‘Come around. I’ll cook steak with mushroom sauce … the way you like it,’ Giovanna said with that alluring Italian lilt. ‘We can watch the rest of Big Little Lies.’
The offer of steak was pretty well irresistible, so I knew there had to be a catch.
‘Can we do the steak without indigestion afterwards?’ I moped at her over the phone. I would have turned up on her doorstep without the offer of any dinner or entertainment. I think she knew it, but we conspired to play the game regardless.
‘No!’ she commanded, ‘You have to be good boy and keep me company.’ It was playful but firm.
‘OK, OK,’ I surrendered. I had some vague notion that I might have fiddled with the resource allocation of my current project plan to squeeze out some more savings from levelling. Any kind of television in good company would be preferable to that form of inhumanity.
‘I’ll see you ‘round seven thirty, then …’ I said.
‘And bring the wine,’ she said cheerfully before hanging up without further ado.
We had spent some hours watching the first four episodes of Big Little Lies a few nights earlier. Gio was rare among people I knew in being able to absorb the drama mostly in silence and only talking in the breaks between instalments, and even then mostly in earnest.
We were entangled on her big Russett coloured leather couch. I loved the smell of it, and the crunching sounds the cushions made when we moved, like fresh alpine snow under heavy boots.
‘The Nicole, she is Australian, no? Do you think she is a sexy?’ she had asked after a phone sex scene.
‘She’s an attractive woman, I suppose’ I said reticently. I feel uncomfortable talking about women to other women. ‘But she’s kind of a girl next door to me. You know. Not someone I think about a lot.’
That much was true. Nicole Kidman did strike me as a girl next door, and had become even less of a sex symbol after showing the bad judgement to marry a lunatic cult member, even if she divorced him ten years later.
Gio slid closer and swatted at my chest. ‘Who do you think about, then?’
I leaned back, hopefully putting my face out of reach. ‘You, of course …’ I grumbled, sipping at my beer.
She smiled at me to signal her persistence: ‘Of course you do, but in the story …’
I sensed I would not get out of this alive if I stuck to platitudes, so I sat up, careful not to disentangle entirely from Gio, put my beer down and reclined in a more upright position.
I could not think of Kidman and Witherspoon as sensual women. One was too familiar, and the other too homey. But it was more than rejecting the carefully cultivated glamour of the featured women. It was that my sense of sensuality about a person is tied strongly to the way they speak and behave.
‘All the characters in this story make me wanna puke. Make me wanna be a misogynist and a misandrist at the same time …’
‘How do you mean,’ she interjected. Her English was pretty good despite her thick accent, so she was looking for depth, not translation.
‘They’re all so despicable. So narcissistic and petty. I hate them all. The men, the women, and even the children. Is that just misanthropy …?’ I let the sentence dangle.
She laughed in her husky way. ‘But it is so we think anyone can be killed in the end, no?’
True enough. The mini series reveals from the beginning that there is murder at the end of it, reminding the audience of it with faux to-camera post-crime interviews in every episode. Fuelling a rising calculus of cringe-inducing bourgeois despicability among the characters was indeed a device to play on the audience’s own pettiness, goading the voyeurs into the lives of the rich and odious to gamble a little on who is most despicable. Who deserves murder the most. It creates a repulsive complicity in the repugnance of the tableau in itself, making us complicit in some small way in the nastiness of what we spy on.
I sighed and hugged Gio closer. She was facing away from me now, and I was talking to her long, chestnut, wavy hair, spilling everywhere like a liquid chocolate fountain in some far away ancient town square. Reminding me of her far-away customs, and her ephemeral existence in my life.
‘That’s true. But don’t we hate them all enough by now?’
Gio twisted a little so she was looking up at me. She was smirking: ‘You are a grumpy, no? Impatient.’
I smirked back. ‘I suppose that’s fair to say.’
‘You no like to watch beautiful women?’
Not many men can deny such a question convincingly, no matter how prurient an admission sounds.
‘Sure I do. I just think even gorgeous women become less attractive when they behave like … like the bitches in the show.’
Gio reached for her wine, sipped, and replaced the glass on the solid wood coffee table between us and the big flat-screen, silently glowing a menu against that annoying light fluorescent blue background colour all televisions of this type seem to have. Waiting for us to make a selection for our next forty minutes of entertainment.
