What does the color red mean to you? This episode features red both as a color and a symbol: it’s there in rich velvet and sexy lingerie, and also as a warning, and in heat and anger. The conversations in these stories all happened in the intimacy of the bedroom.
Read the show notes and contribute a story on the Pillow Talking website.
Follow Pillow Talking on Instagram and Facebook.
Join me on the Wisdom App for insights and storytelling and writing live talks every Wednesday.
Close the door and dim the lights. Let’s talk. I’m Violeta Balhas and this is Season 1, Episode 6 of Pillow Talking - Stories about the stories we tell each other when there’s no one listening. In this episode, Red.
Did you know that the ancient Greeks didn’t have a word for blue? Yeah, yeah – get this: linguists have discovered that in all the languages of all cultures around the world, the last colour to enter the language is always blue. And you know what’s always first, don’t you. After black and white (which I was taught aren’t colours), it’s red.
There are a couple of theories about why colours enter all languages in the precise same order, but l want to talk about red coming first. And how much time it’s has had to embed itself in the conscious and the non-conscious, from the red of blood and death or to the red of blood and birth. From the richness of basaltic soil to the richness of ripe fruit. From the sensuousness of lips to the demureness of a blush. From Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in sequinned red gowns slit up to here and plunging down to there, to Offred in her red handmaid’s outfit. From red shoes that will make you dance your way to oblivion, to ruby slippers that will take you back to a beloved home with a click of the heels.
People who decorate say you can’t paint a room red because it will make people who enter it feel anxious, but years ago I read that the first thing women in London did before leaving a shelter after an air raid during the second World War was reapply their red lipstick. It calmed them down and gave them a boost. I always imagined them settling their trembling hands to keep to the lip line – the first people to keep calm and carry on. I remembered this during Melbourne’s four-month lockdown, and wore red lipstick almost every workday.
All colours have their symbols, and red means so many things to many different peoples. Lunar New Year started yesterday and it’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow and I’m surrounded by red for two completely different reasons. One celebration brings me red to signify luck, joy, and happiness, and the other brings me red to signify love and passion. They’re such different celebrations but both at the same time still manage to make complete sense to me, possibly because I can see that you can’t tie red down to any single meaning.
Because of this, it occurred to me as I put this episode’s stories together just how many previous stories could have fit in this episode.
The figurative stop sign in Stuart’s Story in Episode 1. The abuse and deep shame in the story by Anonymous in Episode 2. Sam’s embarrassment in Episode 3. And of course the red of Thylan Domas’s cheap wine in Episode 4 and Lina’s cherry sundae in the previous ep.
This episode’s conversations feature red in rich velvet and sexy lingerie, and also as a warning, and in heat and anger – and even more, if you care to look. These conversations all happened in the intimacy of the bedroom.
Ssh. Let’s listen.
Guys: you know how Bojack Horseman said, “When you look at someone through rose-coloured glasses, all the red flags just look like flags” so the solution should be simple: don’t look at someone through rose-coloured glasses. But it’s hard when you’re into a girl, so I’m here to help. Here are the red flags to look for – no expertise in human behavior required:
She describes herself as any type of bitch: baddest bitch, crazy bitch, psycho bitch, or just bitch.
Somewhere – on her social media, on her phone, in a frame in her bedroom, wherever – she has that quote by Marilyn Monroe: "If you can't handle me at my worst, you don't deserve me at my best"
Her give-to-take ratio always favours taking. Unless she wants something, in which case she’ll give, give, give. Just so she can take. Makes perfect sense.
All these things are present in a girl I’ll call Lauren-spelt-weird. Lauren-spelt-weird is my ex, and for a long time I felt like the luckiest guy in the world. She made me feel like I was the luckiest guy in the world. Actually, it was more that she literally said it: “You’re the luckiest guy in the world”. And I believed it because, why wouldn’t I? She’s the kind of girl that society celebrates and rewards – and who was I to go against society? Because of that, it was easy to ignore the selfishness, the conceitedness, the selfies right in the middle of a conversation, the pouting when I didn’t answer a text right away. Also, she was hot – and fun. I’ll give her that.
The day “hot and fun” stopped making up for all the other stuff was when we were in her bedroom. We were chilling and it was good for a while, but then Lauren-spelt-weird wanted to have sex, and for whatever reason I wasn’t feeling it. So with her special “naughty” smile she says for me to remember that if I don’t put out, there are plenty of other guys who will.
