A Night at the Opera
Updated: Nov 1, 2020
Published Voiceworks Issue 100; QUT Creative Writing Prize (Shortlisted, 2014)
Ariel is on the couch, her big, veiny arms wrapped around the Filipino, who says that his name is Keanu Reeves. The kid’s got a gap in his teeth the size of a Euro. He says he’s heading from here to Hollywood, whatever that means.
Ariel didn’t say where she found him. I couldn’t give a single fuck. She’s always bringing in chumps like this, spitting them out and picking the remains from her teeth. His shirt's two sizes too small, and the kid is tiny.
Keanu's saying something, and Ariel is nodding, and you can tell all she’s thinking about is giving him one. The kid’s talking about Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Timothée Someone-or-other, it's all one-hundred percent nonsense but Ariel is hanging off it like he’s the Oracle at Delphi. Keanu's had a line, maybe more, and I hope Ariel hasn’t given him any smack because I don’t want to be the one sticking pins in his balls.
‘When’s the show, Ari?’
‘Soon, hon,’ she coos, stroking Keanu along the jaw. Her eyes are big holes of bad vibes. I light a cigarette and go back to my book.
The book’s about this Austrian guy, Egon Schiele, who did a bunch of sick paintings and died when he was twenty-eight. Sky gave it to me for my birthday, and I’m reading it because she’ll be here soon. I don’t know anything about art, Impressionists or Exhibitionists or whatever the fuck else-ists, but Sky’s real into that stuff, and this dude was like, dark. The paintings look like an acid trip.
Hey, I think. Maybe I should get some acid.
Keanu's monologue has devolved into literal gibberish, and Ariel is laughing and clapping like the kid’s a great comedian. I wonder when Sky will get here, if she’ll let me sleep at hers tonight.
‘It’s all about who you know, baby,’ Ariel says, in a voice as gooey as tar. ‘That’s how you make it in the biz.’
The kid's talking stops now. There’s this hiccupy sound as if he’s started crying. The picture on this page is called Seated Nude Youth, and the guy’s mouth is in his armpit, and his feet have been cut off. It's a self-portrait. I stare at the image until the cigarette crumbles in my hand and the hair on my knuckles gently starts to burn. Then I hear a toilet flushing, someone’s shit flying over our heads.
The phone rings, and it’s Sky, and I answer straight away even though I know I should make her wait.
‘Sorry I couldn’t make it last night. I got held up in Budapest.’
Sometimes I wonder if the entire reason Sky was put on this earth is to say things like ‘I got held up in Budapest.’
‘I read the book you gave me.’
‘Yeah?’ I can hear her sucking in, rolling smoke around with her tongue. ‘Well, "read." It's mostly pictures. What did you think?’
‘It's a vibe.’
‘I met a guy who says he knew you on the circuit.’
She doesn’t say anything else, and neither do I, and a few seconds later I hear the smoke shoot from her mouth.
‘Who was he?’
‘Can’t remember,’ she says, bored, like she’s doing something else. ‘Some old Ukrainian.’
‘Nobody calls it the circuit. It’s not tennis.’
‘League, then. Whatever.’ Something metallic clangs in the background, and then something that sounds almost like a smack, and I wonder what the fuck she’s doing. ‘Ouch. Listen, I’ll be there tonight.’
‘Can I stay at your place?’
We don’t have much to say after that, and eventually one of us ends the call. Ari's in the bathroom, shaving his legs and singing, ‘Something-something-something/It’s better the devil you know.’
Sky and I fuck on the foldout while Ari's at work. Her nails slice the skin of my back and I watch her as her head rolls around, her eyes half-closed like a doll’s. She seems high. After I come she slides out from under me, and when I run my finger along her spine she wriggles to the other side of the bed.
‘Did you fuck that guy in Budapest?’
She rolls over, a cigarette between her teeth. ‘Who?’
‘The Ukrainian. Circuit guy.’
‘No! Jesus.’ She tosses her hair behind her shoulder and squeezes a lighter with her thumb. ‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’
‘I just wanted to know.’
We lie there and I look at my feet and my dick, which is small and red. The smoke from Sky’s cigarette swirls above us, mixed with the airborne dust.
