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At the age of 19, I believed I was in love.

His name was Ryan. I met him through a musical I was performing in. He was the cellist; my age, olive complexion and lithe, calloused fingers that danced skilfully across dead space to pluck and pull at the strings laid out in front of him. We met officially during production week, after a lengthy tech rehearsal gave way to “mental health” beers. Before then I’d held a hyper awareness of his position within the crew: he was brash and quite fey, whereas I was, for the most part, not out, unsure of how to embrace the burgeoning fact of my sexuality. Because of this I’d quickly rolled my eyes and dismissed him as “one of those” gays (whatever that means, exactly – I didn’t really know what it meant then, only the tired notion that femininity or “gayness” was a weak and therefore bad thing).

Regardless of this, we hit it off right away, found several similarities and interests, as one does, and that night I invited him to spend the night at my house – my parents, overseas at the time, would remain none the wiser –  and he accepted.

And this is what happened:

I lie in bed, in the half-light, shirt off, underpants on, and wait, drunk and immeasurably anxious, for him to enter the room. It’s weird, I think, that he’s gone to change in the other room. We’ve been making out all night. These half-formed thoughts are quickly dispelled as he appears, frame caught in the doorway to my childhood bedroom, willowy chest pulled taut as he leans against the door, shadows casting images that dance across his stomach and downwards. He wears a pair of oversized silk boxer-shorts with some kind of novelty print emblazoned across them; the kind no man should wear past the age of sixteen.

He flicks the light off and is, in an instant, on top of me, slipping his tongue deep into my mouth. I am not a virgin, but I am not confident, and my hands bely my fear, shaking across the contours of his body. He stops, in an instant, and holds my hands to him, warms them. This is lovely, encouraging, but with my hands entwined in his he’s no longer holding himself up and his shoulder clips me in the larynx. He slides down next to me as I attempt to not choke. We laugh, his eyes dancing, and look at each other, eye to eye. In one fluid moment, I reach down and place my hand on his crotch. He falters, for a second, and pulls my hand back up to his chest.

“Not yet,” he whispers, though there’s nobody else around to hear. “I don’t want it to just be…” He trails off, wry smile playing off his face. “You know.”

“Yeah,” I reply, feeling childish, stupid.

“Good,” he smiles, and pulls me closer. We kiss.

The show hurtles on without a hitch, and for one week we are inseparable, finding new and exciting places around the performance space to make out in, texting each other on the constant, holding hands with a sense of openness and freedom that I had never felt before. He wears my clothes, and brushes his teeth after eating meat so that I don’t have to taste it (oh, teenaged vegetarianism). The after party is at my house, and we are typically inseparable, retreating to my bedroom as the first rays of morning begin to break.

The next day he wakes up before anyone else and cleans half of the house, as a surprise. He leaves, the last of anyone, around lunchtime, kissing me on the lips before driving off.

This is the last time that I see him.

Two days later:

Hey, hope your uni work isn’t too crazy :). x

Another two days:

How’s it going? I think you left your jacket here – I can bring it when we catch up, if you want. When’s good for you? x 

A week, now: 

Hey, is everything okay? How are you?

A week and a half:

Hello?

Then:

Have I done something?

And this is what happened:

I cut my losses, called him a cunt, and moved on.

I am swift in my action – I delete his number, messages and block him from my Facebook feed – but it’s too little, too late. There is a strange disquiet that comes with the sudden disappearance of a friend or a lover, and it falls over me with a heavy and tranquil insidiousness. It sits with me, at the core of my being, and whispers to me my fears with quiet confidence: You were wrong. You fucked up. You weren’t good enough. You were never good enough.

I can see him, a phantasm, walking along with me through the halls of my now-empty house. I have a couple of weeks off – it’s university holidays and I only work nights. I should get up. I should leave the house. I don’t. Instead I sit, frustrated and aimless, waiting for my phone to spring to life. I can see it now – the messages, the calls, the proclamations of desire, of apology, of retribution! He’s left his jacket – an unassuming black hoodie – crumpled up on my floor, forgotten, and with the utmost care I straighten it out, iron it and fold it up.

I find, to my horror, that my pillow smells of his cologne, and I wash it – the whole thing. It comes out of the drier lumpy and ruined, but at least it doesn’t smell like him.

And this is what happened:

I convinced myself that this wasn’t a joke. I told myself that this boy and I had a future. When it turned out that we didn’t, I felt cheated, a child.

A message from a friend, posted on my Facebook wall:

“You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be somebody who hates peaches” – Dita Von Teese.

I understand what she means, but personally I’ve always preferred apricots.

And this is what happened:

It turned out he got hit by a car, a few kilometres down the road. No, wait – it turned out he had a genetic defect, a heart weakness, maybe, that struck him down out of the blue, and – no. Wait. It turned out? His plane crashed.

Yeah.

The engine just up and burst into flames, and the flight attendant – a pleasantly chubby woman in her mid thirties named Beryl – screamed at the top of her lungs: “WE’RE GOING DOWN! ASSUME THE BRACE POSITION!!!”. She did this not as loud as she’d have hoped, yet still she tried: she should have given up smoking years ago, she knows it, but she’s been so busy and she’s been waiting for the right time, only there’s never a right time, is there? In any case, as the rows of bright yellow oxygen masks began to descend like plastic snakes slithering from the heavens, Beryl raced down the aisles, prepping the aeroplane for an emergency landing and trying not to throw up in her mouth. She knew she shouldn’t have had that second donut. Though really, if they were going to crash, what did it matter now? At least if they survived she’d get to jump out of the plane and onto that huge inflatable slide thing. That was always fun.

