Natasha Rai

Natasha Rai, an Indian-Australian woman, was born in India, migrating to Australia with her parents at the age of ten. She lived in the UK for several years as an adult, and the influence of three homes features in her writing. Her work has appeared in Australia’s first #MeToo anthology, Enough anthology about gender violence, Overland, Verity La, StylusLit, and New-York based Adelaide magazine. Her first novel, AN ONSLAUGHT OF LIGHT, longlisted for the 2017 Richell Prize, 2018 KYD Unpublished Manuscript award, and highly commended for the Ultimo Press/Westwords 2020 Prize, will be published by Pantera Press in 2025.

Pairing Off

The first pair are thongs. She almost misses them, running past the yellow house on the pretty street with overhanging trees. For a moment, she considers stopping, but doesn’t want to break the rhythm of her run. The image of the thongs glues itself onto her brain. She deliberately loops back on the way home. They’re still there, undisturbed.

‘They looked so weird. On the street, one in front of the other facing the house, as though the person wearing them evaporated and left their thongs behind,’ she says to her husband, at home, after a cool shower.

He grunts, staring at his phone.

‘Did you hear what I said?’ She wants to rip the phone from his hand and smash it on the kitchen tiles.

‘Flip flops,’ says her husband, smiling at his phone.

She leaves the room, knowing he hasn’t noticed she’s gone.

Her Friday run is by the water’s edge on a street where a straggly row of houses looms silently. Trees with triumphant roots bursting out of the tarmac, watch impassively as she dodges the bumps. This time she stops. A pair of women’s black flats. Like the thongs, they are placed in the style of someone who has stepped out of them mid stride. Should she take a photo? She looks up and down the street, empty apart from her and the shoes, the promise of day showing in the gold and pink edging of clouds.

She takes a photo and runs up the hill, irritated at herself for stopping for something that is so obviously a joke. Or a prank? Is she going to stumble across a Tik Tok of her staring dumbly at shoes while the world laughs at her? At home, she shows the photo to her husband, who glances at it and away as though she’s shown him hardcore porn. Looking at the photo anew, she sees the banality of the shoes. One click, and it’s deleted.

Her best friend, Chloe, comes over. They stroll down to the shops – coffee, shopping, maybe a cheeky afternoon wine.

‘There’s a house I saw online for sale,’ says Chloe. ‘Wanna see?’

They head down one of the steep streets towards the glinting water. A trickle of sweat runs down her back, and her face is awash with it. They go past the pub, a blast of aircon through the open door beckoning to her.

‘Let’s go in here. It’s so hot,’ she says, wishing she could tug Chloe’s hand and pull her into the cold interior of the pub; the promise of oblivion in every bottle, winking at her behind the bar.

‘We’re nearly there,’ says Chloe. ‘C’mon.’

The house is gorgeous – two storeys, recently painted, a miniscule rectangle of waving plants lining the short path to the front door.

‘It’s nice,’ she says to Chloe, knowing her friend’s penchant for looking and not buying.

‘It’s just big enough. But as the girls get older, they won’t want to share a room, so there’s that issue. It’s only two bedrooms.’ Chloe’s brow furrows as though she is serious about this house.

‘Hmm,’ she says, calculating the quickest route back to the pub. She turns and her heart hammers unsteadily.

At the base of the large tree on the edge of the pavement, is a pair of red, strappy heels. Like the other pairs, they are not side by side, but mimic the stance of a walk.

‘Do you see them?’ she asks, pointing.

Chloe looks at them and laughs. ‘Do you need a pair of shoes?’

A nervous giggle rises unsteadily from her throat into her mouth. ‘I’ve been seeing different shoes everywhere. Placed like these. All of them are women’s shoes. Do you think it’s a joke?’

‘If it is, it’s not very funny.’ Chloe turns her back on the shoes. ‘I’ll talk to Adam about the house. C’mon, let’s get a drink.’

She turns back several times to look at the shoes as they walk away. Why are they getting to her so much? What do the shoes mean? In the pub, they order a bottle of sparkling wine. Amid their conversation, the shoes flash in and out of her thoughts like a lighthouse beacon, luring her closer. Did the women intentionally leave their shoes on the street? Were they stolen and arranged like that? Perhaps it’s the same woman. She realises she never checked the sizes of the shoes.

‘I’ll be back.’ Chloe heads to the toilet.

She checks her phone – no messages. A woman sitting at a nearby table is staring at her. Her brown hair is trimmed and shaped like a halo around her face. The woman’s dark eyes lock onto hers, and she’s embarrassed by the slow flush of arousal that starts in her groin and moves up into her belly, shooting up into her chest and face.

Chloe returns to the table, and she wrenches her gaze away from the woman, forcing herself not to check if she’s still looking at her.

‘Should we have another bottle?’ Chloe asks.

‘Let me check what Matt’s doing.’ She sends the message. Seconds later her husband replies telling her to stay out and have fun – he isn’t home.

She goes to the bar, clutching her card. The haloed hottie materialises by her side.

‘You saw the shoes,’ she whispers into her ear. The haloed woman is so close, her lips graze the top of her ear, sending waves of desire through her.

