‘Tableau’ makes mention of illness, homophobia, and racism, and features depictions of sex, including painful sex.

Angela told me a friend is coming to install her and Kady’s shelves. He arrives an hour later than scheduled, in the middle of the afternoon, and when I see him from the guest room window I text Angela a row of exclamation marks. I’ve slept with this guy, I tell her. I had no idea the friend would be Matthew. I watch him hop out of a ute and heave wood planks from the cargo bed onto both his shoulders. He wears a tie-dye sweatshirt, white Bermuda shorts, and a cap with the name of our university stitched across the front. I enter the living room to greet him, and he’s carving into the plasterboard where Kady has scribbled an outline of each of the seven shelves’ placement.   

            ‘Oh my god,’ he says. ‘What are you doing here?’

            He grips a powered handsaw. A shaft of sunlight bleaches his hair. I explain that I began living with Angela and Kady after I deferred my postgraduate studies in April. Matthew nods his head, and we look at each other as I reach behind me to slide apart the kitchen doors. 

            I find Angela brewing loose-leaf tea with the French press I bought her as a housewarming gift. She pushes on the plunger with the heel of her palm, and the water becomes auburn. ‘I’m sorry about Matthew,’ she says, pouring a mug of tea. ‘I didn’t guess you knew each other. He’s more Kady’s friend than mine.’ The smell of dried fruit and hand cream rises from the pot. 

            ‘It’s okay,’ I tell her. ‘Just surprising and awkward.’

            ‘You can leave and come back when he’s gone.’

            ‘Really. It’s okay.’

            Clearing myself a place to sit, I sweep the biodegradable shopping bags cluttering the benchtop to one corner.

            ‘They have woodworkers at Creswell,’ says Angela. ‘But my girlfriend doesn’t trust women with manual labour.’

            We laugh, and the mist from Angela’s tea obnubilates her glasses. Last year Kady sent a text message where my name autocorrected to a homophobic slur, and since then Angela and I have joked that Kady’s progressive convictions are a smokescreen for bigotry. The joke has landed better than normal, because it’s true—Kady has a host of female colleagues at her arts collective whom she could have enlisted to mount the shelves.

            Angela asks why I haven’t brought up Matthew until now. She lowers her chin, and a bundle of gold hair spills from her shoulder to the layered necklace that blankets her chest. I tell her I once spoke about Matthew when she and I were getting to know each other. I met Angela in our last year of university, at an internship where we copyedited for a book festival whose office space shared a rooftop garden with an environmental management firm. Angela and I would sit on the rooftop during our lunch breaks, and after I recounted everything that had happened with Matthew, she dug from a lettuce patch near our table and held up a fistful of dirt. ‘This is Matthew,’ she told me. ‘This is literally Matthew.’

            A thud sounds from the living room, and Matthew stands with his arms folded at the glass-panelled kitchen doors. I gesture for him to come through.

            ‘Anything to eat?’ he says.

            When he slips behind me to search through the grocery bags, I smell his tannic, lemony deodorant. The effect of Matthew’s presence reminds me of an art history class where the lecturer showed us an oil painting of a rib-eye steak and chopping board on the table of a light-filled dining room. The lecturer asked us to consider the painting’s sense of balance—how the robust shape and colouring of its central objects brought a masculine solidity to an otherwise insubstantial tableau. Matthew rips a Red Bull from its carton and snaps off the pull-tab with his thumb.

            ‘I’m having trouble with the wall,’ he says. ‘Most of it I can easily cut through. But I keep hitting this hard, lacquered surface.’

            Angela is studying for a doctorate in urban design, and I tell myself she’s therefore qualified to understand construction. 

            ‘What is it?’ she says 

            ‘I don’t know,’ says Matthew. ‘Painted-over vinyl? Granite?’ 

            I follow him and Angela into the living room, and he shows us where he’s pared away a layer of gypsum to expose a beige, gleaming surface.

            ‘It’ll be fine,’ he says, crouching to open his toolbox. ‘I just need a sharper blade.’ He rubs the back of his neck and tells Angela he’s starving but that he couldn’t find a keto-friendly snack in the kitchen.

            While Angela leaves to procure a muesli bar, Matthew lowers himself onto the hardwood floor and sits with his suntanned legs stretched out in front of him. I wonder aloud if there might be a mural underneath the uppermost layers of paint—some kind of art project finished with glossy acrylics. Matthew squints up at me, and it’s clear he’s examining my appearance rather than considering what I’ve said. I think of the small ways I’ve changed in the past six years: newly deepened laugh-lines, textural patches of dry skin showing in the cool sunlight. I’m wearing a knit polo shirt that has shrunk in the wash, so I look gayer and more diminutive than I would like.

            ‘It’s good to see you,’ he says. The kitchen doors judder open.