Beryl survived. Ryan did not. Before the real impact hit, opening the cargo hold opposite his seat and sending the hard plastic Hello Kitty toiletry container belonging to the passenger in front of him several inches into his cerebral cortex, forcing him off this mortal coil, the last thing he saw was me. Making out with 2001 Jake Gyllenhaal (before he got super-buff – y’know, when it looked like he might dabble in drugs, but in a kind of hot, non-threatening way) and being super successful while doing it.

Like, super mega ridiculously successful.

I am at my friend Katie’s house, smoking cigars and drinking wine between bouts of Mario Party 64.

“I’m sorry,” she smiles between puffs, and pats my hand. “At least it was just a show-romance?”

She’s sincere, but I can tell it’s wearing thin: I know I shouldn’t care this much, there’s no reason I should care this much – he had weird eyebrows, for Christ’s sake! – yet still I cycle through the experiences we shared on sick repeat, over and over and over ‘till I can’t make sense of them. I think that I hate, most of all, the fact that I feel so stupid. Stupid and powerless.

And this is what happened:

He calls me, late one night. I stand with friends in the cold night air of the Rooftop Bar and my phone rings with an unknown number.

I answer: “Hello?”.

Nothing but his breath, slow and deep and regular. Then: “Hey.” My heart instantly sinks down into my stomach. Lower. I’m basically shitting it out at this point, and with it my intestines, my lungs, the whole shebang.

Silence again, except for the sudden and insistent interference of the late Autumn wind whipping itself past my ears. Finally, he speaks: “Who is this?”.

“Chris,” I snap. “It’s Chris.”

“Oh,” he replies, voice slow, laboured, thoughtful. “Sorry, I think I called the wrong person.”

I am silent and vindicated in my fury, the winds still raging about my hot and throbbing skull.

He speaks, almost sheepish: “How’re you going?”

After we finish our cigars, Katie and I head inside, the pleasant warmth of good red wine (and a slivovitz or two) sitting happily in our stomachs. We begin to play the Nintendo 64.

I find something incredibly calming about the N64 game system. In the same way that, whenever I’m sick I find myself possessed with the intense desire to watch Anne of Green Gables (since a nasty bout of chickenpox where I spent two weeks curled up in bed, my mother nursing me and showing me her favourite VHS tapes), or the way that the theme-song to The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh can inexplicably bring me to tears, it catapults my brain back to that place I can never return: the golden palace of an imagined, simple childhood, days of innocent pleasures and definable, safe emotions. They make me believe, on some microscopic level, that even if these things aren’t possible now, maybe, just maybe, they used to be. It tells me: there was a time where, unequivocally, everything in the world was alright, and even if it’s a lie, I let myself believe it for that short and blissful period.

We start off in Wario’s Battle Canyon, fighting over the difficulty level of the computer-run competitors – Katie wants a real challenge, whereas I’m happy to keep them on level 1, basically ensuing a human win – and we’re on our way. With the haze of alcohol (and frequent breaks to pet her numerous dogs) the game takes nearly an hour, but finally we cross the finish line.

The mood is tense as the game’s umpire – here represented by a high pitched toadstool wearing a blue vest and shoes – doles out the final points and “bonus” stars. Both Katie and I take our Nintendo particularly seriously, so much so that Katie’s mother doesn’t flinch but indeed laughs when I yell out some variation of: “Fuck you, Wario, you fucking rude slut!”. The night is late, and I’m almost falling asleep as the game suddenly bursts to life: a winner has been chosen. Thousands of shining golden stars rain down upon the character I’ve chosen as she dances and twists in computerized joy. And then the phrase, booming out in robotic, sputtering, cartoon glory:

PEACH. WINS!”

Dita Von Teese would be proud.

And this is what happened.

At the age of 19, a boy showed interest in me. I returned that interest and I fell for what he showed me; what he had to offer, and then… nothing.

And this is what happened.

After a few days of pain, I was fine. I healed. I accepted that not all damage is intentional, and I forgave him – not that he needed me to.

And this is what happened.

I learned to hold my heart, just so: with poise, with caution, with care.

The following piece appeared first in print in the third edition of Hello Mr., with accompanying illustrations by Gabriel Ebensperger. If you like it, please consider buying a copy or sending some support their way – they’re unlike any other magazines currently on the market, and the content they produce is pretty wonderful all ’round.

I first discovered what homosexuality was at the age of 12 or 13, on a family vacation to the rural town of Broome, in Western Australia. My mother stops me as I walk down the street – both hands clamped hard down on my shoulders as she leans in close, lines of heat and sweat emanating off her frame – and whispers, furiously:

“Stop walking like that.”

I pause, unsure. Finally: “Like what?” 

“Waggling your bottom like that. If you walk like that, a man might snatch you away and,” – punctuating the following with an outstretched knuckle – “…stick his penis into you.”

I’m unsure, still, what exactly she means, but after she’s loosened her vise-grip I take it upon myself to study and imitate my father and older brother: gait wide, shoulders back, crotch thrust out for all the world to admire. Somehow this seems more pornographic than before; but neither parent comments, so I figure I must be doing it right.

