TRAVELS WITH NINA

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

Chapter Two

This morning I put on a real show. I arrive at work dressed head-to-toe in black, with no makeup on and with my smallest clutch overflowing with tissues. I sit quietly at my desk and stare morosely at the computer screen, blowing my nose and sighing deeply until a passing colleague finally asks me what’s wrong.

“It’s nothing,” I reply. Then, as I see said colleague is about to keep walking I add, “I mean I shouldn’t bring the troubles of my home life to the office I… I don’t want to burden anyone. But I guess it wouldn’t hurt to share it just with you. You see, it’s my best friend. She… she…” And here’s where the real theatrics start – the tears, the forehead rubbing, the fist clenching. “She has a brain tumour. They’re not sure how much longer she has left.” I blow my nose with as much force as I can muster, which has the added bonus of squeezing a couple of tears out of my pre-act Visine-flooded eyes.

By now, quite a crowd has gathered around my desk and my co-workers are doing quite a fabulous job of comforting me. Lucille, the picture editor, has draped her fuchsia Louis Vuitton cashmere wrap around my shoulders (“a little pop of colour will make you feel so much better, darling”), while Sandra the beauty editor perches on the edge of my desk, massaging Crème de La Mer into my hands.

“The awful part is that she has no family around to support her. And not only that, but she moved to Paris last year to take her modelling career to the next level. Which means, of course, that there’s no way I can visit her. Not when I have a full-time job.”

By now I’m at the peak of my performance. I’ve progressed to full-blown weeping, accompanied by hand flailing and tissue throwing. And I’ve timed it perfectly. Vicki has just arrived, and out the corner of my waterlogged eyes I spy her peering over the partitions of our open plan office to find out what all the commotion is about.

Now if there’s one thing I know about the magazine world it’s that gossip makes it go round… And round, and round. Us mag girls love it. Be it Kate Middleton’s latest fashion coup or Lindsay Lohan’s latest DUI, we’re all over it, all day long. And if something dramatic happens to a co-worker? Well, be it devastating or delightful (although devastating is always preferable), we’re effing ecstatic. Like the time Sandra from accounts was getting a divorce. I can still feel the tingle of electricity that went zipping through the air that day, the result of the collective excitement of a roomful of women passing around a dirty secret that only they were meant to know.

Anyway, let’s just say that the gossip mongers are as reliable as ever today, and by 11 o’clock an email from Vicki pings into my inbox asking me to come round for “a chat” as soon as I have a moment. Bingo! I rub my eyes a little more, grab a handful of fresh tissues and totter over to her desk.

Now we’ve established that Vicki can be one hard-arsed bitch. But even hard-arsed bitches can’t withstand the devastating news of a brain tumour.

“Well,” I sniff, dabbing at my eyes. “I guess you’ve heard the awful news. And look I know things are really busy here at the moment what with fashion week just around the corner and the Big Hair Issue coming up. And I’d hate to leave everyone in the lurch. But I also know I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t see my best friend before… before…” I collapse into another weeping fit, even working in that shoulder shaking thing that happens when you cry really hard when you’re a little kid.

“You know what Margaux,” says Vicki, touching me gingerly on said shaky shoulder and attempting to give me what is probably a sympathetic expression, but which actually looks more like she’s slightly constipated, “it probably won’t be as busy as you think. And you’ve never taken a holiday besides that week at Christmas two years ago. So,” – this is hard for her to say, I can tell by the way she’s attempting to push a smile through her constipated look – “why don’t you just go ahead and take… two weeks off to go and visit her?”

She says that last bit really, really fast, just to get it out before she changes her mind I suppose. I blow my nose again and squeeze another couple of tears out.

“Or three. Yes, take three. I’ll find someone to take care of things while you’re gone so you can just concentrate on, umm, being there for your friend.” Clearly, this is a totally alien concept for Vicki. But who cares? I’ve hit the JACKPOT. I don’t even bother with an “Oh no I really couldn’t” or anything like that. I just take that shiz and run with it.

***

The only problem now, I realize as I sit in the back seat of my cab home, is that I have to somehow explain this rather unexpected turn of events to Ryan.