Silver birds perch on the brushwood fence of the house opposite the guest room window. All afternoon I’ve tried writing a job application for an administrative role at a local art gallery, but I hear the growl of Matthew’s handsaw and decide I’m too distracted to compose full sentences.

            Angela hasn’t outlined the terms of my stay, but I know I have to leave before December. The guest room was intended as a place for Angela’s parents, who visit Adelaide during their end-of-year teaching break. Family photos hang above the bedside table, and on the desk sits a framed polaroid of Angela and her brother wearing denim overalls in an empty skatepark. Her brother was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at birth, and his nasal cannula is coiled atop a backpack that rests upright against a metal ramp. Light flashes across the polaroid and, through the window, I see Kady’s purple Mazda as it coasts silently into the driveway.

            I meet Kady in the back garden, where she sits with Angela around the wood table on which they’ve collected a stack of earth-toned colour swatches.

            ‘Hi there,’ says Kady, raising a glass of wine. 

            Her cello case leans on the table, and after nudging it aside I take the seat closest to Angela. The crests of Kady’s angular face shimmer with sweat. She pushes the bangs off her forehead and tells us she’s been teaching a difficult sonata to the music fellows in her arts collective.

            Voices on the FM radio surge from the living room, and Kady edges forward to ask how things are going with Matthew and me. ‘Angela says you knew him from uni.’ 

            ‘Yeah. Haven’t seen him in years though.’

            ‘He’s very handsome.’

            ‘Was this planned?’

            ‘Of course not.’ 

            ‘We slept together. It didn’t work out.’

            ‘Kady wants him to stay for dinner,’ says Angela, flicking back her eyes.

            I consider the likelihood that Angela’s memory of our conversation on the office rooftop has sharpened. A gust of cool air needles my forearms as I push against the table, and Angela lays a palm on the swatches to keep them from gliding away. Before I can leave my chair, she tells me in a firm voice to help her decide which colour she and Kady should paint the kitchen cabinets. There’s a colour named Boundless Earth that reminds me of Matthew’s tanned legs, vivid against his thigh-length shorts.

The semester Matthew and I shared an English elective, I was certain he was too good looking for anything to happen between us. We didn’t become close until the end of the year. Our lecturer directed the class in a game of hangman during which she presented four dashes on the whiteboard and hinted the mystery word was a country whose natives resembled a person in the room. She pointed at my face, and after some whispering a student behind me correctly guessed Peru. It was Matthew who followed me out of the classroom to ask if I was okay. ‘That must have felt weird,’ he said. ‘Are you Peruvian?’ I told him I was multiracial, and the term sounded so pretentious I grimaced.

            I knew I looked ugly when discomfort showed on my face, so a week later, in the terraced apartment where Matthew lived with five other housemates, I stared at the posters glued to his ceiling and stilled myself as he bobbed above me—the strands of his brown, shoulder-length hair daubing my neck with grease. The posters were of female pop stars—Taylor Swift, and a woman in spandex whose name I can’t remember. Pastel-coloured dumbbells were stacked under Matthew’s bed, and I asked about them the next day. He placed a dumbbell in my hands to demonstrate their weight. Later that night I took the bus home and cried, experiencing all at once how sore my body was.

            I had been interning for a couple of weeks when I told Angela about Matthew, and it was then I understood that taken together, the crying, dumbbells, and painful sex made him seem insensitive at best. She touched my upper arm as we left our table, her fingertips damp from scooping a fistful of dirt. Her concern annoyed me, and I almost argued what I knew she would immediately dismiss: that being intimate with someone as attractive as Matthew was a pleasure in itself.

Matthew joins Kady in the back garden while Angela and I cook dinner. We scan a health-food website for information on Matthew’s dietary requirements and prepare grilled chicken, sauteed mushrooms, and a jelly-like broccoli salad that calls for a full tub of mayonnaise. I arrive at the table with two plates balanced on my forearm and a can of beer, which pops out of my hand as I slide into the chair opposite Matthew. Yellow light filters through the kitchen window, irradiating the wispy hairs lifting from his head. An hour ago, when he finished installing the shelves, he brought us inside and removed his cap to wave it at his handywork.

            He speaks now about his difficulty finding a blade that could pierce the surface he showed to Angela and me. Kady piles her salad onto a spoon and tells us she looks forward to relocating the novels heaped on her and Angela’s bedroom floor.

            After a lull in conversation, Angela stacks her plate on top of mine. She looks down at me then, scratching the tip of her nose. ‘You’re staying up?’ she asks. Kady collects her and Angela’s mauve-stained glasses.

            ‘I’m down for another drink if you are,’ says Matthew.

            Following Angela, Kady pauses behind my chair and lightly claws the back of my neck. When she says goodnight, I smell the tang of mayonnaise on her breath. Matthew lifts his legs onto the seat beside him and drinks from his glass of gin, his Adam’s apple bouncing as he gulps.