Late that same night, caught in the mires of half-sleep, I dream of a lonesome shadow man who stretches out from the dark expanse underneath my bed, who takes me in his arms and presses my head to his chest. It is a remarkably sexless dream, but the following morning I discover my pyjama pants are wet with an unknown viscous substance.

From then on I intrinsically link this shadow-man – who returns to me at regular intervals for at least a year, always comforting, always the same – to a secret, crumpled notebook I keep in the depths of my desk at home: a notebook filled with clipped-and-saved pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio and Marky Mark Wahlberg.

The following day, an outing to see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert turns us into a family divided as the film is deemed too “adult” for my precious eyes. Instead I spend the day at the local pool with my mother, still not quite sure why my gaze intrinsically wanders to inspect the bodies of the grown men around me, or why – for a second, only a second – I can so vividly imagine each man holding me, head to chest, the way the shadow man under my bed.

Four years later, another family vacation. I sit in the back seat of our red Toyota, the stifling hot leather sticking to my naked legs as I try to adjust myself against the seatbelt’s chokehold. Mum and Dad keep attempting to point out attractions considered “worth seeing”, but I am suitably checked out, playing Snake on one of those old reliable Nokia phones; the kind designed to survive flood, fire, or nuclear apocalypse.

We stop for a break somewhere in Queensland and I rush to the public toilet, if only to escape my parents’ mirthful, brittle commentary on the view, the weather, the radio station, the view, the view once more. Though I don’t really need to go, I assign myself a cubicle and sit down, taking in the coolness and darkness of the bricks, the acrid smell of piss and cheap hand-soap.

Written in black texta on the back of the door; staring me in the face, is this:

“LOOKING 4 UNDER 30 /

FIT OVER 30, 4 GOOD TIME.

TXT ONLY.”

And under this, a mobile phone number. And under this, a crudely drawn picture of male genitalia, kinky pubic hair jutting off in fanatical tufts either side as though the artist had gotten a little too involved in the drawing process.

I can feel my heart suddenly, violently beating through my chest and into my mouth as Mum calls everyone back to the car. Even without the vulgar cartoon I can easily understand what a “good time” will likely consist of, and, almost in a trance, I save the number in my Nokia.

It’s a while on the road before I dare to text him. I trawl through a number of drafts and imagined pick-up lines, each one sounding younger and more juvenile than the line before it. Finally, I settle on the simple approach:

“Hi”.

Almost immediately, a response: “Hey. What’re you looking for?”. Just like that. No hesitation, no “who is this?” or “how did you get my number?”.

I reply: “Not sure… your number was on a toilet door.” Then: “I’m 16.” And, as an afterthought: “My name’s Chris.”

He replies that his name is Andrew and that he is 36 years old. I respond, at some kind of emotional impasse, sick with worry and slight arousal at how illicit it seems: “Cool.”

A pause. We barrel down the scorching tarmac of the freeway, silent except for the punctuating sound of tiny rocks hitting the underside of the car. Slick with sweat, I wrap my hand tight round the plastic edges of my phone, and will Andrew to respond. Or to not. 

“Have you had sex before?”.

The question stares me in the face, almost accusatory in its bluntness. The words seem scarily permanent – they’re out in the world now, on my tiny black and white screen, burning a hole. Up front, Mum makes some comment about the family’s collective sombre mood, and begins to search for something “fun” to listen to.

Slowly, slowly, my thumbs crank into gear and type out the following: “I haven’t. But I want to.” I send. A pause. Then: “I’m with my family. On holiday. We’re a couple of hours out of Mooloolaba.” Another pause, slightly longer, then: “I’m horny, like, all the time.”

With that, I turn the phone on silent and sit on it. It’s the waiting that’s causing me anguish, I tell myself, not quite ready to wrestle with the fact of my sexuality in such a blatant manner.

Andrew’s reply is almost instantaneous, and I extricate the phone to read: “Me too. ;)”. Sudden terror.

Forwardness and all, he seems nice, answering my questions and educating me about gay history in between pixelated photos of his nude torso. The barren landscape out the window – wide slabs of sand and azure water, broken up only by the occasional road sign or rambunctious seagull – slowly turns to pink and red as the day rolls on and I continue to talk with my new friend.

He tells me that homosexuality was illegal in Australia until the 80s. He tells me how lucky I am to be born in this time. He tells me my future is bright. Most of all, he tells me not to worry. He asks if I can send him a picture of myself. I tell him my phone doesn’t have a camera, though it does. I worry I will scare him away.

As my phone vibrates for the umpteenth time, my mother chirps from the front seat: “Goodness, someone’s popular. Who on earth keeps texting you?”.

I ignore her questions, turn off the phone and pretend to fall asleep as night swirls down around our tiny car.

A year later.

I am sick with emotion (and a bottle of Bailey’s), curled up on the nature strip outside someone’s raucous house party. I clutch a pilfered cordless phone close to my chest, a telephonic life-preserver boldly stolen from under the nose of my generous hosts. Bored of the music, the company; pining for a silly crush, a boy I can never have, I drink the entire bottle of alcoholic milk I’ve pilfered from my parents and trudge out the front door.

My head is cloudy and I wait in stubbornness, anticipating help that will never come: a friend, following me outdoors, asking if I’m okay, if I need someone to talk to, if I need my hair held back while I vomit. But the truth is that I’ve lucked my way into this party, filled to the brim with the primped and tanned Year 11 social elite, and some part of me knows this. I am out of place, out of sorts, out of time, and distinctly aware that I should have stayed home where there’s homework to be done, dinner to be had and everyone is blessedly sober.

