Short story by Michael Botur
Otago was an alright place to study, I guess, except I didn’t have any friends. I thought by autumn I’d probably have buddies and fuck-buddies, but then Orientation was long-gone and it was winter and I sat in front of the fireplace in my empty white mansion on Cumberland Street every night, burning smashed-up beer crates and listening to Nine Inch Nails and making a deal with whichever god was listening that he HAD to get me laid by spring. Laid or mates, or both, pleeease.
One week when we were all on a high from finishing our final assignments I offered round my Marlboros to the circle of smokers outside English 102 and talked my way into getting invited to this party where people were getting blazed and reciting Ginsberg and Beowulf. I winked at God to say thanks, took a deep breath and plunged into the party but the Alphas had already taken all the choicest cuts of girl-meat into the bathroom and I picked up a whole bottle of vodka and sculled it and broke into an á capella version of Southside of Heaven, the greatest thing Slayer ever wrote, but I got totally cockblocked by this student council dude who used his hips to nudge me off the table going “I HAVE SEEN THE BEST MINDS OF MY GENERATION DESTROYED BY MADNESS, STARVING HYSTERICAL NAKED!” and I puked on his shins and stumbled home, shivering in cold vomit.
I wasn’t surprised even the English nerds were too cool for me. No clique had any openings. The environmentalist people in their pink body paint were hooking up together, the goth sculpture kids were getting laid, the UrbEx crew, the playwrights, even the business majors. Gentle hippies and poets and peer counsellors were relaxed, at ease. Me, I blackened my hair and rubbed eyeliner into my eye sockets and lurked in dusty dim Dunedin bookshops, cramming Bukowski into my trenchcoat pockets. I fell in love with girls waiting for buses. I watched them through shop windows, dabbing soy on their sushi. I could be in my 40s before I found someone who would appreciate Spacetallica, the space opera I’d drafted on my blog, about the fascists from Planet Republicana who come to earth to shut down free will. It was a piece of literature too great for gravity. I would never find a girl to listen to the words. Not on this earth.
Getting through the year was like wading through snow. Soon summer would flush me out of my drafty manor where the floorboards creaked and sparrows nested in the chandeliers. I would have to walk past parties with shirtless jocks barbecuing burgers on some patio deck. A car packed with surfer girls would pull up and all the dudes with tans would hop in and I’d be left sucking my inhaler.
By October I gave up seeking fucks or friends and just tried to get enough Cs that my parents wouldn’t whinge. Creative writing didn’t inspire me; I handed in sub-par analyses of Nabokov and Murakami and went back to doodling while people quoted Kerouac and Borges and Edward Said at each other. I sat hunched in a corner of the class, arm wrapped protectively around my sketch pad, creating manga masterpieces of women I wanted, their chests, their throats, their hands. I found something to love in every drawing. I licked my finger and smudged the pencil til the dimple in a girl’s chin had the perfect percentage of shyness. I inched my wrist across the pad, marking every curl of shiny hair. Arab chicks in hijabs, Taiwanese girls in Cosplay, girls from Detroit, Dublin, Abu Dhabi, Rubenesque, statuesque – I drew them all. I got entranced by this biggish, almost-middle aged Pacific lady, this big girl, Julia her name was, a woman who always arrived early and sat up front taking careful notes on a laptop. In my head we fell in love, married, bought a farm and made kids and died, all within 50 minutes of lecture time. Then there was the little flat-chested angry activist chick with the spiky cheekbones. I saw colours in her aura no one else gave off. She always stomped in late in her vegan Doc Martens and went around pressing leaflets on people’s desks about sow crates or battery eggs or Palestine. They had her email address at the bottom and said her name was Ana. Class would end and I’d fold my picture up. Briefly I would hit the hips of Ana or Julia in the doorway and we’d apologise to each other as we squeezed out into the lobby, then I was in the cold open Dunedin wind, headphones on, alone again.
When semester ended all the English majors went for a Hemingway-themed banquet at Korma Sutra and we all had cigars and fake beards and hunting hats and something about the way we were swirling down the year’s plughole made everyone give up on being snobby to me. Over the guffawing and chinking glasses and applause Ana, with two bleached plaits stretching her scalp, asked what I had planned for summer. Fuck. A girl was talking to me. A girl with icicle eyes. I pushed my voice down into a manly tone I couldn’t hold forever. I began explaining my goal of watching a Dr Who marathon when this Emirati princess chick interrupted and asked me to take a photo of her with Dr Edmond who was going up to Vic to join the Institute of Modern Letters. I had barely got the photo done when the big 30-something Islander lady, Julia, nudged me and tilted her head, indicating I was supposed to put my plate on the stack of dishes she was lugging to the kitchen. I watched her fuss over people and yank the cigars out of their mouths and tut. She seemed to have some old injury that made her limp with her left leg and put too much weight on the right. I asked Ana what the deal with Julia was and Ana asked how come I was so interested. I changed the subject, asking Ana if she was spending summer with her boyfriend or partner or what. She hummed, leaned real close, was about to put a guard-hand against her mouth to tell some secret when a drunken debate invaded our ears, kids chanting across the table about People Of Colour in the Harry Potter canon. Ana turned, began shouting into the storm and I lost her.
