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 beauties in hijabs, Taiwanese maidens 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, 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. The leaflets had her email address at the bottom and said her name was Ana. Class would end and I’d fold my drawings 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 in their contact lists 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 agreed 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 all known each other forever. Julia nodded politely as Ana preached about palm kernel. 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.
The girls woke me with coffee and bagels they’d got from one of the last stores open in town. Julia reported there were now even fewer people in her flat than the week before. Three bedrooms were empty. Hers was the last one occupied. The whole city had emptied with the suction of the summer tide. Library, cafes, campus: all closed. Julia took down my curtains, folded them under her arm and took them to the washing machine, which she made work somehow. Ana washed half my mountain of dishes and put the too-dirty ones in a box to grow seedlings in. I rolled smokes and made small talk and took mental snapshots to write about later in my journal. Women willingly in my flat? Unreal.
There was no one in the corner dairy so I took a box of donuts and left $5 and some shrapnel on the counter. We ate our breakfast in the middle of Logan Park. I saw just one bus go past. It had nobody in it. No driver, either, it looked like. We played cricket with a broken branch and pinecones. I suggested we talk about who we had crushes on but a wind passed through us and I stopped. I went for a smoke to break the tension and Julia tackled me, yanked the skinny tobacco twig out of my mouth and made me promise to never ever smoke any more. Of course I agreed. Julia was bigger than me. We sat on the grass and shared secrets then played Who would you rather bang? and I didn’t want to admit I would have shagged both of them then and there. It was the comfort that made me rise, the inviting warmth, the joy. The acceptance. I’d come from Waitaki Boys High where the lads used to stick their fingers up my nose whenever there was pussy juice on ’em and say I was a faggot if I cringed at the smell. What me and my women had was a million years more civilised than that. I confessed to an intellectual crush on Emily Dickinson. Ana said she liked Christopher Hitchens. Julia: James Baldwin. Then Ana whispered in Julia’s ear and Julia pushed Ana away and leaned forward and said to me, deliberately loud, ‘JUST SO YOU KNOW, BABY BOY, HOMEGIRL WOULDN’T KICK YOU OUT OF BED.’ Me and Ana tucked our faces into our hands and groaned and blushed.
From the top of Baldwin Street we rolled pumpkins and watched them explode in orange chunks at the bottom of the hill. When we came down from the summit, Julia picked up the pumpkin shards and tenderly washed them in somebody’s yard, where I hoped the owner would come out and tell us off. Back at her place she picked out the gravel from the pumpkin pieces and boiled up a soup which she kept saying was only an entrée. She fed us like we were Vikings. We had ciabatta bread and organic butter then this incredible mousse Julia confessed she’d made herself. She hovered for most of the meal, offered me a second course of everything. She watched me pull the food inside my ribcage. Her lips wriggled in a tiny satisfied smile.
We played cards and drank this expensive chardonnay Julia had in the fridge and I made fun of her, called her old, like who has alcohol just lying around undrunk? Like, don’t you have any mates to drink it with? A joke-argument started; Julia wasted me in an arm wrestle. I dared her to beat me at poker and she did that, too. I dared the girls to flash their tits if they lost at Blackjack and I hit them with some big cards without going bust. Ana ripped her tank top off and sat there at the table provocatively, raising her eyebrows up and down, staunch and confrontational, her nipples pointy as tacks, then she reached across and grabbed my balls, cackling, and told me I was next. Strip, boy.
We were too giddy to sleep. For once, outcasts ruled the city. Leaving our clothes on the floor, we scurried through the blue mist and orange lamplight, slowing to accommodate Julia’s limp, rubbing our elbows. We congregated naked round a cold stone podium in the middle of campus, ripping posters off a noticeboard to wrap around us for warmth.
A shiver ran from my toes up my legs into my spine as I heard one of the lamps fizzle out. ‘Well one of you guys say something deep, shit, we’re here, aren’t we?’