The night drones on – perhaps five minutes, perhaps five hours – and as the warmth and sweet nausea of booze washes over me I pull myself, an invalid, into a nearby garden bed. My clothes are filthy, covered in plant matter and detritus, but I am drunk enough to remain unfazed, and not exactly the height of teenaged fashion either way. As I crawl, a saccharine voice unfurls in my head; the voice of a litre of Irish Cream and the inebriated self pity of a first time drunk. It says: “Call him. Call him. Call him.” 

Hands shaking from drink or nerves, I steady the handset and punch the numbers in, written down from my trusty, beat-up Nokia. My host’s parents, apparently, can pick up the tab of my drunken, frenzied confession. 

I hold the phone to my ear and it rings, insistent. Then, a voice:

“Hello?”

I pause. The voice is older, deeper than expected, and a cursory inebriated glance at the number I’ve dialled reveals a new level to my idiocy.

“This is Andrew speaking. Who is this, sorry?”

I’d like to say that I asked him if it would get better and that he replied yes, it would. Or that I told him about this boy from school, and that he told me in return that straight is straight and abdominal muscles don’t make a person good, or bad. Or even that he somehow recognized me; had a distinct memory of a day-long text message chat with a shy, confused 16-year-old. In truth, I remember only this single snapshot – nothing after it, and barely the events preceding: lying in wet dirt, phone pressed hard to my numb, sick face, unable to speak but listening to his voice, low and somehow comforting in the thick midnight air.

“Hello? Hello, who is this?”.

And then I am alone, muttering to a traitor dial tone:

“Chris. Chris. This is Chris.”

1.

I smoked my first cigarette at age 17. 

At the time I’d found myself in the midst of a small clique of goth girls, and on weekends we’d hang out in various scummy public places around Melbourne, occasionally going back to someone’s house to watch The Craft, drink and, of course, smoke. The leader of this group was called Iggy (The Girl Formerly Known as Emma). Iggy was a hulking 6”2, with bleached and thirsty hair plummeting down towards her waist, perfectly painted black lipstick and a penchant for “nose smoking” and classic English literature, in particular the work of Oscar Wilde. She could easily pass for a woman in her mid-twenties, and as such she was our gateway towards cigarettes and cheap vodka, both bought from a dodgy bottle shop near her house in Sunshine (where, ironically and metaphorically, the sun did not often shine). We would sit and drink, and I would raise the cigarette to my lips and puff futilely away like one would at a fine cigar, genuinely believing this to be the great and terrifying act my mother had warned me of time and time again. It wasn’t until some months later – mid 2005, this would’ve been – that I actually achieved the act of inhalation. The head-rush – combined with a mix of expensive spirits pilfered from my parents’ cabinet – was astounding, and I was hooked.

The first packet I bought was Dunhill Blue. I had no idea what type of cigarette this was, only that I’d seen a girl at school smoking them, a girl who was, it seemed, effortlessly cool – donning red lipstick, impeccable music taste and a quiff matched only by her attitude – and so I bought Dunhill as my own attempt to become closer to the stratosphere of her coolness.

Late at night, after my parents had fallen asleep, I would hang out of my open window and quietly smoke; an old horror movie silently illuminating my tiny bedroom with the crimson glow of all-American blood and guts. I’d inhale, exhale, inhale again, let the fibrous vapours float out my open mouth and hang in the air, and feel for a second or two like my life held the sort of poetry I both read and consistently aimed for.

In actuality, of course, I was simply poisoning myself while Milla Jovovich, caught half-naked on mute, wiped waves of bloody zombie chunks from her exposed and perky breasts.

2.

I am adopted. The last time I saw my birth mother one on one, I would’ve been about 20 years old. By this point, my lungs were well hardened from an extended stint working for a particularly horrible call centre, where each break – 5, 15, 50 minutes – would be punctuated by the constant lighting and relighting of cigarettes, ashen life-preservers we’d suck on with the kind of desperation that comes with eight hours of attempting to hock phone-lines and internet to people who genuinely hate you.

That night I stayed at my birth mother’s house, and together we polished off a couple of bottles of wine, ending up sitting together on the porch, drinking in the late Summer air. As I thought to myself, “shit, I wish I had a smoke”, my birth mother, like the nicotine fairy I’d always wanted, produced an entire carton of menthols. Sensing the hunger in my eyes – a combination of an addict’s heady lust and the sheer amazement at seeing that many cigarettes in one place – she offered me one. I accepted – and followed it up with another, and another, ad infinitum. At one point, I distinctly remember declaring – menthol hanging out the side of my mouth, minty freshness broken by that seedy undercurrent of tobacco and tar –  “They’re so light! It’s almost like breathing air!”. Almost.

The next day I took the train home, head pounding, lungs throbbing. After cleaning myself up in a café bathroom down the road – in those days of hiding from my mother, Listerine Fresh Breath Strips were my best friend – I finally arrived home. The perfect crime. 

I walk into my room to find my mother sitting on my bed with an eerie calm about her.

“Let’s go for a drive,” she smiles, tight and thin. The universal code for: boy-o, you’re fucked. Oh god. “Come on.”

With the resigned terror of a man on death row, I follow her into the car, sitting in silence as she backs out of the driveway and presses down the door’s locks. It’s a trap.

