TRAVELS WITH NINA

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

Chapter Ten

There’s a buzzing sound near my head, low and loud, augmenting as it moves around the room. It’s pitch black, probably 3 or 4 in the morning, and Ryan’s snoring away beside me. It’s a mozzie for sure. I’d know that ominous drone anywhere. I’ll slap the little bastard down as soon as he cruises past my head again.

I sit upright, clutching a handful of bed sheet in each fist – awake, alert, waiting. The little bugger’s gone completely silent. Maybe he’s slipped back out the window. I’m about to slide back into my warm cocoon when he starts up again – bzzzZZZZZZZZZZZ – until he’s right beside my left ear. I stay perfectly still, a jungle cat poised and ready to pounce… then BAM, I slap myself hard over my left cheek and ear. It stings like crazy and I can feel it start to prickle but there’s no time to waste. I flail around like a mad woman, slapping at my forehead and chest, at the wall and the bed sheets, the ninja mozzie doing figure eights around my head and expertly avoiding each glancing blow.

“Eeeeerrrrrrrr.” A drone of a different kind as Ryan rolls over beside me, brow creased and arm flopping on to my thigh. In my frenzy I’d completely forgotten about him. Not wanting to wake him and start yet another fight I sit still again and, having had a moment to regain my composure, start thinking about what BD said yesterday. That we’re all created equal – ants, trees, cats, humans – and that no one being is more important than the other. I’m pretty sure mozzies would fit in there somewhere and that BD wouldn’t take too kindly to me trying to murder a poor, innocent creature for no good reason.

Why do I want to kill the mosquito anyway? Because he’s making an annoying noise? Because he’s disturbing my sleep? Because I’m afraid he’ll hurt me? Just out of habit? I decide it’s all of the above shallow reasons and that I’m an evil, murderous woman. With that thought orbiting my head I decide to let my little winged friend be. I wriggle back down under the sheets, close my eyes, focus on my breathing and eventually drift off into a deep, peaceful sleep.

***

“Holy shit!”

It’s morning, and Ryan’s standing over by the cupboard in his navy and white striped boxers, staring at his naked torso in the mirror.

“Sorry Mags, I didn’t wanna wake you but check this out! I’m totally covered in mozzie bites, there must be a bazillion of them!” He starts pointing to random spots on his arms and legs. “Here, here, here – oh, and here – and there, here, here… The little fuckers have feasted on me!”

By now I’ve surfaced from my sleep fog and am actually processing what he’s saying.

Oh shit.

BD’s ant theory has come back to bite… well not me, that’s for sure. I decide to take the path of least resistance and just keep quiet about my little midnight Free Willy moment. “Did he get you too babe?” Ryan walks over to my side of the bed and peels the sheet off me. A grin spreads over his face when he sees I couldn’t be bothered putting pyjamas on last night.

“Well helloooo Mrs. Kirke,” he says, running his hands from my waist up to my breasts. I giggle and pull the sheets back over me.

“What? I was just checking to see if you’re covered in welts as well,” he says, winking. Any other time that sexy wink would have me tearing off the covers, his boxers and anything else standing between our bits. But my skin’s as smooth as a baby’s behind, so I guiltily pull the sheets tight around me and playfully kick him away.

“I guess they just don’t find me as delectable as you,” I say as I lay back down. “Now shush you, I have some more sleeping to do.”

“Alright princess, you get your beauty sleep while I do the manly thing and toil on with my war wounds to bring home the bacon.”

He’s being sarcastic but it doesn’t stop a wave of guilt, albeit a small wave, rolling over me. Little does he know that he’s going to be scratching away for days because I decided that the Buddha wouldn’t want me to kill an insignificant little mosquito. A mosquito, for fuck’s sake! Ugh. All far too confusing and complicated for 6am, I think as I fall back to sleep.

A couple of hours later I’m woken again, this time by my phone blasting away somewhere near the bed. I throw my hand across the bedside table, accidentally knocking the black and white deco-style picture frame with the photo of Ryan and I on our wedding day to the floor in the process, and eventually connect with my phone. I swipe my finger across to answer before even looking at the screen.

“Hello?” I croak in my gritty morning voice.

“Margaux, you sound terrible.”

I recognize the voice immediately, and cringe as I visualize the sharp bob, the perfectly arched brows and lacquered French nails on the other end of the line.

