On the last episode of Season 1 of Pillow Talking, no theme, just an assortment. And because life is like a bag of mixed lollies, each story is its own little surprise. There’s five in all, ranging from the impossible sweetness of first love, to the burn and spice of last goodbyes.
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Close the door and dim the lights. Let’s talk. I’m Violeta Balhas and this is Season 1, Episode 12 of Pillow Talking – Stories about the stories we tell each other when there’s no one listening. In this episode, A bag of mixed lollies.
To kick off this episode, what we’re gonna do right here, as that Neneh Cherry song goes, is go way back, back into time, because I need to explain what a bag of mixed lollies is for those of you who don’t know.
First, lollies. Lollies are sweets, or candies. Small sugary treats that you can usually pop into your mouth whole.
And a bag of mixed lollies is a wondrous thing you pretty much can’t get any more, or at least not the way you used to. Nowadays you can buy a bag or packet of mixed lollies but as my mother would say, these have no charm. The bag of mixed lollies I remember is something I was introduced to when I’d been in this country for only a couple of weeks, and it sealed the deal for Australia truly being the promised land.
You could take your 20 cents to the milk bar or corner shop and ask for 20 cents of mixed lollies. Most lollies were one cent each then and Shane who’s older than I am remembers lollies that were two for one cent – decadence! The shop attendant would trudge to the display case where the bulk cardboard boxes of lollies were, and make a selection for you. Or you could choose your own. Two snakes, please, two pineapples, five strawberries and cream, two freckles… no, no musk sticks! Patiently they would pluck out the lollies from the boxes – no tongs, no disposable gloves – and drop them into a small white paper bag that they would then twist closed. Running out of the shop with that little bag always felt like you were on your way to a little private party. Because you know the whole purpose of lollies is to make you happy.
Thanks for allowing me my old fart moment. I love lollies, and the closest I get these days is the pick-and-mix but no matter how hard I try to restrain myself I always end up walking out of there with a minimum of 15 dollars’ worth. What the hell.
But this is what the last episode of the first season of Pillow Talking is: a bag of mixed lollies. No theme, just an assortment. And because I chose these instead of you, each one is its own little surprise. There’s five in all, and they range from the impossible sweetness of first love, to the burn and spice of last goodbyes.
These conversations all happened in the intimacy of the bedroom. Ssh. Let’s listen.
It had been going for three years. Just one-fifth of Tony’s marriage, but it wasn’t nothing. Not to me. I loved him. He was literally my everything. And he told me I was his. But we’d had this conversation so, so many times.
He’d tell his wife when their daughter graduated high school. When his mother-in-law pulled through from her breast cancer. When his wife got over her grief when his mother-in-law didn’t pull through from breast cancer. At the end of the year. At the start of the next. Next month. Next week. Tomorrow. When he got home, even. There was always a great reason why he didn’t. Great to him. Not to me.
The bedroom was the only place he would have this conversation, usually after sex, so that’s where I took him. But this time when we went to the bedroom, there were no candles waiting for him. No glass of his favourite Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that I always kept just for him (I only drink white). I didn’t undress him or myself. I just sat on the bed and asked him to sit next to me.
And this time I didn’t ask him when he would tell her. I asked a completely different question:
“What will you say to her when you tell her?”
Here’s the thing. When you have an uncomfortable, difficult or emotional conversation ahead of you, you rehearse it in your mind. Over and over and over. You’re gonna give them a piece of your mind, and this is exactly how it’s gonna go. We all do it. And God knows he had his reasons to give her a piece of his mind, right? All the things he’d told me. Their marriage had been dead for years. The lack of intimacy. Her coldness. Her emotional abuse. How she never truly knew him and he was drowning in a loveless marriage.
These things should have just rolled off his tongue, easy, but he was tongue-tied. All the rehearsals he would have had if he had ever had an intention of telling her, and he couldn’t even string three words coherently together.
I, on the other hand, had rehearsed this conversation over and over and over in my mind for the past week, and I knew exactly what to say. I stood up and opened the bedroom door.
The first time I not only slept with someone, but slept right through the night with him, was nothing like I had dreamed of. It was just embarrassing.
