Right now it’s Sunday 10 April 2016 and I’m standing at the kitchen bench trying to uncover the beating heart of twenty-two years of being alive.
But I can’t. Whenever I pinpoint these moments they’re senseless: a thousand tiny hearts, a thousand syncopated beats.
‘That’s them,’ a voice says.
Nico and I stumble out of the Imperial Hotel bathroom into the arms of a Samoan bouncer with dreadlocks. He shoves us toward the exit.
‘Can’t two fags enjoy a good fuck?’ Nico asks.
‘No, they can’t!’ the bouncer says. He sticks his dirty flipper toward Newtown. ‘Get the fuck outta here.’
On the street we turn left at the petrol station, out of the bouncer’s line of sight.
We hear techno thump out of the Imperial’s basement.
We smoke a cigarette, swapping it between us.
Then get to work.
Nico gives me his tropical paisley shirt.
I take off my sweaty long sleeve.
He wears my glasses.
I put on his hat.
I remove my earrings, start unbuckling my trousers . . .
‘I’m not gonna fit into those,’ Nico says, laughing.
We join the line, give our IDs to the bouncer – and he’s fucking clueless.
These days Nico and his girlfriend Lauren make movies and spend every moment together and I’m seriously fine with it.
I get a Facebook message from Bobby.
It reads: ‘Mate, I’m so so sorry.’
When Angela calls I figure she’s wishing me a belated happy birthday, now that we’ve allowed the bad blood from our Thailand trip to settle – or maybe she’s forgiven me for breaking up with her on Christmas Eve (when she was working, mind you) in a sensational, I-just-can’t-take-it-anymore display outside of Northbridge Baker’s Delight while taking the leftover bread to the dumpster.
But of course that’s not why she’s calling.
‘Thought you deserved to know,’ she says.
Her sunny, disembodied voice doesn’t match the next words.
‘I fucked Bobby last night.’
The phone dies in my hand.
Nico paces in front of Town Hall steps while I lean against the stony wall, flicking a yoyo between my legs. I walk the dog then form a cat’s cradle. We’re too young to enter a pub but want to get drunk anyway. Bobby returns with two bags full of Strongbow cider longnecks.
‘Told the bartender I wanted longbows,’ he says, ‘and he asked: “Do you want some arrows, too?”’
I’m in Melbourne for the writers’ festival and I arrive at the hostel in a foul mood because a breakdown in the Sydney Harbour Tunnel delayed me by forty minutes, making me miss my flight, only to catch another plane two hours later at full price.
The two girls behind the reception desk wear matching T-shirts that read: FULL MOON PARTY 2011.
The year is 2015.
They slide an electronic room key along the granite tabletop.
‘Fourth floor,’ the taller one says.
Climbing the stairwell, I nod to a seemingly endless parade of young Europeans.
In my room I’m greeted by the absolute scent of death.
I pull my sleeve to my mouth.
There is a boy, maybe my age, asleep on the bottom bunk closest to the door, hooked up to a breathing apparatus.
It rattles and echoes through the windowless room.
I hurry downstairs, skipping two-at-a-time, then give the room key back to the concierge girls.
‘Problem with the room?’ the shorter one with dyed red hair asks. ‘If you don’t stay, we charge you anyway.’
‘That’s fine,’ I say. ‘You know there’s a dead guy in room 443?’
The last time I cried nobody saw me (this isn’t including when I watched that Aretha Franklin YouTube video). I cried when I remembered watching Mum water the veggie patch then suddenly recoil and yell and drop the hose and seize the place where the scalpel discovered her unwelcome guest.
Our teacher doesn’t make it to period seven Maths, so most kids jig it. But Nico and I stand on our desks, pop out the light fixture, draw a thick hairy cock with permanent marker, then put it back into place. It takes us twenty minutes to repeat this process on all twelve lights. We admire our hard work. Cocks fluoresce onto the tables, onto our classmates, onto our Maths teacher, who jolts through the door, breathless, pointing first at a fluorescent penis and then at our hands, blemished by permanent marker.
On Koh Phi Phi Angela orders fried rice from the Bob-Marley-themed bar and when the food arrives I say ‘Don’t eat that,’ but she does, and at 6am I wake up the hostel manager and we carry her out of the soiled bed and into a wheelbarrow, which we push along the shore for twenty minutes until we reach the hospital where we stay for five days because she can’t keep a glass of water down and I say don’t worry I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine until she falls asleep and, at last, I stumble to the communal hospital bathroom and vomit my insides out.
It’s an old trick: texting by touch under the dinner table.
‘Jackie boy,’ Dad says, ‘get some chicken on that rice.’
‘It’s alright, Chief,’ I say.
Mum grabs my plate and scoops a ladle into the pot of butter chicken. ‘Eat, habib! What’s wrong – are you sick? David, get him some Vitamin C.’