Now I’m going to come right out and admit that Ryan’s the ethical one in our relationship. He’s the one who’s always there to remind me that perhaps accepting free clothes from a brand I’m about to write about is not the most honorable thing to do, and to pull me up when I’m ripping one of my friends to shreds. Like, just last week when we were out to dinner, he overheard me telling the maître d’ that if he gave us 50 percent off our meal I’d sort out a little editorial space for the restaurant in the magazine. Ryan made out like I was joking, paid the full bill plus a massive tip, then gave me a speech in the car on the way home about ethics and integrity and blah, blah, blah. Couldn’t he understand that I was doing them a favour? That that’s just the way things work? I mean seriously, how does he think, on my wage, that I own a cupboard full of designer clothes?

The cab pulls up outside our semi, a tired federation-style place that’s seen better days. I squint through the twilight and notice one of the gutters has come loose again. Ugh.

“Do you take cab charge?” I ask the driver. He nods. Phew. There’s nothing I hate more than paying for my own cabs.

I push open our knee-high iron gate and it growls across our brand new sandstone pavers. Oops, that better not have left a mark – these are Ryan’s babies, his pride and joy. I totter down the path that leads through our immaculately manicured front garden to our much-less-than-immaculate semi in my six-inch ill-fitting Jimmy Choos as my mind starts whirring away on overdrive. Maybe I can tell Ryan I was being sexually harassed by the window cleaner at work and had to take a few weeks off while they fired him? Maybe I can tell him the Aspire staff have all gone on strike for three weeks because Vicki decided to cut cab charges? Or maybe I can tell him someone got a serious tropical disease after returning from a travel junket so the office is getting fumigated for the next few weeks?

Fuck. Fuckety fuck. Why didn’t I give this more thought this afternoon when I had time to come up with a master plan?

I reach the door and rummage around in my Balenciaga bag for the key. Our front door is painted with black chalkboard paint, and I can’t help but smile as I see today’s message scribbled down the left-hand side in Ryan’s unmistakable scrawl. You’re a super, and then a little picture of a star. Bloody hell. How can I lie to someone who does things like that for me, I think, as I flash for an instant an image of Ryan two years ago in Levis and a ripped white tee, crouched by the door painting it, smiling up at me and wiping the sweat from his face with the back of his hand.

When I open the door, our little semi is quiet and dark. Ryan’s not home yet. I flick on the dim hall light, chuck my bag onto the hat stand and kick off my heels. Sweet relief. I hobble down the hall, plop myself down on our old cane sofa and light the Diptyque fig candle (a freebie from work, of course, who on earth would actually pay $100 for a candle?) that’s sitting on the distressed wood coffee table Ryan made us last year. I look down at my poor ravaged feet. I’ve treated them so cruelly over the last few years, shoving them into narrow, confined spaces that they’re really much too big for. The shoe samples that are sent to the office are rarely in my size, but I’ll be damned if I let some other b-i-t-c-h get her sweaty hoofs into them.

There’s a bunion forming on my left foot, a ripped blister on my little toe and my nails are a mess. They’re still covered with the remnants of that hideous opalescent blue polish Chanel came out with last season, quelle horreur. I’m just about to hop online to book a pedicure when I hear the key in the lock. Eff. Ryan’s home, and I haven’t managed to come up with a decent cover-up for my epic lie yet.

“Hey honey,” he shouts down the hall as the door slams shut behind him. “You’re home before me, that must be a first!” He saunters towards me with open arms and a smile on his unshaven face and I fold into his warm cuddle. “How was work?” he asks into my hair. Luckily, he can’t see me cringe.

“Fine. Full stop.” Our little joke when things aren’t going all that awesomely but we don’t really want to talk about it. He pulls away to look at me. Damn those yellow-flecked hazel eyes.

“Full stop, full stop?” he asks. I avoid his gaze, letting my eyes sweep over his chunky blue knit, black corduroy jeans and scuffed Blundstones.

“Full stop… ellipses,” I give him a playful push and what I hope is a cute smile. “Promise I’ll tell all over dinner. I’m cooking.” That ought to buy me some time.

“Ahh, did I miss something? Is it our anniversary or something?” He’s looking at me funny, I suppose because the last time I cooked was, well, now that I come to think of it, two years ago for his birthday.

