‘Two quarter-pounders, no patty,’ a small man behind the counter shouted. I almost let out a sigh of relief. Then, I remembered that one of the meatless burgers was mine and felt even more depressed.
When I was twenty, I shared a house with three women who were older and more interesting than I was. We lived far from the city, and the house was always filthy, partly because two of the women were hoarders, but also because we lacked experience. Without our mothers tidying in our wake, pubes crowded around the base of toilet seats and moths colonised the pantry. Everyone had dreams of becoming artistic. There were guitars in most rooms, and amateur oil-paintings of hands and tigers adorned the walls. On our kitchen counter was an owl made from chicken wire, plastic plates, and bits of corrugated iron.
The women were all experimenting with their sexuality and went clubbing together. They would come home at three or four in the morning, high and craving pancakes. Roz would cook, and sometimes I would rise to join the women for their debrief; the combing over what had, and what had not, gone down. At the time, these stories thrilled me. They offered a view into a world to which I rode parallel but could never enter. Years later, I can remember only one of these evenings with any clarity. Phoebe, after eating two dinners and doing a line, had sharted on the dancefloor. Through screaming bursts of laughter, she demonstrated how the clubgoers had pinched their noses and danced away from her. I liked Phoebe. For a while, it had seemed likely that we would fuck. More than once, she had once curled up beside me on the couch to watch South Park, resting her head on my thigh.
One afternoon, sweating into the tinder-box heat of my bedroom, I spent three hours on the phone with my mother. I was trying to explain all the reasons I felt hurt. My mother was a formidable woman—various high-school teachers had confessed to being afraid of her. She had raised her siblings, all eleven of them, in the shadow of her alcoholic father. In a fit of rage, she once picked me up by my ears and carried me across the room.
We had begun to speak again recently, after over a year of silence. I told mum I had not forgiven her for beating me as a child, and also, for choosing to love my sister more, who demanded more attention through her destructive behaviour. She said that she was seeing a therapist twice per week. Toward the end of the phone call, she asked me how I was going now, really, and I said I was good. Outside, the tall weeds that grew through the cracked concrete were swaying. Funny, I thought, how most life just carries on. I’m sorry, mum said. I knew that moment mattered.
That Saturday, at big-band practice, I told Liz about the phone call. She played bass and fiddled lightly with the strings as I spoke. She occasionally nodded. Her mother had borderline personality disorder, and her father sometimes camped in their backyard to escape his wife’s rages. I knew she would understand. We had become friends playing in an orchestra for a high school production of ‘The Pyjama Game’; we sometimes joked that we had been through a lot together.
The band was almost, but not quite, a big band. Cobbled together through a loose network of amateur musicians, we always had too few trumpets and an overflow of trombones, an undesirable mix of alto and tenors in the sax section. Most of us were young, but there were a few over fifties in the mix too. I played the piano, a position I knew three other band members envied because the conductor would never single you out for being off-key. They were better players than me, but they couldn’t comp.
‘It all depends,’ Liz said.
‘With your mother,’ Liz said. ‘It all depends on whether you think she can change.’
‘She sounded pretty upset,’ I said. ‘She cried, like, a lot.’
Liz fiddled with the knobs on her amp, smoothing out the tone of her instrument.
‘Paul says that people are incapable of changing, that you have the right to cut anyone out of your life that has traumatised you.’
Paul was Liz’s partner. They had been dating for two years. For a while, I had liked him quite a bit, and then not at all. His annunciation was flawless, and I suspected that he was gay. Since they had started dating, Liz had less time for me. Whereas we once spoke at least twice a week, we could now go months without a proper conversation.
‘Well, Paul’s a nihilist,’ I said.
‘You say that like it’s a slur.’
She grinned as she said this, and I smiled back. We were making fun of Paul, and I revelled in the realisation. Liz’s look turned serious.
‘He’s been reading a lot of Marx lately,’ she said.
‘So he’s a Marxist who doesn’t believe in the revolution?’
Liz threw her head back and let out a single hacking, ha.
I had made her laugh, this was good.
‘Hey!’ the conductor shouted, rattling his baton against the music stand. He counted to four, and in a vaguely mistuned blast of horns, the band ambled into the opening bars of Mr Zoot Suit.
I knew that I was wasting my life. I had already lost my adolescence to my mother’s anxiety. As a nurse who worked in Emergency, she had seen too many teens stabbed or mangled by car accidents to let me party. It was why I left home at eighteen. I wanted to enter the real world. Instead, I spent weeks alone in my bedroom, watching reality television and masturbating. I played a lot of Mario Kart online.
