TRAVELS WITH NINA

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

Chapter Three

Where the hell’s my phone?

I’ve been scrambling around for it for a good thirty seconds before realizing, with a sweet gush of relief that almost manages to override the dull pinot ache behind my forehead, that I don’t have to worry about time. Not today, and not any day for the next three weeks. Hurrah!

I locate my phone anyway and click it on. 8.16am. The pinot-ache creeps back in and sets my eye sockets ablaze.

“Water,” I croak to myself, wrapping the Mexican blanket around my shoulders and grabbing the empty wine bottle from beside the couch. I plod over to the kitchen, spotless thanks to Ryan’s efforts last night, and set the tap running. It screeches at me in protest. I cup my hands and slosh the sweet liquid into my mouth. After a couple of minutes I manage to drown the life out of my headache and head back to the couch.

What now?
asks a little voice in the back of my head.

I pick the remote up off the coffee table and switch on the tele. With the mute button on I move through the channels and dozens of cheesy morning show smiles until I find something that looks mildly tolerable. I click the sound back on and tune in.

“And you know what?” An American accent blasts into the room; a rather hefty woman getting all riled up on Oprah. “He’d been lyin’ to me the whole time. The whole damn time! I mean I can take just about anythin’, but I cannot take lyin’, nuh-uh girlfriend.” The audience breaks into thunderous applause. I curse under my breath and thrust the remote at the TV. In a fizz of static it goes out and I let my head loll back. I focus again on the cracks in the ceiling, but this morning the pictures refuse to come out to play.

I go to put the remote back down on the coffee table when I see the list I made last night sitting beside it. I’d totally forgotten about that. Reading over it, I realise that although I was rather jolly last night, I came up with some pretty good points. Once I’ve gotten rid of this hangover, I’ll definitely be getting onto them.

Except this last point.

Point number six.

I don’t even remember writing point number six.

HAVE BABY WITH DREAM MAN

Wait, I didn’t write that one. Ryan wrote that one.

Of course he did, I think as my stomach does that familiar turning-inside-out thing it does whenever The B Word comes up. Which, lately, has actually been pretty often. Ryan always suggests it in a semi-joking kind of way. Like just the other day I was moaning about how much I hate being on the pill because it makes me so moody and bloated, and Ryan said, “well maybe you should just go off it,” then winked at me in a way that was meant to be cute but which made me feel like vomiting.

Because the thing is, I know he’s not really joking when he says things like that. He’d love for me to be waddling around the house in fugly elastic-waisted maternity pants, fat, farty and pregnant. His two older brothers and sister all have kids, he’s super close with all of them and I know he’s gagging for us to be part of “the gang”, as he likes to call it. Easy for him, he’s 33 already but I’m only 28! I have so many good, child-free years ahead of me. I can barely look after myself let alone a kid, and I’m not anywhere near ready to give up my independence. If I’m going to be honest with myself, I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready to give it up. Not that I could ever admit that to Ryan.

That familiar tightening is starting to happen in my throat, and I scratch number six out with a green texta before throwing the list back down on the table.

I’ve got to get out of this house.

I head to our bedroom, toss my blanket on the freshly made bed and pull out my most inspiring Lululemon exercise gear. Acid blue calf-length leggings and a yellow racerback tee that’ll be sure to get the heart pumping. Then it’s Nikes, phone, earbuds, sunnies and I’m out the door and pounding down street after street, with Janet Jackson’s Best Things in Life Are Free blasting in my ears and propelling me along.

It’s a late winter morning, one of those magic days where the air is crispy cold but the sun is shining in a clear sky. It stabs its way through the trees above me, each shaft lifting my heart a little higher and pushing the hangover out of my head. I lose myself in the rhythm of my thudding feet and fly along at a pace I know I’ll never be able to keep up. Sweat starts to form on my chest and drips down between my boobs as I drink in another mouthful of sharp morning air.

Five minutes more and I’m down by the bay, the water winking at me so brightly that my eyes start to water. I pass a mother’s group, a dozen women entangled with their sprog on one enormous plaid picnic rug. I smile and wave. I must really be on an endorphin high; the sight of that many ankle-biters would normally make me want to spew.

I get to the water’s edge, my chest a fireball. I flop down on the grass, rubbing my sweaty hands over my sweaty face and into my sweaty hair.

What now?
that annoying little voice from the back of my brain asks again.


Shut up
, I tell it, and it cowers somewhere behind my temporal lobe.

Once my heart rate has slowed to its usual dull thud I peel myself off the ground, wipe the grass from my elbows – now dappled like a chubby woman’s thighs – and head to the café in the middle of the park.

This is the life, I think as I sit on a chrome seat in a sunny spot.

