I am 18 years of age, out of school and somehow back at school – on my first day of two weeks full-time call centre training at Salesforce with eleven other young hopeful moneymakers, learning the ins and outs of “hard” and “soft” selling, sociability and generally how to get through the job without wanting to kill yourself.
Similar to high school, I quickly find myself in small, vaguely sociable group of the young and young at heart. In the interest of continuing our burgeoning friendships, we rapidly find ourselves at a nearby pub drinking pints of cheap, acidic beer and quietly taking in the atmosphere with the moroseness of a death row prisoner.
“Well”, a booming voice says. I look up to discover it belongs to a fellow trainee, Josh – mid thirties, dressed all in black with a leather jacket, a calm command of himself and those around him, effortlessly cool tattoos (gasp) and an addiction to the strongest cigarettes I’ve ever smelt.
“Well,” he says again, quieter this time. My workmates and I look around, slight expectation crossing our faces as we hope for some words of encouragement from the tattooed biker-sage. Then:
“So this is life, now? Well, that’s fucked.”
There was a definite drinking culture at the Salesforce Telstra SME division, as well as a definite (and bizarre) boating culture. Both of these activities were intended to motivate us worker-bees to work harder, to go for the money, and so (apparently) was the SME’s favourite activity of all time bar none: drinking on a boat.
We’re on the boat, and music is pumping, loud and oppressive and strangely in time with the vessel’s rocking against the waves, and my friends Matty and Christine (from this incident) are sipping away at UDLs with me like the semi-cultured people we’re attempting to be. Suddenly, the music seems to pause, lost in the cold night air and the drinks and the haze up from the Yarra River. Across from us stands a tall, gangly, redheaded boy, and he’s locking eyes with me. I have never seen him before. In fact, a stone’s throw from a particularly white and particularly privileged high school, I’ve never really met anyone who’s gay before, and as a semi-ex fat person (at this point it’s a downward sprint to thinness; I’m not there yet but I can see the finish line and am gaining speed with every passing day) I have never been kissed. Or fucked. A moment, then I wave, emboldened by the saccharine can of alcohol in my hand. The boy smiles back at me, shyly.
A co-worker, some ninety minutes later, as I make out with this redheaded boy with all the gumption of a university-aged student whose dreams of intimacy haven’t yet been fulfilled:
“Look, it’s alright, I guess, I mean, I’ve nothing ‘gainst their kind; just so-long’s they don’t do it around me, ya know?”
We’re in a bathroom now, on dry land, the redhead and I, in a coworker’s ramshackle Carlton share house. We’re both incredibly intoxicated and I’ve spent the previous twenty minutes wandering around the labyrinthine downstairs of the house as coworkers have partied on, passing around several joints (that I’ve been offered, and accepted, taking numerous puffs) and dancing together in a manner that serves only to bely their ages.
We’re on our knees, now, and my head is spinning so that I have to reach down and prop myself up on the cream-coloured tiling beneath me. My pants are off and so’re his, and I fall to the side, accidentally, now attempting to make sure my face doesn’t smash on the tiles.
“Oh,” redhead mutters coyly as he moves atop my form, pressing his hardness down into my lower half – somewhere between my waist and lower back. It isn’t sexy. Despite myself and not really knowing what I’m doing, working on instinct alone, I begin to buck and sway underneath him and press up into him.
“Oh,” he repeats and begins to press himself into my lower back, harder. I fear I’ve given him the impression that I actually enjoy having my lower back caressed by an erection. To be fair, I suppose, the erection in question is about as large as one of those fancy back massagers you see on TV – larger, if anything, a contender for the largest I’ve ever seen at that point, and let’s not forget that at that point, bar one, I’d only seen the comically gargantuan phalluses in (mainly straight) pornography.
We continue drunkenly on, the two of us writhing in an embarrassing semblance of actual passion, and he asks if he can fuck me. Thrown by his forwardness and the booze and the spliff and especially my inexperienced idiocy, I accept. He fucks me on the dirty bathroom floor of this dingy Carlton share house, but he doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing (potentially suffering from the curse of most well-endowed gentlemen, the belief that simply shoving it blindly in will be enough) and I have to pretend that I like it.
He finishes, and I pretend to finish, and fifteen minutes later we’re downstairs, and I’ve sobered up enough to feel a heady amount of shame at my actions. He, apparently, does not, as he grabs my inner thigh and nestles into my neck like a cockatiel that’s just realised how sleepy it is. None of the workmates question where we’ve been, though nobody seems to remember us being downstairs at any point in the past hour. Funny, that.
“Where did you put the condom?” I ask out the corner of my mouth while he continues to hold me hostage with affection and my brain screams at me to leave, get out, get the fuck out.
He yawns, for a second, then returns to my shoulder.
I am sitting in the emergency room only a few hours later, now completely sober (or completely hung over) and well worn, after a sleepless night.
“Where’re you going?” one of my parents had asked.
“Work,” I’d lied. “Weekend shift. Hung over.”
“Good luck, then”, the reply had came. Good luck indeed.
I spend a good two hours in the emergency ward that Google had sent me to as others with more serious or apparent injuries are treated to, attempting to stay calm, stall cool, stay in control. Finally, it’s my turn.
I launch into the story of the past twenty-four hours, minus a few modest details, and get put on a treatment plan, get told the odds of HIV infection, get told it’s good that I’ve come in so quickly and get told that substances often “play a part” in these situations.
Fucking trust, I think, bitterly, as the nurse helps me take my first pill like I’ve never taken one before. Of course, the second time I ever have sex something like this happens.
