‘Hey how open would u b to step on me for $$$?’
Marley made first contact through my Hornet account, evaluating my profile based on a few minor details and deciding that yes, I would be the kind of person who would be open to hitting someone with a baseball bat for fun. It was in his opening sentence, actually – the information presented with a brand of directness that was … refreshing. Given previous dissatisfying experiences with the apps, I welcomed the dubious approach. In fact, it was fresh, captured my attention and contrasted sharply with the tiresome barrage of messages from low resolution torsos, asking robotically to ‘swap pics?’ As if that was something that was owed, as if moving back and forth with my thumb over and over to press the right buttons had become anything but a chore.
I’d become bored. Exasperated with the ego of every second boring guy with vaguely defined abs and empty wallets…what better way to exorcise past wrongdoings from other men than by retaliating against a totally unrelated, albeit similar looking, sexless man like the ones who routinely harassed me?
I reckoned with the message, half bewildered and half impressed, before firing back (the telltale Hornet notification hiccup filling me with satisfaction):
The Sydney suburbs echo with sounds of trepidation. Bats natter ceaselessly at all times, musk hangs perpetually in the autumn air, trains always run in the distance, machines working into a frenzy somewhere on the periphery. At some point, the cacophony just becomes its own kind of muzak. Many people perceive Sydney as a nightmarish consumerist metal wasteland, but it’s those details that keep me fascinated. I could take note of them and quietly hope that they don’t swallow me up in their density.
The train ride there was long but the silence and the open air gave me a kind of quiet, calm confidence I wasn’t familiar with. Being limited to my art-student circles was boring. I was over the blank, superficial nihilism of SCA and the wired hedonism of COFA, everyone wearing thrifted designer clothes. I welcomed the excuse to go out of my comfort zone. The sun had gone down just hours before, and I watched the illuminated branches and boughs of sidestreet trees meet each other. Fragments of scenery passed by as the train seemed to float onward and my mind failed to take them in with any kind of proficiency, dancing them away to some hollow corner – I honestly didn’t know whether I would head in this same direction again.
Admittedly I savoured the ability to move out of my inner west bubble, to move beyond my confines. I clicked my tongue, moving my fingers over my phone automatically, falling into thought. Many of the people I knew who grew up in Sydney were reticent to explore. In such a large city, that took and took and then discarded you; people were thirsty for security and familiarity. It was a similar kind of attitude in Melbournites who have a stubbornness and won’t admit that there are merits beyond living ‘northside or ‘southside’. It struck me as a way to humour oneself, to construct allegiance to place, but ultimately to become trapped in circles of thought, to be caught in these pointless back and forths. Like a game you play to pass the time but you don’t really like.
As I stepped off the train I snapped out of my reverie, moving into a new sense of mindfulness, taking in the station. Huge white pillars held up a looming staircase, with the odd straggler moving up and down, barely making eye contact with anyone nearby. The air was cleaner here – more or less – but there were other reasons why it was easier to breathe. Slipping out of the cliques of the inner west was a relief, in its own way. Despite what one would expect, I felt more at home here in the suburbs as a tr*nny on a mission – the gentrification of the mind, the assumption that sameness and comfort is a guarantee from an invisible set of social cues and vague cultural signs, was slowed to a halt. As I got off the train, I reached to run a smooth finger along my brows, still raw from a violent stripping and waxing just hours before, and then got into a cab at the station rank. It was beginning to feel like it was truly the most kitsch thing I could have done that night, becoming aware of my otherness in this neighbourhood that was, comfortably, built on otherness, on cultures and people that came from the all over the Earth. I fit in just fine.
I was only wearing kitten heels, a deconstructed slip/top over my shorts, and I still had shortish hair. Despite the newness of this place, I didn't think my transness was altogether too identifiable. There was only a passing difference between me and any other girl making their way home from a club, or a teenager that quietly rebelled and escaped from a three bedroom bungalow. My grey denim shorts were ripped and frayed deliberately – I stuck my butt out to accentuate that as I climbed into the backseat, humouring a confused group of tracksuit-clad passersby.
