2012. I wake with a scream – not my own.
It is alien, harsh and racking and full of torment and it cuts through the inky blackness of my bedroom. I am 22 years old, living in a dilapidated apartment on the border of South Yarra and Toorak – both fairly affluent areas, despite the state of the abode I’m co-renting – and as such, screams in the night are practically unheard of.
Trams shrieking viciously down a main road at one in the morning? Sure. A few drunken girls, shoes in hand and slurring – “Becky! Becky ya fucken’ slut, wait up willya, SERIOUSLY!” – as they teeter-totter out of TRAK, the all-purpose multilevel liquor palace that looms on the hill over our apartment complex like a teenybopper parody of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s disembodied Dr. T. J. Eckleburg billboard, sure. But cries of pain?
I will myself to move, stand up, turn on the light, open my window, investigate. I do not. And outside, that sound again, crying, now – sobbing, a female voice, wailing in a dialect I don’t understand, and below it a more sinister voice, male, speaking calmly, deeply, with purpose and command.
The woman’s voice again, in English, now: “No!”. A beat, then: “No. Fuck you, no.” And back out again. I think she’s Italian, though I’m not sure.
An insidious disquiet begins to wash over me. I feel pinned, my body pressed, weighted down onto the bed, unable to move, to extricate myself. Does this woman need help? What help could I possibly offer?
My mind wanders, renegade, to Year 9 Psychology and Mrs. Tattersall, our teacher. I can see her now: a slight woman with tight, cropped brown hair, wide eyes pressed into a sponge-cake face and nervous hands belying a concrete, ballsy voice.
“Who here,” she begins, stalking through the classroom in grey kitten-heels, a matching dress-suit, “has heard of the case of Kitty Genovese? …anybody?”.
The room is silent, except for the clack, clack, clack of Tattersall’s heels on white linoleum. She comes to a stop at the head of the room; turns around to face the class.
“1964. Around 3AM in the morning, Catherine Genovese was driving home from her job as a bar manager. Now, she lived in an apartment complex, which accordingly had a shared parking lot, about thirty metres from her doorstep. From safety.”
She pauses, now, twisting on the spot and clacking over to a nearby window; the afternoon sun playing across her face as she indulges in the theatricality, the gravitas of it all.
“Thirty metres; that’s all. At some point during that thirty metres, she was approached by a man in a long coat and wide-brimmed hat, who made a play towards her out from the darkness of the parking lot. Startled, terrified, she ran, but he intercepted her, attacked her, and stabbed her repeatedly. At this, Kitty screamed. Again and again, she cried for help. But no help came.”
Another pause, breaking away from the window and returning her attentions to us, her charges.
“How many people do you suppose heard that cry for help, hm? One, two, four or five? No. Thirty-eight.” A beat. “Thirty-eight people heard her cries for help, maybe even saw her in that parking lot, and – outside of one man who yelled from his window – not one of them did a thing to help her. They let her die. Why do you suppose that is?”
I look down, rifle through the glossy pages of my psych book – the words TENTH EDITION!! printed proudly in a rich, royal purple – and sure enough, there she is: poor Kitty Genovese, hair perfectly coiffed, eyebrows raised to the heavens, a knowing smile on her face. I try to swallow, but can’t: my mouth has dried up completely. And the silence has become heavy, now, pregnant with fear and wonder and perhaps an air of disbelief.
“Diffusion of responsibility,” Tattersall answers for us, voice cold, commanding. “Or what we might call, ‘inaction’.”
2007. I am 19 years old, having dinner with an old school friend, Kristen, at the Brown Cow, a Brighton (“Braaaghton”) institution. We sit and chat as day breaks into evening, feeling terribly adult over house wine and thick cut chips; discussions about our lives post high school. The night is almost over; we’re about to pack it in when a word, a dirty little word comes twisted and jarring from a nearby table to greet us:
I turn, ever so slightly, to see three particularly stunning meatheads from my alma mater, coughing slurs behind heavy, veined hands the size of steaks; streaked hair and skin thick and brown from fake tan. And again, with the conviction of someone reading out a shopping list:
“Faggot. Poof. Poofta. Faggot. Faggooooooot.”
Somehow their lack of vitriol stings even more – they can’t even be bothered to properly insult me.
“We should go,” I mutter to Kristen, wishing I could do something.
“No,” she replies, and there’s a fire in her eyes unlike anything I’ve seen before. “Sit down.” I do. Then, her voice brilliantly loud, a tinge of Sandra Sully, carrying louder than their insults yet soft like honey:
“Have you ever been with a man, Chris?”
The insults pause, for a second, tilting on the precipice of something, something, and I understand, vaguely, that I have the ability to push them off this precipice. I lock eyes with Kristen, and in that same voice:
“Why yes, I have. Many times, in fact.”
“WONDERFUL!,” she bellows. “Ab-so-lutely wonderful. I must say, I love a hard cock, don’t you?”. My hero.
We continue on for a good ten minutes, but we needn’t have – the meatheads have vacated the building.
I arrive home an hour later, clutching desperately on to that fire, that heat that lay in Kristen’s eyes. In a daze, a furious daze, I open up my MySpace, the blog function, and begin to type:
“Tonight I was verbally attacked by people on the outskirts of our supposed friendship group. I was called “faggot”, along with a myriad of other inventive names. Well, here’s the thing: Yes. I’m gay. So what?”