“No, silly. It’s just that you cook almost every night and I’d just like to do something nice for you. Now,” I say, taking his hand and pulling his towards the bathroom before he can get another word in, “Get that sexy arse of yours into the shower before I change my mind.”

“Whatever you say, Mrs. Boss.” I shut the bathroom door behind him and let out the breath I hadn’t realised I’ve been holding.

Ok. Business time.

I whip around our tiny kitchen in fast forward like the woman on those Spray and Wipe ads, opening cupboards, pulling out pots and pans and produce, boiling water and chopping herbs at the speed of light, pulling together an express – and slightly edited – version of Ryan’s favourite pasta Puttanesca. I fossick through our wine cellar (aka the wooden rack under the kitchen sink) and pull out a decent bottle of pinot. I set the table with candles and cloth napkins and press play on some Al Green on the iPod, all while racking my brain for a decent lie. I’m just pouring a glass of wine to steady my nerves when Ryan comes out of the bathroom in a cloud of steam, a towel wrapped around his waist and droplets of water running down his neck from his floppy wet hair. Shit. I guess I’ll just have to wing it.

“Ooh la la, seriously babe, what’s the special occasion?” He grabs my glass with his left hand, my waist with his right, and glug-glugs some of the wine. “Or is it just that you love me so goddamn much, huh?” He pulls me closer and breaks out that gorgeous, crooked grin of his.

“First of all,” I wriggle out of his grasp and grab my glass back, “This is my glass of wine. And second of all, you need to put some pants on.”

“You’re a hard taskmaster, has anyone ever told you that Mrs. Kirke? Luckily, I’ve been trained well to do what I’m told.” He pulls off his towel and whips me on the butt with it, then runs down the hallway to our bedroom before I can get him back.

I return to my sauce-stirring duties, gulping down a mouthful of wine to try to numb the icky feeling in the pit of my stomach. He’s back in under 90 seconds in tracksuit pants, a singlet and… a black bow tie.

“I thought since you’d gone to all this trouble, the least I could do was dress for the occasion.” He sits, mock daintily at our little timber dining table, and I can’t help but laugh.

“You’re a fool, you know that?” I dish out two steaming servings and walk them over to the table.

“So,” I say as I sit down and pick up my fork. Oh God, here goes. “Do I have a funny story for you. Well, funny and… exciting!” I point my fork at him, “I think you’re gonna love it, actually.”

“I’m intrigued.”

I take a deep breath and launch in.

“Ok so today, I worked some of my magic. And guess what?”

“What?”

“You’ll never guess.”

“You fly kicked Vicki in the face?”

“Nope.”

“You hocked a loogie into bitchy Karen’s handbag when she wasn’t looking?”

“No! But that’s actually a great idea.”

“You got told that your plus-sized bra story was up for a Walkley journalism award?”

“Ha ha, very funny. And very mean. Now will you just let me tell you?”

“Ok, shoot.”

“You’re looking at a free woman. Well, a free-ish woman.”

“Huh? What d’you mean?”

“I mean that I, Margaux Kirke, am the proud owner of three weeks’ leave!” A big slurp of wine. I can do this.

“Mags that’s unreal! You’ve been desperate for some time off.” Ryan leans over the table and grabs my hands in his. And then, the question I’ve been dreading. “How the hell did you wrangle it?”

“Well this is the funny bit. You see I knew Vicki would never let me go if I just came out and said I wanted a break so… so I told her that, ahh, that I have a… personal development course I need to do.” Yes. Yes! Brilliant. “Yeah I told her that I think it’ll help with my… progression at work, and she thought it was a great idea.”

I look up at Ryan slowly. My eyes crawl over his hairy chin, his thick, kissable lips, his broad nose and finally reach his hazel eyes – now brown in the dark room but usually very green in the sunlight – and see confusion.

“So you mean that now everyone in your whole office thinks you’re doing some personal development course that you’re not actually doing?”

“No! I mean, not everyone. A few of the girls were off today on a travel junket in the Hunter Valley…”

“But I don’t get why you couldn’t have just told Vicki you were worn out and asked for the time off. It just seems kind of over the top to have to lie like that.”

