The yard is small and slopes downhill from the house. Buffalo grass on either side of a concrete path, a grey strip from the back door to a bunker, next to a mandarin tree, which is heavy with fruit in summer. There was a party here once; a christening, with a hundred balloons and some people took the balloons outside. Any balloon that touched the grass popped because the blades are sharp. The bunker stands small and straight with one wall touching the fence. Sandbags line the perimeter of the other three walls. They are green and grey. There are four concrete steps leading down from the path to the entrance. The door is metal and the walls are brick, there is an air vent but no windows, the light inside is a fluoro in a rectangular box. The room is cast in cold yellow light like a train carriage, always. There is a sink in here, but no toilet. He could walk to the house and use the toilet or go in the sink in his room if he wanted, but instead when he needs to go he walks out his door and up the steps and pisses in the dirt. The bunker has that smell, the strong odour of burning dust, of when it gets inside an electric heater, rests on the bars and becomes singed, turning to ash so fine you experience it only as a dryness in your throat. His single bed, a cot, is in the corner on top of a big red rug, his three jackets hang innocuously on a rack along one wall. His pants are folded in a wire basket underneath. He owns two pairs, one pair of brown chinos with elastic at the ankles, the other a pair of grey marle tracksuit pants. Also in this wire basket are one pair of black basketball shorts, one pair of knee length shorts in dark blue drill, the hem to which is slightly falling out, one pair of grey marle shorts in a flocked jersey, and a wool/polyester blend beanie. On top of a low table another wire basket contains five tshirts: one white, two grey, one black, one striped with peach and blue. This last one was a gift. Next to the cot is a chest of drawers, the top drawer full with twelve pairs of white y-fronts, the bottom one stuffed with socks and a hand towel. This is also where he keeps condoms, hundreds packed into a bursting manila envelope. Opposite the heater, in the corner, is a sink made of stainless steel. In a cardboard box under the cot are stickers, tools, transfer paper, tiny plastic lanterns, pens, notepaper rolled into a cylinder and bound with a rubber band, pins and badges, a photo album, an assortment of padlocks the keys to which are here too, all on one key ring, on the end of one fraying ribbon. Amongst the sundry crap is another box; a wooden oblong with a smooth hinge, inside this is his collection of knives.
Gene is my friend. We are in a club together that we invented called Hurt Each Other. There are seven of us in the club and what we all have in common is that we like physical sensations such as tickling, punching, slapping, pinching, among others, but not in a sexual way. It’s very hard to explain to an everyday acquaintance that you enjoy a playful punch-on, so the seven of us get together once or twice a month and have a club meeting where we can relax and unwind without judgment, which will involve a Slap Circle, or breaking off into pairs to tickle each other. Last month we had a Dead Arm Extravaganza, which was a real hit. Gene and I founded the club and are the youngest members. Of the other five, the oldest is PacWoman, who is fifty-two. PacWoman is her code name. Everyone apart from Gene uses a code name. I started using a code name at the suggestion of our first member, Goliath, after he joined. He works in pet grooming and apparently has a real name that is easily google-able and connected to his business, so he doesn’t want it getting out there that he is in a non-sexual impact play society. I thought it could be fun to have a code name but Gene didn’t bother because he doesn’t like fuss. My code name is Bulldog, because I am of stocky build. Everyone in Hurt Each Other calls me Bulldog except Gene.
Gene lives in the bunker at his mum’s house that I just described. Before leaving the house – which he does via the back lane – he rolls up his sleeve and hides a chocky bar inside, taken from a jar on the kitchen bench. He stores it along the fold. Gene, boy king of quick pockets. He is tall with acne scars on his cheeks and, underneath a grey marle T-shirt, grey marle shorts, grey marle attitude, old pockmarks on his back and butt-cheeks too. Weaving sleepily along an alley on his white racer bike. His presence is an impression, a series of quick images only ever in flashes, fragile-fleeting, rapid and unglamorous. He plots, stages interventions, divvies up tasks and rewards. He is all limbs; long legs, lumpy torso with big arms, stretched stumps. His favourite personal joke is to call himself a ‘frigid faggot’. A virulent dreamer. A cocksucker. A slack smile in the middle of his square, brown face as his white racer zooms across town through the deep grey nighttime, towards a date, a stranger, a meeting...
Gene is a very good friend. His quick mind, attachment to his phone, and insomnia mean that he is available to offer friendly advice at any time of the day or night, should it be requested via text message. I say ‘any time’ but I should note that he takes time away from his phone to rendezvous with his many gentleman acquaintances. Gene is an incorrigible Grindr addict, his thumb flicking speedily across the screen like a professional. In some ways, it is, in fact, his day job, as he has built a blossoming network of fellow app users whom he visits in their homes in return for remuneration. Gene looks detached, staring at the screen, licking his teeth, lounging on the cot, taking advantage of the perfect reception his phone is enjoying, his shoes unlaced but still on. Yellow and black Reeboks, wide flat feet. He smiles, remembering chubby hands on the back of his head, the drool on his chin, the belly bumping his forehead and the grunt – ‘that’s my boy’.