Out of all the things she could have said or done to make me come around that’s what she picked, which made the rose-colored glasses come off and smash to bits. So yeah, that was a moment.
It took me a while to unpack everything that was wrong with what she said but when it was all said and done by far the worst thing was her making me feel like I was just replaceable or interchangeable with someone else, which when you think about it is way worse than being disposable. She was literally treating me like a dick.
Funny thing is that she made me feel like I was replaceable or interchangeable, but Lauren-spelt-weird and her friends, and the people they hung out with, they were all the same. Baddest bitches who live by that Marilyn Monroe quote and take take take until they want something, they’re not even a dime a dozen.
I’m what they used to call an old fool. Call it depression, call it a midlife crisis, call it a breakdown, but one day, after a couple years’ buildup, I woke up and couldn’t stand my life anymore. Looking back, it was my own self I couldn’t stand, but in that state I couldn’t look inside myself. Instead, I did what so many old fools do and looked outside myself. There, I saw the biggest and most influential part of my life: my devoted wife of 25 years.
My life was miserable. She was the biggest part of my life. So if my life was miserable, it was because she was in it.
I found a younger woman who was inexperienced enough to believe me. I did and said some horrible things to my wife because I felt I was entitled, and after some months punishing her with the spectre of another woman, left.
I don’t remember much about those times but there are photos of me and the woman I loved calling my girlfriend doing all kinds of things I never did before; it looks like I’m having a blast. But it can’t have been because one day almost two years later it was like I woke up from a trance. I looked at the last couple of years, and realised that I was still miserable. But I couldn’t blame my wife this time.
This forced me to look at the wreckage I’d left, the pain I’d caused, and I literally wanted to die. I wasn’t even back where I started. It was so much worse. And I didn’t have the woman who understood me better than anyone, and loved me because and despite of it, to help me through it.
I ended it with my girlfriend and got some professional help. After a few months I started to feel better but I also knew I had to rebuild, but properly this time, and it would require making amends in some way.
I contacted my wife and asked if we could talk. She agreed to meet at a café. And she looked beautiful. Really, really beautiful, even though she wasn’t wearing any makeup except for some lipstick. She’d stopped dyeing her hair but instead of looking old the silver streaks in her long hair made her look regal. Combined with the ever-present liquid blue kindness in her eyes, it made me feel like a supplicant. I asked for her forgiveness. She gave it to me, graciously. But it wasn’t enough. She was making moves to pay for coffee and get going and I realised that I didn’t want her to leave. That I wanted more. I asked her out to dinner the next day. She looked surprised, but she agreed.
And so it began, making my way back into her life. It was nothing like the first time, and it was nothing like when I left, and she wouldn’t be wooed. It had to be very slow, meaningful, and respectful. Months later, after a beautiful day together, she invited me to stay. Much of the house was as I left it and it felt strange and painful that it was so familiar. But it was our bedroom – our bedroom of over 20 years – that I knew would restore me. I let her lead me by the hand.
At the door, I came to a complete standstill. She had completely redecorated it. Whereas it had once been light, bright and airy, it was now dark and opulent. The first thing that arrested my gaze were the heavy red velvet curtains, tied back with gold cord. There were gold satin cushions on a bed carved of black wood. A bawdy Toulouse-Lautrec print hung above it.
She turned when she saw I’d stopped and laughed at the look on my face.
“I know what it is!” she said. “You left Betty and came back to Veronica!”
I vaguely remember Veronica but from my faint memories I think she could be quite mean and cold to Archie. My wife is neither. She’s as kind and warm as she’s ever been. But there’s something about her now. There is a limit to what she gives me of herself, and it makes me feel dismissed, like when I was a little boy and my parents wanted to have a private conversation. I feel like there is something inside her that I can only guess at, but she won’t let me see it; something that’s hinted at by the richness and sensuality of this bedroom, but I don’t know what it is.
The reason why I was drawn to Pillow Talking is that before I left, pillow talk used to be one of our things, always. She started work an hour after I did but she would wake up with my alarm and we’d have those precious moments talking before I got up. And on the weekends it could go for hours and hours. Those times were like slices of heaven in the clamour of the world. But now, she’s so busy. Not just work, but gym, and meeting friends, and book club, and even things she doesn’t see fit to share with me.
I don’t have any right to ask anything of her, do I? She’s already given me so much, including forgiveness for the unforgivable. And I don’t have the right to be disappointed that she hides part of herself from me when I have demonstrated that I am capable of the kind of behaviour you have to protect yourself from.
