Hot Desk Extract: The Psychology of Home
As part of the Wheeler Centre's Hot Desk Fellowship programme, Josefina Huq worked on a collection of short stories, The Psychology of Home.
In developing the collection, she has used creative memory activities and prompts in order to write about the homes she has experienced.
‘Put on some tunes,’ he says. He is sitting in the way that he does, the way older men have a certain and definite way that they sit. In his corner of the couch (which you mistakenly sat in once), right leg over left, one hand under his armpit, and when he lets out his smoke, does so out of the left side of his mouth. He says tunes with two o’s, like when he says your name, like a child. It wounds you every time. On the wild nights, who can call you home? Only the one who knows your name. There are green milk crates full of records against the lounge room wall. Pixies – Surfer Rosa, is your selection. The album art hung in your bedroom as a teen. A topless woman wearing a flamenco skirt. Did this awaken something in you back then? You did spend some time studying it. Your first boyfriend spread out on the futon below it, hair like a scourer, wild and curly and almost reaching the frame. Now he is bald. But you don’t want to think about that here, so you stumble over towards the player.
He is sitting in the way that he does, the way older men have a certain and definite way that they sit.
Take off your dress and send it to me. The muted guitar in this song may have coincided with an emerging interest in your body – What did it want? How should you give it? Did you even know what men did with dirty dresses back then? Do you have a clue now? You slip off your boots, join him on this couch. A soft, white couch. He is also looking soft, crumpled into the cushions. Wearing his little blue jeans. You are recalling him so clearly that you’re not sure whether he is an easy character to define or that you may actually love him. Love him in that immediate way, where you notice everything about him. I often caught her staring at me as though she had never seen me before; she seemed to be learning me. I think she loves me but I don’t know. When you first read that something like a sick warmth flooded your tummy. Shame and wonder. Shame.
Takes time to learn the language of someone’s home. You make a brave move, put your socks up on the coffee table, a beer balancing on your chest. Sinking into the couch, remembering that lounge room with the floral couches you could barely get up from. You’re watching a woman you adore move around them, like she is dodging the ugly smells of her home. Desirability rearranges space. Sometimes you are walking down a street that is definitely not hers, trying to recall the fragrance of it. Cheap wine, or, fancy wine you didn’t have a taste for back then. You associated your love for her with many smells, but you can no longer remember any of them. Sometimes you dream about her in uninteresting ways.
‘Beer?’ But he is already getting you another. As he springs up you notice the cuff of his jeans. Something shoots through you. Something about it makes you embarrassed by your passion. And dinner is nearly ready. He doesn’t want or need your help, so you watch him from the sink, steadying yourself on the edge of the counter. You watch him pour melted butter on small, brown potatoes. He is slow and careful and dodging the steam. The whole act has you a bit restless. You want to knock the pot out of his hands so that they are free to grab you, but you haven’t eaten today. Let me cook you some dinner / Sit down and take off your shoes / and socks and in fact the rest / of your clothes, have a daiquiri … You are bad at poetry in the same way you are bad at writing love and sex. Now and then you think of the poem you arranged on your fridge door: Lovely egg / sweet nothing / Lay here / She will know another world / Brew / then / taste salt. You were mad with affection, exhaustion. After she left that morning you couldn’t stop smiling a silly, lonely smile. Pottering around the kitchen, staining the floorboards with coffee drops, falling over your furniture. Heavy with that wafty pain of her leaving but also having been there.
… Turn on some music and dance / around the house, inside and out, / it’s night and the neighbours / are sleeping, those dolts, and … You make him turn the record over. Break my body. You eat like a maniac, as if it could be morning at any moment. … The stars are shining bright, / and I’ve got the burners lit / for you, you hungry thing. You pretend that you are going to do the washing up, but there is a specific way he likes the dishwasher stacked, he says. The words make you warm all over. Hold my bones. You do your favourite thing – drink, listen to toones and gossip. And then you do your other favourite thing.