            We summarise what we’ve achieved since we last saw each other: my aborted PhD research, and the carpentry business that Matthew founded with his stepdad. Matthew strokes his jaw, and I marvel at the orderly arrangement of his face—how everything slots together. Venturing to cultivate a less formal atmosphere, I describe when I saw him from the guest room window and sent Angela a torrent of hysterical text messages.

            ‘You make me nervous too,’ says Matthew, his eyes brightening. He swings his legs off the empty chair, then scoots forward into the table and drums his fingers an inch away from where I rest my arm. ‘And excited,’ he adds.

            Matthew staggers behind me as I pass through the kitchen and into the living room, where he kisses me, then lays his hands on both my shoulders to force me onto the couch. The gesture is so cliched it comes as a relief; I understand perfectly the way he wants everything to unfold. His shorts are fluorescent in the darkness. They gather on his stubby work boots. I nudge Matthew’s sweatshirt up to his chest and spread my palms across his abdomen, which reminds me of the hot, corrugated shells on the turtles that overran my dad’s hometown the summer we travelled through south-east Europe. I think of myself at eleven, crouching to slide my thumb along a turtle’s back and daydreaming guiltily about men’s bodies. 

            I feel Matthew’s fingertips grind into my head. There’s an injured, grateful look on his face, which contorts even after he finishes—his opened mouth softening into a pout. He smooths my hair and sighs as he pulls up his shorts.

            When I walk him to the front door, I leave a wide space between us to accommodate the duffel bag into which he has packed his toolbox. I lean forward to kiss his mouth, and the duffel thumps hard against my shins. ‘Goodnight,’ he says. ‘I’ll see you.’ There’s a streetlamp poking through a leafless tree, and its light casts a thick shadow on Matthew’s eyes.

            In the kitchen I drink from a carton of orange juice, tipping it upside down so the residual pulp streams into my mouth. I place the carton behind me when I see Angela at the glass doors. She pushes them apart with both hands and smiles tightly, her bottom lip drawn behind her teeth.

            ‘Hey,’ she says, flicking the dimmed wall lights.

            Her face looks broad and childlike now that she’s without her glasses. She asks if Matthew is here, and I say he left not long after she and Kady went to bed. ‘I really don’t like him,’ she says, taking a jar of almond butter from the cabinet above me. ‘All he talks about is dieting and woodwork.’ She dollops the almond butter onto a rice cake and places her spoon on the benchtop with a soft clink. Her tongue whirls on the rice cake’s buttered surface.

            ‘I think Kady was trying to set me up,’ I say. ‘I think she’s tired of having me around all the time.’

            ‘Kady likes having you here as much as I do.’

            ‘I doubt that.’ 

            I jostle the carton of orange juice into the fridge and notice my scalp throbbing with heat where Matthew’s fingers were. I’m confident we’ll meet again, and I feel myself enliven knowing I possess a safeguard against aloneness. For a second I leave the fridge ajar and watch its blue-lit vapour floating out.

Angela suggested we live together after her brother was hospitalised for bowel surgery at the beginning of the year. I flew from Melbourne, and we met in a cafe where she and I sat beside one another at a concrete table so cold it stung to rest my elbows. She said that if I committed to postponing my doctorate, I could stay with her and Kady for as long as I wanted. Then she jammed her forehead into my neck, her soft hair curtaining the space between my shirt and jacket. Later that morning she invited me into her brother’s hospital room, where she and her parents stood in an arc around the bed— clasping his hands, stroking a blanketed calf, arranging themselves in a tableau from which I was excluded. As I ambled out of the room, a zipper on my jacket chimed against a steel utility cart, and in that instant I remembered how easy it is to overvalue your friendships.

            My enmeshment in Kady and Angela’s life is temporary. I have to leave their guest room in less than a month.

Angela’s face rumples with concentration, and when I follow her eye-line I see she’s looking through the kitchen doors into the living room. ‘I wish I knew what made the wall so hard,’ she says, licking the almond butter from her lips. I pass her a dishcloth lying on the stove, and she rubs it between her palms.

            ‘Maybe he’s inexperienced,’ I say. ‘Or clueless.’ 

            ‘Kady should have asked a set designer.’

            ‘Does she know any set designers who aren’t women?’

            Angela chuckles, a few contracted breaths puffing from her nose. She folds the dishcloth in half and loops it around the oven’s grease-pocked handlebar. I shuffle sideways to better observe the shelves and slacken when my arm grazes Angela’s, soothed by how warm her skin feels. I wonder if she’s noticed that Matthew’s cap is slumped on the edge of the second plank. He left it there deliberately, I hope, as a pretence for meeting again. Because the cap is surrounded with dark space, its white embroidery looks as if it’s levitating.