Alice had wanted a heart-shaped bed since she was sixteen, which was when she had started wanting most of the things she wanted now. She had imagined she would meet some Lolita-loving, Sugar Daddy type who would be completely into the idea of a heart-shaped bed—and pay for it, too. Instead, she had ended up with a boyfriend who was five years older than her and did something with computers that she didn’t fully understand. They’d moved in together a year ago and slept on an old mattress the entire time.
“I am not letting you turn our room into some nineties brothel.”
“It won’t be a brothel! It’s only a bed!”
“This is just another one of your Lana Del Rey fantasies. It will be like when we took acid. You won’t even like it.”
“That was only because you were seeing cool things and I was stuck thinking about mould. It wasn’t fair.”
“Can you seriously imagine a heart-shaped bed in this room?” Eric gestured at the tangled mess of technology on his side of the room and the mountain of floral clothing on Alice’s. One of the curtains was torn down, and Bad Jelly had made a good start on the other. Two half-empty bowls of cereal sat on top of the computer monitor, and Alice’s mirror was blurry with make-up smudges. She began to see his point about the brothel thing.
“I’ll pay for it?”
“Damn right you’ll pay for it. You’re still not putting it in here, though.”
Bad Jelly slithered into the room—her black fur all wet from outside. She stopped when she got to Eric’s backpack, turned her head, and stared at him. Her eyes were freakishly round, and an especially pale shade of yellow. She clawed the backpack in long, slow motions.
Without looking away from Eric, Bad Jelly began peeing on the backpack.
“Fucking devil cat!” Eric jumped off the mattress and ran at her. Bad Jelly scampered out of the room.
Alice had bought her when she was eighteen and Bad Jelly was just a tiny scrap of black softness, all blue-eyed and mewling. Alice had imagined her growing into a witch’s cat — twisting figure-8s round her ankles while she cast love spells and did tarot readings. She would be peaceful and mysterious, and so would Alice. By the time Bad Jelly was three months old, she had scratched up the wallpaper, destroyed the rug in the living room and brought in a rat almost as big as she was. She never pissed or shat on anything Alice owned, but she pissed and shat on just about everything else, including all of her flatmates’ beds, and the stovetop.
She took particular vengeance on Eric. She’d even pissed directly on him. It had been New Year’s Day and he was very hungover. He wanted Alice to get rid of her after that, but Alice told him she’d get rid of him before she got rid of Bad Jelly. She’d been kicked out of three flats before she met Eric, and not once had she considered giving Bad Jelly up. Alice couldn’t get kicked out of this flat, because she was the leaseholder. Her flatmates knew to keep Bad Jelly out of their rooms.
“One day I’m gonna kill that cat,” Eric said, taking his things one by one out of the backpack and checking them for cat piss. He never would. Eric was actually an extremely non-violent person. He wouldn’t even play video games where you had to shoot people. Whenever Bad Jelly brought in rats or mice, he picked up the squirming body with a paper towel and carried it back outside.
Eric went into the laundry to soak his backpack and Alice slid his laptop across to her side of the mattress. The heart-shaped bed would cost a lot of money, but she had trouble processing the exact weight of the numbers she saw online. Any number between $1,000 and $5,000 meant the same thing to her: expensive. Her understanding became even more confused by how beautiful the bed looked. The headboard was made of pink velvet, and it was heart-shaped too. The bed came with two sets of heart-shaped sheets, a specially designed comforter and heart-shaped pillows. It was everything she had ever wanted.
She clicked ‘Add to cart’ and then ‘Proceed to checkout’, just to see what would happen. She entered her address. The shipping calculator gave her a number. She blinked at the screen. She clicked ‘Proceed to payment’ and entered her credit details. She wasn’t actually going to do it. She clicked next and waited for the ‘Review order’ page to load. Once she’d seen that, she would exit out. A Visa logo popped up on the screen, and a little grey circle that said ‘Processing’. Alice froze. The page finished loading. ‘Order complete! You will receive an email confirming your purchase.’ Her phone buzzed.
Eric walked back into the room. As soon as he saw her face, he stopped.
“Hee hee,” Alice said nervously.
“No fucking way, please tell me you’re kidding.” Eric swivelled the laptop towards him and his eyes went as round as Bad Jelly’s.