Gio’s apartment was borderline luxurious, overlooking the river in a suburb pretentiously named Teneriffe by real estate developers and other people every bit as conceited and money-obsessed as the characters in the drama. But people who clearly had never been to Teneriffe.
I wondered briefly how many of the residents in the apartment complex were just like the characters in the show, dedicated to a shallow pursuit of money that makes life so one-dimensional its subjects contort themselves to inject ridiculous little dramas where none need to exist. To make the monotony of greed and accumulation seem like life. That seemed to be the summary of the story so far in the TV show: a series of entirely unnecessary, confected little dramas that turned already disagreeable people into raving sociopaths.
I broke the silence of my reverie.
‘The sexiest one is Laura Dern,’ I said impishly.
Gio made a sudden movement to look at me very directly.
‘No!’ she said in wide-eyed protest. ‘The one who looks like the drug addict?’
I smiled mischievously. Gio was pretty slim herself, though curvy in a very Italian way too.
‘Yeah, I know,’ I said magnanimously. ‘She is pretty thin. But I’ve had a thing for her ever since I saw her as a poet in a West Wing episode.’
‘I know that commedia,’ Gio said, settling back against me again. ‘I don’t remember her …’
‘Yeah. She was a guest star in one episode, and Toby got all starry eyed about her.’
‘Ah. Toby. He is a grumpy. Like you,’ she said knowingly.
‘What about the men. You like any of them,’ I said to change the subject away from me being on the spot.
She thought about it a moment and picked up the remote control. Clever girl. She could truncate my own interrogation by resuming the viewing.
‘They are handsome, I think. But they are not men men, you know. Not strong, not in control. Pretty boys strutting around.’
I chuckled a little. I knew exactly what she meant. She was talking about the male bimbos in David Jones the day we met. The fancy boys in their fancy clothes who were supposed to help customers, but who instead looked down their noses at them, preferring to preen and pose for each other in their slightly ridiculous designer clothes.
I was there to buy an armload of business shirts – an annual ritual. Gio had seen me struggle to make sense of the chart explaining the various ways I could only buy shirts tailored for an adolescently skinny body. The kind of body I hadn’t had for 20 years.
She was working the store as a representative of several Italian fashion labels. She came to my rescue, soon sitting cross-legged at the wall of shirts amid undone packets and unfolded samples she had handed me to try on for fit. We quickly discovered the right style for my arms, torso and chest – meaning the loosest fit possible – and she located for me four of the shirts I really liked, and another three that were close enough to appeal. I liked her attitude: re-packing the trial shirts was cost of doing business to her, and someone else’s problem.
The mannequin boys steered well clear of us as she rang up the sale of more than $600. No commission for them, and none for Gio. I learned later she wasn’t even supposed to be in this part of the store, and she certainly wasn’t sales staff. She just liked to help. And maybe to help me in particular. Clearly I didn’t appeal to the boy men as much as to her.
I re-joined the conversation about Big Little Lies: ‘Exactly. It’s as if all the adults are children, and the children are more adult than their parents. But they are all so self-obsessed it’s hard to like any of them.’
She had pressed play, and on came the intro to the next episode.
Putting down the remote control she twisted around until she was lying on top of me, making little kissy sounds, as if I were a child. ‘But you are not sorry you watch it with me, no?’ She kissed me affectionately to delimit the range of permissible answers.
‘No. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be right now,’ I lied only a little bit.
A few nights later, the steak in mushroom sauce was perfect. Gio liked the wine I had picked for her. I would stick to German beer, as usual.
That night she was playful, and we had desert half-way through the first episode of the evening. We had to watch it again to pick up the plot twist introduced by the unravelling infidelity between Joseph and Madeline.
I was left wondering, later, whether it had been my irresistible charm, or the rough sex between Celeste and Perry that had made Gio frisky. Were we, in that way, successfully co-opted as voyeurs by the TV show? And made into little side-plots, as characters like the one we were watching? Or did the TV show have nothing to do with it?
That night Gio and I talked about who would be killed.
‘I think it will be the least deserving of them. It will be Jane,’ I speculated. ‘Her rapist will turn up unexpectedly. This time he will do what she feared as the logical conclusion to his violence. And afterwards Monterey will just settle back into its old bourgeois rhythms.’