Soon, my skinny latte and bacon and eggs arrive and I attack them both with gusto. What would the girls at the office be doing now, I think smugly. They’d be sitting behind the dull glow of their screens under the fluorescent lights of the air-conditioned office, the sound of emails pinging into inboxes filling the gaps between idle chatter. I can just see them, biting their freshly mani’d nails over how best to describe Kate Winslet’s latest weight gain.

Would the word ‘extreme’ be kinder than ‘horrid’, do you think? Can we describe her as bubblebutted, or is that too… American?

My second latte arrives and I smirk into it as I pick up my still empty-screened phone and shoot a pic of the glittering harbour, then quickly filter the lustful image on Instagram, adding the hashtag #lifeisgood. I’m just about to pop it up when I stop myself. I can’t remember if any of my work friends follow me on Instagram, and if they do they might twig that I’m in fact not, at this very moment in time, sitting by my dying friend’s bedside in Paris. I take a sip of my coffee, deciding to text the photo to my actual best friend – who is, just to clarify, well and truly alive and kicking – instead.

A minute later, my phone starts vibrating across the table, reaching the edge in a matter of seconds and threatening to jump. I grab it just in time and as I look at the screen a smile twitches its way onto my mouth.

“Lady of leisure speaking, how may I help you?” I say in my best faux-secretary voice as I slide the green answer arrow and press the phone to my ear.

“You can help me by telling me why you’re not at work young lady. Since you weren’t sick when we spoke yesterday I assume you’re either faking or that something terrible has happened. Either way, I can’t believe you didn’t call.”

It’s Peace.

“Sorry P, I guess I’ve needed some time to think today.”

“Ok, what’s happened,” asks Peace, a note of worry creeping into her gravelly voice.

“It’s kind of a long story… But hey, I’ll make it quick. Basically, I went into work yesterday and decided that I really, really needed some time off.”

“That much we knew.”

“And so I may or may not have told Vicki that my best friend was on her death bed in Paris and she’s given me three weeks off so I can go and visit her?” I say all at once.

“Hold on, you told your work I’m dying?”

“Well I didn’t mention your name exactly, I just said my best friend has a brain tumour…” Now that I say it out loud it does sound pretty bad. Luckily, Peace breaks into her low, rasping laugh and I join in, relief flooding through me.

“You’re one crafty mofo Mags, that’s awesome!”

“So you don’t think I’m a horrible person?”

“Hell no! I think you’re a brilliant person, and this is an absolutely brilliant plan. Vicki’s a bitch, you’re frustrated at work and you need some time off, end of story. Plus I haven’t booked my next job yet so we’ll be able to hang every day!” Peace is a model, you see – she’s ridiculously good looking and leads a ridiculously charmed life. “But hey look, I have to run but I wanna see you, maybe we can have drinks tonight or something? Call me.” And just like that, she’s gone.

I’m about to slip my phone back into my pocket when a message pings through. I glance down at the screen.

CAME HOME FOR LUNCH, THOUGHT YOU MIGHT BE HERE. YOU CLOSE?

That’s weird. Ryan hardly ever texts me during the day, he doesn’t like to interrupt his “flow” and generally only gets in touch if there’s an emergency. I jump out of my seat and start jogging as I text back.

THERE IN 10

I lose myself again in my rhythmic thudding footsteps, and the anxiety about what’s up with Ryan slides off my body along with so many droplets of sweat. I pick up the pace a little and scan the houses on either side of the street, only a suburb away from ours and yet so much more posh. They’re mostly terraces, some with that wrought iron latticework on the balconies, some with huge palms in the front gardens, others with that steely grey paint job that everyone hopes will make their place look more fancy. I guess it does.

A little pang hits me somewhere in my lower abdomen. A pang of what, I’m not sure. Envy, maybe? Jealousy? Fear, probably. These are the kind of places Ryan’s always talking about wanting us to buy. The kind of places he says we could buy, if only I’d stop buying clothes and handbags and shoes and coffee-table books and expensive dinners and overpriced cocktails and taxis and no-reason-presents and flowers and jewelry and French champagne and organic meat and concert tickets and stuff. Unnecessary stuff, I guess he means. We could have a place with a big palm out the front, he says. We could have those fancy finishes, that new furniture and a proper, adult-sized front gate. We could have it all, if only I could save a little harder, try a little harder.

And sometimes I do try. I deny myself, I hold back, I cut up my credit cards and I actually contribute to our mortgage fund. It sticks for a while, until that feeling, this feeling in my guts right now, comes back and I start questioning why I’m doing it all. Am I really ready for that kind of commitment? We’re married, yes. Six months ago, we stared into each other’s eyes and promised to love only each other for the rest of our lives. Implicit in that promise was a series of sub-promises: promises to dance with each other and laugh at each other’s jokes and eat breakfast in bed together on Sundays and get a dog and not get grossed out when the other one farts and have babies together and get a joint bank account, and, and, and. I knew all of that.

And yet.