“I’ll call my mum and get her to transfer me some money.”
“Some ‘counselling’ money? How much therapy does she think you need?”
“I’ll say that Bad Jelly needs surgery.”
“God, you scare me.”
Alice leaned across the laptop and kissed his ear. “You love it.”
Eric looked at her. “I don’t think I do.”
She messed his hair up. It had grown out of its usual style months ago and was getting stringy. Every time she looked at it up close, she felt like she was having an allergic reaction.
“When are you getting a haircut?” she asked.
“Soon. You can stop bugging me about it.”
“No one else will,” she said. “I’ve seen what your workmates look like.”
Eric shook her hand off. “Stop trying to distract me from the bed. Can’t you cancel the order?”
DHL said the bed would arrive on Friday, so Alice called in sick to the pharmacy that morning. Eric would be working from home and could answer the door, but she was too excited to wait until 5pm to see the bed. Every time she heard something like a truck driving up the street, she hurried to the window. Two delivery vans came in the morning, but only had parcels for her neighbours.
When the DHL truck arrived, she ran out to meet it. The couriers carried the heart-shaped mattress in first. It was wrapped in plastic, and so big they could only just get it through the front door. They left it propped against the wall in the hallway, and went back to the truck. Alice pressed her ear up against the plastic and heard her pulse echo. She kissed the plastic and rushed back outside. The couriers were carrying a series of large and heavy boxes towards her flat. Alice gulped. She had failed to consider that the bed would come flat-packed. Eric looked up from his computer as the delivery guys brought the boxes into their room and dumped them where the mattress used to be. Alice had moved it into the garage that morning, to be taken to the dump. The delivery men went back outside to bring in another box.
Alice could feel Eric staring at her. She knelt down and began ripping off the tape.
“Did you realise it was going to be flat-packed?”
“Yes.” She crunched the tape into a sticky ball. “I was hoping you might like to put it together.”
Eric laughed. “Like to?”
She opened the box. It was full of wooden slats, all different lengths and shapes. Alice stared at them. “Please?”
Eric sighed and leaned back in his computer chair. “I’m supposed to be working.”
She rushed over and climbed into his lap. “But you work so hard already!”
Alice didn’t really know if this was true. He did spend a lot of time at his computer.
Eric shook his head so his nose brushed her cheek. “This report is doing my head in. I’d honestly rather be putting your bed together.”
“Yay!” She kissed his forehead. His hair was oily, but she held herself back from commenting on it.
The delivery men walked into the room, saw them, dropped the box, and went back out.
Alice cleaned the kitchen while Eric built the bed, even though it wasn’t her week on the chore roster and the kitchen was mostly clean already. Eric had specifically asked her to stay out while he was making the bed—”It will stress me out if you keep sticking your head in”—but every few minutes she had to fight the urge to go and check how it was coming along. She knew Eric secretly loved building things. The bed was like a tricky puzzle, and he loved tricky puzzles.
She’d met Eric when he was working in a phone store, and had been instantly struck by his careful skill in putting her broken phone back together. He had good hands. They were the most masculine hands she’d ever seen. Everything about Eric’s appearance was masculine: he was tall and broad and looked like he could transform into a wolf at any moment. When Alice was around him, she felt more feminine than she did at any other time. Alice had been the one to ask him out, and the one to invite him back to her house. He looked even more masculine when he was in her room, surrounded by all her little things. When he took her clothes off, he barely seemed to notice the silks and scalloped lace she’d dressed herself in—he was so focused on her body. This was great for the first few months, but sex became boring once she knew his body and all the things that it did.
Bad Jelly sauntered into the kitchen, then started doing the funny, stiff-legged walk that she only ever did in front of Alice. She gave Alice a look. When Alice laughed, Bad Jelly went back to walking normally. This walk had been an inside joke between the two of them since Bad Jelly was a kitten. Alice had tried to do impersonations of the walk for Eric, but he didn’t believe her. The few times she had tried to convince Bad Jelly to do the walk in front of Eric, she’d stared at Alice with eyes that clearly spelled ‘N-O’.
Alice filled Bad Jelly’s bowl with biscuits and got out the toasted sandwich maker. Eric couldn’t tell her off for checking on the bed if she brought food.