We carry on, the silence permeating my very being, for a good ten minutes until she slowly, surely pulls up at the beach. In front of us, a pristine, sunny day, emerald waters gently lapping the sand as seagulls and happy families frolic and play. This can’t be good. I reach to open the door, forgetting I’ve been locked in. My mother turns to me, slowly, eyes piercing my soul:

“You’ve been smoking, haven’t you.”

Shit, I think. This might actually be worse than the gay thing.

3. 

Across the years I’d been able to pick up and put down cigarettes without much fanfare, delving into their comfort as I needed then leaving them for weeks, months at a time. My first and real struggle with quitting occurred – quite stupidly, in retrospect – as I was directing the biggest production I’d ever been in charge of, a production of Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade.

The stress inherent in helming a play with some 22 characters – most of them insane, and most played by actors who delighted in keeping in character at all times – drove me to, for the first time, actually need to smoke. I would stand out in the rain during rehearsal breaks and chug desperately down on a cigarette, another one in my hand, ready to be lit up at a moment’s notice. 

“Break has finished two minutes ago,” our long-suffering stage manager would inform me, head sticking out of the rehearsal room. “The actors are ready.”

“Well, I’m the director!”, I’d reply, lighting another cigarette off of the one already crammed into my mouth. “And I say we get five minutes more.”

“But – ” 

“Whattaya gonna do – start without me?”, I’d snarl, and continue sucking them down. By this point I was smoking menthol cigarettes almost exclusively – they were easier to cram down quicker, and hence were more economical. It was a busy time of my life, and if I was going to smoke, I was going to be the fucking best at smoking.

My decision to quit was fuelled in part by these bouts of rage. Friends in the cast who, like me, smoked, would side-eye me with waves of worry as the stage manager would trudge back inside, before lighting up another cigarette, as much out of fear as anything else. “Where’re you going?”, I’d smile pointedly as they’d attempt to leave before me. “I got us five more minutes, guys! It’s fine.”

One of my favourite cast members of this particular play was an international student from Malaysia named Jasmine, a girl of elven beauty with a thick mane of black hair and striking opal eyes (that I later learned were contact lenses – it was a shocking time for me all round). I had cast her because she had ostensibly been the sweetest auditionee out of more than a hundred. Instead, she had turned out to be a beautiful fusion of party girl and sheer blind insanity, to the point where it would occasionally be uncertain as to whether she was acting onstage or just being. I could dedicate an entire collection of stories simply relaying the wonderful, crazed things Jasmine did – and may yet do – but aside from all the nipples bitten, the tales of international marijuana brands smoked, the violent, insistent booty-popping and general screeching, she was also the unquestionable queen of non-sequiturs. Case in point:

I stand on break, smoking, as per usual, as she pops her head out, feline in her inquisition.

“Got a light?”. I do, and she comes over, pulling out the largest, darkest cigarette I’ve seen in all my life from an unmarked packet. She catches my eye as she squirrels the packet away and asks, voice full of cheek: “Want a puff?”.

I try to inhale and it feels immediately as if a sandpaper covered fist has bludgeoned its way through my oesophagus. Through the coughing, I manage to ask Jasmine why on earth she smokes these death sticks. 

“Oh,” she says mildly, breathing the filterless monstrosity like it’s nothing. “If I have menthols I just keep on smoking them, one after the other. But with this, it’s so strong, I only need to smoke one each day!”. Somehow, somehow, she’s finished the cigarette, and she drops it to the ground, stubs it out with a dainty twist of her foot. Then, brightly, she turns to me: “My dad, he die of cancer.”

For the first time in a long time, I hesitate to continue with the smoke in my hand – and in fact I stub it out and head back inside. I manage to live cigarette free for a good week and a bit, before my main actor – five days out from opening – develops vocal nodules and loses her voice. My first reaction to the stress and fear of this is to light up once again.

4.

Two or three weeks after the production closed, a great friend of mine did something very stupid: he took his own life.

This friend’s name was Stuart. He was a troubled and beautiful person, beloved by everyone he had significant contact with, and a large chunk of people whom he didn’t. He and I bonded initially over a mutual affection for bitchy humour, cigarettes and coffee, and although we’d often fall out of the other’s radar for weeks at a time, we were consistently there for each other when it mattered.

The time immediately after his death was thick with grief – not sadness but grief, real and hot and desperate that hung in the air and on your skin – in part compounded because, cruelly, he had chosen to commit the deed on our university campus, a place that for so many of us was synonymous with his particular brand of life and energy. For days on end, people would come and attend the altar of his demise, a collection of photographs and messages and small gifts, all extolling his virtues and individually, collectively asking, demanding, pleading: why?.

By this point I had moved from menthol cigarettes to Peter Stuyvesant, thinking irrationally that Stuart – who time and again, with a faux-fey flick of his wrist, grinning cheekily, would rip into me for “wussing out” and not smoking “real” cigarettes – would have wanted it this way.

The most distinct memory I have of this time is sitting cross legged in the sun in a bizarre tee-pee of limbs, wrapped around one or two friends who in turn were wrapped around one or two other people.

A girl with a beautiful face, donning a dressing-gown wrapped tight over her everyday clothes, wipes her eyes and sits down next to me. She lights a cigarette, inhales, then places it with tenderness on the ground, lining it up perfectly in front of small tree, cracked and wrecked but somehow still alive. She then lights another; breathes it in.

I gesture towards the ground, barely making the word out: “Why…?”.

She exhales. “For him. That’s where he hit the ground.”

Oh god.