Gio, snuggled into my side, thought about it for a moment. ‘That is the sad ending, no?’
She propped herself up on an elbow, resting her head on her left hand. ‘I think the Ed and Nathan, they will have a fight, and everyone will be between them. They kill each other.’
I couldn’t help but think of the early 1970s kind of John Wayne western brawl. An all-in bar-room set-to. ‘You mean a big brawl? Like a farce?’
Gio pursed her wide and full lips for a moment as if assessing damage to her car after a small accident. ‘No. Not funny. But messy, you know, not simple or macho,’ she said. Her fingers were playing with my shirt. She did not use the famous big hand gestures associated with Mediterraneans. ‘A fight where no one knows who did what when it ends, but where people die with the accident’ she said.
We watched the final episodes more quietly, and with less discussion than the previous instalments. I suppose we had already seen to our own tensions, and were patient to see how the fictional ones would be resolved.
The revelation, in the end, and the feuding women coming together in solidarity against male violence was a nice touch. A longer time in coming than was necessary, but better than the build-up had hinted at.
‘Well, I admit I hadn’t expected that,’ I told Gio, while the TV played some inane talk show with the sound reduced to a whisper.
We were both sitting up. Gio with her legs tucked under her, one hand holding her red wine, the other playing with her hair distractedly.
‘I did not, too,’ she said. Then: ‘Do people really live like that?’
‘I don’t know, but the banality of it rings true. Affluent people filling their lives with trivial things … tell me Gio, is it like that in Sorrento? The women actually driving everyone crazy, running everyone’s lives?’
She gave me an impish glance. ‘Of course,’ she said as if it were no big secret. ‘The women always have the control. Otherwise the big macho men would make a big mess of everything.’
I smiled at her behind my beer.
‘Is that how it is.’
She patted my knee. ‘Of course it is. If you had no women to make you act sensible, what would you do? Get into fights and make everything worse,’ she said levelly.
‘I suppose that’s right,’ I replied softly. ‘Still, I don’t know that it wouldn’t drive me crazy to live like those people in the Monterrey story.’
‘Ah,’ Gio said, putting her glass down and smothering me with her body, until she was resting her head on her hands over my chest. ‘You like the big macho scene, and the big ideas, no?’ She was talking about my preference in films for stylised violence or off-beat subjects as evidenced by John Wick and Hannah Arendt – the first two films I chose for us to watch together.
I grunted my no contest.
‘Sometimes it’s better to look after what you can, no? Most people, they have no big destiny. No big hope. Just little ones,’ she said.
‘I guess you’re right.’
She got up, leveraging my body to rise, like a big cat signalling that cuddle-time was over.
‘You want gelato?’ she asked, knowing the answer already. ‘No thanks, I’ll have another beer instead,’ I said predictably.
I joined her at the dining table adjoining the kitchen, the terracotta tiles cool under my bare feet.
Gio’s apartment three floors above the Brisbane River is what most people would call luxurious. Like a set from Big Little Lies. A perk of her job for the few months she would be here.
Gio spooned ice cream directly from the container – one of those super expensive little buckets of Neapolitan. She used a long handled metal cocktail spoon in her deliberate and sensuous consumption.
‘Is it any good?’ I asked. We’d had a running commentary on the nature of ice cream sold in Brisbane supermarkets.
Gio screwed up her face a little. ‘Not good, but better than the last one.’
No competition for the ice cream back home, I had known from the outset.
We decided she would have the shower first, so I took my last beer for the evening out onto the balcony, overlooking the black ripples of the river and the lights of Bulimba on the other bank.
It seemed to me that Big Little Lies was designed as no more than a distraction for people exactly like the ones in the apartments all around me. Lives in which money was social salve, and pettiness was expected artificial drama in otherwise tightly constricted lives of avarice and hypocrisy. The expensive feel of the television production didn’t quite match the banality of the script, but I doubt that the script was what people were paying attention to. The musical score alone was an attraction, as were the editing and sets. But it was all quite ephemeral. With the villain dead, what was to stop a the women from once again finding things to fight about, just to stave off the emptiness of their privileged lives?
In a minute I would join Gio in the pleasingly strong, wasteful spray of her shower, to wash off the evening, and the show. Gio and I would find other reasons to spend time together. And I didn’t really care what the rich and shallow would do for kicks.