

“My God you have not changed, you wonderful wisp of a woman!” she cries, holding me at arms length as she shamelessly appraises me. “And I see you’ve still not succumbed to the lure of the labels.” She’s not even looking at me at this point; she’s scanning the room with narrowed eyes, looking for More Important People to talk to. “Ugh, I wish I could say the same. Look at me, head-to-toe designer and not enough coin to buy dinner! Honestly, when will I learn?” She lets out a rough hoot of laughter that’s a fair bit louder than it should be. I manage to mutter only a few words about how, in fact, my bag is Miu Miu and my jeans are Balmain thankyouverymuch, before Ryan has us on the go again.

“Seriously babe, I know I’ve asked you a million times before, but why do you put up with these people? They’re ridiculous! And why the hell do you bother grovelling to them like that? You’re better than that and you know it.” He grabs a couple of drinks from a passing tray and leads me outside into a fashionably grungy courtyard filled with smokers and milk crates with strings of bare bulbs casting a low glow over everything. I gulp in a few mouthfuls of night air, followed by a few more mouthfuls of champagne, preparing to defend myself and “these people” to my man one more time. But when I open my mouth, something entirely unexpected rushes out.

“You’re absolutely right. They’re fucked. Fucked! Did you see how hard it was for Cara to maintain eye contact with me for more than five seconds? And that red-headed editor chick? What a total dickhead! Sometimes I’d like to just cut through the crap and tell them exactly what I think – that they’re shallow, stupid, boring dickheads.”

“Wow, where’d that come from?” laughs Ryan.

For a few moments I can’t speak, I can only drink champagne.

“But the problem is, I can’t,” I say at last, my voice hoarse. 
Ryan pulls me towards him and I rest my forehead on his warm chest. “I have to be nice to these people, Rye. Work’s totally shit at the moment, I need to get out and really start making something of my career and these people? Well, they just might be able to help me do that.” My voice is muffled against Ryan’s shirt and I’m glad, because it’s starting to wobble.

“Ahh babe, I didn’t realize things were so bad for you at work. What’s goin’ on?” He pushes my chin up and gazes deep into my eyes, properly scanning them the way he does, flicking between one and then the other, really trying to figure out what’s going on behind them. It’s all that’s needed to tip me right over the edge.


“I just feel so… so… undervaluuueeed.” A dramatic, champagne-fuelled round of sobs escapes from my mouth. “I just, want to, be, something, mooooore.”

“Honey,” Ryan croons as he rocks me side to side. “Come on, it can’t be all that bad. Surely you can just talk to Vicki about how you feel? I’m sure she’ll understand.”

The problem is that I have tried to talk to Vicki about it before. Quite a few times before, actually. If I recall correctly, the last time was just after I’d opened the latest issue of the magazine to discover that my title on the masthead, which had previously been Junior Writer had been changed to Social Media. I’d been asked to take over the magazine’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, you see, and it seems I was doing such a good job of upkeeping said sites that Vicki had decided my talents as a social networker had superseded my talents as a writer. Bloody terrific. Just what I’d spent three years studying journalism at university for.

At that point, I decided enough was enough. I wasn’t going to be pushed around no more, nuh-uh. I wasn’t going to take it lying down. I was going to go head to head with the big boss lady.

I marched straight into Vicki’s office. Ok, maybe it was more of a traipse, and maybe I did knock before entering. But in there I was, and I was going to give it to her.

“Hi Vicki, can I have a quick word to you about something?”

“Yeees?” she’d replied, her right eyebrow inching up her forehead like an angry question mark.

“Well, I opened up the new issue of the mag just before, and I see that my title’s been changed.”

Silence.

“So it was Junior Writer, but now it’s Social Media?”

Silence.

“Which I also do, of course. But I just would have hoped that if my title was being changed that someone would have consulted me about it? And that when it was changed, it might have been changed to just… writer?” I remember vividly the awful, squeaky, hopeful inflection in my voice that day. “That’s why I took this job originally, with the promise that I’d end up writing full-time after a year or two. But that was four years ago now.” Silence. Nothing but horrible, awkward silence. “And I know social media’s becoming a skill in its own right. I mean my God, McDonalds has a whole team working on their social media!” I was doing the nervous rambling thing. It was bad. Luckily, Vicki had butted in at that point.

“Yes, Margaux, I’m aware that the masthead’s changed. It is my magazine, after all. And to be honest, I thought you would have been thrilled to be given that… promotion.” She followed that with one of her infamous don’t-mess-with-me looks paired with crossed arms, and just like that I was shut down. In fact, I think I even ended up apologizing to her.

Anyway, there’s no point explaining any of this to Ryan. Not now, and probably not ever. Because the fact of the matter is that we inhabit completely different worlds. And he just doesn’t get how things work in my world. How manipulative people can be. And how crafty you have to be to get by.


“Maybe you’re right babe,” I say, wiping the tears from my face and giving him a big kiss on the mouth just so we can stop talking about it. And because suddenly, I know exactly what needs to be done. What needs to be done to sort this situation out once and for all, is for me to tell a Big Fat Lie.