Amber Lights

Rory Hawkins

One of the women ran to my car door, her hands chapelled above her head to keep the rain away. Katie and I had passed the two of them en route from the restaurant. We had strolled by, under separate umbrellas; they dipped between cover, together in fashionably short black dresses. ‘I’m so, so sorry but can you give us a lift? Just a few blocks, to Cultural.’

I looked to Katie – her car. ‘Sure, no problem,’ she said.

‘Thank you so, so much.’ The two women bundled in. As Katie pulled away from the curb, I asked what brought them out that night. ‘We’re up from Gold Coast,’ said one. ‘She just quit her job so I’m taking her out to celebrate.’

I knew what she’d say next. I remember my heart throttling in my throat.

‘What about you two? You a couple?’

‘We’re friends,’ Katie said.

I told them we’d just had dinner and were going to a bar near the Gabba for a gig. The band playing were other friends of Katie’s. I don’t remember how I said it, but she must’ve heard something in my voice. ‘Actually,’ Katie said, ‘we’re on our second date.’

The two women in the backseat awed, wished us the best.

I swallowed, felt something settle.

After dropping them off, I joked about how you can tell who doesn’t go out very often by the way they dress. As a saturated Southbank blurred by, Katie asked if I minded her driving using only one hand. I said if I died, I’d let her know.

‘What, you’ll come back as a ghost?’

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘I’ll haunt you, complaining or making jokes the whole time. Believe me, I will be your boyfriend, just as a ghost. Baaabe, you look nice todaaay.’

Katie laughed, and I thought, this is how this could be. I kept going: ‘Course, I’ll eventually run out of material. I’ll end up doing observational humour, like a spectral Jerry Seinfeld. That’s when you’ll find me annoying.’

Maybe that broke our rhythm. I remember when she didn’t react or reply, I started fiddling with the radio. Maybe she wasn’t sure how to answer; I know how that can feel. Or Katie was just concentrating on running an amber light. ‘I’ve never liked Seinfeld,’ she eventually said. ‘Or any sitcom, really. You can always predict what’s going to happen next.’

I thought better than to say that that’s the point. There’s a lethargic joy to knowing how (usually) fictional others are about to harmlessly fuck up but in that moment the irony felt too appropriate. Katie’s windscreen framed us almost perfectly, streetlight broken across rain spatter like static on a TV screen when there’s a shoddy connection.




‘I want to ask you about monogamy,’ Katie had said over vegan tapas. ‘Is that okay?’

So, I had said that since she’d brought it up, we had to. But she had to go first.

And Katie said, ‘I’ve been dating this poly guy for a while. Only a couple months, really.’ Then she batted her eyes and tilted her head around unsure words while I just smiled and nodded. I remember thinking very clearly to myself: you should know how your life works. There I was, at the same signal I’d just passed the other side of Christmas. I was burning rubber on the same dating track. I cut my brakes and said my piece.

I told Katie about her predecessor, Emma.

That second date had started on Emma’s front room sofa, led up the ladder to her loft bedroom and then, several sweatier hours later, finished with dropping me off at a poetry reading. And then that night, on the bus home, alone, I had that feeling. You know, when the world around you expands and contracts and all that new/old space prickles with light and detail. I checked my phone.

A new line on Emma’s Tinder profile: Polyamorous, so everyone and anyone.

‘That’s a shitty thing to do,’ Katie said. ‘She should’ve let you know first.’

I shrugged, but I supposed Katie was now the expert.

I finished my mouthful of cheeseless arancini. ‘We kept seeing each other for a month, so…’ I tried a smile. ‘Y’know what she said when I messaged her about it? That she’s actually very open, loves honesty and communication.’

Katie rolled her eyes. ‘So, how’d it end?’

I called it miscommunication. I left out Emma’s failed threesome and my follow-up joke with the unicorn costume. I only gave up what I needed to. But that wasn’t the problem. Either Katie was a kindred spirit, just hitching a lift with someone else, or one more ride-or-die polyamorous.

‘So,’ she purred, ‘what are you doing on Tinder now?’

I sat a little further back in my seat and reminded Katie that’s why I’d added her on Facebook. I was off dating apps; my New Year’s resolution had been deleting them all.

‘Too many red flags?’ she teased.

‘I am the king of red flags,’ I threw back. A little too loud. I caught a glance from the older couple a table over, but Katie giggled, then tried copying my accent over a few phrases, sounding the ‘r’s on even teeth and lilting vowels with her tongue.

I’d already played up being English/Irish-ish on our first date the week before; it seemed to still be working. Another mouthful of vegan arancini to celebrate this. I said that I was just living true to my name. Rory means red king.

Katie rested her head on a hand. ‘I wonder where my name is from,’ she mused.

I had to take a drink and swallow, or I’d choke. ‘You’re kidding right?’

‘Nah. Or where my family’s from originally.’ She rearranged her bangs. ‘I mean, other than just Europe, like most Australians.’

