It was early Thursday evening and my boyfriend and I were sitting in the laundry, eating steakburgers and chips, and doing a weeks' worth of washing.
Shay was dressed in his stinky, sweaty gym clothes. His sunbleached hair was ruffled and untidy and his face sporting two days worth of beard. On his lap was last year's Guinness Book of Records. There was a sheet of yellow cellophane over the page he was reading, and occasionally he'd stop and ask for help with a word. He was dyslexic, and had only six months worth of tutoring up his sleeve, so the technical terms frequently caused him trouble.
I took a swig of Coke and watched him frown as he came upon another troublesome collection of letters. His tattooed right hand paused above the page, and he made several attempts at deciphering the word before asking for help. I glanced over and read the entry.
'Simultaneously. It means 'all at the same time'.'
The washing machine beeped and I gestured for my lover to keep reading, while I got up and retrieved our wet, clean, clothes and fed them into the dryer. It was the last load of the night. Once these were dry, we could go back to my apartment and relax.
Shay glanced up at me. 'Hey Carmine, did you know…'
'Yep, I know,' I interrupted. 'I know everything. You can stop reading me the entries.'
He frowned. 'You don't reckon this is interesting?'
'Not since I was ten,' I replied apologetically. 'Never mind, tell me anyway.'
He told me about the record, and I nodded and tried to look interested. Personally, I thought most of the entries were boring, but it was one of the few books that Shay was willing to read, and I had to be careful not to discourage him. He took classes with an eight year old and a fifteen year old. At thirty-one, he was by far the oldest, and especially sensitive about his shortcomings.
'I'll stop reading for now,' he announced, shutting the book. He picked up his burger and took a bite. 'Did you clean your apartment while I was at the gym?'
My studio apartment was generally in a state of disarray, and today was no exception. My ashtrays were overflowing with cigarette butts, I hadn't done the washing-up in days, my bathroom was a haven for mould, and underneath my bed was a disaster zone the likes of which most people had never seen before. On the bathroom window ledge was a week old bowl of cereal I'd half-eaten and then forgotten about, and in a corner of the studio was a pile of miscellaneous junk that I kept telling myself I'd sort through on the weekend. It disgusted Shay. You could see it on his face every time he retrieved an improperly cleaned glass from the cupboard and found something growing in the bottom of it.
My boyfriend wasn't half the pig I was. He and his flatmate had 'a system'. They washed their dishes immediately after they finished eating, vacuumed the floors every day, and cleaned their bathrooms every Saturday morning without fail. Shay took care of the bins and Braden swept out their garage. Their apartment was, at all times, nice and clean.
On the other hand, I didn't walk out of the house wearing the outfits that Shay did. I ironed my workclothes. I shaved every morning. I styled my hair, wore deodorant without fail, and cleaned my steelcaps. Shay was my exact opposite. During the early stages of our relationship he'd been neat and tidy, and had occasionally gotten himself looking super spiffy, but his sense of style had denigrated over the past six months. He was loved up and lazy. He shaved twice a week, had tons of shitty prison tattoos and wore whatever came to hand, regardless of how crappy it looked. This morning, for example, he'd shown up wearing pilled black socks, faded boardshorts, a brand-new workshirt and a cap that was not only ancient, but also quite grotty. His excuse had been 'who cares what I'm wearing if the client isn't going to be home to see me?'
'Carmine,' Shay prompted. 'You didn't clean, did you?'
'Nope. The day you shave and wear a coordinating outfit is the day I clean my house.'
Shay finished his burger in two bites. 'You've got yourself a deal. I'll go and have a shower and get dressed. We can clean when you've finished the laundry. Your place is feral. I dunno how it doesn't bother you.'
'You don't have to,' I told him.
He rolled his eyes. 'I reckon I do. It's not like you're ever gonna do it.'
'I would if I lived in a nice apartment. It's only because this place is a dump.'
My excuses were feeble and pointless. Yes, the apartment complex was a crumbling heap of shit, and yes, the carpet was stained and covered in cigarette burns, but none of this made a difference to Shay. He expected a higher standard of hygiene than I'd ever be able to provide, regardless of where I was living.
While Shay went to my apartment to shower (and probably rid the bathroom of it's latest mould colony), I nibbled on the remaining chips and watched the clothes tumble around the dryer. It was boring, but I didn't trust my neighbours not steal my clothes, so I wasn't about to leave our stuff unattended.