‘Why the fuck did you think I fucked him?’
‘I just wanted to know. You were talking about me.’ I don’t look at her even though she’s propped up on her elbow, and I can tell that she’s looking at me. Probably wondering why the fuck she bothers.
‘You think we were talking about you while we were fucking? You think I just fuck old Ukrainian dudes, and say, ‘Oh, by the way, have you met my friend Augie?’ You think I’m talking about you while I fuck other guys?’
‘You fuck other guys?’
We don’t speak anymore. The air gets thick with smoke as Sky lights another cigarette, and another.
One of Sky’s friends comes around, Rolf, a photographer. The kind of guy who wouldn’t nod at you if you were sharing an elevator but has his feet up on your coffee table within point-one seconds of entering your apartment. He’s going on about some project he’s working on and it sounds like a ploy to make teenagers get their tits out, but I hear a name I recognise.
‘I know that guy.’
‘Hmph.’ Rolf nods, chokes, coughs out a stinking cloud. ‘Schiele is trendy now, yes? I’m interested in how he distorts the body.’
He looks at me, his hands folded behind his obnoxious head. His red boots rest on an old Rolling Stone, Kim Kardashian on the cover, for some reason. I guess all the musicians were busy that day, or that all the good ones are dead. I scowl at him for a minute and then more of Sky’s friends arrive, boho types with bodies that set off metal detectors in airports and job descriptors that rarely translate into actual jobs. Samara’s a performance artist, who films herself blowing dudes and then punching them at the moment of climax. Pierre’s a musician, who only plays instruments that can be powered by kindness.
They’re full of shit, all of them, and they’re all in my apartment. Every single person seems to be from Melbourne via Berlin, and I want to ask if they're lost. They’re drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, and their fingers run across every fucking thing like skinny, scabby spiders. Rolf is saying something to Sky, and she’s laughing, and someone I can’t remember meeting before is talking to me.
‘You ever think about going pro again?’
The girl is small with thick brown glasses, the deliberately unfashionable type that some girls think are cute but aren’t. She’s got short hair and her neck is a different colour to her chin. I’m certain I’ve never met her before in my life.
‘What about you,’ I ask. ‘You ever considered making it career?’
‘Making what a career?’
I give her my biggest, most cherubic, back-in-the-day grin. The kind of grin that makes people think ‘Brand Ambassador.’
‘Being annoying,’ I reply.
I lean against the wall of Ari's room, watching him as he does his makeup. He’s got one hand planted on the vanity, a picture of Angelina Jolie pinned beside the mirror. The other drags a lipstick round his mouth.
‘I don’t know why you have them over here if you think they’re all cunts.’
‘They’re our friends.’
‘Our?’ Ari glances over his burly shoulder, raises a covered-up eyebrow. ‘There’s an our, now?’
‘I dunno. Probably not.’
Ari laughs, and turns back to the mirror. ‘You be careful, kiddo. Girls like that, they’ll eat you alive. You should find a nice Greek boy.’
‘Why, you got a cousin?’
Ari's shrugging on his brassiere, filling the cups with pale lavender tissue. He does the clasp up across his back muscles, and I wonder what size the bra must be to accomodate them.
‘What happened to the kid? Keanu?’
‘Keanu?’ His voice has gone all low and fake-innocent. ‘Oh yeah, him. Guess he must have made it to Hollywood.’
‘What was he doing in Vienna?’
Ari shrugs and musses up his weave with jewelled fingers. ‘What’s anyone doing in Vienna?’
He turns and steps into his heels, and then Ariel is there, wiggling her big arse as it threatens to bust her skirt. I whistle and she does a little dance, kicking up her feet behind her, acting real cute, like a prancing goddam pony. She looks from me to the mirror to Angelina, and pouts.
‘You know, mate, you make one gorgeous-looking chick.’
‘Yeah. You really fucking do.’
She grins, turns, sways across the room towards me and pats me on the cheek. My face stings where her palm meets the skin.
‘C’mon hon,’ she says, and then ‘Life's too sad not to dance.’
Even when she's fun Ariel is depressing.