The bed was nowhere near done. Alice was annoyed at herself for bringing him the cheese sandwiches. It took him an eternity to finish them and get back to building. She put his plate in the dishwasher and sat down on the couch. Bad Jelly trilled as she jumped up next to her. She snuggled into Alice, her face at the same level as the phone screen. They scrolled through Instagram together, then an online clothing store, then looked at vegan recipes—all of which were too complicated. Time passed even slower than it did when Alice was working at the pharmacy. It was 3.30 now, which was when she would usually take her last break—i.e., sitting in the backroom for fifteen minutes and looking at her phone. Alice slouched further into the couch. If she fell asleep, the bed would be ready in no time, but the anticipation had her too wired.
She logged into her old Tumblr account. This meant she was reaching peak boredom. Most of the accounts she followed had been deactivated, with the exception of a few Lana Del Rey fan pages, a handful of ‘nymphet fashion’ blogs, and various other accounts with some combination of ‘baby’, ‘angel’ and ‘coquette’ in the URL. There was less porn than there’d been when Alice was a teenager, but the bans still hadn’t been entirely effective. A decent portion of the posts on Alice’s own page had been replaced with a grey square telling her they contained ‘sensitive content’. The photos that remained brought Alice more happiness than she’d expected. Her blog was a fairly even split of retro decor and girls in nature. Scrolling through her page went something like: black-and-white photo of girl on a lonely beach posing nude with a long, sheer piece of fabric; sixties hotel room; girl in river holding garland of flowers; fifties diner; girl climbing tree in her underwear; conversation pit. It made her body fizz with excitement. She especially liked the photos of girls who looked like her: honey-haired girls riding bareback across sweeping hills, each feeding their horse an apple. Half of the girls on Alice’s Tumblr were holding fruit of some kind. She set a photo of a girl standing in a cherry orchard as her lock screen.
When Alice was younger, she’d spent all her time out in nature too—swimming in lakes, collecting acorns—but now there wasn’t time for any of this. She and Eric lived in a suburb with two McDonald’s and barely any grass. She’d tried suggesting to Eric that he drive them out to the equestrian centre for a horse trek one weekend, or even out to the bush reserve for a walk, but he’d been confused by both suggestions.
“Alice,” Eric called out. “‘It’s ready.”
The heart-shaped bed was so beautiful it made Alice beautiful. She put on a matching bra and undies and rolled around on the silky comforter. She felt like Jayne Mansfield in her pink palace.
“Take a photo of me.” Alice swiped her phone to camera mode and held it out for Eric.
Eric looked up from his computer and rolled his eyes. She looked too good for him to protest. She leaned back on her elbows and Eric tapped the shutter button. She pointed her toes like a pin-up model.
“There you go.” He passed her the phone.
She flicked through the photos. “These angles are horrible. Take them again.” She passed it back to him.
“Can we do this another time?”
“The lighting’s good now. Just a few more.”
Eric sighed. He stood up this time. She sat on her knees and crossed her arms at the wrist, so her boobs were pushed together. She stuck her bottom lip out a little. She could see Eric getting hard.
She raised an eyebrow at him. “Enjoying yourself?”
“Not really. “
She shifted her legs apart like she was straddling an invisible body and crawled forward on her hands, like a cat. Bad Jelly gave her an intrigued look from the other side of the room. She pouted into the camera lens. Eric had a full boner now, pushing hopefully at the crotch of his jeans. She snickered.
“Thanks.” Eric spoke in a monotone.
She lay on her stomach, propped up on her elbows. “I’m glad I don’t have a penis.”
“Good for you.” Eric held out the phone. She took it. Eric went back to his computer.
She deleted the first ten photos immediately. “Eric, I look disgusting. Why didn’t you tell me to lift my chin up?”
“I’m not a photographer, for fuck’s sake.”
“But it’s so obvious! I have a double chin!”
Eric didn’t turn from his computer. “You look fine.”
“I don’t want to look fine! Please can you take some more?”
“I’m trying to work.”
“I’ll do something nice for you afterwards?”
“Like what, scratch my head for twenty seconds then get bored and stop?”