Katie’s hair was the glossiest natural red, that cliché orange as autumn leaves, how Hallowe’en pumpkins glow, red in name but somewhere between that and living amber. I took out my phone and made a show of looking up her full name, but I already knew the answer. I said hers was Irish too.

‘Really? Let me guess what it means.’ Even in that chic low lighting, you could see the pale colour of her irises when she cast them up in thought. ‘Like, ‘brave’ or something?’

‘Yes,’ I smirked. ‘Because people historically wanted women to be brave. You’re thinking of the movie, and that’s Scottish.’

‘What does it mean then?’


Katie rolled her green, green eyes. ‘Well, I’m anything but.’

But pure of heart enough to insist on splitting the bill, waiting without one judging look when the restaurant’s machine declined my card over and over. Not my fault; when front of house reset the till, it went straight through.

‘Have you tried turning it off and on again?’ quoth Katie in her best accent.

Like I’d never heard that before. Still, the Celtic card plays a long game, one that ventures into the night. Katie had mentioned her friends’ band was playing. That seemed like the best, if not only, idea. Light showers outside had harshened over our date. Water crowded the air, hissing on every concrete and bitumen surface, bending to every shape of the wind. Queensland rain isn’t very romantic. One umbrella between us wouldn’t have been enough. I unfurled mine and, with her leprechaun height, Katie disappeared under hers.

But thoughts lingered. I wanted to be honest.

No ‘miscommunication’ this time.

Even without any cars, we stopped at the lights. The red man blurred behind water. I said I thought polyamory was a complete waste of time. ‘Nothing to do with my past experience, I just think it is.’

Katie tilted her umbrella up to listen.

I went on about how much time we all have between friendships, hobbies, careers. Even dating around takes up time, with apps, with people, with yourself and your own feelings, before you know if anyone means anything to you. Why decide to keep splitting that time and attention again and again for the rest of your life?

Green man walking, alarm drowned out.

Katie disappeared under her umbrella. ‘You make a good point,’ she said.

And then we passed by two women dressed black as omens, ill-equipped for the rain.




After the gig, Katie insisted we browse the shabby op-shop above the bar. Op-shops and polyamorous women must go hand in hand in hand. Again, that stray thought, you should know how your life works, and Emma.

We’d been in a Vintage Revival when I asked if the threesome had been worth it, and she told me the couple had called it off because the guy’s dad had died suddenly from a heart condition two days prior. I like to imagine it as a sitcom episode aged just as badly as op-shop menswear: Junior struts in, tells Pops about his impending menage-a-trois and the old man’s soul just cruises into the sunset, carried by generic shock, conservative disappointment, or sheer pride for his offspring’s achievement. I think that’s funnier than what I might have said after to Emma, a bisexual woman, about a unicorn costume. That was the last day we saw each other.

Maybe op-shops aren’t for people like me.

But I didn’t share this. Instead, I small talked my best until Katie had to go – plus me, the dependent passenger. As she drove me to the nearest train station, I told her how nice her friends were. For the first time in years, I felt young, the guys all firm handshakes and full beards, ladies comfortable to talk over drinks with some dude they just met. I remember Katie telling me she’d never dated someone her own age before. ‘Really? How old are your friends?’ I asked. ‘Most seemed married.’

‘Nah, just very committed relationships.’

That left her.

Katie sat beside me, one hand on the driver’s wheel, the other in mine.

I knew what I wanted to say.

The deluge had kept up. I remember that water spatter static building up on the glass again and again. Woolloongabba would blur, the build-up would mechanically be waved away, and again we’d be two people framed hand in hand behind that screen. All climates accounted for, the road forward felt no clearer.

I knew what I wanted to say, and I didn’t like myself for it.

‘I really like you,’ I said. ‘I like talking with you.’

‘I really like you too,’ replied Katie. ‘I think you’re funny and talented, and cute.’

I said that sometimes I’m able to be. ‘And I think you’re all those things too. I’d say you’re cute more often too, but I think that’s already very, very obvious.’

Katie teased back. ‘Oh really?’

‘Yeah, to me, at least.’ We turned out the street. ‘About the poly thing,’ I started. Rain lapped up streetlight in pools to match Katie’s hair, somewhere between red and amber. ‘I know it’s early days, so I don’t think it bothers me right now.’

Then I asked if Katie wanted to go on another date.

‘I think,’ she said. ‘That depends on you.’

I like to think that, in that moment, we both knew we were liars.

Author: Rory Hawkins is an English/Irish-grown and Meanjin/Brisbane-based Creative Writing student in his final year, who aspires to work in commercial publishing and editing. Rory loves exploring ideas of expectations, perspective, and the every-day made weird. Find his work in QUT Glass, ScratchThat and read aloud with QUT Literary Salon.

Artist: Lilian Martin is a writer, poet, and now artist based in Meanjin/Brisbane, who wants to publish their own zines one day! They used to be keen on the art thing in high-school and have slowly been trying to ignite their visual spark once again. They have begun incorporating visual elements into their writing career by designing magazines, doing illustrations, and making graphics for the QUT Literary Salon. You can find both their writing and visual work at

Editors: Brock Scholte