I stop texting. ‘I’m not sick,’ I say. ‘I just don’t want to eat meat…’ Mum stares at me, uncomprehending, ‘ever again.’
The sun descends past the university lake and all the spring mosquitoes eat our legs. Angela and I lie under the arched sculpture and lose vision of each other in the gathering darkness. I’m playing music from my iPhone. And although we think we’re in love we’re not really sure, but nine months from now I’ll figure her out and in the darkness she’ll disappear.
It’s been a rough week so I drink my wallet at the pub, say goodbye to my work mates, and after thirty-five minutes of a bone-rattling bus ride I’m walking down Longueville Road towards my parent’s house. On the walk I upturn a tipped-over shopping trolley and hop inside its mesh carapace. The trolley takes me past the desolate space where the abandoned house used to stand, where the only girl I’ve ever loved, Tanya, suggested we break in, and we did. Our hearts had only been alive for fourteen years. Once we wiggled through the open window we felt soothed by the daddy longlegs, the assortment of empty beer bottles, and how close to death the house was: it was our haven, no matter when; after school, on weekends, when we ‘just went for a walk’, even creeping out the study door in the dead of night. Its desolation was medicine. She unfolded a blanket we stole from my parent’s garage, lay it over the dust, and made me promise her something. I haven’t fulfilled that promise quite yet. This moment remains my fondest. It shines out everything else.
The shopping trolley hits a raised paver. I fall and scrape the skin off my knuckles. From the ground the house is blocked by birds-of-paradise. I get up, kiss the blood and grit from my bleeding knuckles. There’s a big hole in the ground, like the underside of a tortoise shell, where the house used to be. I remember the day we saw them knock down the house. We watched, with interlocked fingers, while strange men operating cranes and bulldozers destroyed it. She asked if I would still keep my promise. I said I would. But I haven’t, not quite yet.
And then, months later, I destroyed what was left.
I turn off King Street and amble down the road, checking each terrace house for my friends. I stroll the block several times until I hear Nico’s laughter, a lighter flick, and the crack of an opened beer. Nico and Lauren sit together, holding hands. I pull seven pale ales from my backpack. Nico scratches his Steve Aoki beard.
‘Nicked them from work,’ I say.
‘Sick cunt,’ he replies. ‘Fridge’s down the back.’
The door’s unlocked, I walk in.
‘Anyone home?’ I ask. Nico shrugs then holds out his cigarette for Lauren, who smokes from between his fingertips. The house is one horrendous mess. I walk past a wheezy couch, a roller bathroom door that is broken, at an angle, a skateboard wedged underneath it, an acoustic guitar with broken but unwound strings, a sink of rot and grime. I stuff the beers into the fridge and return outside, not knowing I’m acquainting myself with my future home.
In that abandoned house, on my parent’s blanket, I promised Tanya that I’d write a story for her. I doubt she’ll ever read it. But it’s right here.
Angela calls me at 4:37 on a Wednesday morning to say that she’s in Kings Cross, hailing a cab to my house.
‘Please not tonight,’ I say. I turn off my phone and fall asleep. Twenty minutes later I hear her screaming my name. I jump out of bed and run onto the street.
‘I told you not to take them.’ She slips and collapses onto the grass. She hits her heads and sobs.
‘I didn’t,’ she says. I give her my hand and help her stand.
‘I’m calling you a cab.’
‘Can I stay here tonight?’
‘Everyone is home.’
She pushes me.
‘Don’t-fucking-hit-me!’ she yells. She pushes me again. The sensor light next to my garage illuminates. ‘Stop it, Jack, stop hitting me!’
My mother is sprinting down the driveway, grabbing her left breast, already swearing in Arabic – a spectre of dressing gown and fanged fury.
It’s 8:57 on a Thursday night and I’m about to finish work when an old man starts talking to me. He claims he’s lived in twenty-two countries. He tells me a possum has more rights in this country than I do.
‘Ideas kill a lot of people,’ he says.
He tells me reading a book isn’t substitute for living, and that fucks me up. He says that intelligence is the measure of your ability to imagine things. He says intelligent people were thrown into gulags during Communist Russia because Joseph Stalin was afraid of their imagination.
I tell him I want to be a writer, but that I’d hate it if somebody read my story and knew everything about me.
He says that a prescribed imagination is a box with opaque walls and a limited amount of oxygen, and if you don’t try to get out then nobody will see you suffocate.
I’m in deep at the Pelvis Day Spa party. Staggeringly deep. I’m wearing a bathrobe and running around offering Minties to strangers.
‘Want a Mintie?’ I ask the sweaty, rolling girl beside me.
‘Got any caps?’ She slides her hand into mine. I pull out a Mintie and give it to her. ‘No,’ she says, sliding her mouth against my ear. ‘C-a-p-s.’
I shake my head. She releases me.