She reached her hand off the end of the bed. Her fingers could just reach his thigh. “I was thinking something more along the lines of … “
Eric sighed again. He threw out his arm and she put the phone in his hand before he could change his mind.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
She moved quickly from pose to pose. Eric occasionally lifted or lowered the phone. His eyebrows settled into a concerned frown as he tapped at the screen. It was hard not to laugh with his dick sticking out so ridiculously, but if she focused on the camera she could ignore it. She tightened her bra strap and Eric fiddled with the phone settings. She sucked her stomach in. The camera flash popped in her face.
“Flash is unflattering, Eric. Turn it off.”
“Okay, I’m done with this.”
“Wait, let’s get some with Bad Jelly.” She scurried off the bed, scooped Bad Jelly into her arms and hopped back onto the comforter. Bad Jelly tried to squirm from her grip, but Alice locked her against her chest. “Quick, take some before she escapes.”
“You look like you’re trying to strangle her.”
“Just take the photos, Eric!”
Alice turned her head to the side and grinned. She did a little fake laugh. Bad Jelly made a hissing noise.
Eric threw the phone on the comforter.
“No, please take more!” Bad Jelly wriggled out of her arms and leapt off the bed.
“I’ve taken at least fifty photos. You’ll like some of them.”
“But I wanted to do some lying down!”
“I’m sick of this.” Eric stalked out of the room.
Alice grabbed her dressing gown off the floor and wrapped it round her body. She followed him into the bathroom. “I don’t understand why it’s such a big deal. It’ll only take another two minutes. “
Eric turned on the shower and pushed the mixer all the way to the blue side. “I’m not your slave. You can’t just tell me what to do all the time.”
Alice opened her mouth, then found she didn’t know what to say.
“I spent hours building that fucking bed. And I don’t know how you think we’re going to sleep on it.”
She didn’t know what to say to that either. Eric had tried lying down on the bed, but his feet hung off the end no matter how he positioned himself.
Eric pulled off his t-shirt and jeans and dumped them on the floor. His dick was still hard, but it was tipped at an angle that meant it was going away. He stepped into the shower and shut his eyes under the water. Alice stared at his back. It prickled quickly into goosebumps. His shoulders were tensed against the cold, sticking up out of his back like they wanted to break into wings.
“I need my own space.” He spoke louder than he needed to. “I don’t want to live in your little heart-shaped fantasy.”
Alice folded her arms across her chest. “It’s not my fault I want things to look nice.” She sounded pathetic even to herself. “I can’t focus when everything looks so ugly.”
Eric snorted. “Focus on what? Instagram?”
A sting whipped through Alice. Ever since she’d mentioned to Eric that her average Instagram screentime was two hours and forty minutes a day, Instagram had been a dangerous subject. She felt Bad Jelly’s sleek body slither between her ankles.
“Instagram’s more interesting than you are a lot of the time, Eric.”
“Sure. Great. At least I’m doing something with my life.”
Alice threw her arm into the shower and yanked the mixer to its hottest setting.
Eric reared back from the scathing water. “Bitch!” His body pressed against the shower wall and his arm darted around the steaming jets, trying to reach the mixer. His dick was shrivelled, like a deflated balloon.
Alice turned and left the room. Bad Jelly scampered after her.
They got Burger King for dinner. Alice intentionally forgot to order Eric’s onion rings, and after that she could mostly forgive him for the fight. Eric forgave her too, as he always did, but the problem of where they were going to sleep remained.
“Could you just, kind of, curl up?”
Eric shuffled his body into a fetal position—the pinkness of the bed adding to the womb-like effect. “I think I’d be more comfortable on the floor.”
Alice threw herself down next to him. She could feel her hair fanned out on the comforter around her head, like a princess. She wished it was curly. “You can’t sleep on the floor. I’d feel too bad.”
Eric turned onto his back so he was facing the ceiling. She stared up at it too. The ceiling had always been her favourite thing about this room. It looked like icing on a wedding cake—all vines and roses and scalloped edges.
Alice reached her hand up to pat Eric’s head, but drew her hand away when she felt the grease. She wiped her palm on his t-shirt.
Eric tried to bring the old mattress back in, but it wouldn’t fit on the remaining floor space. At bedtime, he lay down a sleeping bag, with some sheets on top. He tucked himself up with their old duvet and pillows. Neither of them spoke about how long this was going to last. Alice pulled the silky comforter right up to her chin. She was small enough that she could sleep right in the centre of the heart: her body forming a straight slice down its middle. Bad Jelly leapt onto the bed and curled into her own heart shape. Alice could hear a soft, rumbling sound. She leaned her ear towards Bad Jelly.