I took ages to get home, checking all the bridges to see if they were worth leaping off. I stayed awake til dawn in my draughty castle, the shadows of fireplace flames nipping the walls, stinking, swaddled in sweaty woollen clothes, too cosy to leave bed. I had a two litre Coke bottle to piss in and a bag of Burger Rings for sustenance. I adjusted my hips so I wouldn’t get bed sores, smoked a cone, yanked my balaclava snugly down over my eyes, pulled out my PlayStation PSP and hunkered down to hibernate.
The knocking began in my dream. I emerged in daylight, levitated up from the pit I was in, caught up counting the knocks, 19, 20, 21, then opened my eyes. Some kind of gremlin was squishing my ankles, grinning with sharp spiky teeth. Ana was sitting on the foot of my bed. She had a rasta hairnet on. My window was open where it emptied onto the fire escape. Julia was standing in the doorway, shaking her head, tapping her watch, muttering about how late I’d slept in. The sun said it was lunchtime or even afternoon. I squeezed my thighs together, trying to kill my boner. Julia got busy without a word, dusting my CDs and putting them lovingly back in their cases, pinning down the curling corners of my Ghost In The Shell poster, lifting my smelly duvet and shaking out the crumbs.
‘Good to see yous,’ I lied, combing my hair back with my fingers, pulling the bed sheet up against my spindly chest. ‘Um… how’d you get in?’
‘Town’s boring as shit,’ Ana complained, getting up, stroking my bookcase, frowning at my comics. ‘You got any plans?’
I could hear my neighbours and their dads lugging their mattresses into Hirepool trailers. A lot of people were driving back up north for summer. It was like these girls were coming into my place to take shelter from responsibility. Or from the boredom that would come if they didn’t get out of town. Nobody spent summer in Dunners.
The girls explained they’d hardly seen anybody around town that morning and had recognised each other a hundred metres apart on a mostly-empty George Street. There were no lines at the café, no traffic jams. Two or three cars were sitting at the lights forever, waiting for them to go green. They’d crossed the road without looking, texting everyone they could think of to ask if they were still here.
Ana pulled out all my comics and Blu-Rays and separated them into two piles, Misogynist and Unintentionally Ironic. She put both piles in the cold black fireplace. Then she used her tiny pointy nose to sniff my body up and down and waved Julia over. They decided I smelled like seaweed and dragged me into the shower. They found a shirt with a collar in my garbage bag of clothes and dressed me. Julia tidied my room and I thanked her and she wrapped a hug around me with her big bear arms and slobbered a kiss on top of my head with her thick dark lips and Ana got in on the hug too. I said Thanks for the threesome, ladies, and they swatted my skull and tsked.
The day was getting on. Ana said she wanted to party. Did that gross Ford Falcon in front of my place actually run? Hell yeah she runs, I explained. The Iron Maiden is her name. She burns heavy metal. I didn’t tell them I hardly ever drove her cause I had no one to fill up the seats.
We got in the car and Ana babbled as if we’d known each other forever. Julia nodded along with her preachy friend. I could tell these two hadn’t hung out much before coming into my flat. They’d just fallen in together on the hunt for human company. Ana and Julia made me cruise past ten different flats where their friends lived and every place was the same: curtains open; dark interior. Shopping trolley on the porch. Dresser on the pavement with FREE spraypainted on it.
The supermarket was open, at least, but the only people were out back so we left thirty bucks on the counter and took change out of the till. We took a pizza and a box of raspberry cider (the girls’ idea) up the hill road, winding past farms and sheep and pine trees. We arrived on top of Mt Cargill and stared up at the steel transmission tower til we swooned with dizziness. Julia, the mum, the carer, had brought a picnic blanket with flower patterns and a wicker basket with a real tea set in it. She poured cider into our tea cups then took a selfie on her phone. Me and Ana, without planning, simultaneously decided to stick our lips out and kiss Julia on both cheeks and the photo caught Julia wincing with joy, a big smile softening her serious face. The wind nipped and my throat, wriggling in search of smoke, gave me a coughing fit, but Julia’s photo was important to her. We took a dozen more. We hugged and kissed to look close on camera then got giggly and smashed bottles and played Mindmeld and laughed into the wind, and Ana made us pick up the glass shards to recycle. I drove us back downhill, scaring them by driving extra-close to the guard rail, spilling sticky cider on the vinyl, laughing and cranking No Doubt on the stereo – Julia’s idea. I recorded the girls’ overjoyed hollering faces with my eyes as I watched them in the rearview chanting, Ohhhhhhh, I’ve had it up to heeeere, ohhhhhh am I maaaking myseeelf cleeeear.
We searched the town for people and there was pretty much no one. A couple dogs; a Chinese guy doing tai chi on a roundabout. I cruised through the silent slums of South Dunners, eased the car up in front of Julia’s quiet bungalow in the shadow of the stadium, said Goodbye instead of See ya. I caught a glimpse of Julia through her curtains hauling a blue nurse uniform over her curves, getting ready to go wipe soup off old people’s lips. Ana lingered in the passenger seat of the Iron Maiden, pressing some anarchist chapbook into my hands, telling me I HAD to read her manifesto IMMEDIATELY. I promised. She said good night and opened the yurt tent on her lawn and vanished inside. It had been an amazing day. A jackpot. It wouldn’t return. I cruised home as slow as possible, trying to find flats with their lights on. There were none. A supermarket mailer cartwheeled in the breeze. In bed, I replayed the kisses on the cheeks, the fingertips, the wind, the shrieks of delight.
That’s the first 1000 words.
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