on phone numbers, written on toilet doors

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.”

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