I woke up, and Josh was looking at me, smiling. The first thing he said was, “You snore.” Immediately I replied, “No I don’t!” And it was even more embarrassing because to my ears I sounded exactly like my little sister. So immature.
But he said, “How do you know?”
And he had a point because it was true that I didn’t. This was a little moment but it was also a big one because unless I had a stalker, I realised that he was the first person to watch me sleep since my parents watched me sleep when I was little.
It made me a little emotional. I didn’t show it because already I felt embarrassed, and I didn’t want to cry or anything. But this felt like a bigger deal than the sex. When you’re asleep, you’re vulnerable. To have someone watch you sleep, they’re seeing you at your most vulnerable. And I’m a few years older now and unless it’s with my closest friends, I’m still no better at working out how to be vulnerable without feeling really uncomfortable.
But back then, all I could think of was how to not be emotional or visibly uncomfortable in front of Josh. So I decided to play it cool.
“Oh, yeah? What else do I do?” I asked him.
“You steal the covers. And sometimes you wrinkle your nose, like you’re smelling something funky in your dreams.”
We laughed, which helped a lot, and it gave me time to step a little outside myself and look at Josh. I mean look at him properly, not how he looked, but as a person. I liked Josh a lot, but was Josh the right kind of person to see me when I was most vulnerable? Was he being creepy?
“How long were you looking at me, anyway?”
He said, “I don’t know. I went to get you some water because you said you always drink a glass of water when you wake up. But I didn’t want to wake you so I just waited.”
He said it like it was no big deal, and I guess it wasn’t, but you know what – it made a difference. And I was a lot more comfortable after that. Specially later, when I realised that for a guy to admit he got you a glass of water and was happy to watch you sleep, is actually a moment of vulnerability for him.
The first person I pillow talked with was my best and oldest friend, Maz. We grew up together and neither of us can remember a time when we weren’t friends. Our parents were best friends, and we were born two months apart, and ever since we can remember it’s been like this giant family. Weekend lunches together at least twice a month, holidays together, never living further away than a 20-minute drive… One time my mum got sick and dad had to take care of her so they couldn’t make the parent-teacher interviews, so Maz’s parents stood in for them. It helped that Maz and I went to the same school, but it’s still a bit of a deal and gives you and idea of how close we are were and are.
So Maz and I were thrown into bed together from very early on. When the weekend lunches extended into dinner and afterwards and we kids were spent after a day’s play, we were bundled into the same bed and would drift off to sleep, listening to our parents’ laughter and talk through the closed door, as they conversed and drank their red wine into the night. It was a beautiful feeling, being in bed with your best friend in the world, while our parents, each other’s best friends in the whole wide world, were outside keeping watch and having their own fun. At some point when we were fast asleep, the appropriate parent would come in and take their daughter to her own bed at home.
As we got older, these became our first sleepovers, possibly a lot earlier than other kids have sleepovers, but to Maz and me, each other’s homes and families were like an extension of our own, so it wasn’t ever a big deal.
We didn’t drift off to sleep any more. We were having our own fun. At first head-to-toe and then next to each other with one of us in a camp bed, we would whisper and giggle until we were breathless. Sometimes we would laugh so hard we were sure one of our parents would come in and tell us to be quiet, but they never did. All these years we wondered whether they didn’t hear us, or just didn’t care, but writing this story made me ask them. A few times we heard you, Dad said. So you didn’t care? I asked him. Oh, we cared, he answered, just not about how late you went to sleep.
Older still, and we started crushing. First, predictably and safely, it was a boy band: New Kids on The Block. Maz liked Jordan, I liked Joey. We gushed, we fangirled, we wrote letters to them professing undying love, and fantasised. And shortly afterwards, when we were about 10 we confessed the boy we had a crush on at school. And yes, that’s singular. One boy: Michael. It seemed perfectly normal that we had a crush on the same boy. We shared everything else. There was no competition, and of course it was all so innocent, we didn’t even think about which one of us we might like best. Our pillow talks were all about him: how athletic he was, how clever he was, how perfect his blonde hair was, how his eyes twinkled when he was being cheeky.