I knew there were worse fates than loneliness. Through school, boys had bullied me for my soft disposition, a gentleness of posture that they saw as threatening. ‘Don’t let them put you in a box’ was a slogan hurled at me by teachers so often that it stuck. I spoke as little as possible, hid away in the library. I stubbornly refused to be seen, so that they could not sort me. Maybe because it’s obvious, nobody bothers to tell children that labels—bitch, fag, slut, nerd—have a power. Nobody tells you that they give you a place from which to grow. When I finally realised this, I felt like St Paul struck down by the light of divine revelation. It shifted who I could be. But this would come later, on the eve of my thirties. For now, I believed that solitude was the answer.
I was watching an old season of The Mole when I received an email from my mother. On the show, the contestants were divided into three groups. It was a counting challenge—one group had to count sheep, another baby chicks, and another needles in a haystack. If the group got the answer correct, they would win a great deal of money for the kitty, but if they guessed incorrectly, they would lose 1000 dollars. I had seen this episode before. The mole secretly pockets the needles, throwing off the count.
My mother’s email was unfocused, and largely covered the themes of our previous conversation: abuse, anxiety, my sister. My granny was close to death now, which was a relief, she confessed. Mum explained that her psych had recommended that she experiment with ‘this mode of correspondence’—my mother complained that she had difficulty expressing herself on the phone. In writing, she felt that she could edit herself into clarity. It seemed to me that the opposite was true; that my mother found liberation without somebody to cut her off. The email was almost two-thousand words long.
In one passage, my mum had linked to a song on YouTube, Sukiyaki. She wrote: Do you remember this? You learnt it for Japanese in primary school. It was in a movie I saw last week, The Double, and it made me think of you, standing on stage with the rest of your class, singing. You told me at the time that the song was about a widower who looks to the sky whenever he thinks of his dead wife so that other people can’t see him crying. But no, I looked it up, and it’s not about that at all. Apparently, the man who wrote it, Kyu Sakamoto, composed it walking home from a protest against the ongoing occupation of Japan by U.S troops. The song is generic enough to be about love. But it’s really about imperialism. I always thought it was weird, a class of white nine-year-olds being taught to sing such a morbid song, even if the melody was so lovely. God knows what your teacher was thinking. ‘Sukiyaki,’ I said aloud, committing the title to memory. Yaki. I replied to mum:
‘Doesn’t yaki mean fried?’
Her reply came quickly.
‘The song had another title in Japan,’ she said. ‘But it was too hard for Americans to remember, so they named it after a popular dish.’
I knew Liz would think this would be a funny story, and resolved to tell it to her at band practice. But upon arriving that Saturday, I could see that she would not be in the mood. She was paler than usual, and purple bags hung under her eyes. All night, she was offbeat to the ire of the conductor who kept flicking the baton at her like a wand with increasing ferocity. It made me very anxious.
‘Are you ok?’ I said to her during the break.
I had to suppress a smile of excitement. This had long been a dream of mine, for band practice to transition into something else. Rehearsal was always on a Saturday night, and I had tried to get people to come drinking with me, or to dinner, without success. Besides Liz, I had known many of the band members since high school. We were friends, but not close. But I imagined we might be. Tonight promised to be different.
Waiting for our order at McDonald’s, I asked Liz if she thought we’d be ready for the concert. Somehow, the conductor had landed us a gig at a hall in three weeks. So far, we had sold eighty tickets, mostly to friends and family. We needed two hours’ worth of music but only knew six songs.
‘I dunno,’ she said. ‘I’m thinking of quitting. The whole thing is sort of lame, don’t you think?’
‘Yeah,’ I said, with what I felt was audible panic. ‘But I suppose… we could just make it our own, you know?’
Liz gave me a sceptical look out of the corner of her eyes.
‘Two quarter-pounders, no patty,’ a small man behind the counter shouted. I almost let out a sigh of relief. Then, I remembered that one of the meatless burgers was mine and felt even more depressed.
Once we were seated, Liz asked when I had gone vegetarian. ‘About a month back,’ I said. This was a lie. I had only ordered a sans-patty burger to match her, to say subliminally that I respected her ethical decision to abstain from meat. She gave an approving nod.
‘You’re a man,’ she said. ‘What does it mean, when a guy tells you his libido is down?’
‘Well, nobody’s ever told me that,’ I said. ‘Men generally don’t confess to other men about their inadequacies. That’s why they get girlfriends. So they have somebody to be vulnerable with.’
Liz laughed. I sat back proudly, took a bite of my meatless burger. Chewing, I thought about how unqualified I was to answer this question— I was still a virgin. I felt, however, that I was doing a passable job.
Liz explained that she and Paul had been fighting. She told me how she needed to be touched, to be wanted more than anything in the world. Often at night, when she reached for his dick, he would shuffle away, grunting. It made her feel like shit. She had tried explaining this to Paul, but he refused to understand.
‘Is it an erectile dysfunction thing?’ I said.