“Vicki, hi,” I say, whispering slightly and deciding not to clear my throat for dramatic effect. “Sorry, I know I sound awful, but it’s been a really rough night. I’ve been… at the hospital. All night long.” Thinking quickly I add, “I’m still here actually, which is why I have to whisper.”

“Oh Gooood, that sounds horrific. Is she… ok?” She says in a voice that says the whole being compassionate thing is very, very hard for her.

Shit. I haven’t actually given work a second thought since I’ve been off for the past week and have no clue as to where my story’s meant to be heading.

“Well, you know, I can’t say too much here because I’m right outside her room…” I let the sentence hang in the air, hoping it might be enough for Vicki. As the seconds tick by, I realize it isn’t. “The test results still haven’t come through. They’ve been doing so many of them, you know how it is, so it’s just a bit of a waiting game at the moment.”

“I understaaand,” says Vicki with a condescending purr that, from past experience, almost always precludes bad news. “I was just checking in on you. To see if you’re ok. And while I have you, you wouldn’t might whipping up a couple of pages of captions for me today, would you?” The rising inflection and the purr: disastrous combination. “I know you’re on leave but Nicky’s sick and there’s simply no one else around to do it. I knew you wouldn’t mind, you’re a darling. I’ll need it by 6pm. Got to run.”

She hangs up before I can even process what’s just gone down. Dammit, how did I just let that happen? She totally blindsided me! A typical Vicki manoeuvre, and one I should have seen coming. I mean why else would she ring me? Did I really think she was calling to see if I was ok? Ha! And pigs might actually fly.

I jump out of bed and start pacing from one end of the room to the other, sending death vibes to Vicki and kicking mismatched heels, rejected outfits and half-empty handbags out of my way as I go. Ugh, when will she start treating me like a real effing person? When will she realize I’m not her personal bloody slave?

When you stop acting like a slave,
says a little voice in the back of my head.

I know it’s right. I need to start saying no. Until I start doing that, nothing’s going to change.

I grab my phone and start composing an email.

Hi Vicki,
After I got off the phone to you just now I spoke to the doctor and he said they have to operate right away. It’s a huge operation, as you can imagine, and I have to be around for it. Sorry but I won’t be able to do the captions for you. I’ll see you in a couple of weeks.

I quickly push the send button before I lose my nerve.

There, that wasn’t so hard was it? Go me! R-E-S-P-E-C-T!

Saying no to Vicki for the first time in… Well, for the first time probably ever, gets me all fired up. And I’ll be damned if I’m not going to use that fire productively to start getting things organized around the house. I look over at the kitchen bench and decide that the mail, which I’ve been ignoring for the past week, is as good a place to start as any. Grabbing the teetering pile of letters and junk mail, I carry them over to the couch and start tearing them open.

The first one’s a letter from Witchery with my new loyalty card attached to it. Yes! Last year I spent so much there that I ended up with a $500 voucher at the end of the year, talk about return on investment. But I reckon I can double that figure with this puppy. Next up is a letter from a local MP with a very daggy profile picture trying to get us onside with the promise of environmental upgrades and better road infrastructure. Like I give a shit. Chuck! This third one’s a bit hefty, and as I rip it open and start reading my heart skips a beat. Our latest credit card bill. Pages and pages of it. And a figure at the end of it that makes my stomach turn inside out.

This can’t possibly be right. Definitely not. We’ve probably been involved with one of those Nigerian credit card scams. How awful! Like what the hell is this $250 from some terrible hippy sounding shop in Newtown? As if I’d ever shop… Oh wait, that’d be the Buddhist store. And actually, there’s that bottle of Bollinger that I vaguely remember buying for some randoms when I was totally off my face with Peace the other night. Gosh and there’s that pair of Gucci kitten heels that were totally a work necessity… And the Marc Jacobs bag! I thought I bought that months ago, I mean usually I try to space my designer buys out a little so Ryan doesn’t notice them as much.

They all seemed like such itty bitty things, mere drops in the ocean, when I was throwing our credit card at them. But now that they’re all ganged up together here on these pieces of paper, they’re starting to seem just a teensy bit excessive.

Who am I kidding. Ryan will absolutely freak when he sees this! We’ll have to dip into the mortgage fund again. Oh God. Ryan can’t see this. He really can’t. I’ll have to hide it from him, and in the meantime I’ll find a way to repay it before he even realizes what’s happened. Yes, excellent plan.

