It is 2AM and I am 21 and a handful of weeks old. I am lying in bed with my boyfriend at the time, a sad and dour young gentleman who proclaimed on the regular his love for me and his deep desire for marriage and a “forever” relationship. I stare blankly at the ceiling, perversely enjoying the sensation of my eyes adjusting, fighting against the darkness, trying for sight and failing. Beside me, the boyfriend snores and smacks his lips together like a dog in a cartoon, and even as I sink deeper into the monstrous pile of pillows beneath me I still hear the sound of his shallow sleep-breath: in and out, in and out, in and out.
I think of my attempts to cheer him up, each one more desperate and insistent than the last, so that they’d eventually devolve into me simply shaking him and screaming “IT’S OKAY. YOU’RE OKAY. FUCK, WE’RE OKAY, NOW BE HAPPY. BE HAPPY OR WE WON’T BE.” And I think of earlier that night, how my parents had chewed me out: “he hasn’t left here for seven weeks now,” Mum had said, “hasn’t he got a home go to?”
And of the afternoon after his birthday party a week prior, of my arriving home from work to find the bedroom still trashed, broken glass still jutting up from the floor, some kind of alcohol stain adorning my parents’ carpet and the boyfriend, sitting slumped in my chair, in the dark, unshowered and uncouth and ignoring the mess around him.
Lying beside me, the boyfriend, mid-sleep, rolls a hundred and eighty degrees and beings to snore, the reverberations oppressively loud against my skin as I press myself further into the pillows and beg whatever God there may be to bless me with sleep. And inside my chest my heart skips a beat, and out of that skip comes a message: pale and plain and written on lined paper, the kind you might find in high school or a shopping list or in in the imagined dream sequence you half-remember from a years-old incident. It reads:
THE SAD FACT OF LIFE IS THAT LOVE ISN’T ALWAYS ENOUGH.
I am ten years old and sitting, terrified, in the front seat as my father drives with purpose through the cold night air. The radio is dead and so as he drives all I can hear is the mechanical orchestra of the city around me; a bevy of shrieks, whines, bangs and saws. I have been caught, some days earlier, with a large collection of receipts from the JB Hi-Fi down the street. The monetary damage printed on them had been quite severe. My parents, rightly so, had wondered: how, exactly, had I come across this money? I had stolen the money, to be exact. A shitty, impulsive, idiot child, I had seen fit to squirrel through my mother’s wallet while she wasn’t looking and take a fat and sweaty fistful of pineapple-yellow fifties.
Abruptly, the car stops, and I jolt in my seat, the belt cutting high and hard across my chest and neck. I think for a second to complain, but, even with the idiocy of an eight-year-old would-be thief, I know better, and quash the urge.
Then, my father: “Get out.”
Fuck that, my brain screams. FUCK. NO. Or perhaps something with less advanced swear-words but the same amount of panic. He’ll leave you. Or hit you with the car.
And then, another voice: Who’s to say you wouldn’t deserve it?
“No thank-you,” I say, voice tiny and timid and rodent-like, quavering in the dark and the cold of the night. My father is silent but the locks on the doors, which had previously been pressed down and locked (presumably to keep me from escaping) all spring up and open at once, making a terrible crack as they do. The message is clear.
Knees and brain jelly, I extricate myself from the car and get out, leaving the front door open. My father points in front of the car as the high beams shudder on, bathing the scene in front of us with a cold, amber light. “Go on.”
I trudge roughly to the spot he’s indicating to, my knees underneath my school shorts rough and terribly cold, my whole body shaking. I look around – the ground (grey concrete), the sky (a black and unknowable mass), the alleyway walls (splattered with carefree graffiti) and the area behind me (covered with rubbish and huge black rubber bags; stinky and disgusting and feral). I wonder what the hell I’m supposed to be doing. Five, ten minutes pass, and then my father indicates for me to get back into the car. I do so.
“That’s the kind of life that thieves lead,” he says. “The kind that ends up on the street. Alone.” Then: “Still want to be steal from people?”
And I am 19, now, standing in the JB Hi-Fi on Elizabeth Street. In front of me sits approximately two hundred vinyl records; a veritable feast of music. In my left hand, my phone. I check my bank balance, zombie-like, and read the numbers. They’re large. Certainly not large by today’s standards, but large for someone who’s never had a full time job before. I stare from the balance to the records, and realise that with this, my sixth paycheque, I’ve paid off all my debt, and that any of these two hundred musical items could be mine, if I want. Any at all. Another glance at the phone. The words seem to dance together:
IT’S ALWAYS BETTER TO WORK FOR SOMETHING RATHER THAN TO JUST TAKE IT.
And I am age 14, a veritable butterball, standing at the starting line at the St. Leonard’s Sports Carnival – masses of children and adults surrounding me, in the bleachers and the field, all adorned in the colours of the schools four ‘houses’: red, yellow, green and blue. I’m in the blue house and as such am wearing a dark blue polo top stretched unforgiving over my rotund body. A teacher blows a sports whistle and the other boys around me slide into position – their bodies lithe and practically perfect, bodies I won’t admit to myself I wish I had for another four years when I finally decide to do something about it. Another whistle – the second of three – and I myself slide into position, or attempt to, a bitter step behind my competitors. In front of me lies a circular kilometre of orange dirt and grand white lines painted perfectly across them to show the way.
