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Quinoa Nation

Updated: Nov 2, 2020


Illustration by Holly Anderson

Nominated for the Monash Prize for Creative Writing (2014)


Lily is talking in her sleep again. Usually I don’t notice because I’m a heavy sleeper, but Eric says she does it all the time.

‘And that was a latte for you? And you? Two lattes, great.’

She’s talking about work. I contemplate waking her, or making a note of what she’s saying so I can make fun of her in the morning, but I think I may have been dreaming about work as well. I dreamed I left the sandwich board out in the street, and forgot to lock one of the gates, and Meredith sat me down like a teacher in school and told me she was disappointed in me. She said there’d been some problem with the ordering and could I please make sure I was doing it right, even though we both know that she’s the one stuffing it up. Then she reminded me that she’s not my Mum.

I wonder if I talk in my sleep, too, if Lily and I ever have entire conversations, that in the morning neither of us remembers.

I arrive at the shop and Gurrumul is playing, which makes me want to burst into tears, firstly because Gurrumul’s music is sad and secondly because if Gurrumul is playing that means Meredith is here. Joni is sitting at the computer and staring intently at the screen, which means she is either trawling through Jezebel because she hates women, or searching for another job.

‘Hello, my darling!’

‘Blast off, zero.’

Joni gives me the finger and doesn’t look away from the computer. Gurrumul is singing something in Yolŋu Matha, probably about being impoverished and blind and having a pretty crap run of things generally. He’s one of Meredith’s new fads, along with pronouncing patio ‘pay-she-oh.’

Meredith’s husband Patrick wanders past, smiling at me in his characteristically vacant way that suggests he has no idea who I am. He drifts out the door, off to do whatever it is he does with his time, which I’m starting to suspect is ripping billies with teenagers down at the footy field. I like Patrick because he’s that kind of funny-looking dude you can imagine producing a piece of fluff from a random part of his body and not being puzzled as to how it got there. I asked him if he liked Gurrumul once and he thought it was some kind of skin condition.

‘Where’s Meredith?’

‘Downstairs.’

‘Cool. I’m going to put some deconstructionist hip-hop on.’

‘The fact you call it deconstructionist hip-hop says so much about you.’

It’s ironic that Meredith likes Gurrumul, and I don’t think she means to like him in an ironic way. He’s some poor indigenous bloke singing about how horrible his life is, but because it sounds pretty and nobody can understand what he’s saying, rich white women think that he’s the greatest thing since, I don’t know, Birkenstocks. But Meredith hates hip-hop, which is made by dudes who are just as sad and black as Gurrumul, except that they’re rapping in English about hos and stuff. I tried explaining that to her once, but her eyes just kind of went glassy. I could tell she was trying to remember how much she was paying me to be there.

A woman is at the counter. I’m not sure how long she’s been there. Either I’ve genuinely stopped caring enough to notice customers, or I’m choosing on a subconscious level to pretend they don’t exist. Anyway, she’s there, and she’s wearing Lorna Jane exercise gear and has a ponytail. It’s the shiniest ponytail I’ve ever seen.

‘Can I help you?’

‘Yeah. I got an email to say that a book I ordered has come in.’

She doesn’t elaborate. Most people don’t. They never think to give their names, and they usually don’t remember the title of whatever they ordered. It’s because our customers are a special category of human being, the kind of person who, when you ask them how their day has been, will say it’s been ‘awful’ because they’ve had to spend the whole morning at their investment property. Most of them seem offended that they have to talk to you at all. The only reason any of read is that it gives them a reason to get blotto at book club, and get into arguments about whichever Patrick White novel has recently been adapted into a movie. Then they all agree that Geoffrey Rush did nothing wrong.

‘It’s Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbook.’

‘Right.’

We don’t have Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbook. I know this because Meredith refuses to stock Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbook, despite our customers and Gwyneth’s target demo being the same people. If Gwyneth Paltrow wrote a novel our book club would literally devour it.

‘I’ll go downstairs and check,’ I lie.

Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbook is, without question, stupid. Joni got me a copy for my birthday, supposedly as a joke. Mostly it’s just photos of her riding Vespas and standing on beaches looking windswept, in the places where pictures of what the food is supposed to look like usually go. There are also two hundred different quinoa-based recipes, because apparently Gwyneth Paltrow eats nothing but quinoa and coconut water so that she can have a durry at the end of the week. There are heaps of photos of her kids, too, these poor, mermaidlike creatures who have managed to not only survive being trapped inside Gwyneth Paltrow’s body for nine months, but endured the subsequent years of Coldplay. I wonder if Gwyneth Paltrow listens to Gurrumul and decide she would, if she were Australian.

‘Sarah, do we have Gwyneth Platrow’s coobook?’

Sarah says we don’t. We don’t stock Gwyneth Paltrow because Meredith hates Gwyneth Paltrow, even though Gwyneth is obsessed with quinoa which Meredith also loves. We have many books about quinoa. I saw on Reddit that because quinoa is so popular here people in South America can’t afford it anymore, and everyone in Bolivia and Chile and Peru is starving. I check out my eye bags with my phone camera, until enough time has passed that it seems like I’ve been doing something, and then I hear Meredith call out to me from the office and leg it back up the stairs.