But what I can do is try. I tried last weekend to hold her in bed with conversation and kisses. She indulged me for a little while, and then laughing, got up and put her robe on.
“It’s a beautiful day. Let’s not waste it.”
I felt like an old fool in a whole new way.
Lavender Soap, Parts 1 & 2
It’s girl’s night. Ironing the logos onto the company kickball shirts, the three of us chat about the upside of our lives lately, the happy moments, the growth and change we’ve seen after each of us pushed past the bad. Takeout tacos reward our hard work, leaving a deluge of pico de gaillo behind on our hands. Licking my fingers, I head to the kitchen sink and lather up. I inhale what smells like lavender suffering from asphyxiation, like it’s being held down against its will to become an over-complicated aroma. With a post-traumatic slap, my mind projects a clip from the archives across the back of the silver sink.
I didn’t really think anything of it as I continued to sleep next to him. We always slept under separate blankets in the same bed. Trent was never the cuddling, snuggling, affectionate type. “Get on your side,” he’d say. “You’re too hot.”
The breakup had officially happened a month before, but one soft palm on my ass physically broke the boundaries of a relationship after nearly ten years. Trent woke up with a bursting “I’m sorry!” I tucked the covers under me and threw a pillow between us. I should and could move to a different room in the house. What the hell was I still doing here?
The following day I calculated my time. I had two hours to make it happen. Dragging bureaus and other furniture into the spare bedroom, dust stuck to my sweat like sugar on a hot donut. Allergies to the gray powder caused constant hand-washing for fear I’d break a rib from sneezing so damn hard.
Sitting on the bed to take a break, I took in the view. A “new to me” sleeping space that still reflected my personality. Looking out of the twin windows, calm misted over me. A fresh perspective, more light, and hopefully more clarity. I texted a friend a photo of my efforts. “I’m getting closer to getting out of here.” The calm subsided as anxiety started to creep up my ankles. Trent would be home soon. Should I leave? I should leave. I never liked seeing his reaction live in the moment. It was always a terrible bit of theater.
Audibly inhaling, I crossed back into our t-shirt workshop. I can see Zoe and Blaire trying to translate the fear-filled expression on my face. “Well! That is the soap I used the day I moved into the spare bedroom. Haven’t thought about that in three years...” Zoe’s eyes grew big with concern. “Oh Walker, I’m so sorry, what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to keep using it until I can stop this memory from taking me over. Just have to keep on keepin’ on, you know?”
I went to bed with a woman in sexy red lingerie, and woke up with a woman in a ratty 80s T-shirt.
It wasn’t the first time I stayed over at Beth’s place – it was a while later, when we were exclusive and on our way to falling in love.
“What’s this?” I asked, holding the edge of a sleeve and giving her a “Please expline?” look. The fabric was a muted pink, but you could see that once upon a time it would have been hot pink. In the middle was an abstract design featuring geometric shapes in what were once bright blue, lime green, and purple.
“It was my mum’s,” she said simply.
I already knew about her mum, who died young after a horrible illness and left a young family. But we hadn’t talked talked about it yet. Although Beth was a girl when she died, she was the oldest and still old enough to remember her well. She would have seen her mum wasting away, and suffering. But I didn’t know this for sure yet. I was waiting for Beth to tell me when she was ready, but I figured this thing of changing from sexy red lingerie into her mum’s T-shirt while I was asleep was something important.
I took her in my arms and we lay there. And then I noticed something else.
“And the perfume? It’s not your usual. It’s sort of… old for you.”
“It’s my mum’s too.”
She told me the story of the T-shirt. It features in her favourite memories and photos, of the last great family holiday at Great Keppel Island, before her mum got sick. One tough day, missing her mum after she died, she dug out the T-shirt and took it to bed. It still smelt of her mum’s perfume – of her, before she got sick. But it wasn’t long before the T-shirt stopped smelling like her mum and started smelling like Beth, which is when she went back to her parents’ room and swiped her mum’s perfume.
Squirting it onto the T-shirt was OK, but too strong. She kept trying. No matter how little perfume she used it didn’t quite smell right. Then in one of her Dolly magazines she read about something called “layering”, which isn’t anything to do with wearing lots of clothes one on top of the other or something to do with cake, but something you do with perfume. If there’s a fragrance you love, you don’t just use it as a perfume: you use the soap of that fragrance in the shower first, then when you get out of the shower you use the lotion, and then you put on the perfume. It’s a whole production. But still not quite the production of looking after her mum’s T-shirt, which she perfected over the years.