The final whistle blow and we’re off; the other five boys and me, each of them zooming forward like a gazelle and me like rabid pug-dog, legs rotating wildly underneath me, none of my body seeming to move as fast as the effort I’m putting in deserves. Like the cartoon flamingos from Fantasia, the other five leap the first hurdle, gracefully, and I’m still attempting to lead up to said hurdle, my heart going a million miles apace and my pulse jolting wildly through my neck as I attempt to breathe.
I stand, now, petulant and inexplicably angry – at myself, the world, my school, those other boys for being lithe and together and of course the goddamn motherfucking hurdles – and I stare at the first hurdle with disdain, the words OBSTACLE NUMBER ONE practically floating above it. If this was a book-reading challenge, I think, I’d fucking crush the competition.
Then, a sound from deep in the bleachers: honest and genuine and getting quicker and louder, the sound of someone, some other kid, taking pity on my fat form and inability to sports and clapping, clapping, clapping for me. Like an idiotic midday movie the clap spreads and grows louder and students are standing, now, all trying to encourage me, clapping along, whooping and hollering. Back then, at the time, my brain immediately twisted all of this, and decided, determinedly, that they’re all mocking me, every single now. Now I can see, of course, that they probably weren’t, but being a fat, shy, awkward teenager without many friends and a lot of dreams and a hateful brain didn’t exactly lead me towards the most logical assumptions. The crowd is going off now, still cheering me, and something inside me twists – a genuine change. My attitude?
Nah. Arms jolting out in front of me, I shove the hurdle over, its painted face now in the dirt, an orange cloud of dust surrounding me as I step calmly over the wooden corpse. Fuck hurdles.
The cheering falters for a second, but rises again and it keeps up, dutifully positive, like: hey, at least you’re doing it, your own special way! Somehow this makes me angrier, like: I know I suck, I’ve shown I suck, I fucking suck, now won’t you please all just leave me alone?
A whorl of dust swirls around my face, now, picked up from the wind, and in the Summer afternoon air, it says:
SPORTS ISN’T FOR YOU.
It’s night and I’m walking with my friend Kristen down a Middle Brighton Street. It is 2007 and I am 18, on the verge of 19, on the verge of legitimate thinness but still a bit bulky, and on the verge of (I hope, at the time) a burst of actual self confidence. Her phone rings, and she answers it:
“Hey. Hi,” she smiles warmly as we continue on. “Yeah great, awesome.” Then: “Me? Oh, not much, just on the way to something. I’m with my friend Chris.”
Silence, and her face falters for a second before continuing on with the conversation and chatting away. And she finishes, hangs up again, and says, brightly: “Oh, that was Travis!”
Me, mildly, shit-stirring though I know the answer already: “What did he say?”
“After you said you were with me. What did he say? He said something about me, I could hear that much.”
“Oh…” then: “It was a question. He, uh, asked: ‘the funny one?’ …‘cause he didn’t remember you for a second.”
I whirl around in the dark, incensed at his shallowness or that she’d lie to me though she’s only trying to protect me, incensed at my traitor body for weighing me down, emotionally as well as physically, and –
“That’s not what he said, okay? I heard it. Say it. I want you to say it.”
I don’t quite understand why, but it’s inexplicably important to me, in the moment, that she say it, that she accept the actuality that her friend might be a little bit shit or a little bit biased or a little bit shallow. A second, then:
“Fat. He said “the fat one”.”
The words sting, and I nod.
“And that’s how he remembers me.”
Six or eight months later and I’m thin, now, and at Kristen’s birthday, a “space rave” theme, donning gold leggings and a metallic mesh shirt and a healthy spray of eye makeup.
Kristen, now, not drunk but a few drinks down and happy that it’s her birthday, enjoying the ambience. “Guess who thinks you’re hot?”
I can’t. I haven’t accepted my new body (a path I still find myself on, but back then I hadn’t even gotten to the path) and still find it bizarre that someone would deem me “hot”. “I… I dunno,” I reply, taking a swig of some childish and sugary vodka drink – a Cruiser or UDL or something horrible and saccharine.
“Travis!” she bursts out, smile bouncing round her face in amusement and slight confusion.
I blanche. “I… what?”
Then: I guess that’s what happens when you lose forty-five kilos.
Then Kristen’s voice rising up from the sludge of my memory: “The fat one.”
Then: No. NO.
Fuck that guy.
Then the crumbs surrounding the piece of birthday cake I’m holding on a paper plate seem to move, to spell something out, and I’ve lost the taste for cake, indeed for anything sweet or fattening or anything at all. I catch a sight of the crumbs as I return the plate to a nearby table. They say:
PEOPLE ARE SHALLOW, BUT HEY, THAT’S LIFE.