And yet the thought of buying a house gets me all tied up in the tummy and tight in the throat. I guess because buying a house would mean saying goodbye to frivolity. Goodbye to hedonism. And hello to feeling guilty about buying us surprise tickets to music festivals and spending too much money on vodka shots on Friday nights. And probably, almost certainly actually, hello to babies. Just thinking about The B Word again makes me shudder.

I haven’t mentioned any of this to Ryan. I know it’d crush him to think I want to put all that serious stuff on the backburner, and I don’t know if I can handle him thinking I’m even more irresponsible than he already thinks I am.

I walk up our front path, sweaty and out of breath. As I get to the front door I notice something I’d missed earlier as I hurried out. Today’s note, scrawled across the top right hand corner. It’s not a note exactly, just a little smiley face. A little smile that leaps off the door and slaps itself onto my sweaty, red face as I walk inside.

“Hello?” I yell as I walk down the hall and drop my phone onto the dining table. “Hellooo?”

No answer.

For a second I think maybe I’ve missed him, but then I see the back door’s ajar so I head outside and find him sitting on one of the milk crates we’d thought would work as trendy cheap stools a couple of years back and had never gotten around to replacing. Which is a shame, really, because our little back yard is just stunning, thanks to Ryan’s handiwork. A crappy house he could handle, but not a crappy garden, so we convinced our landlord that it was in his best interest to pay Ryan to do it up. And so now it’s all fancy sandstone pavers, perfectly sculpted hedges, a couple of glistening Raphis palms – the whole kit and caboodle. Ryan’s eating a chicken schnitzel sandwich and some of the mayonnaise is dribbling out of its soggy bottom and down his bare forearm, weaving its way slowly through the dark hairs scattered there.

“To what do I owe this pleasure?” I ask, trying to mask my nervousness with coquettishness as I perch on a crate of my own.

“I just wanted to surprise my beautiful wife,” he says, mouth full of chomped bread, chicken and mayo.

“You know it’s rude to talk with your mouth open.” I smile and he smiles back. Phew, nothing serious after all.

“And I wanted to say well done with that list last night babe, that was awesome. I’m really proud of you.” Oh God, please don’t let him mention point number six. I really can’t deal with that discussion right now. “How are you going with it?” he eventually manages after swallowing another mouthful of sandwich.

“It’s going ok,” I say with a shrug. “I just popped out for a run so I could clear my head and come up with some thoughts for my, err, CV, which is why I’m all gross and sweaty.”

“But I like you all gross and sweaty.” He puts his sandwich down on the crumpled paper bag beside him and licks the mayo trail from halfway down his forearm all the way up to the palm of his wide, calloused hands, which he then reaches out towards me. I walk into his arms, my knees knocking against his as he wraps his arms around me. Our bodies instantly click into place, the way bodies do when they’ve known each other for years. I wrap my arms around his neck, letting his familiar, earthy smell envelop me.

We stay like that for a while; Ryan sitting, me standing, my head in his soft hair and his face on my belly. It’s not long before we start kissing. Our tongues slide around each other slowly, and eventually our hands join in on the slow dance, pushing and grasping and tugging. But just when I’m starting to get excited, Ryan pulls away.

“Hey,” he says, rubbing my cheek with his rough thumb, “I almost forgot – my folks called this morning and asked if we wanted to go round there for dinner tonight. Everyone’ll be there, the kids too. Could be fun?” Oh God. Another family get together. We only saw them six days ago! How is it even possible for one family to get together this often? Do none of them have social lives of their own? Do they not want to see anyone else except for their own flesh and blood? I just don’t get it. And I really don’t think I can face it tonight. I mean they’re lovely and everything, but to be honest I’d really rather just go out and get drunk with Peace.

“Oh honey I would loved to, you know how much I love hanging out with the gang. But you know I just thought it might be, err, good to spend a night in. You know, work on my CV, maybe contact a recruiter, really start working my way through that list…”

Suddenly, AC/DC’s Thunderstruck starts playing, muffled and tinny and somewhere deep in Ryan’s pocket.

“Just a sec.” He grabs my wrist with one hand and fishes around in his pocket with the other, pulling his phone out and checking the screen just as Angus Young stops his screaming.

“Ahh sorry babe,” he says, stuffing the phone back in his pocket. “It’s work, better get back to it.” He pulls me up, wraps his arms around me and kisses the top of my head. “But hey, I think it’s awesome that you’re being so proactive, so why don’t you just work on all that tonight and I’ll get outta your hair and head to mum and dad’s?” There’s a smooch, a little slap on the bum, a quick exchange of I love you’s and he’s out the door. I hear his ute’s engine gunning, then dimming, then fading to nothing.

A little smile starts tugging at the corners of my mouth, gently at first, then stronger and stronger still until there it is, mega wattage. For the second time today the realization that I’m free, free, free at last hits me like a shot of Grey Goose, warming my belly and making me feel all floaty. I run inside and grab my phone.