I grab the letter and rush into the bedroom with it. Ok. Where would Ryan never look? My eyes zip around the room. My underwear drawer? No, he probably sneaks a peek in there quite often, actually. Under the mattress? Hmm, he does most of the cleaning around our place and I really have no idea whether he flips the mattress over or anything when he’s doing that, so I’d better not go there. Aha! My Buddhism book, just sitting there so innocently on my bedside table. Ryan’s not exactly what you’d call an avid reader, especially not of spiritual tomes, so that’s the perfect place. I shove the wad of pages into the front of the book and my heart starts to slow down a little.

Actually, now that I’ve got the thing in my hands I may as well get stuck into it, that way I can get ahead of the class and ramp up my progress a bit. Gosh, I really am so purposeful today!

I grab the Mexican blanket and some incense and bounce out into the sunshine on the front lawn. I start skimming the introductory chapter, which is all pretty dry, boring facts about the history of Buddhism. It’s followed by 300 million people, it goes back about 2,500 years to when the Buddha was enlightened when he was 35, blah, blah, blah. On and on it goes with the story of this dude, who I couldn’t give a flying you-know-what about, really. What I’m after are some practical tips. Tips that’ll help me, you know, reach Nirvana in the next fortnight.

I flip through until I find the section on the Four Noble Truths that BD talked about. I’ve already learnt the first one, the one about suffering and not taking life, the hard way, so I flick over to the second.

Basically it’s saying that suffering’s caused by craving, and that getting what you want doesn’t guarantee happiness. I can totally relate to that. Like last year, all I wanted in the whole wide world was to own a quilted lambskin Chanel handbag. I was saving every dollar I earned to buy one and working my PR contacts at Chanel hard until they finally agreed to give me a rather hefty discount on one… provided I find a way to get the bag in question into a couple of fashion shoots I was assisting on. I found a way, of course, but when I finally got the bag I was left feeling, well, nothing much really. Nothing changed. No-one looked at me any more or any differently than before. I wasn’t suddenly allowed into some Secret Society of Chanel Owners. I didn’t get a pay rise. And Ryan didn’t even notice when I walked through the door with it on the crook of my arm, the way the real fashion types always do. (That, at least, was a blessing. He would’ve killed me had he known how much of our mortgage fund I’d used to pay for it.) I keep reading.

Rather than constantly struggling to get what you want, the book says, you’re meant to try to modify your wanting, because it only starves you of happiness.

Oh God, if only I could! If only I could stop wanting every gorgeous jacket that comes into the office, stop lusting after the latest ‘it’ handbag, stop wishing I owned every item of clothing that super stylish girl on my bus who looks just like Charlize Theron wears. Not only would my bank balance be a whole lot healthier, but about 75 percent of the anxiety in my life would evaporate too.

But, I think as I roll over onto my back, the grass squishing underneath me, it’s hard for a modern woman working in the industry I do to just up and stop wanting gorgeous things. I mean, it was probably a piece of cake for the Buddha because back then they wouldn’t have even had designer labels. It’s not like he had to contend with a closet full of gorgeous designer duds just waiting to be paired with just the right heels, or the perfect Equipment shirt.

I suddenly sit upright and fling my book to one side.

I’ve had a brainwave.

Maybe the root of all my desire, all my tortuous desire, could be snapped off if I just had less to begin with. If I got rid of some of my things then I’d be less attached to them and, by association, give them less worth. And if I didn’t care quite so much about them, then maybe I’d stop wanting more of them.

“Yes!” I cry out loud as I jump to my feet. Why didn’t I think of this before?

I run back into the house, grab a roll of dark green garbage bags from under the kitchen sink and head straight back to the bedroom. When I get to the doorway I stop, close my eyes and take a deep breath.

“This isn’t going to be easy,” I tell myself, “but you need to be strong. And brutal.” Yep, this is the only way to kill my incessant wanting, the only way for me to achieve real happiness. I open my eyes, stride into the bedroom, fling my cupboard doors open wide, and get to work.

I start on my gym gear. Does one woman really need 19 tees for working out, when she only works out two days a week at best? No she doesn’t, and into the bag all but three go. Some still have their Lululemon tags on them; most have only been worn a handful of times. I feel physical pangs of pain as I jettison the candy-coloured delights into the depths of the bag, but I know that I’ll thank myself for it later and that it must be done.