But innocence isn’t forever. And it doesn’t take a horrible event for it to go away. Sometimes it’s a sudden realisation that mysteriously appears out of nowhere, and things are never the same way again.
We hadn’t long turned 13 and were now in high school. In one of our sleepovers, the conversation turned, like it so often did, to boys, and which ones we were crushing on. I asked her who she liked in this new school, and as she prepared to answer I had this sinking feeling, like I knew. She told me his name, and confirmed it. Once again, it was the same guy. My oldest, best friend, in love with a boy who inspired in me what was sure to be the greatest love the world had ever known and ignited the loins I had barely been aware of six months ago. I was heartbroken. But bigger than that, here is where my innocence up and took off because I suddenly knew with blinding certainty that the days where we could share a crush were over. Sharing a crush could be utterly devastating. To one of us, to both of us, to the friendship, I didn’t know, but I knew it had potential to be the worst thing that had ever happened.
Maz asked me who I was in love with. Maybe it was the way she was looking up at me from the camp bed, her face softly smiling in the soft light of my bedside lamp, but there was almost something about it, like a silent plea, and I knew I had to make a decision. A quick decision, and the right decision.
And I did.
What happened then isn’t as important as what’s happening right now. As I write this, partner and glass of red wine at my elbow and delivery pizza on the way, it’s getting late. My son Daniel is already in bed asleep, and my daughter and Maz’s are in the family room where they’ve barricaded themselves with an abundance of blankets, pillows, junk food, and an “ADULTS AND DANIEL DO NOT ENTER” sign on the closed door. There are breathless giggles coming from the other side. I text Maz to see if she’s ready. She replies almost instantly:
“I’m gonna destroy you at Words with Friends.”
He and I did a lot of pillow talking, and a lot of pillow communication that didn’t involve talking. He loved looking into my eyes, smoothing the hair back from my face. It was beautiful, and often intense.
I’ll never forget one time, one perfect time, after making love. As he looked at me he shook his head as if in disbelief and said, “I… adore you.”
Just a few weeks later I found myself in a stunned stupor after his funeral, looking into the same eyes, this time red-rimmed and set in his mother’s face. She also smoothed my hair back and said, “He loved you so much.”
I couldn’t speak because I couldn’t ask what I wanted to ask, “How do you know?”
I couldn’t ask and I never would. A mother’s loss makes my loss insignificant. But it’s been over two years and it never ends.
He never said “I love you”. He told me I was beautiful, that I meant the world to him, and that one time, that he adored me. And he made me feel loved, treasured, like the only woman in the entire world.
There are good days when I face the world with strength and vigour and I think that’s more than enough: the way someone treats you, the way they make you feel, that’s what counts. There are people out there who say “I love you” and are abusive to the people they supposedly love. The words are meaningless.
But there are bad days when the words he never said mean everything. I wonder if this is as far as he could go. He adored me, thought I was beautiful and important, but didn’t quite love me. Not like that. Not like the love that makes you actually come out and say “I love you”. He had every opportunity in the world to say it and never did.
I’m in a limbo. What would have happened if he hadn’t died? Would we have stayed together? Would the relationship have run its course a few months or even a few years later? Was he the man destined to love me more than any other, forever and ever, and he’s now gone? Or was he the right man for the time – something lovely to prepare me for an even bigger love?
At this point, I don’t care. I just wish I knew.
We have a very old-fashioned tradition in my family: there’s always a clean handkerchief under the pillow. No one knows when or why it started. Could be because of Mary Poppins, or could be because the vast majority of us are allergic to something, from cat hair to a single speck of dust. Family get-togethers are very snuffly, and if things get bad for one of us, someone always has a supply of Zyrtec on hand.
But back to my pillow, and the clean cotton hankie underneath.
It’s the middle of the night and I’m peacefully asleep next to Finley, my partner of nine-and-a-bit years. Peacefully except for the sniffles, because it’s the day before our cleaner comes over, and we don’t clean the house before she comes any more. I reach under my pillow for the hankie to blow my nose but it feels strange – heavy. I shake it out and feel that there’s something cold and metallic tangled in one corner.