Ten minutes later I offer a Mintie to a tall handsome boy.
‘Don’t you know who it is?’ he asks.
I squint against the alternating red neon and darkness.
‘It’s Bobby. Don’t you recognise me at all?’
And I didn’t, even when he hugs me and apologises.
I still don’t.
This is all I remember: drinking bottom-shelf vodka with Georgie, straight from the bottle; Angela keeping her distance (glad, I think, to socialise with somebody other than me); rolling a kingskin joint then smoking it at the kitchen bench; getting punched by somebody; ignoring the pounding fists against the bathroom door as I kiss Georgie and Angela interchangeably; holding Angela’s hair as she vomits in the sink (right hand) and trying to coax Georgie into not opening the door (left hand)…
And then nothing.
I wake up in the early afternoon, naked and perspiring underneath a croaky ceiling fan. My head is fucked. It takes a minute for my senses to calibrate and realise I’m in Angela’s room. A few condoms are splayed on the floor next to my trousers, semen has leaked from their openings and onto the carpet. My nostrils are seared by splashes of amyl. A fleeting memory of Angela putting my cock in her mouth, then that too is gone. I put on my trousers and see a tear that begins at the crotch and streamlines down to the knee. A couple of cigarette butts have absorbed the dregs of an orange Berocca spilt all over my copy of Martin Amis’ London Fields.
I peer out the window, shifting the blind aside. In bed Angela yawns and rolls away from the sunlight. My car is parked on her yard, not in the driveway; it’s been driven straight over the rose bushes, up against the jacaranda tree. Christ, I fucking hope I didn’t drive. ‘Ange,’ I say, ‘did I drive us home?’ She kisses me on the nose and pulls me back onto the bed. I topple over, and, closing my eyes, let another eight months become darkness.
Just yesterday I read this excellent essay by David Foster Wallace called E Unibus Pluram: television and U.S. Fiction, and what struck me is his observation that fiction writers and lonely people are conjoined by their self-consciousness, although the way it manifests itself is totally opposite. The fiction writer spends his days ‘ogling’ people, analysing them, and the inability to switch off and see the world as it is means the fiction writer spends a great deal of time analysing themself; whereas the lonely person experiences that very same and very natural self-consciousness in the outside world (Wallace calls it agoraphobia) because they know that other people are analysing them, and when they notice all this they are repelled by the unsettling feeling of being watched. Wallace says lonely people are allergic to others. He theorises that watching television should appeal to both types of people, but it doesn’t. In general terms lonely people watch more television than the average person. Fiction writers tend to denounce it.
Most writers I know disapprove of what I’m trying to do. They say it’s self-indulgent and that maybe I’m better off trying again in twenty years when I really have something to say. But I’m not trying to say anything – not intentionally, at least. Writing is the carapace that deflects my loneliness every single day. If I sat around and watched TV all day, I’d be godamned lonely. But I don’t. I write. So in a way I’m not lonely; I’m just an ogler.
I wake up sometime late in the afternoon with urgent uni work waiting for me, but instead of taking a shower, eating something greasy, and getting to work, I reach for my iPhone and read Pat’s message.
Pat: how was your night? i’m so hung lol.
Me: lol me too. i had a sick one tho.
Pat: me too. i have mysterious bruises. i did ket. i got a girls number then i lost it.
Me: oh nice. i took mdma. i got my friends to take it too.
Pat: i can’t take mdma because of my antidepressants, which means i’ve been saving my serotonin and money for months now.
Me: i went to a house party and i didn’t know anybody. i stole beers from labor kids. there was a young politician who was wearing a scarf even though it was spring. i nearly kissed a girl but then her gay friend swooped in and by the time he left it was like 3:30am and she was yawning and kept spilling her cider on me.
Pat: i love that. you know her name. today you’re going to add her on facebook if you don’t already have her. tune. that. chick. consider verbally lamenting that you didn’t ask for her number last night.
Me: i thought that nearly kissing a girl would make me feel better but it somehow made me feel, i dunno, lonelier.
Pat: want me to come over?
Me: bring me beer.
I smoke a lot of weed these days because I hate going out, mostly because we always go to clubs in Kings Cross, which, well, you know – and Nico has sort of alienated me because he can’t stand my new girlfriend, Angela. Whenever we go out Angela’s taking pills. She thinks I don’t know but of course I can tell. She spends more time sweating in front of the big ceiling fan that swoops across the dance floor than with me. But after smoking weed I can arrange my face into this dopey affectionate look that allows me to cruise through a whole evening sipping on beer and smoking Camels and feigning that I’m unaware.
The instructions are tricky, but at Petersham Park we find the man smoking a cigarette beneath a wilting jacaranda tree. With a green marker he draws a spiral on our wrists then tells us to walk along Parramatta Road until we see the girl in a rabbit costume.