I watch in morbid fascination as this cigarette slowly burns itself out on the ground, bright orange filter like a sick marker pointing towards that hallowed spot. After the girl leaves, I pick it up and smoke the end of it, trying, failing to be closer to him.

Late on the night it happened, tucked tight in bed with my boyfriend at the time, someone I’d been dating for a fortnight at most, I received a text message from him:

I just realised something – you and Jack are totally dating.

We are, I’d thought, brain caught in the heavy state between asleep and awake, and turned my phone over, leaving it for the morning.

In the following weeks – and in some respects, even today – I struggled hard with that message. The obvious thoughts crossed my mind, of course – if I’d only replied, could I have saved him? Was it a call for help? What did it mean? – but the sad fact of it was that he was too fucking clever and too fucking stubborn for any of us. There was no indication. 

The days turned into weeks, and slowly, surely, the sharp and immediate edges of our grief and lamentation turned into a weight; an acute collective melancholy that carried with it a tiny but determined speck of hope, that things would be better. The days droned on, and brought with them some of the highest highs and lowest lows I’ve felt in all my life with a raw and heightened feeling that was, for a while, impossible to turn off. In those days, and the days following, smoking lost what little sheen it had held in the first place – in fact, it became one of the few things that did seem futile, and one afternoon, quietly, almost sheepishly, I put down my cigarettes and refused to pick them up again.

I wasn’t able to save him – and, truth be told, if anyone were going to have saved him, I’m not sure that it could’ve been me – but he was able to save me.

It’s been almost four years since I’ve bought a packet of cigarettes.

1.

I am six years of age, sitting supine, waist-deep in knotted shag-pile the colour of clotted cream. Behind me sits my mother, caught oblivious in deep conversation with a not unkind-faced older woman named Dr Jackie Smith (known to me as “Jaggy”). As they talk, I arrange the whorls and dips of the carpet into clumps and bury small plastic monkeys beneath them; imagining I’m sitting in a room full of mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes and primates. Imagination is awesome. 

“I’m just not sure what to do,” my mother says. “I don’t know if we did it, or if he somehow did it to himself…” 

I’m not used to hearing myself talked about so candidly – although, given my age, it’s rather difficult to properly ascertain exactly how they’re talking about me, I’m acutely aware that I am the topic of conversation.

“If he didn’t listen to that tape all the bloody time…”, Mum trails off.

For the past two years I have carried around a cassette tape of Johannes Brahms in the front pocket of my lime-green overalls, holding onto it with an almost autistic intensity and insisting to listen to the whole thing (sides a and b, thank you very much) at least once a day, always with the cry of “Big music! Big music!”. My parents’ initial joy – “classical music – and at such a young age!” – soon turned to tiredness (Mozart was another favourite, and occasionally Bach’d get a spin, but Brahms was the gold standard), yet still they let me play this “big music” – I suppose anything was better than The Wiggles.

As the tape would play, I’d sit stock still, back propped high in front of a speaker taller than my own person, and silently trace the figure of Brahms, etched stern and silver into a royal purple background. I’d imagine what his life must have been like – having zero conception of 1800s Germany basically limited these imaginings to seeing Brahms on a horse, or Brahms at a piano – and marvel that someone could make such beautiful sounds. (As an aside, I’m also fairly certain I thought he played all the instruments himself).

Dr Smith picks me up, world-weary, and slings me over a chair:

“Let’s see what’s going on, shall we?”. With the same amount of grace, she deftly penetrates my ear with her othoscope and begins to waggle it around. “I see…”. A pause, the chair spins, and the same sudden burst of cold metal. “Everything seems to be in order.” 

As she turns to speak to my mother, I slide unscrupulous down face of the leather chair and crawl back to the shagpile, where life is more comfortable and there are plastic friends to play with. The adults carry on:

“We might need to book a specialist appointment – there’s only so much an initial examination will show, and if he still can’t hear – ” 

“I can hear,” I pipe up, cheery, sticky hand clutched tight full of neon simians.

A beat. 

My mother and Dr Smith turn, almost in unison, to regard me. For what seems to be an eternity they simply stare, and I stare back, unsure as to what I’ve done.

“Christopher”, my mother says, tightly, hands wringing, voice under both violent stress and profound control. “Christopher. You haven’t replied to anything that’s been said to you in the past three days.”

Well, yeah.

“I know,” I reply. “I didn’t want to. You say boring things.”

2.

I am twelve years of age, sitting in the school councillor’s office. She’s a cheery woman with short red hair, not unkind but a little distant, who sits on a medicine ball and has a fondness for using hyper-inclusive terms, as if she herself has suffered through your trauma: “let’s not talk about suicide, shall we? We know better than that. We don’t want to hurt our family and our peers, now, do we?”.

I haven’t said a word – I fear that if I do I’ll get myself into trouble – so the councillor and I have simply sat in silence; me avoiding her eyes, counting the coins in my blazer pocket, and her simply looking directly at me, floodlights for eyes, and occasionally bouncing on her medicine ball. Finally, she breaks.

“We mustn’t throw chairs at people, now, must we?”. Look, probably not.

“I… he called me fat.”

A pause. Then: “Even if people call us names, we mustn’t throw chairs.” 

I imagine, for a second, trying to explain to this woman – lithe, high cheekbones, clean, milky skin, wearing a tracksuit I’m fairly certain she’s ironed – how in a sense, she’s right – how throwing a chair isn’t appropriate if someone calls you fat once, but if they do it every day – every hour of every day – if they grab your sides every chance they get and try and slap your ample body like a bulbous, fleshy drum – how then you might feel like throwing a chair.