I tell the customer that the book isn’t here, and is she sure that we emailed her to say it had come in? She says she is sure, and I want to ask her if she knows that people in South America can’t afford quinoa and are starving, but I don’t.

Sarah comes upstairs, and she, Joni and I watch the Lorna Jane woman as her ponytail evanesces on the street. I can see Patrick on the opposite footpath, gazing dreamily at the jacarandas. I wonder if he knows where he’s going.

‘Do you ever think Gwyneth and Chris Martin are the Meredith and Patrick of the celebrity world?’ Sarah asks.

I tell her no, because I’m not a fucking loser.

Joni and I go to the pub after work, even though the local pub is notorious for serving the most expensive schooner of Fourex Gold in the country.

‘Want to see a movie?’ Joni asks.

‘Maybe. What’s on?’

‘They’re playing oldies at the Blue Room. We could go see Sliding Doors.’

‘What’s it about?’

‘Um, existentialism? Gwyneth Paltrow’s in it.’

I stare at her until she realises I’m staring, and looks up from her phone.

‘What?’ she says.

‘Gwyneth Paltrow.’

‘Gwyneth Paltrow?’ she repeats. ‘You know. Tall, blonde. Actually I don’t know if she’s tall. She looks tall.’

‘We hate Gwyneth.’

‘I think she’s alright,’ Joni says.

‘Alright? Joni, she’s a wanker. She’s like, the Übermensch version of all our customers. Gwyneth Paltrow’s is horrible.’

‘I guess. The whole orthorexic, white woman bullshit, though…’ Joni shrugs, and sips her drink. ‘She’s kind of fabulous.’

‘What is wrong with you?’

‘Dude, is this the hill you want to die on? She’s Margot Tenenbaum.’

A waiter comes over to take our order, just as we have settled into silence.

‘I’ll get a steak, thanks. Medium.’

Joni rolls her eyes. She pretends she doesn’t eat meat and is into animal rights,

but really she just doesn’t like the taste, and always eats it when she has her period.

‘The roast vegetable salad with quinoa, thanks.’

The waiter collects our menus and retreats. Ponytails float by the window like a herd of seahorses, and I imagine the faces below, unseen. Everyone is determined, happy, determined to be happy or happy because they have purpose. Maybe their happiness and their determination are unrelated. I picture their Lorna Jane bodies, Gurrumul the Remix blasting in their ears, two-hundred-dollar joggers pulverising the footpath. It’s as if I can actually see them.

‘Did you know that people in South America have been eating quinoa for thousands of years?’ I say. ‘And now that it’s a luxury item the price has tripled there and nobody can afford it? So, they’re all starving. Which is weird because people here eat quinoa because it’s healthy and they want to lose weight and be skinny and look like Gwyneth Paltrow.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah.’

The ponytails disappear. This makes me sad, for some reason. I wonder if what I really want is a ponytail. I realise I’ll need to call Lily and ask her to pick me up, because I’m drunk and probably shouldn’t drive.

‘That’s shit.’

‘Yeah.’

We drink until our meals come. Joni’s salad looks delicious.

Lily and I are having sex, and even though I’m tired and drunk and not that into it I

remember the Lorna Jane woman from earlier today and suddenly my hips are rocketing back and forth like I’m the Tasmanian Devil on MDMA, or something. Lily kind of looks like Gwyneth Paltrow because they’re both pretty and pale and have overbites. Lily also loves quinoa. I wonder if Gwyneth Paltrow is good in bed and decide, yeah, she probably is. Gwyneth Paltrow’s probably good at a lot of things.

‘Want to watch Sliding Doors?’ I ask, after we’ve finished.

Lily says whatever, and we do. In Sliding Doors Gwyneth plays two characters, one of whom misses her train, hence the titular doors. Apparently if she does get on the train she gets hit by a car and dies. Lily thinks it’s boring and she’s correct.

‘You probably don’t get it because it’s avant garde.’

Lily yawns, ‘You are so gay.’

It’s weird because Gwyneth Paltrow used to be a decent actor, and now she has a cookbook that gives you a rash if you eat the stuff in it for too long. It’s weird because she used to make a living pretending to be someone else, and now she has a website, that somebody else runs, where she tells other people how to live. And she can’t even admit to herself that she’s divorced.

Lily goes out for a jog, and I stay at home and can’t be bothered to do anything except tug at my dick, and that gets boring after about five minutes. I think about cracking another beer or having a cigarette, or reading a book, or calling Eric and seeing when he finishes work and if he wants to do something, but I end up just lying in bed.

I wonder what Lily did at work today, whether I should have asked her.

Lily is talking in her sleep again. I notice because I can’t get to sleep, and I’m lying there staring at the ceiling, thinking about Gwyneth Paltrow. She’s talking about work, even though in a few hours she’ll wake up and find herself there anyway, and the only way she can get away from it is by sleeping. For some reason I say, ‘I’m sorry.’

‘And that was a latte for you? And you? Two lattes, great.’

I wonder if I talk when I’m asleep. I don’t think I do, but maybe every night Lily and I have entire conversations that neither of us remembers.

I wonder what we would talk about if we did.

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