After ten minutes or so an elderly man walked in and took a seat beside me. I glanced over and realized I recognized him from somewhere, though I couldn't quite place him. I'm bad like that; I frequently see people and find that I know them from somewhere, but can't recall how I know them, or what their names are. I expect it's a result of my drug addicted past. I took too much too often, and what I was taking was generally shitty quality, and it's done some odd things to my brain.
I told myself he was probably a reclusive resident. Seriously, for my mental wellbeing, he fucking had to be. I was sick of strangers from the past popping into my life. This guy was better dressed than most of the tenants in the block, but hell, I dressed decently and lived in a dump, so who was I to judge?
'I'm not using the washing machine,' I mentioned. 'Only the dryer. I'll be finished soon.'
'I don't have any washing.'
That wasn't precisely what he said, because his reply was in Italian, but it was a good enough translation.
'Do I know you?' I asked warily.
Brisbane isn't exactly the Australian gathering point for Italians. You don't regularly hear people speaking Italian in the streets, and it isn't a language that is taught at any of the high schools. Pasta joints are just as likely to be owned by Australians or Asians as they are by Italians.
I didn't know how this guy and I knew each other, but he obviously knew me well enough to know that I was fairly fluent in the language. That scared me. I had a whole family, consisting of more relatives than you could poke a stick at, who I was estranged from.
'You don't recognize me?' he asked.
'No, but I have a bad memory. Who are you? Tell me who you are. My washing's almost finished and I have to go. Someone's waiting for me.'
'You don't know me?' The man sounded regretful, as though he'd discovered a terrible secret. 'I'm your grandfather, Carmine. How could you forget me?'
I mentally swore. How could I have forgotten? Of all the faces to forget, how had I forgotten Nonno's? I'd been his favourite. From the word go, I'd been his golden grandchild and now here he was, sitting directly beside me, wearing an expression of pure disappointment.
Over the years, a lot of people have assumed that I never sought out my family because I was selfish. The assumption is only partially correct. Combined with a lack of altruism is my fear of rejection. A fear of letting people down. A fear of being responsible for wrecking their lives. I didn't go back because I was terrified of being reminded of all the things I've done wrong.
'You shouldn't have come here,' I told him. I went to the dryer and started pulling the damp clothes out and throwing them into the laundry basket. The dryer hadn't finished, but I didn't want to hang around. 'Just go, okay? I never invited you here.'
'You're refusing me?'
'Yes.' I shut the dryer door. 'Get out of my life. If I wanted any of you in it, I would have come to you and asked for it.'
'Why are you talking to me like this? With so little respect?'
'I didn't ask for you to come here' I replied, frustrated. 'Go away.'
'You don't want me to go.'
'I do.' I confirmed, as I picked up the basket and walked out of the room. 'I do. Go. Please.'
'What's wrong with you, Carmine? Why did you turn your back on us?'
I took my laundry back to my apartment, all the while expecting him to follow me. When I reached my door, I turned around and surveyed the corridor. It was old and stank slightly of piss and mould, and there were several cracks in the walls, but my grandfather was nowhere to be seen. He hadn't followed me from the laundry.
'Carmine,' Shay stared, hearing my footsteps and opening the door. 'Someone came for you. I told him you were in the laundry.'
'I know. I saw him.' I went inside, dumped the washing basket on the floor, and shut the door. 'If you see him again, don't let him in. It's important.'
'Are you in trouble?'
'No.' I took a deep breath, and tried to sound calm. 'It was my grandfather. Don't worry about it. He won't be coming back.'
Shay hesitated. This had long been a standing source of contention between us. He didn't understand, or accept, that I didn't want my family in my life. He thought I should reconcile with them, and I knew that he was upset that I'd rebuffed my grandfather.
'If he comes back, tell him to go,' I added.
My lover frowned. 'Okay,' he agreed reluctantly.
He always stood up for me. He always stuck by me. Sometimes this trait annoyed me, but right now, in this situation, I was grateful for it. I needed someone to rely on. If any of my family members dropped around again, he'd need to be able to tell them to fuck off.
'Carmine?' Shay prodded.
'What?' I asked.
'I know.' I stared down at my hands. 'I'm going to have a cigarette. Don't worry, okay? It was…it was just a shock. That's all. It doesn't matter.'
Fuck, it had been over ten years. I should have been as good as dead to my family. That would have beeen easiest for everyone involved.