Ariel and I rack a few lines, and Sky snorts some too, and Rolf says he’s fine because he’s tripping LSD and doesn’t want a dirty high. The stereo’s playing music that nobody really likes but everyone’s supposed to, and some people are talking about a gig downtown, some band I’ve never heard of.
‘Let’s go to the opera, A.’
Ariel sneezes and nods. ‘Let’s go to the opera. What’s on?’
‘I don’t know. Tosca? The Magic Flute? Cosi fan fucking Tutte?’
‘You’re so cultured, Augie.’
I grab Sky’s hand and press the flutelike bones in my fist. ‘Waddya reckon?’
‘Yeah.’ She nods solemnly, a cigarette and a joint clamped between the same two fingers. ‘I could vibe Wagner.’
‘Opera,’ Rolf says, like it’s some exotic food he’s just trying for the first time, and can’t decide if he’s going to swallow. Even though it's a metaphor I still hope he chokes on it. ‘Isn't that a bit, uh, bourgeois?’
He looks at me, goading me, like he wants me to agree to some fight-to-the-death, pistols-at-dawn kind of shit. I want to tell him the only thing more bourgeois than calling something bourgeois is being a photographer. Ariel is nodding like a dashboard dog, and the prick’s boots are still on my magazine.
‘You don't have to come,’ I say, smiling.
Sky, Ariel and I stagger through the streets, the big dollhouse buildings rising up around us, American clothing brands winking at us from inside. Gap, Calvin Klein. Ariel struts ahead, and some of the knuckleheads from the party trail along behind, following her up the cobblestones like she’s some sort of trans pied piper.
Sky and I squeeze our beer cans, tipping them back into our throats. My arm is wrapped around her shoulders and together we’re a tumbleweed of skinny limbs and dirty hair.
‘I don’t want you to leave again,’ I say.
‘Don’t say that. Vienna’s boring.’
‘I thought you liked it here.’
She laughs, and presses a cig into my mouth like a dummy. ‘I like everywhere at first.’
The opera house looms in front of us, tourists swirling around the statue of Mozart. They take photos of themselves, photos of each other, of takeaway fucking sachertortes.
‘We’re here for the opera,’ Ariel announces, as we shove our way inside the entrance. The woman at reception looks at her, at us, and slowly shakes her head.
‘No opera tonight.’ She points to a sign on the wall. ‘No opera until September.’
‘What do you mean, no opera?’ I ask, and when she leans away I realise that I’m shouting.
‘No opera during summer,’ she repeats carefully, as if I’m deaf or retarded or American. ‘They take break for rehearsal, refurbishment.’
‘Fuck.’ I look at Ariel, Sky, and the five drunk art dorks behind us, whose names I don't remember having learned. ‘What should we do?’
Nobody has an answer. The woman coughs once and we leave. We weave between the trams searching for a bar, and find a shitty dive, one of the real ones where the exposed plumbing probably isn’t on purpose.
‘Dance with me,’ Sky says. When I say no she scowls and punches me.
‘Man, you should have seen me then,’ I’m saying to one of the people from the party, whose eyes are wandering in separate directions. She's the only person high enough to listen to me.
‘Eight moves, fifty seconds—four times my age and twice my fucking size, all of them coming down like some Nine-Eleven, Twin Towers shit.’
‘My cousin died at Ground Zero,’ she says, giving me a look that I couldn’t read even if her eyes were looking in the same place. I throw back the rest of my drink. I think for a second I got my conspiracy theories mixed up, and forgot Nine-Eleven actually happened.
‘I’m very sorry to hear that.’
Sky and Ariel are cartwheeling on the cobblestones, Ariel’s skirt riding up, revealing the curve of her dick. I’m arm-in arm with another stranger, slurring the same shit as always.
‘I tell you man, it was a trip,’ I say. I realise I’m leaning into him, that if he doesn’t hold me I’ll fall. ‘The women, man, the fucking women—I was a kid but they were screaming for it—those Eastern Bloc countries, everyone’s either toothless or a supermodel—
‘I don’t understand,’ the guy says slowly, in an accent that is either Turkish, Estonian, or fictional. ‘You speak as if it is a sport?’