I’m 19, still, some weeks later and walking aimlessly through a Middle Brighton mini-mall – the supermarket, then the bookstore, then the news agency, and then the supermarket again. I have a job interview, but not for half an hour. In my sheer paranoia, of course, I’ve arrived mightily early.
“Hey,” a voice nearby exclaims, and I look up; pull out my headphones. A boy about my age, maybe a couple of years older, stands casually, leaning against the wall of the mall. “D’you know the time?
“1.30,” I say, wishing it was two already, my fear of this job interview rising interminably with every passing minute.
“Thanks,” he says, and kicks himself off the wall; walks away. I move to his spot and lean. The walking is making me more nervous, somehow.
There’s a slow and conspicuous creak as the door in front of me jolts open wide. Shit, I think. I did not realise that was a bathroom. And another man – donning business attire and not unattractive, a square face and strong, stubbled jaw below the buttery curls of a sheep or other animal – sticks his head out, looks around as if to check the coast is clear.
“Hey,” he whispers to me and licks his lips like a not unattractive version of the cartoon Big Bad Wolf. And again: “hey, kid.” He motions with his head to inside the bathroom; his eyebrows raise and he motions a fold in his black suit pants, his not unattractive, unhidden and bulging agenda.
I frown, trying, slowly, idiot, to put two and two together. Suddenly it all clicks. His face is twisted in questioning for news of his fate and I am stuck stock still, caught in confusion and terror, my heart beating hard away in my throat.
Then: “Wanna have some fun?”
I’ve never heard that terminology before but it sticks, foreign and seedy and sweaty in my brain.
I wish I could say that I didn’t follow him. That I walked away and waited, calm and sombre in the afternoon sun, and thought of this job interview, and prepared myself, and reigned in my fear and learned to calm the fuck down. But I was half an hour early for an interview, palms sweaty and freaking out, and fun – even that kind of fun – is pretty good for making you relax.
But hey, he wasn’t unattractive.
THE RUMOURS ARE TRUE: GAY PEOPLE TOTALLY DO IT IN PUBLIC BATHROOMS.
From age 15 to 18 – the Main and Important years of high school – I held a deep and bitter unrequited love with a popular, sports-loving straight boy at our school. How times have changed. I also had a Livejournal and spent many a teenaged night reading through the chronicles of other people’s journalled lives. Somehow it made me feel comforted that somewhere, in some other country in the world, thousands of kilometres away, there was someone with a username just as lame as mine going through something just as lame as me.
One weekend, after a particularly whiny Unrequited Love Journal Entry – there wasn’t any poetry but there may have (definitely) been song lyrics both Deep and Meaningful, and lamentations, and declarations that I would never, Never, get over this, and that only at night, when my imagined dream version of this boy would hold me, could I be happy – another user – JetWolf – leaves me a comment.
The comment reads as such:
“You’re making this up to be much worse than it actually needs to be. Trust me, if in three years – or two, or one! – you still actually feel like this, come look me up. Seriously. I’ll buy you dinner and apologise.”
And below, not a comment but true and honest just the same:
CRUSHES DON’T LAST.
GET THE FUCK OVER IT, YOU WHINY HOMO, IT’S NOT THE END OF THE WORLD.
2009. I have just set up my Facebook profile, and straight popular boy is one of my suggest friends I can “connect” with. I’m looking through the options, attempting to finish the set-up, and there his face is, spot-free and typically handsome like white bread. I pause, for a second, the cursor hovering over his face.
He’s not my friend, I think. Why would I add him?
Oh, shit, I’m still working on this one, I guess.
YOU DON’T NEED TO BE SOCIALLY AWKWARD; PEOPLE AREN’T OUT TO GET YOU AND YOU’RE NOT A SHIT HUMAN.
“You might not get to a hundred percent again,” my psychologist says as I sit in her office, already tired of talking about this. “90 percent is more likely. 90 or 95 or 85 or round about. That’s just the nature of recovery – you’ve had a very serious injury and people don’t always recover as well as you have.”
95 percent, I think, immediately focusing on the highest number possible, holding on for dear life, not that I can really recognise or realise where I’ve been diminished, anyhow. That’s not too bad. I guess. I think. I hope.
Outside of the office, a young man in a wheelchair and hospital gown is wheeled forward by his parents. Jutting out from his neck is a long metallic rod, and his mother (I think) is careful to make sure it doesn’t hit anything as they pass.
It’s seven months since, and maybe because of everything that happened, of this perceived disadvantage, I’ve written two new plays, written and submitted ten or fifteen or twenty new applications (not that I’ve heard back from any, and certainly not that I expect them to be successful, but I DID them, is the point) had two public play readings and developments of my work, and met a whole bunch of new people. I truly believe that, had I simply returned to Sydney, I wouldn’t have achieved any of this, but it’s the determination not to waste a year that’s made me, as much as I possibly can, get shit done.
95 IS THE NEW 100 PERCENT.