Liz said it wasn’t. ‘When I looked online, all I got was links to mental health services. But Paul says he’s not depressed.’
I couldn’t understand this. Even at my most miserable, I wanked at least three times a day. I wondered if I should say this, but it felt inappropriate, distasteful.
Liz picked up her burger, took a bite. ‘God this is awful,’ she said.
We sat quietly for a while, chewing. This was nice, I thought. Basic. It had been a long time since I’d shared a meal with anybody. We didn’t need to talk further, I felt. We had said everything that needed to be said. Under the harsh fluorescent light, I could see how much the anxiety of this situation had ravaged her. But she was still beautiful. Liz wiped the salt from her lips with the back of her hand. ‘I just hope he’s not getting sick of me,’ she said.
‘I can’t imagine anyone losing interest in you.’
She reached out to take my hand. What I should have said was, ‘I know what it is to want to be wanted.’
‘Do you really think you’ll quit the band?’ I said.
‘No.’ She ran her hands across the table, then said, ‘I’m going to get some chicken nuggets.’
That night, I had a dream about my Japanese teacher. She was perched on a plastic chair, reading to my grade four class, who sat cross-legged on the floor. She had to stop to yell at my classmates, who could not help themselves from talking. Behind her, cut-outs of Hello Kitty and Jigglypuff were stuck to the classroom’s windows.
The book she read was from a collection of stories from Hiroshima. The story she had chosen was about a beautiful woman who was riding the train to work when the bomb fell, consuming everything in a blistering burst of light. The woman woke to the sounds of screams and utter confusion. Somehow, she was entirely unharmed and crawled from the derailed carriage. Outside, there were groans, and bodies piled everywhere.
Not knowing what to do, the woman headed for home in search of her husband. Along the way, she passed those maimed by the bomb. My teacher skipped most of these passages, after accidentally reading out a few details too gory: a woman with a shoulder bone wholly exposed; the children with hollow eye sockets, the fluid from their eyes having melted down their cheeks. The woman is astonished to find her home has been spared. Like her.
The woman spends days waiting for her husband to return. She wants to go out and help the sick, but often, she is swallowed by a tiredness that makes it impossible to leave the bed. She is perpetually thirsty, and strange purple lesions spread down her legs. When her hair falls out, she thinks, this is it, I’m going to die. But she doesn’t die. Day by day, her strength returns.
The story ended with her husband’s return. He does not recognise her. My wife was beautiful, he says. My teacher wept as she read this; a few of my classmates laughed. My teacher’s shamelessness shocked me. I wanted to cry too but knew I could not. I wondered, why doesn’t she just look upwards like the man in Sukiyaki? When I woke, I remembered that the dream was also memory. It had really happened.
I was excited to tell Liz about my dream but could not seem to write a message that did not sound too depressing or simply naff. I knew she would want to analyse it. In her room, she had several dream catchers and a dream dictionary. I imagined us splayed on her purple bedspread; the book laid between us as she questioned me on the colour of the classroom’s walls if the floor was comfortable. I could remember none of these details, but I didn’t matter. I could make them up.
On Friday, something strange happened. I went out. It was Liz’s birthday, and she had organised a night at The Lion Hotel, an English-Style pub below the cinema in Melbourne Central. I had been there twice before and was excited to go again. They had “piano”-oke in the backroom, and a band that played 80s bangers—such hits as ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ and ‘The Summer of 69’.
I took the train into the city with Liz and helped her find a booth near the back. She introduced me to her friends as they arrived, a cavalcade of maladjusted weirdos with adult braces, fedoras, vests and My Chemical Romance t-shirts. It was odd that I knew none of them; yet, another sign of how Liz and I had drifted. I struggled to make conversation with one of the misfits over the full-throated roar of the music. His name was either Daniel or Nathaniel—he seemed to get annoyed when I asked him to clarify for the third time. I asked him how he knew Liz, and he said they had met through his partner, Camille who did pole dancing with Liz. I nodded along. I did not know who Camille was, and I did not know that Liz did pole dancing.
‘What’s your take on it then?’ he shouted.
‘The pole dancing?’ he said. His face was close to mine, and I could feel his spittle landing on my cheek.
‘I imagine it’s pretty good exercise,’ I said.
‘You don’t feel strange to see women up there, parading themselves? You don’t think it’s demeaning?’
In the corner, there were four women, sharing a tray of Tequila sunrises. They were all wearing jeans with a nice top, and I wondered if one of them was the partner of this foul man.
‘No, not really,’ I said. ‘Surely the issue is how then men look at them?’
Daniel/Nathaniel huffed. We talked for a little after that, until the opportunity arose for him to turn away. I was left with nobody to speak with, but I didn’t care. I was mildly drunk. I Gotta Feeling by the Black Eyed Peas was blaring, and my whole being was humming with excitement.