A man waits in a sandstone terrace house, another in an apartment with a balcony where you need a security code to ride in the lift; another owns a villa, a vineyard, a fucking macadamia nut farm in the fecundity of the Rainbow Region. Solitary men flick the indicators in their cars and take corners smoothly with no knowledge yet of the existence of the tall boy with round shoulders and big hips, crouching in the dark yard of his mum’s house with a cigarette, stroking the phone screen with that bony thumb, searching, just having a look.
In the burgundy wall of a city hotel: the letters GM. Gene Meredeth, having taken out his key ring, a tiny gold seahorse with a blade in its tail, scratched those letters there while waiting for the lift. If it was me I perhaps would have scratched in BD for Bulldog, but Gene, like I said, he doesn’t have an interest in obfuscation, even when performing light vandalism in view of a security camera. His pockets are full of lollies and cash and he’s feeling clean and bright knowing he is not burdened by his magnificent impulses. His body stands upright and alone, a shiver zooms along his spine and the lift arrives with a gentle bing. The boy-legend of late nights, of sudden and deadly epiphanies, forgotten as soon as he walks out the automatic doors and real air hits his face. His jacket falls open as he swings his leg over the crossbar of his bike, he’s away, the whomp whomp of his tires on the road distracting nobody from their small and personal events, it’s happening all around too fast too tiny, an incredible stone hanging moment to moment around everybody’s neck and the young man has disappeared, rolling away down a sparsely populated, late night street.
Gene is committed to bringing a little of that hurting, youthful bitterness into hotel rooms, into bathrooms tiled in tiny white squares just slightly pearlescent, his rage that is alive. Living inside an angry queer boy in his soft body, in the loogie he rolls on his tongue and shoots out the side of his mouth at the footpath. Crawling along his ribs and snaking around his heart, rage that doesn’t sleep, a great howling protest at the deep injustices, his grandfather, his father, all their brothers, his uncles and cousins, those stupid men who he admires from a close range, holds back with one hand. His smile is thick with rage. He picks up a loaf of fresh bread at the deli and strolls into my kitchen via the backdoor. He makes my coffee and brings it to me in my armchair, like we’ve been married for twenty years. Boy-herald of happy news. Skidding to a stop in front of me, he spits his words out of the corner of his mouth.
‘I’m going to Paris!’
He sits down on a threadbare pouf, his big legs folding awkwardly with the knees pointing to the floor and his feet behind him, cradling his cup. He drinks the coffee with atrociously loud slurps. His plane ticket purchased already for him by a generous gentleman friend, he sets off in two weeks. An adventure, slicing his many strings.
We call an emergency meeting for all Hurt Each Other members that afternoon. Almost everyone shows up, which is amazing at such short notice. The only person missing is Goliath, which is fine because now if we want to split into pairs we don’t have to have one floating leftover club member or a group of three. But we don’t split off this meeting; we sit together and go around in a circle, each person recounting a memory they hold fondly of Gene. After this activity, we stand and partake in a traditional Slap Circle, wherein each person slaps the person to their left, taking it in turns. Hurt Each Other club usually has rather spirited meetings, but this one is really off the Richter; as each slap connects, its recipient takes a half-second shocked pause before erupting into uncontrollable laughter, guffawing or tittering delightedly in a hysterical domino effect throughout the circle. Nobody is more elated than Gene, who is garbling excitedly and grinning his wide, lopsided sickle of grin, accepting each palm with joy.
‘Now everyone just do me!’ he howls, and we all descend upon him, sandwiching his face between our palms. His eyes are watering and we are all laughing harder than at any club meeting to date. PacWoman gets a stitch and has to lean against the wall, her hand massaging her abdomen. Gene’s wide, wet eyes lock into mine and he nods, his face dark and shiny with handprints. We reach out and slap each other at the same moment, then burst into a final peal of laughter and I flop against his chest, which, because of our height difference, is at the perfect height for me to rest my forehead on. Hold each other. His hands grip my shoulder blades. My friend.
I don’t go to see Gene off. He comes around to my house the day before he leaves but I am not there. It’s clear that he has visited, although he hasn’t left a note, because there is a cardboard box sitting on the kitchen counter full of mandarins and, underneath the bounty of fruit, the small wooden box full of knives. I run my fingers over them, unable to choose a favourite. One clunky Swiss Army knife, one tiny folding blade in an opalescent case, not even as long as my finger. One blade engraved with the initials ‘G.M.’ in a swirly script. No tiny seahorse.
I have a habit of looking up when I hear an aeroplane, making my thumb and forefinger into a circle, framing it and squeezing the circle shut. Catching planes. When I’ve caught a hundred I make a wish. The day of Gene’s flight I leave all the aircraft in the sky alone. I imagine Gene going through security, enjoying the rewards of his own resourcefulness, his huge hands fiddling with the straps on his bag. Not thinking of his own cheeks as his mother slapped them when she heard the news of his leaving, but of the sagging stubbled cheeks of the old man with the thousands of dollars worth of wine and gourmet meats in his fridge, the silver fox who presented him with a new iPad wrapped in soft blue tissue paper.
Being a person who can exact his justice without malice, Gene will always win, over and over. Boy-freak of easy revenges. In the deep privacy of his own orgasm, his own hurt feelings, whispering to himself,
‘That’s my boy.’