Next I turn to my underwear drawer. It’s more of an underwear cabinet, really, such is its width and depth and ability to house more knickers than you’d see in a Victoria’s Secret show. Actually, a few pieces in here actually have been featured in Victoria’s Secret shows, now that I come to think of it.

I start pulling out the sexy ensembles one by one – a lacy black Agent Provocateur knicker and bra set with matching suspenders and stockings here, an almost fluorescent red mesh bra that I spent far too much money on on a recent trip to Melbourne there – and realize with a sinking feeling that I’ve spent thousands of dollars on these flimsy pieces of lace and silk and yet have worn most of them only once.

Why did I buy them in the first place? Was it to make Ryan think I was sexy? No, that can’t be it. He likes me best when I’m in the pilled black Bonds nana knickers I wear almost every day. So was it to make myself feel sexy? Did I think that if I had something expensive and erotic hidden underneath my clothes that I’d exude a coquettish confidence that I don’t actually possess? Perhaps. But the more likely answer, I realize as I pull yet another set out of the depths – this time lemon yellow Calvin Kleins – is that I bought them because I thought they’d make me happier. More complete, somehow.

The thing is, I was never fashionable before I got the Aspire job. In fact I was really pretty dorky. And without Peace’s help in the wardrobe department and her lending me that first armload of designer gear, I quite possibly would never have gotten the gig in the first place. But somewhere along the way, after being surrounded day after day after day by the best-dressed, most preened women in Sydney, I guess I became addicted to it all. Addicted to the pretence, to the playing at being someone I wasn’t, to the hiding from the version of me I didn’t think was good enough. And this underwear? I guess I thought it would be the piece de resistance to the me I wanted to project to the world. Successful, confident and sexy, right down to my Provocateur-clad behind.

As I throw the last pair onto the floorboards I realize with a sigh that alas, they haven’t worked. I’m no closer to being that woman and, in fact, these flimsy bits of fabric may have succeeded only in blocking my path to her. Into the garbage bag they all go. All but the Bonds duds I actually need and wear, and that gorgeous Agent Provocateur pair. Hey, surely even Buddhists need to feel sexy sometimes.

Next up, my jeans shelf. I pull them down pair by pair. There’s boot cuts and flares, skinny legs and high waists. There’s acid washes and stonewashes, some sun-bleached, some sandblasted. There’s indigo and black, white and hot pink. And, and, and. It’s exhausting just yanking them all down from the shelf. I’d never realized just how heavy denim can be, and having to decide which to keep and which to discard is emotionally tortuous. I tell myself that one day, possibly in the distant future but still one day, I may need the cropped pair of black and white striped skinny jeans that would pair so perfectly with a navy silk shirt, if only I could find the perfect one. Which I haven’t yet, which is why I’m yet to wear the jeans in question. Into the bag they go.

I’ve really built up some momentum now and start hurling my designer threads into the bags with barely a second thought about how much money I’m throwing away and how detrimental this might be to my so carefully cultivated look. But what does the way I look matter anyway, when so much else is at stake? How can I possibly ever break free from consumerism when all these pieces of fabric are tethering me so tightly to it?

Pretty soon I’m surrounded by the bags, brimming like Santa sacks full of treasures, and decide I’ve gone far enough. I have to get them out of the house immediately or I might have a change of heart and find myself right back where I started. In a flurry I tie each of the eight bags up tight, grab my keys and start hauling them out into the car.

Ten minutes later I’m screeching down the street in my car towards the charity bin a few blocks away. When I get there my hands are actually shaking. This is a big moment. I totter out to the bin and start shoving the bags into its yawning mouth. At one point, the arm of my favourite canary yellow Acne jacket flops out of a bag and in a moment of weakness I yank it out and throw it into the open window of the car. Saving one gorgeous thing can’t hurt, I tell myself, before chucking the remaining bags into the bin.

On my way back to the house I’m on a high. What a selfless act, donating thousands of dollars’ worth of designer threads to the less fortunate! BD would be so proud! No more will I consume. My life is now free from materialistic burdens and I’m completely open to receiving whatever spiritual magic comes my way as a reward. I’m Mother Theresa. I’m Angeline Jolie!

I look into the rear vision mirror and smile. “Well done,” I say to my reflection.