“Eric! She’s purring!”
“Bad Jelly doesn’t purr! I’ve never heard her purr before!”
Eric muttered just loud enough for her to hear. “I’m sure this is what she’s always wanted.”
Alice slept with her hand resting on the bridge of Bad Jelly’s head. Eric’s tossing and turning didn’t disturb her once.
While Eric took the old mattress to the dump, Alice gave their bedroom the best clean it had ever had. Now that she had the heart-shaped bed, the rest of the room needed to live up to it. She hung up all her dresses and folded her skirts and tops. She hooked the curtains back onto the rail. They seemed uglier than they had before. She would have to buy new ones. Eric’s desk seemed uglier too. The heart-shaped bed made his technology look out of place. Surely he didn’t need all of it in here. She unplugged a few unnecessary-looking things and moved them out into the hallway. She pushed the rest of it far under the desk, hidden from sight.
When the room looked as good as it possibly could, Alice put on a sheer slip and stretched out on the bed with her laptop. Now that she had a heart-shaped bed, anything felt possible. All the purchases she’d held herself back from making in the past—on the grounds that they were too excessive, too expensive—now seemed like reasonable investments. First she searched ‘red velvet curtains buy’. She compared prices, plus shipping, on different sites, and checked for promo codes. The store she ended up buying from also sold colour-changing light strips, and when she added those to her cart the shipping was free. She bought a pink vase in a shell shape and a white statue of Aphrodite. She bought a set of pastel-coloured storage crates. Adrenalin shot around inside her. She counted the order confirmations in her inbox. Fourteen.
The first thing Eric did when he got home was carry the stuff Alice had put in the hallway back into their room.
“What are you trying to do?” he asked. “I need this.”
“You can’t need all of this.” She waved her hand towards his desk.
“Yeah, I do.”
“But it looks so bad. It clutters the room up.”
“What about all your stuff?”
Alice had arranged her things as neatly as she could, but they still took up half the room. “My things look nice.”
Eric cast his gaze around the floor. “And where’d you put the sleeping bag?”
“Under the bed. I just rolled it all up.”
Eric shook his head and knelt beneath the desk to plug his things back in. Bad Jelly crept up behind Eric. She paused, then threw her body at his back—latching on with her claws. “For fuck’s sake!’” He threw Bad Jelly off, sending her flying a good metre. She let out a savage growl that sounded more like a dog than a cat, and ran out of the room. “Eric!”
He flashed her a look and shock hit her. There were tears in his eyes. She had never seen Eric cry before.
“You need to get rid of that cat.”
Alice didn’t say anything.
“And you need to sell that bed.”
“You need to shut up,” Alice snapped.
Eric turned to stare at her. The tears were gone. “You’re a brat.”
Alice shrugged. “Fine.”
Even Alice’s dreams were beautiful when she slept in the heart-shaped bed. She dreamed she was a girl in a white dress running through a green field. A girl eating pomegranates on a red picnic blanket—thrown down in the middle of a meadow. A girl with daisy chains in her hair. A girl sitting in tall grass, holding a lamb, then a baby deer.
Alice woke up to Bad Jelly walking over her face. The firm pads of her paws pressed into Alice’s forehead. Her fur smelled like straw. Alice pushed her off and sat up. The room was mostly dark, but she could see Eric sleeping on the floor. He’d still been sitting at his computer when she went to bed. They’d argued over whether to turn the light off. They’d both said “Love you” before she fell asleep.
Alice climbed down from the bed so she was sitting next to Eric. He looked almost beautiful when he was sleeping. He could be a statue. She pushed his hair out of his face, and it flopped onto the pillow like a dead thing. It pained her to look at it. She turned towards her bedside table, and the marbled cup of stationery on top. The slim handles of her sewing scissors glinted in the dark. She reached for them.
She cut in long and satisfying snips, so soft that Eric didn’t even stir. The severed locks of hair curled like ferns on the pillow.
Taken with kind permission from the brilliant new short story collection Dream Girl by Joy Holley (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $35) available from bookstores nationwide.