I decide against it.

Smile growing ever wider, she presses on: “Now… what’re some names you can call him back next time he calls you fat?”. Next time. Oh, good.

“I… uh. You’re ugly?”, I offer. Sure, why not? “And your parents are ugly too. You should never have been born. I wish you’d never been born! Ugly!” 

There’s a pause, and for a second, the smile on her face falters. Then: “Yes, okay. Okay! You’re doing good.”

I notice, acutely, she has stopped talking in the inclusive. 

3.

I am twenty, a vessel of broiling, nervous energy, waiting for the results of my first sexual health test.

A week before I had strut in, feeling terribly adult and confident – I wasn’t doing it because I had to, I was doing it because I wanted to, so surely I was a Bastion of Adulthood. The waiting time, however – upwards of an hour – had killed my bravado in one fell swoop. I had sat, terror dripping down on me with the quiet insistence of a leaky faucet, and witnessed men and women, young and old, have their names called – some fine, some jittery, and some with a dread calm that scared me most of all. The following week had been astoundingly hard, as I managed to convince myself with every waking moment that I had somehow contracted every sexually transmitted infection known to man – and probably some unknown to man. In reality, it was simply the wrong week for me to read Holding the Man. 

There’s a call – “Christopher, October!” – and I free-fall from my sorry thoughts and back to reality.

“Me!” I bellow, as if I’ve won the lottery, suddenly and painfully aware that several sets of eyes have fallen, disapprovingly, upon me. “It’s… it’s me.”

“Right-o,” the voice replies – a small doctor with greying hair and a not unkind face – “Come this way, please.” 

Seconds pass and now I’m in a small white office, my heart in my mouth and head all at once, feeling as though I might vomit all over the room. I look at the doctor again, and figure I’d better not, though – can you catch an STI through vomit? Could you sue someone for catching an STI through vomit? I don’t have any money, so…

I’ve barely sat down, when: “You’re all clear”. That’s all. 

“Really?” I stammer. “Can I see?” 

“Sure!”. He spins the computer screen around, but it’s an indecipherable cartogram of dots and squiggles. I gulp.

“I don’t – I’m not…”, I manage. Sure, at this point I haven’t had unprotected sex – random or otherwise – but somehow, somehow, I’m convinced somebody has snuck into my room at night and dropped a vial of concentrated syphilis into my open mouth while I slept. 

“You’re clear,” he insists. “And even if you weren’t – it’s really not the end of the world. Read these.” 

He hands me a bunch of pamphlets and sends me on the way. On the way out I survey the waiting faces – young and old, man and woman – and try to suppress the waves of shame washing over me, to no avail.

4. 

I am 23 years old, standing outside the front door of a palliative care unit. Inside, my Grandfather is dying. I have been at a rehearsal for a show.

“Now,” says the doctor in charge – a man with a not unkind face – “I understand your Mother has talked to you about the situation already?”. I try to remember what she’s said, but can’t. My face is numb.

“Yes,” I reply.

“Do you have any questions?” he asks, rifling through his papers.

“No,” I reply. Can you stop my face being numb? 

“Whenever you’re ready,” he smiles, absent-minded, and wanders off. Well, then.

It’s the smell that hits me first – full of pleasantries and artifice, flowers and sweet oils burnt and dabbed to mask the real smell of cleaning products and stale piss and sedentary. 

“You’re here,” Mum says, and silently I join her side.

Then, my Grandmother: “You can hold his hand, if you like.” 

I reach out, slow and cautious, and peel back the tepid blankets – a thin, unforgiving wool the colour of clotted cream – and retrieve my Grandfather’s hand. 

“Hello,” I say. A beat. I don’t know what else to say, so, again: “Hi.” 

I wish I’d come sooner.

– 

Half an hour later, I’m sitting with my Grandmother on an emerald-green leather couch that’s covered in squeaky, disinfected plastic. She’s nestled in, falling asleep, finally, and I take the dregs of a cup of tea from her grasp and replace it with my hand. Late afternoon sunlight streams in through the windows, and it bathes her face in an otherworldly, amber glow. Somehow – caught in the throes of a sleep that I know won’t last very long – she looks not only peaceful, but young again. 

Directly in front of us stands a woman with a kind face, quietly, methodically mopping the floor. She looks up, catching my eye, pauses, and for a moment it’s just me and her, her and me, and my Grandmother’s hand, buried tight in mine, tracing her veins with my thumb over and over, and in front of me the woman stares, pale blue eyes wide and full of care. 

She smiles, cautiously, and holds it out towards me like a gift. It takes a second, but I smile back.

Time & assignments are once again curb-stomping me so I haven’t been able to finish the entries I’ve been working on lately. Instead, here is a secondary monologue I wrote during ATYP’s National Studio (again, ’round the theme of food). New content one day when it doesn’t feel like my brain is going to explode.

Gingerbread.

ADELAIDE:    Friends.

[beat. she clears her throat.]

Hello, friends. Family… and the rest of Year 12 Form H4.

I know we have all been affected by this most horrible thing that has befallen us. I know I speak for all of us – all of us – when I say that Anthea will be missed very dearly. We met one chilly Autumn lunch-time, two eight-year-olds waiting patiently in line for the Year Four Sausage Sizzle. I remember the amazement and vague terror in her eyes as she watched me laden my vegetarian hot dog substitute with lashings of red tomato sauce. Misinterpreting this for greed, I held the bottle out, but she backed away, dry meat, white bread clutched hard in hand: “No thanks. I hate Rosella; we’re not allowed it. Mum says dad gets really violent whenever he’s on the sauce.”