I turn on my bedside lamp and wince as the light stabs my eyes. I look, and knotted in a corner of the handkerchief is something that looks suspiciously like a gold ring with a diamond in the middle and lots of little diamonds on either side. I must be dreaming. I shake my head. But when I stop shaking the ring is still there.
I shove Finley awake, and don’t stop shoving until I can tell he’s properly awake.
“What’s this?” I ask.
“What does it look like?” he asks back. He sounds annoyed, but not really. I’m the one who’s annoyed. Or maybe not really.
“I thought we agreed we weren’t going to do this,” I say.
“This. Diamond rings,” I say pointedly.
“We agreed to no such thing,” he says, and makes a move like he’s going to go back to sleep. I shove him again.
“Not to rings themselves! I mean… to what they mean.”
“So what do they mean?” He’s looking at me with that look. The one that makes me feel a little weak.
“You know – commitment. Love forever.”
“And I’m not committed? Haven’t I loved you all this time and promised to keep on loving you?”
“You know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes you do. Marriage. There – I said it.”
“Is that what you want it to mean?”
“Well, whether I want it to or not, that’s what it means to me. Bloody diamond marketing.”
“I know it’s been a long time since we’ve talked about it, but would you want to get married?”
My mind and my heart are a jumble. It used to be so simple. As simple as it is to anyone who always knew they wanted to end up married, I always knew I didn’t. But the longer I was with Finley, the more marriage didn’t seem like marriage – at least, not what I used to think marriage was. But this was unexpected and it was 2am and I was confused.
I shrugged. He kissed me lightly on the lips and said,
“Tell you what. You put the ring on overnight and let me know in the morning.”
He lay down and turned over.
I put the ring on. It winked at me.
I turned the lamp off and lay, eyes wide open, feeling this unfamiliar weight on my so-called ring finger, listening to Finley’s even breath. The way he’d left the ring for me, the way he was asking me questions about what I wanted, and how he wasn’t pressuring me, I realised marriage wasn’t just marriage. It was marriage with Finley, and like life with Finley, it would be its own, incomparable thing.
I turned towards him.
“Fin?” I called softly.
“I don’t want to wait overnight,” I said. “If you don’t actually pop the question, because you know I’d hate that… I think I do. I do.”
And eight months later, we did. And 8 years later, we are.
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:
Rehearsal BY Scarlett A
Moments of vulnerability BY Cassie
Breathless giggles BY Caroline Merton
I wish I knew BY Anonymous
Of rings and hankies BY Tamsyn
And that’s it for the season! It’s been a blast. Hard work too, but great work, the best work. Storytelling – in any form – is the best work.
Thank you so, so much for listening. I appreciate each and every one of you who tunes in but a special thanks to those of you who have listened to each episode, from intro to bonus, and the few of you who listen almost immediately after an episode comes out. It blows me away.
So what will I be doing during the break? Well, having a bit of a rest. Hopefully getting fit on my new treadmill. Reading. I’ve also got a work of fiction that I’d like to spend some time working on; Shane’s created this brilliant plotting software that I want to try out with it.
And I’ll also be working on the next season of Pillow Talking. Gathering stories, and playing with it a bit. Not too much.
But the other super important thing I’ll be doing during the break is staying in touch! Not just on socials but with a couple of bonus episodes. You’ve spoken, and I listened, and the consensus is for me to go off-script, and talk about storytelling – so I’ll probably be combining the two. Might even bring someone in for this! We shall see. Stay tuned!
Remember that even though Pillow Talking proper is on hiatus, you can still rate, review and share – it helps me so much, so please don’t take a break from me! You can also check out show notes, connect with me and share your own pillow talking story at https://pillowtalkingproject.com/ And remember you can now also pick up a copy of the Pillow Talking zine for FREE from Sticky Institute in the Flinders St subway, or if you’re somewhere else in the world you can get one sent one to you, from Free Zine Volcano: you pay the postage, they send you the zine. You can find Free Zine Volcano on Facebook, or go to https://smallzinevolcano.bigcartel.com.
Until the next season, please take care of yourselves. And each other.