I sunk into the back of the taxi and relinquished control as it zipped around the corner, watching my geo-positional dot move closer to the location that had been provided. I continued to liaise with Marley over Hornet. His manner was forthright, business-like. This was routine for him. It was hard to comprehend how I had gotten to this point – was it simply tracing a thread back to its origin? A ball of twine becoming wound up again? I had asked the driver to drop me off one street away and, as I climbed out, I thought that maybe the most satisfying suburbs are the ones that have no distinct markers. You really believe in the normality of it all, even if it’s only illusory. There's your body standing between gravel, domesticated structures to either side as lines of smooth concrete create an elongated curb. I wrapped myself in a puffy coat and stalked onward, checking my phone for affirmation.
When I arrived at the most unremarkable house on the street, knocked quietly but entered confidently and unashamedly. To give me context, he began to describe the act and how he had recently had some teenagers over to perform it. The man I had been talking to stood before me; a short, oblique kind of person wearing spectacles over a crooked nose. In my mind’s eye, I pictured him in this recounted memory – glasses slightly askew, that slim tortoise-shell trim, driving up to a bunch of rowdy youths on the way back from school. The only thing separating him from a lawsuit or a jail cell was the folly of a moment, the averageness of his car choice and attire, a brigade of identical uniforms, the ‘can you keep a secret?’ solidarity of rebellious young people and a generic wire soccer-pitch fence. As he relayed the story I saw all the characters in my head, though they were more like creatures – teenagers generally are. It was like he had been praying for the time when desperate teenagers could be lured into his house, only for him to roll over and demand they imprint the spikes in their soccer shoes onto his flayed carapace. I didn’t quite understand the drive behind it all.
‘It was the girl of the group that did it the best,’ he said, conversationally. He gestured to an L shaped bruise that was poking its ugly head out of his upper arm. ‘I saw something in her eyes just before she started to hit me, and ah, that was the best bit.’
The spectre of a young girl laying into this fat middle aged man with his single braided ponytail felt suspiciously Dennis Cooper – foreboding, a bit sinister and perverted, by which I mean: acknowledging the primitivism of human nature that people tend to suppress or ignore. And something about this story came off as predatory, despite the power dynamic. The kids seemed to have been in control but I was wondering what that must have done to them – to be encouraged into inflicting harm so gratuitously.
I imagined he layers of spit firing from his mouth: the dizzyness after the pain; the echoing of sounds from violent movements by chaotic young people – their shoes hitting in all the right spots. What place did he go to, when he was escaping a different kind of pain – one of not understanding your value?
He offered me a drink. I tried not to seize up, playing it casual. My intention was to be as put together as possible, despite any activities I would be engaging in. Maybe he recognised that I wasn’t in the mood to be conversational. But he talked at me, anyway. And when he spoke, it was like a geyser had begun to flow after exploiting the weak spot in concrete – once it broke through, it threatened to go forever.
Marley had tried to create small talk, to get to know me as much as I would allow, but his voice became most frenzied and active when he talked about being hurt by other people. It was a strange desperation that I couldn’t quite compare with anything else I’d ever experienced. Like he was bragging about it, or trying to prove how much he could take, how fucked up he thought he was.
I was altogether ambivalent about it personally. I didn’t know if he was trying to inspire me to commit more, to involve myself more – but it just made me suspicious. Or maybe I felt sad, or confused. I guess it just felt beyond my jurisdiction.
I thought bizarrely of being in high school, over-hearing how teenagers would compete with each other with stories to win the title of who was truly ‘most fucked up’. How in the absence of a visible emotional self, what they had left was the amphitheatre of validation, the eco-system of social capital. The stories varied. Some, like the stories about fingering love interests in public places and behind sheds or shopping centres, were utterly vanilla in comparison with the stories that involved wanton animal cruelty.
The ability to willingly inflict pain challenged every value I had subscribed to prior to that moment. Of course I had answered the messages, made my way there, even entered the house without any real qualms. But in my naivety I still didn’t comprehend, really, what I was getting into. I think I began to dissociate, spiralling away from that physical world, where I was in a slip and denim shorts and standing on a rotund man with a ponytail braid and latent bruises.