She’s misheard. ‘What?’ She tilts her head to look up into the woman’s eyes.

‘The shoes. You know about them.’

She’s drunk. That’s what it is. Her drunk mind is weaving the stupid shoes and this sexy woman together.

‘It’s not a joke.’ Her tone is insistent. ‘You choose. You choose to leave them behind.’

‘And then what? Buy a new pair?’ She giggles. What would happen if she leant into her to smell her neck? Tell her she’s hot and that she wants to feel her naked chest against her own.

‘You’ll see. You’ll know your moment when it arrives.’

The bartender interrupts and when she turns to resume the conversation after ordering, the woman is gone. Back at the table, she’s disappointed at the sight of the empty glass where she was sitting earlier.

‘Did you see that woman?’ she asks Chloe, pouring prosecco into their glasses.

‘Which one?’

‘The one with the short dark hair. She spoke to me at the bar.’

Chloe’s eyes light up with mischief. ‘What did she say? Where is she?’ She looks around the pub.

‘Nothing. Doesn’t matter. I think I’m pissed.’

‘Me too!’ They clink glasses.

Once home, her head buzzing with prosecco, she thinks about the woman and the shoes. She can choose to leave them behind. What does that mean?

Her phone pings. It’s her husband texting to say he’ll stay at a mate’s place. She sighs. There was a time when he hated being away from her. She messages a couple of friends, suddenly wanting to be out in the world, seen by others. No one replies. Is this her life now? Flinging crumbs of longing into the world that are met with indifference and silence. When did she become invisible?

Her routine shudders along, the connection to her husband growing fainter. They now spend entire evenings in silence on their devices, sitting together, separated by a continent of unsaid things. Netflix is always on, actors playing out lives vibrant and brighter than her own.

She sees the shoes everywhere, during her runs, buying groceries, out for a coffee. Each pair different, worn. She checks on the ones she’s seen before. Some are still there, others have gone. She no longer wonders why their owners left them; she wonders where they are. Do those women miss their lost shoes? Increasingly, she thinks about that woman in the pub. About what she said. She can just choose to leave them. Where will she go if she chooses? Can she return and reclaim them?

One night without a word of explanation, her husband sleeps in the spare room. In the morning, when she asks, he says he didn’t want to disturb her as she went to bed hours before him. Without any further discussion, he sleeps in the spare room most nights returning to their bedroom, occasionally, wearing an expression of distaste when she asks him. Summoning her courage, she strokes his arm, leaning in for a kiss.

He recoils like he’s been bitten. ‘I’m tired,’ he says, his gaze already returning to his phone. ‘Ask me tomorrow.’

Summer sharpens to winter, and back to spring. The shoes multiply, becoming more visible even as her life disappears before her own eyes. She brings a brown pair of sandals home, cleans them, gets them repaired by the local shoe place, and stares at them at night as her husband laughs in another room. Nothing happens. The shoes are inanimate, lifeless next to the other pairs she owns. Cleaning and mending them feels like a desecration.

She doesn’t tell Chloe or any other of her friends about her decaying marriage. She knows she needs to talk to Matt, but she’s so scared. What if he says things she doesn’t want to hear? She’s taken to weeping silently in bed, hating herself for being so weak, but finding solace in the wet pillow. Perhaps, tomorrow she will be stronger. Perhaps, tomorrow the words trapped in her throat will fly out of her mouth like birds released.

On Saturday, Matt puts on his suit and knots a blue silk tie.

‘Where are you going?’ she asks.

‘I told you. Dave’s invited me to Randwick. He’s a member.’

She stares at his back; absolutely certain he never said a word. Do you still love me? The question hovers in the space between them, but she snatches it out of the air unable to bear the look that might settle on his face if she utters it aloud.

After he leaves, restlessness urges her into the car. She drives down to the bay, deciding on a different, longer run. She’ll reward herself at the bay side café with breakfast afterwards. The usual loop of thoughts jog through her mind in rhythm with her feet. She realises as she sweeps up the path, there are no shoes here. She stops, looks up and down the empty track. It’s time. She decides. Today, she’ll leave her shoes here. Make a mark in an untouched place. Another woman will run by and wonder about her shoes. Someone will wonder about her; someone will want to know more about her. First, she’ll finish her run. Then, she will offer her shoes.

She rounds a bend, the golden sun dancing on the lapping water, when she glances behind. Her running shoes are behind her. When she looks down at her feet, she still wears them, yet they are also behind her, left in the same position as all the other pairs. Slowing down, she walks back to the shoes on the path. Yes, they are hers. And yet, not. There are two pairs, the ones on the path and the ones on her feet. She can choose.

She feels no curiosity about this contradiction. For the first time, in a long time, a space opens in her chest. She breathes a lungful of sweet air, noticing the loveliness of the water, the bright pink flowers of the trees lining the path. She feels free. She resumes her run. Nearing the café, she is unsurprised to see the halo-haired woman from the pub nearly a year ago who told her she could choose. Well, she’s chosen. She comes to a halt in front of her, for once breathing easily after such a long run.

She takes her outstretched hand. Her shoes are forgotten, as is everything else. The world brims with possibilities.