“It’s hard to explain,” I say with a sigh, “Vicki’s a… complicated person. I mean just last month Tara, her personal assistant, asked to have three days off because her boyfriend had just proposed and they wanted to visit his family in Western Australia so they could tell them in person, and Vicki friggin’ demoted the poor girl to the mailroom! So you see, just asking her for a break would be the end of me.”

Ryan just keeps munching on his pasta, his brow knotted in confusion.

“I’m desperate at the moment, Rye.” I walk over to his side of the table and plonk myself in his lap. A bit of physical contact usually does the trick. “I’m so confused and frustrated, and I’ve just been beaten down to the point where I don’t know what the hell I want any more. Sometimes I actually feel like, I don’t know, like I’m… drowning or something.” I lay my head against Ryan’s warm chest, letting the thick hair there tickle my cheek.

“Oh c’mon babe, that’s a bit dramatic don’t you think? I know you haven’t been the happiest person in the world at work lately, but your life’s actually pretty damn awesome compared to so many other people’s.”

I sit there, thinking for a moment about how I can make him understand. But with Ryan, there are just some things he’ll never understand.

Like the Ziggy situation. Ziggy was our puppy a couple of years back. I’d gone to the RSPCA to do a little write-up on their dog walking service for the magazine and, much to Ryan’s disapproval, had come home with the adorable unwanted runt of a litter of chocolate sausage dogs. My relationship with Ziggy was… fractured, I guess you could say, from the start. I think the biggest issue was that Ziggy and I were just too damn similar. He didn’t like to play by the rules either. I went to Dogue and spent a whole fortnight’s pay on buying him toys and food and accessories that I thought would entertain him when I wasn’t around. Which, admittedly, was quite a lot. But when I’d put his Dora the Explorer DVD on in the morning before I went to work, he’d just yap and cry right over the top of it and follow me to the door as if the thing wasn’t even playing. And when Ryan and I got home from a big night out, Ziggy would without fail leave me a little present in one of my stilettos.

Then one night after work I came home to an eerily silent flat. There was no yapping, no skittering of claws in the hallway. Ryan had decided it was time for Ziggy to go back to the RSPCA. It was better that I hadn’t known about it, he’d said, because my emotions would’ve gotten in the way of a decision he knew was best for all of us. I’d taken Ziggy on a crazy whim and I hadn’t thought through how I was going to take care of him, Ryan said. He was sorry of course – he’d hugged me and stroked my hair and told me it was for the best. And he was right I guess, but it hurt. I’d loved the little fella. I can still see him now, skittering around on his stout little legs, his wiggly tail helicoptering him along.

I snap out of my reverie, rubbing my face with my hands the way mum’s always telling me not to because it’ll give me wrinkles.

“I’m just really confused,” I say. “For four years now I’ve slogged my guts out, in the belief that it’s all been worth it and that it was actually going to get me somewhere. But I’m just not sure anymore. And I’m so frigging jealous of everyone who is sure.”

I’ve been talking at my lap until now and as I look up into Ryan’s face I can feel more words building up in my chest.

“But apart from the fact that I don’t know if I’ve got any talent anymore, I’ve just started wondering what the point of it all is, you know? Does anyone even care about the stuff I write? Does it help anyone? Does it save anyone’s life? And I don’t even know if I care whether it does. The only thing I do know for sure is that time is what I really need right now. I need time so I can get clarity, and I need clarity so I can figure out where the hell my life’s going.”

I take a deep breath and let my shoulders slump, my body deflating like a sucked popper. I look up and see Ryan just staring at me. I stare right back, and just when I think he’s going to kiss me, he reaches up and pulls my right index finger out of my mouth. I hadn’t even realized I was nibbling at the skin around my nails, pulling little strips of dead skin off with my teeth the way I do when something’s stressing me out. He rubs my back and looks into my eyes.

“Babe I know, ok? I know what you’re feeling because I’ve felt it too. I’ve been there. God, when I was your age I was still puffing on a joint every morning, trying to avoid thinking about life because it was all so bloody scary! And I’m sorry I haven’t noticed you’ve been going through all this but I have to say you’ve been doing a pretty good job of hiding it.”