It smells like rubbish on his balcony. Maybe you are bad at writing love because you are bad at love. Rubbish and dirt, although there are no living plants in sight. He makes you both a coffee and the sun sits between you. At some point last night you recalled the line: I will ride you like a nightmare, and you laughed at how absurdly sexual it was. He noticed, but how could you explain it in a hot, organic way? And how could you, without mentioning that it wasn’t him you thought of immediately. He offers to cook breakfast (but didn’t you two just eat?) and you think about it. He touches your knee and it is comforting. I love him, but in a brotherly incestuous way. He touches my heart but he does not send it shattering through my body. You think of the words: uh oh.
Yesterday the coffee was stronger. The sun different, angled like a spotlight on the boy sitting across from you. The rooftop furniture still wet from the earlier rain. You had to angle your body so your faces weren’t directly in front of each other. It was hurting too much to be recognised by him. You remind yourself of the safe ways to look at someone. Sometimes it helps to focus on their nose, their hairline, even down to their feet. But even looking away you can feel his stare on your neck, or you imagine it. It must be imagined, because he has a girlfriend, and has mentioned getting a cat with her. Seems like you’ve gotten bored of the nest.
Maybe you are bad at writing love because you are bad at love.
You began counting things, because maths isn’t sexy. Seagulls perched on rooftops – five, no, six now. Construction workers – four. Scars on his face – three, on the right side. Length of his stubble – who cares. There is danger everywhere. You don’t want to look at his eyes but they are melting like hot gold in the sun and you are worried for him. Eye contact is good and normal and healthy. Sustained eye contact is not. You must politely refuse to look into their eyes every three or four seconds. I will hide you in the earth like treasure. You can attempt to make a map of their face, but absolutely you cannot make it obvious. You can picture the texture of their neck, but you should be looking at the birds again while you do this. Do not look at his neck, or his hands. If you’re looking at his lips you’ve already given him permission to devastate you.
You thought of the phrase ‘stealing kisses’ and then stole from no one.
You decide you are not hungry, and he feigns a sad face. You want to hold that face, but you don’t want to give him the wrong idea, or pimples. To have a lover is to give them pimples – everyone knows this. Gradually, you make each other ugly and weak. And there’s no way to talk about feelings of love without relating it to some sort of pain or filth. But then you remember, you are bad at this.
On the tram home you look out the window, see some warm dry leaves being picked up by the wind, and think of him. You watch the city fall away as you roll on, the deck of skyscrapers fanning out across grey, and think of him. You also see an ugly man walking, trying to secure his hat and grimacing. You didn’t think of him then, but you made sure to right after you had finished that thought. You are listening to something, but in a distracted way. You mistake the lyrics Faded out too fast with Baby, not too fast. Sometimes the made-up lines make more sense. You turn down the volume, in order to better think of someone.
i. Winterson, Jeanette. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. London: Pandora Press, 1985. p.27
ii. Pixies. 'Cactus.' Surfer Rosa, 4AD, 1988.
iii. Winterson, Jeanette. Sexing the Cherry. London: Bloomsbury Press, 1989. p.116
iv. Koestenbaum, Wayne. 'www.MyPornEssay.com.' My 1980s & Other Essays. New York: FSG Originals, 2013.
v. Padget, Ron. 'The Love Cook.' Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49221/the-love-cook.
vi. Huq, Josefina. 'Fridge Poem.' Melbourne, 2018.
vii. Pixies. 'Break my Body.' Surfer Rosa, 4AD, 1988.
viii. Winterson, Jeanette. Written on the Body. London: Vintage, 1992. p.131
ix. Winterson, Jeanette. The Passion. London: Bloomsbury Press, 1987. p.46
x. Buke and Gase. 'Flock.' Scholars, Brassland, 2019.
xi. Winterson, Jeanette. The Stone Gods. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2007. p.93
xii. Buke and Gase. 'Derby.' Scholars, Brassland, 2019.