A flash of shame as my brain rationalizes: you don’t know he has HIV; he just didn’t use protection.
Then: exactly. Better safe than sorry, dickhead.
“Are you okay?” the nurse pats my hand and smiles with at me, her face showing the appropriate modicum of doctorly concern.
“Yeah,” I murmur, not quite believing it myself. “Yeah. Do you happen to know where a good place for breakfast might be? I haven’t eaten anything and, given, uh, everything, I think I’m gonna treat myself to an eggs and bacon the size of my face.”
The breakfast never eventuated. Fifteen minutes after I left, a phone call from work asked if I could indeed come in – they’re short on the weekend and I need the money.
I arrive, my brain throbbing like a swollen, hot sponge; shuddering thick and fast with the poisons of the previous night and my eyes feeling like they’re on the verge of falling out of my face.
“Heeeeeey,” Josh says as I arrive, wagging his eyebrows suggestively. “How’re you?”
“Fine,” I lie, stomach and head turning endlessly.
“And how’d it go with that guy?” he asks, offering my a piece of the muffin he’s hoeing into. “He’s coming to work here, you know.” Then, conspiratorially: “He’s gonna be our team leader’s second in command, you know.”
If I didn’t feel like I was falling apart at the seams, I’d laugh. Of course. Of course he is.
“I didn’t know that was a position you could have,” I say mildly.
“Neither,” Josh says. “And anyway, I –“ a pause, then: “Hello, this is Josh from Telstra SME calling, I just wanted to talk to you today about the range of benefits you may or may not be receiving. May I ask, am I talking to the account holder?”
Spoiler alert: I didn’t contract HIV.
I did, however, learn caution, control, and (eventually) the benefit of not being an intoxicated idiot.
Across my year of call centre employment, there was a nagging feeling inside me, pulling, tugging politely at the corners of my heart and self image and growing more insistent with each passing day and each time I’d hear the people around me talking about their hobbies, their home lives, their likes and dislikes, what made them happy. This nagging feeling spoke commandingly and clear, though not often loud enough for me to hear, rising up from within with all the insistence and arrogance of an eighteen year old who thinks he’s figured the world out but – surprise, surprise – hasn’t. This feeling spoke:
You’re better than this. You’re better than this, and everyone here.
“Chris!”, Con, SME’s supervisor, called me over to his desk. “Come and listen to this for me, will you?”
He’s sitting with my team leader and someone else in a suit and this all looks terribly official. All right then. I slide on the headphones he’s holding out.
Immediately a quiet voice pipes up, singing with gusto and insistent dedication.
“Gonna let you in on a little secret,” the voice sings. “You gotta learn this little trick. Get your hands and your fingers ready. Stop relying on your dick.”
I blanche. The voice is mine, singing along to a Peaches song, not that you can tell. Con must’ve thought I’d made this song up myself.
“I just didn’t know you felt that way,” Con says, seriously, then laughs. I stand up and drop the headphones, spitting a “sorry”, back in his direction before quickly returning to my desk, my face beet red.
Shit, I think. Was that really my voice? I mean, I know I haven’t done a singing lesson for six months, and I guess I took up smoking, but… really??
“It’s fucked,” I spit to Matty and Christine over lunch, enough time passed that I’ve forgotten the ungainliness in my voice and only remembered the hurt. “It’s embarrassing and… and just, fucked.” Then, dropping something I’ve heard my mother, an employee of SDA Trade Union, use in conversation before: “That shouldn’t stand. That’s workplace harassment.”
“Well…” Christine murmurs not unkindly. “You were supposed to be doing work, weren’t you?”
I’d hung on at the tail end of a call and been listening to music for ten minutes, flatly refusing to work as my irritation towards Salesforce grew. The fact that she’s right somehow infuriates me more.
“Well… yeah,” I say. “But that doesn’t give anyone the right to make me feel so uncomfortable!”
Then, Matty: “This all just sounds fucking great. D’you know if he deleted the recording? We should get it for the Christmas party this year.”
With that I leave, quickly and quietly scampering away as I begin my undergraduate university degree and obtain employment elsewhere. I think sometimes about how sharply life can left turn out of my control, how for 14 long months Telstra SME had held my world of hopes, fears and paranoia, how my best friends in the whole wide world (as far as 18 year old full-time-worker me was concerned) were Matty and Christine (both of whom escaped, I hope) and how quickly and quietly my ambition was assimilated by the call-centre beast and became: Gotta climb the ranks. Gotta get promoted. Gotta get the sales.
I don’t see anyone from Telstra ever again, bar one incident:
It is V Music Festival, the year following. The music is pumping and I am with my non-call centre friends and we are looking at a map, confused by the people swarming like ants around us, wave upon wave of music-loving fiends getting in the way of our attempts to figure out what the fuck’s going on and where the fuck we are.
And in front of me, imperiously tall and clad head to toe in black stands Josh. We lock eyes, for a moment, and something impels me to approach him. I note with appreciation his new hand tattoos , continuing his “effortlessly cool” persona and making the strange and awkward fanatic inside of me raise its head in excitement.
“Hey,” he says, tipping an invisible hat to me. I turn around, quickly, but my friends are still fighting over the map and haven’t realised I’m gone.
“Hey,” I say, tipping my own invisible head. It occurs to me that he probably doesn’t remember who I am, but that’s fine, I can deal, I think. I wonder to myself, if he got out of the call-centre hell.
I’ll bet he did, I think beside myself. He’s probably running some super cool Northside bar and raking in the dollars. What a cool guy.
He smiles, grey eyes flashing for a second as he pushes up his sleeves.
“You got any weed?” he asks.