For the next hour he got specific, mostly suggesting places where I could step and offering the occasional grunt as climbed onto his back and trod on his face, his belly, his scrotum with a discerning heel. He would react violently to this but nonetheless asked me to do it over and over. I didn’t apply enough pressure to pierce anything – just enough to prompt a bizarre spasm and a half strangled moan. I effectively watched him wince the night away, trying to overwhelm an internal voice that told me: You must not hurt another person. I thought of how so many other trans people walk that perilous ledge, trying to escape danger on a daily basis, and how I was given the opportunity to somehow return it all to the source. It felt like cheating.
But it was a job. In order to let myself be ok with what was happening, I repeated this like a mantra…a job, a job, a job’. It was a job I was doing to receive remuneration. I mouthed this silently to myself as he walked me from his dining room to living room, letting me know how much I would receive for offering my time. I thought about it mechanically, as a labour that thousands of people had performed around the world with little thought except for the relief of knowing that they wouldn’t have to worry about work for the next few weeks.
The ceiling was low enough and I was tall enough to hold onto a roof beam for balance, and so I walked over his surface, treading into the jelly of flesh that he had ordered me to attack. My eyes sunk, rolling away from the scene and onto a vacant spot where I could stare, and sighed with weariness. I listened to cars zooming by outside occasionally, punctuated only by the odd sound that escaped from his mouth. I thought of what I would be like when I was his age. If I would let thoughts fester away until they turned into abject desires, and then caught myself shaming him, and wondered whether I just didn’t get it. I wondered about the divinity of being and of the quietness of accepting your fate, or something along those lines. All the while I went at it in the same way any household cleaner would scrub at offending marks or stains.
Marley didn’t tell me much about his personal life. It is a universal truth that mediocre men express pride at their mediocrity – maybe he had developed enough self-awareness to not do that. For him, that was secondary to the kind of living he engaged with when he met up with his dominatrixes. I noticed Dungeons and Dragons paraphernalia scattered on shelves, video game consoles sitting in place near his television. But upon being pressed, he seemed confused that I would ask about it. The character he was constructing for me did not honour his agency, his life, his deepest thoughts and interests, unless they involved punishment. And if I could hurt him at once, please.
There was music, in the background, and the whole time I was there I played the game of trying to figure out where it was coming from. The strange bounciness of his back became more normalised over time, and so I distracted myself by trying to identify what was playing. There was ‘Steal My Sunshine’ by Len, and then something by Boston – the kind of music that was outdated by 2013, that had been so overplayed that it loses context, turning into a muted kind of supermarket soundtrack. To say that anything remarkable can stay is a myth. After time, we all become blurred, and smudged like a photoshopped photo, disfigured by the monotony of time.
After we had trialled different positions, manoeuvring around as if trying on different kinds of clothing, he beckoned me outside, to do it there, all the while I wondered if his neighbours were privy to any of this.
Whether it was pain or satisfaction I wasn't entirely sure. I just thought of the money sitting on his 1960s dining table and breathed in, went at it again and again, thinking of something that lay beyond these walls, something that felt truly subversive. The fleetingness of pleasure and real satisfaction, and the spaces that we all go to find it. Nothing about this train of thought clarified anything for me. My mouth had gone dry, I still tasted a weird echo of dried fruit I had snacked on hours before. But it was like a different person had eaten it, and now I was just inhabiting that person’s body.
Ridley's behaviour towards me was utterly transactional, and a part of me that was keen to understand why he wanted this treatment was quashed by the more sensible part. The reality of what had just transpired latched onto me, somewhere in my psyche, challenging me.
And then, we had finished, we had gotten to the point where he was satisfied. He was standing up now and thanked me, some weird mix of longing and repulsion reverberating behind his eyes. I could only weakly return his sentiments as if I hadn’t been completely rattled by every part of it.
In the weeks that followed, I entered into dialogues with myself. I walked down streets I wasn’t familiar with and wondered whether the next person I would meet was behind one of those doors, and what would they think of me, if they knew I was a real person that thought violent thoughts. Could this become a day job? Could I withstand the psychological drain of it? Could I reconcile this darkness as I trudged through a world that felt more strange, more unpredictable, more punishing?