I stumble like I’ve been hit, and give him the filthiest look I can manage. It isn’t much because my eyes keep ending up on the ground, like in one of those cartoons, where they pop out of the sockets.
‘It’s the only sport,’ I spit. ‘Everything else is for children, animals. It’s not just the mind, or the body, it’s the soul—just you, and another man, or a lady, and your intuition. Every move you make decides whether you live or die. Because that's what happens when you take a piece. You kill it. Is that a sport, you fucking philistine? You fucking uncultured piece of fucking garbage?’
I finish, because there’s no breath in my lungs. I notice that the guy has disappeared, and I don’t know how long I’ve been talking to the air.
When I find the group they're outside a bar up the street. Ariel slips inside, and one of the others follows her in, and then my face is pressed between the nipples of somebody a lot taller than me.
‘He can’t come in,’ a voice says. ‘Too much party.’
‘He’s fine,’ Sky insists, and tries to tow me around the security guard. The dude steps, puts a hand on my chest.
‘Too much party.’
‘Are you for fucking real?’ I snarl. I slap his hand away and curl my fingers.
My knuckles collide with the wall.
Sky is hovering over me, holding my face with her hand and trying to look me in the eye.
‘What’s your name?’ she asks.
‘I know my fucking name.’
‘What’s your name, douchebag?’
‘Egon fucking Schiele.’
I know she’s trying to help and that the nicotine stains on her fingers are mixed with my blood. It leaks down my face, wet against my jaw. Maybe because Sky's so helpful I decide everything is her fault. The security guard looks at us nervously, making sure that this isn't one of those nights when you accidentally murder someone, and write it up in an incident report.
‘What’s your name?’
‘For fuck’s sake, dude!’ Her nails bite into my shoulders. ‘What’s your name?’
I wrench her hands away, twisting out of her grip. People on the street are looking at us, the bouncer deciding whether or not to deck me again.
‘I’m fucking Mozart, cunt!’
Sky steps back, and even though there are trams and people and deep house throbbing inside half-empty venues, it feels as though the whole world is silent. For an instant Sky’s features soften, hurt slackening her mouth and her eyes. The next moment it disappears, and she’s made of stone, another goddess mounted on the palaces of the city.
‘I’ll be twenty-eight next year,’ I whisper.
‘Fuck you, Augie.’
She steps through the doorway, disappears into the bar. The security guard blocks the entrance and tells me to please go home and drink water. People are staring at me, whispering behind their hands, pointing at me as if I'm, like, insane.
I hobble down the street. From the souvenir shops a thousand Mozarts watch me go.
I sit at the bar and sip at my beer, the cheapest, shittiest beer in Vienna. The bartender barely blinked when I came in, slick with my own blood, and emerged wet from the toilet. A guy sits next to me, a young guy, too young for this kind of terrible place. He looks like a tourist, in jeans and ripped running shoes.
The guy says he's backpacking on his own. He says he’s going to heaps of places, all the obvious ones, and when I ask him what he thinks of Europe he says that Hungary has the best salads. He’s really tragic, and doesn’t seem too bright, and I sit there and talk to him and piss away the hours.
‘Man, you should have seen me then,’ I say, tapping a cigarette into the ashtray. The guy is watching me like he can’t believe what he’s hearing, or maybe that I'm smoking indoors, and I drink the beer he bought me.
‘Five foot three, eleven years old, cheeks like a fucking cherub—man, I was hot. I was on fucking fire.’
The stories spill out, and the details, the kind that don’t make sense unless you were there, which he wasn’t. I tell him about the matches, giving him the moves, the plays. I tell him about the girls, and the drugs, and my stupid fucked up family. I tell him I’ve never loved my father. I tell him everything, and drink, and smoke, and the minute hand drags us into dawn, and by the time I’m finished talking I can’t remember what was real and what I made up.
‘I remember this one guy,’ I say, getting up all close to him, and lowering my voice. I reach across and place my hand on his leg. ‘This one guy, a Russian. Can’t remember his fucking name.
‘I was eleven. I remember him looking up at me, his big bottom lip shaking, fucking trembling. I remember him crying. Tears, like, actual tears—
‘Checkmate, cunt. That’s what I said to him. Check. Fucking. Mate.’