Thirty minutes later, after much deliberation, I post the thing. The responses are positive, glowing, even, from people I don’t even know particularly well. And then, a private message appears:
Hey mate, just read your blog and wanted to say I’m proud of you. Look after yourself.”
And then, on the blog itself:
Alright, my turn. Some mates of mine were making out and asked to stop…”
I blanch for a second, a wave of inexplicable fear and happiness coursing through my veins. Then, I put on an iOTA CD and start to formulate a reply.
2010. I sit with a friend, Emma, on her single bed, in her single room. We are holding hands. The past few months have been something of a personal hell as I’ve progressed through the stages of some unrequited fantasy with a mutual friend; found myself stuck at some permanent crossroads of flirtation v friendship, playing endlessly and sick out through my brain.
“You’ve got to do it,” she says.
Written, structured, in my “drafts” folder is a particularly long text message laying out the situation. There have been several opportunities for me to diffuse the situation, to call it out, but each time I’ve found my mouth turn to putty, traitor body shaking in a fear and revelry that I can’t push out of.
“What’re you afraid of?”, she asks.
Everything, I think to myself.
I send the message.
2012. I’m back in that bed. That’s it. I’ve got to do something. I can’t possibly let this happen – whatever “this” may be. It’s been ten, fifteen, maybe twenty minutes and the woman won’t stop crying, that man’s voice still calm and low underneath and my mind has made up a million situations to place this couple in and none of them are good. I focus. I’ve got to get up.
Then, a third voice like gravel and broken glass blasting through the midnight air: “OI. IT’S FUCKEN’ TWO IN THE MORNING. SOME OF US’VE GOTTA WORK, CAN YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP.”
As quickly as they began, the two foreign voices slink back into the night, no conclusion to be heard, no sound, now, except for the faint hum of insects, a sprinkler, and far off, the insistent beep of a pedestrian crossing, and…
I slip back down and away, into the luxurious mires of sleep once more: with ease, with relative ease.
2007. I am at a gig at the Corner with a few friends, and I’ve had a couple beers; enough to buoy me up with a sense of brazen self-confidence and joyous attitude. Tonight’ll be a good night.
I dash down the stairs and am stopped dead in my tracks. Three metres away is iOTA himself, taller than I’d expected and inexplicably terrifying. My confidence drains immediately; flushed away like waste down the sink. We stand, he and I, stock still for maybe fifteen seconds, and even as my body screams to run my mind attempts to kick into gear: Say “hi”. Tell him what his message meant to you. Say “hi”. Fucking say “hi”!
My body wins out and I twist on the spot, ready to dash back up those stairs, my mind already filling up with shame. Then:
“Oi!”. A hand on my shoulder, not unkind, and I twist back ‘round to face him. He’s close, now, and he looks me in the eye: “You’re Chris. You wrote that blog!”
“I did,” I manage, heart in my mouth, mouth on fire.
“That was awesome,” he grins. “C’mon, you want a drink?”.
2012. I lie on that same bed with a boy watching inane YouTube videos. We’ve been out – had dinner, drinks, the lot – and now we’re lying, side by side, barely touching in the Winter air.
I think: someone, help. Then: how do people do this? How does anyone connect?
He says: “Give me your hand.”
I do, and we lay like that for a time, hand in hand, my heart once more jumping out through my very skin, body ready at any second to revolt.
I think: fucking get your shit together. And for better or worse, I slide down close, move towards him, kiss him.
2012. Morning has broken, and groggy with sleep (or lack thereof), I shuffle, a zombie, down the brutal cold of the stairwell and out into Autumn’s morning sun.
Sitting calm on an old brick fence just a few metres down, sipping at an enormous cup of black coffee, is beautiful woman in a pale blue dressing-gown. She has thick black hair and eyebrows, the faintest stains of colour on the edges of her lips, and deep, heavy bags under her eyes; bags that match my own.
I watch her for a time, unselfconscious in my sleepiness, as she mulls over her morning brew, using her little finger as a temperature gauge – nope, still too hot. As she sits, a man pads out behind her; slides his arms around her.
“No,” she snarls. “No,” and, “Fuck off!”. I’d recognise that voice anywhere. The man looks hurt, his face crumpled, and he pads back inside.
I walk over to her, and she tells me that they’re boyfriend and girlfriend; he got home that night with lipstick on his collar and she’s deciding if they have a future.
I walk over to her, and she tells me they’re brother and sister; their mother died and left a precious family heirloom, a wrist-watch, to him, even though it’s the one item she’s always coveted and he’ll probably sell it anyway.
I walk over to her, and she tells me he’s some guy she took home from a bar; he has erectile disfunction and of course, of course it’s just her luck that the first time she does something like this she picks up a dud root.
I walk over to her and she tells me to mind my own fucking business.
I walk over to her.
I walk over to her, and…
And it takes a second, but finally, she recognises my presence; her face angular, beautiful in the morning sun. We lock eyes.
“Can I help you?”, she intones.
A beat. Say something.
“How are you?”, I ask.
She pauses, one eyebrow raised, slight smirk on her face. Then:
“Fine. How are you?”.
Another pause, and I’m genuinely thinking, racking my brain for something, anything to say.
“Yeah,” I reply. “Yeah… I’m okay.”
She smiles, and takes a sip of her coffee.