Paul was late, wandering into the pub shortly after ten. I saw him before he spotted us, looking confused by the grand piano, where a drunk woman was belting out an off-key rendition of Rupert Holmes’ Escape. As always, Paul was dressed a little like a banker, with pressed chinos and a baby-blue shirt that showed off his biceps and pinched his skinny-middle. I felt a small spark of excitement through me as I polished off my pint, then waved out to him. He was the only other person here, besides Liz, that I knew.
Even though I thought Paul was a bit of a wanker, I hungered for our conversations. He was always severe and had read a great deal more than me—about philosophy, literature, ecomonics, sex. He adored the Spanish libertarians who had run stateless factories before the rise of Franco. His opinions were often both surprising and trite. In a booth near the pub’s end, we sat close, our cheeks nearly touching. Liz was on the dancefloor with an old friend from school.
‘I’m thinking of moving to Sydney,’ Paul said. ‘I want to study economics.’
This surprised me. ‘I thought you loved philosophy.’
He took a long swig of his beer, his adam’s apple bobbing as he drank. In the low blue light of the bar, his jaw was a bold, dangerous thing.
‘Philosophy is no good if you can’t figure it into the economy,’ he said. ‘I need to do work that matters, something to bring about the revolution. I want to join a union.’
I pretended to play with my fly, to hide my expression. This was classic Paul, both idealistic and egomaniacal. Secretly, I think that he believed the world would turn on the axis of his intelligence.
‘What will that mean for you and Liz?’ I said.
I repeated my question, yelling this time.
‘Maybe we will go long distance. Maybe she’ll join me. We’ve talked about it.’
Funny, I thought, that Liz had kept this from me. She was there then, swaying on her feet. When she leant to kiss Paul, she fell right onto the table. There was an awkward moment, and then they were both laughing. Paul helped her up, then said:
‘I bought you a present.’ He pulled a neatly wrapped package from his bag.
Liz tore it open. She stood still for a while, her face pale with the shock from falling. Then she was leaning in for a kiss. Watching them make out, I felt a tightening feeling of excitement move through my balls, and so I looked at the open present instead. Nestled in brown paper was a hard-cover book: Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. What a wanker, I thought. And then: should I have got a gift? His crotch was at my eye level, and I watched his cock thickening.
That night, I had another dream. In Liz’s bed, I lay with my legs spread. My body was not my own. Paul’s solid weight was over me, hot and damp with the cinnamon smell of his sweat. He licked my breasts, and then his cock was pushing into me. I was aware of the lightness of my voice as I told him to push harder. I never wanted this, but I woke up cumming hard. Shivering, I wiped myself clean with a pair of dirty underpants, trying to console myself. It’s just a metaphor, I thought: He’s going to fuck me up, that’s all there is to it. But why, then, did I cum?
A few days later, I drafted an email to my mother. I lay on my bed as I wrote. I confessed to frequently feeling lonely, most acutely in the company of others. Then, worrying I would scare her, I provided a link to an article detailing a recent YouGov survey, which had found that about a third of my generation ‘always’ or ‘often’ felt lonely. Nearly a quarter could not name a single friend. I wasn’t like that—I had Liz. But did I? I thought of the dream and everything I wanted. To be desired more than anything in the world. I was about to hit send when my phone rang. It was my mother.
‘Your grandmother passed away last night,’ she said.
Her delivery was flat, matter-of-fact.
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I’m sorry’.
I could hear mum’s ragged breath down the line, thick and staticy through the receiver. I knew from experience that she was crying. When she spoke, it was in short, monosyllabic sentences. We did not have much to say. It was very sad, what a good innings she had, when the funeral might be. Ten years ago, my grandmother had said it straight—‘I’m ready to go.’ Shortly after, she took to the recliner in her lounge and refused to rise, unless forced by her children. It was near the end of our conversation that my mother said, ‘I’m glad she’s gone.’
Her breathing had returned to normal.
‘It’s still sad, though, isn’t it?’
Mum stayed on the phone for another ten minutes, listing out the long line of people she would have to call, and then she hung up. I sat on my bed, waiting to see if I would cry then, and when I didn’t, I deleted the email. Without my notice, outside had gone from light to dark. My phone buzzed again—a message from Paul.
‘Randell said you were staring at my cock last night?’
I stared at the screen for a long time and then deleted this message too. Not Nathaniel or Daniel I thought. Randell. That’s funny, I thought. Maybe Liz will like that. I slid from the bed and headed for our kitchen to make a drink. My housemate, Phoebe, was there at the card table, eating Nutri-Grain from a salad bowl.
‘You ok?’ She said.
I got a beer from the fridge. Then I went back to bed.