Since that first serendipitous meeting, our friendship revolved almost entirely around food. Bake sales, sharing secret recipes, manning the Shrove Tuesday stand year after year after year… it’s probably no small coincidence we ended up in Home Economics together. Now, as many of you are aware, Home Economics is – was, her favourite subject.

Indeed, that hallowed kitchen was where the three of us named our little group: ‘Triple A”, after the battery. While Anna-Sophia and Anthea thought of that name as trivial –   fluff; a tiny slip of golden privilege awarded to the reigning board of the Future Homemaker’s Society three years running – that name meant so much more to me. Because, what does a battery do?

Power. It generates power.

Earlier this morning, I was out shopping for my funeral dress with Mum, and I bumped into Mrs Jansen, who teaches this class.

[recognizing MRS JANSEN in the audience.] Oh! Yes, hello.

And – and, Mrs Jansen said to me, an air of conspiracy about her: “Adelaide,” she said, with a nudge. “Adelaide! Looks like the triple- A battery has been downgraded to double-A.” At first, I must admit, I found this statement to be… quite problematic. “Looks like the triple-A… has been downgraded to a double-A.”

However, friends, I’m happy to report that the more I thought about it, the more I realised how extremely wrong I was. In History class, we learn all about context. Mr Fredericks says: context makes the world go round, and I think I agree. The Nazis, for instance, didn’t know they were Nazis. 

Oh, like, I mean, they knew they were Nazis, of course, I just mean, they didn’t know they were in the wrong, necessarily. What I’m saying is, everyone brings their own personal level of experience and subjectivity to everything that they do. With this in mind, I began to ruminate on Mrs Jansen’s statement. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised just how much more useful double-A batteries actually are. Open up your calculators. Your television remotes, your Gameboys. They all operate from double-A batteries. And what about triple-A? Who uses those any more?

Um. That was a rhetorical question.

In a sense, I found that to be a strangely pulchritudinous sentiment. Anthea may be gone, now, but we two – [now gesturing to the audience] and we, too – will go on, and become stronger for it. And like the Nazis, I’m sure that’s what Mrs Jansen meant when I bumped into her exiting The Reject Shop this morning.

Anthea had a gift. With flair and panache, she could slow roast a turkey so thick and tender the juice’d run red rivers down your chin. Her quiches were exquisite – dappled pastry crisp and new like a freshly-starched sheet, filled to the brim with fluffy egg and the crispest bacon; strings of mozzarella like woven spider’s silk. Her meringues were… heavenly. Like, literally; as if from the kitchen of Jesus Christ himself to Anthea’s serving plate. And as a triple-A, all she got were As. The gingerbread house, however, continually eluded her.

I will never forget her ashen face when Jansen – uh, Mrs – announced the mid-term exam. Build your gingerbread dream home, and have it survive the ultimate challenge: the table-top earthquake. While Mrs Jansen beat the table with her cast-iron pan, ginger ceilings would crack and crumble upon innocent families of green and yellow jelly babies. Thick globules of buttered sugar-snow and chocolate lattice-work would avalanche on down, wave upon wave of the stuff, leaving blood-red raspberry coulis and wanton candy carnage in its wake. Ninety minutes. Go.

Well, I tried as best I could. With cautious hands I slathered on layers of icing mortar, piped on tiny frosted windows and crushed up jawbreakers to dust the roof with. I even cut up liquorice bullets to pave the front yard. But there was something rotten at the core of this house. Its foundations were off, rank and poisonous and it was all I could do to keep the thing from falling down around me. I had planned a six-bedroom mansion with walk-in robes and chocolate buttons to boot, and had ended up with a diabetic primordial ooze.

And there’s Anthea, brow folded deep in concentration, and somehow it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in all my life. This honest, modest little cottage. Gorgeous spearmint lawn. A rainbow ‘killer python’ piping the front edge of the roof. And, propped up in front of this masterpiece? Two matching purple jelly babies, standing hand in little gelatine hand.

She’s smiling at me now; looking at me, and I’m looking back at her, and I’m sweating, hard and fast, my body shaking in some kind of natural, terrible ecstasy the likes of which I have never felt before. And then she laughs. At me.

My hand springs out, a flesh-made wrecking ball, and before I can register what exactly it is I’m doing I’m punching, I’m punching and clawing and there are chunks of my stupid little house flying all about the room, god! Tear the fucking thing down, smash it into pieces of saccharine oblivion and nothing, build nothing in its absence. There’s a ringing in my ears and Jansen takes me outside but I can’t hear, I still can’t hear what anyone’s saying because this chorus of sharpening metal in my ears and eyes just won’t let up, and Jansen’s shaking me now but I’m checked out, not here, not anywhere but sitting on that little spearmint lawn, the sun beating down on my face and then– and then I think: If she can’t give me this one thing, this one tiny thing, then she may as well just be dead.

[beat.]

Um.

[beat.]

I’m sorry.

[beat.]

If – if you’d all like to exit by the aisles at the end of your row, the funeral procession will be on its way. Thank you to Anthea’s parents for letting me speak… and to everyone who contributed a dish to the refreshments table. I made the cupcakes; the ones with the purple jelly-babies on them.