“That’s the weird thing,” I say, “I’ll have all these awful feelings of inadequacy and fear one minute, and then the next minute I’ve managed to convince myself that a million girls would apply for my position if I quit and what else would I do anyway, and I talk myself into being happy again for the next little while.”

A breeze rushes in through the open kitchen window, sending goose bumps bubbling up over my arms.

“Hey, I have an idea,” says Ryan suddenly. He shuffles me off his lap and walks out of the room, returning a minute later clutching a wad of white A4 paper in one hand, and a few coloured markers in another.

“Here’s what we’re gonna do,” he says, pushing the plates into one corner of the table and putting the paper and textas down in front of me. “I’m gonna go over there and wash the dishes, and while I’m gone you’ll write an action plan for the next few weeks so you can make sure you get what you want out of your time off. Like, a list of what you want to figure out and achieve while you’re off work, that sort of stuff. You can think of it as your own little personal development plan, so that way you weren’t even really lying to Vicki!” He pushes the paper towards me and then he’s off to the kitchen with the stack of dishes, leaving me staring at a blank page.

I push my chair back from the table, thinking how much I hate these crappy Ikea designer knock-offs we bought five years back when we first moved into the place, just three weeks after we met.

I take the paper and textas in one hand, and my half-drunk glass of pinot and the bottle in the other, and walk into the lounge room where I flop onto our second-hand cane couch. I empty the glass with one gulp, letting the smooth burgundy goodness warm my throat and belly. This is going to be painful, although I guess I owe it to Ryan to give it a shot. But what the hell am I going to do with these next three weeks? I guess I hadn’t really thought that far ahead, I was just so desperate to get out of there. I refill my glass once, then twice, and finally decide that actually, there are a few things I could look at achieving. I slurp down another half glass before setting pen to paper.

1. FIGURE OUT MEANING OF LIFE
Why not start big? If I figure out what it all means then maybe I can find a way forward.

2. UPDATE CV
Ooh that’s a good one! I haven’t even looked at my CV since I applied for the position at Aspire five years ago, I think it still has my high school stint at Bakers Delight on there…

3. CONTACT RECRUITERS
I suppose they have recruiters for magazine jobs? I’ve never heard of them but I’m sure they must exist. It’s generally more of a who-you-know situation in our industry… Oh wait I’ve got it.

4. CREATE LINKEDIN PROFILE
Yes! Focus on networking! LinkedIn has always kind of confused me, but everyone tells me it’s just like Facebook which means I’ll probably love it, and then I’ll be connected to everyone I’ve ever met in the industry and they’ll probably start head hunting me!

Right, so now I just need to figure out some sort of personal project I can do, now that I have all this time on my hands. Which would be a little easier if Ryan would stop clanking around so much in the kitchen, I think as I take another slug of wine. What have I always wanted to do, if only I had the time? For a while there I was keen on starting my own jewellery label, but then I realized that would involve loads of businessy stuff that I just couldn’t be bothered with. But I do love fashion, so maybe I could do something with that, like start my own magazine? Oh god that’s way too hard. Umm, maybe a fashion blog? YES.

5. START FASHION BLOG

I flop back on the couch, mentally exhausted and I suppose a bit tipsy by this point and stare up at the chipped paint on our ceiling. I study the cracks for a while, searching for pictures in them. Above me, I make out a little clutch bag with a bunny jumping out of it. Over by the bookshelf it’s an old lady’s sad, crooked face.

Eventually, my eyes flutter closed and I slip into a dream. I’m in my car, waiting to turn right onto Oxford St from William St. The traffic’s at a standstill and I start feeling trapped. Quickly, illegally, I swerve right around the bend, only to be faced with a horrific car accident. A motorcyclist has been hit, his limbs are skewed in obtuse angles and there’s blood on the road. But in my impatience to get away from the other cars I drive right past him and don’t even look back.

When I wake, the flat’s dark and cold and my jaw aches. Damn, I thought I had the grinding under control. I have no idea how much time has passed but Ryan must have come in at some point and switched the lights off. And, I realize as I gradually swim out of my grogginess, he’s covered me in my favourite Mexican blanket, the one with all the vivid colours and Aztec symbols on it. The one he bought me on our honeymoon. I smile and plunge back into sleep, the realization that I’m safe and warm calming my restless, chattering jaw.