Bobby strides ahead with those lanky legs, talking excitedly about the DJ. I lag behind trying to light a smoke, trying to gee myself up, psyching up the prospect of maybe getting laid. (It’s been a while.) I drink greedily from a Schweppes bottle full of gin and tonic – and though I haven’t shared any with Bobby yet, he knows not to ask. Things are still a little rocky between us.
‘Reckon we took a wrong turn,’ I say.
‘Can’t take a wrong turn on Parra Road,’ Bobby says.
Then we spot her.
Dressed in white, she shimmers pearlescent under the streetlamp. Her arms are crossed. It’s not the raunchy bunny we expected but the full puffy suit. She checks our spirals then directs us around the side of a paint store.
To enter the party we slide through a paint store’s entrance just off the main drag, an entrance that looks conspicuously forced, but when we’re inside Bobby and I unload our heavy backpacks’ worth of beer, mescal, ketamine, MDMA, amyl nitrate, MXE, and LSD. Most of it isn’t for us. We drink the beer while taking turns sipping mescal from the bottle. I’m hoping the agave worm at the bottom will tumble into his mouth, not mine.
‘Did you hear about Angela?’ he asks.
But of course I do, and Bobby, frowning quizzically, clicks his tongue, knowing this.
‘She went to surf school,’ he says.
‘What the fuck’s surf school?’
A topless perspiring girl approaches Bobby. I can’t hear them over the sounds of techno but it looks as though they know each other.
‘Hold this,’ she says, handing me a bottle of something, which I sip liberally (right hand) alongside the mescal (left hand) until the exchange of money for caps is over. The girl plucks the liquor bottle from my hand then saunters into the crowd.
‘She’s been living with this guy, right…’
I thrust both liquor bottles into his chest.
‘Don’t tell me his name.’
‘Okay, okay: “her boyfriend”. She moved into his apartment, I dunno, six months ago? And she told him she’s going to surf school, right, that she wants to become an instructor, so he says: right, babe, I’ll pay the rent s’long as you’re studying.’
‘She literally never surfed when we were together,’ I say.
‘But one day he comes home sick from work and finds her in the apartment, stoned, drawing spirals in her notebook with a fat black marker.’
‘Don’t care,’ I say.
‘And, get this, right, when he challenges her she admits to lying…’
‘That’s an improvement at least.’
‘But when he asks why she lied, she says her dad died.’
I stop swaying to the music. ‘Phil’s dead?’
I think of his Crown Lager, his cramped workshop beside the garage (where he built a rocking horse for his niece and a bookshelf for me), and the way he laughed off that time I was so gin-drunk that I mistook the laundry for the bathroom and pissed all over their clean washing (in my defence it was the second time I’d ever come back to Angela’s, and in the dark the bathroom and laundry doors look identical along the hallway, the only difference being that the laundry is to the right and the bathroom to the left).
‘Nah, fucking course not,’ Bobby says. ‘I was selling him schooners at the RSL on Tuesday.’
I’m standing at the kitchen bench when Mum’s car heaves itself up the alleyway. The garage’s electronic door wails open, tires squawk as the car rolls in, and then the mechanics fight against the rust to close again. From the kitchen window I can see that a small light stays on inside the garage. It illuminates my cousin Matt as he helps Mum unload the groceries.
Whenever we’re both at home at the same time (not so often anymore) my mother worries about me, says I’m working too much, that I’m not smiling like I used to, that I don’t see my friends as much anymore. Whenever she’s home she hugs me and says, ‘Don’t go, don’t leave me,’ but later that night she’ll catch me, usually while I’m reading in bed, and confess, ‘You know I don’t mean it – I want you to go.’ It’s not long now until I move to Newtown with Nico (and, by proxy, I guess, Lauren). Every night, lying in my bed, I imagine things are going to change. I set my alarm for 5:30am. I ignore my cousin’s offer to get stoned and watch Adult Swim on my laptop. Usually I’ll brew his ‘sleepy herbal tea’ and that’ll pacify him, even though after four cups I remain unaffected by its supposed somnolent properties. And then there’s the dripping amalgam of joy and sadness whenever I think about my cousin living with us. He moved in about three months ago after finding out that his eldest brother had been caught trafficking fifty kilograms of cocaine in Fiji. My mother came in to work to tell me the news. We spoke next to the escalators in hushed voices. I draped an arm around her shoulders. We didn’t know what to say. Words seemed so futile. Just recently Matt’s brother was sentenced to fourteen years’ jail. Back in New South Wales, sometime in the nine months between being arrested and sentenced, his daughter Penelope was born. I don’t think Matt’s been to visit. He doesn’t talk about the situation very often but whenever he does I can tell he wants to purge himself. Maybe he’s moved away from that life, and maybe a little version of me has been born, a new brother of sorts, and a tiny version of himself has been locked away, or silenced its beating heart.