Here’s what Beth does: she takes soap of this fragrance, and grates it with a special grater she keeps for the purpose. Then she dissolves these soap gratings in warm water and uses it to wash the T-shirt by hand. After she’s rinsed it, she puts it in the clothes dryer with a Chux cloth she’s sprayed with the perfume. Once it’s dried, it’s smells just right.
“That’s weird, isn’t it?” she asked.
“I don’t know what’s weird or normal,” I replied. “Both my parents are still alive.”
“So do you mind?”
“No,” I said, and I meant it.
And so it went on, even after I moved in. But eventually I noticed she was wearing it less. Then the times that she wasn’t wearing it became more than the times she did, and then she stopped altogether.
I was fine either way, and didn’t ask her about it. But one day she caught the worst flu – I’ve never seen anyone so sick. And I’d never seen her sick before so how she acted was new to me. She was all Ms Independent and insisted she didn’t need looking after, and she was determined that she was going to take some cold and flu tabs and go to work. There was no ordering her to bed – you don’t order Beth to do anything. But I knew what to do: I told her that going to work was unfair to the rest of the team. That did the job, and she went to bed, grumbling all the way. But of course she fell asleep straight away and while she slept, I knew what else to do. I snuck in and found the T-shirt. And the soap. And the perfume. And I grated the soap by hand, washed that T-shirt, and put it in the dryer with a cloth that I sprayed with the perfume first.
I took it, still warm from the dryer, to the bedroom where she was asleep.
“Here. Put this on.”
The room was dark and I think she smelt it before she saw it. She immediately grabbed me in this death hug, and I think there were tears but it could have just been that she was extra snotty because of her cold. But it didn’t matter because she put the T-shirt on, and also let me look after her until she was better.
Layers are for cakes, for clothes when you’re going out on a cold day, for fragrance, and I think also for grief, and for the little things that caring couples do for each other that build love on love day after day.
Pillow Talking is produced, narrated and edited by me, Violeta Balhas, from stories by you, the listeners and pillow talkers. Music is by Radovan Jekic. This episode’s stories were:
Red Flag by Bojack Norseman
Old Fool by Bordeaux
Lavender Soap, Parts 1 & 2, by Walker Raigh of the Scratch and Sniff podcast
Lingerie and Layering by Tom
You will, by the way, be hearing from Walker Raigh again over the coming weeks, with a couple of different stories on the same timeline. Or maybe different facets of the same stone. I’ll leave that for you to decide.
Thank you all for listening – whether it’s once again, or for the first time. And I’m not too proud to ask or even beg, so please: subscribe, rate, review, share – it makes a huge difference to me and my ability to keep telling stories. Also, a huge thanks to those of you who are entrusting me with your intimate conversations – this podcast wouldn’t exist without you. If you’d like to join this diverse and wonderful group sharing their stories big and small, please go to www.pillowtalkingproject.com. I’d love to hear from you.
While we’re on the subject of thanks, an extra special one goes out to my husband Shane.
When my stepdaughter moved out, we had a spare room. We already have an office we share and I don’t sew so I don’t need a sewing room; so even though I’m a total noob at podcasting, Shane, who is my biggest fan, insisted on building me a tiny recording studio in a corner. He worked really hard to make something that gives me the kind of sound I want, and went all out to make it comfy and inviting. And this is after months ago doing all the research into the gear I’d need to record a podcast and going through the rigmarole of finding it all at the best price and ordering it. So here I am in the little place I call The Cone of Silence 2, late at night, illuminated by soft lights and surrounded by things I love. This is the second time I’ve recorded here, but the first since he’s made it all cozy and I can’t help thinking of this guy. Thank you, baby. I love you.
And happy anniversary. It’s actually our 11th wedding anniversary tomorrow. Yes, we got married on Valentine’s Day. It was either a cutesy – if clichéd – thing to do, or a really clever way of ensuring we never had to celebrate Valentine’s Day ever again. I’ll leave that for you to decide as well.
On the next episode of Pillow Talking, It's the wrong time, and the wrong place. That’s a line from It’s All Right With Me, a song by the great Cole Porter. If you want to get into the mood for the next time by listening to it, my favourite versions are by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tom Waits, and Oleta Adams. Each version captures the mood of one of the stories, I think. Until then, please take care of yourselves. And each other.