Ana’s little spiky nipples had gone black, her skin glowing coldly cream. She sipped the night air. ‘Fine. You guys wanna get real? Okay.’ She took a heavy breath. Her stepdad had died. The tangi was really tense. It was a six hour drive to get there. Everyone’s grief was like open sores, oozing and stinking. The body lay wrapped in reeds. Aunties fainted and wailed. She’d only been 11, Ana explained. It was dreadful. The sky went black. She had this 14 year old cousin from Ruatoria who led her into these flax bushes and pressured her for sex. Arsehole. He was lucky he’d even been whangai’d in the first place, Ana said. It meant adopted. Ana’s whanau were good people. He didn’t belong. Something happened in those bushes – a finger, a whimper, a hand over her mouth. Angry gums and pink eyes. Threats. After, she ran out, screaming, had to see a shrink cause it was her fault, dropped out of school cause she couldn’t take the whispers, started living in a travelling house bus with a crew of hippies who cruised the country sabotaging chicken factories til she had to go to court and got a discharge without conviction but only if university let her in. She was 20 by then. Fine. Grief and fingers and whispers. Every sentient being she’d ever met so far was a slave, chained to cash or culture or cover-ups.
‘That’s me. You guys are next. You’re not backing out.’
We sat on the plaza tiles wrapped in our posters watching a hedgehog push through some leaves until Julia unclogged her throat and began. Julia’s family were from Fiji, she explained. They had it crazy-rough when they first came to this country. They spoke shitty English but had to take on really challenging tertiary courses for stupidly high non-resident fees to keep Immigration off their backs. These real aggro raids on people’s houses were going on at the time; families were being hauled out of their beds at 5am and dragged onto Boeing 787s. Julia’s family felt they had to prove something to the pale people born here, blessed lazy people who seemed to be able to sleepwalk through life on one language. Julia pulled all the air in the city into her lungs, asked me for a smoke and exhaled for ages. ‘I’ve been cleaning motels since I was ten while all the peeps at my school were on camp. All the big rewards and achievements and whatnot never trickled down my way. I used to have to give my pocket money to church. This is when I was like 8. Even on my birthday. Can you believe that?’ Julia looked at the smoke in disgust and mashed it to death. ‘Everything was church. You were supposed to say Yes to anything they asked you. Matiu, this boy, he sung bass in the choir, well, he wasn’t a boy, we were like, early 20s… well, I was. I was 20. He was, like, 35. It was …dumb. I’m pretty sure he had a wife and kids back in the islands already. Yeah: positive.’
Julia stared at the moon for a long time. ‘Like, so he got engaged to me. This was on our first date. We went to watch his brothers playing league. They didn’t even win. Then he put this, like, cheap-as ring on me just so he could stick his diddle in with no shame. I didn’t even look down at what my body was doing. I was hypnotised by that boy. MAN he made me feel special. I was SO in love. Jesus… it was like being wasted all the time. I didn’t eat, hardly went to the toilet and when I did my pee-pee was all yellow cause I hadn’t drunken any water. All I needed was him. And all he needed was my pay. Bloody wages for all the motels I turned into artworks. All that money I really needed to fix my spine that was all busted from bending over to pick up gross condoms from under people’s beds. Three hundred bucks a week I made back then. Minimum wage was like eight bucks. Course I couldn’t keep the baby. Ain’t got the money, ain’t got the daddy. God, if my brothers were there when he told me it was the baby or him… .’
Julia snorted snotty tears back inside her face. ‘They’d’ve chose him. I chose him. ME. My shitty choice. I should’ve chose Baby. But I didn’t. Your go. GOD. Hurry up.’ Julia kicked the plinth, checked for security guards then bellowed into the night. ‘AAAAARGH. Go, little boy. Hurry up and tell us your thing already.’
‘Yeah,’ Ana added. I could hear her teeth rattling. ‘There’s no way you’re getting out of this.’
I told them about my so-called mates and the so-called ecstasy I took to fuck off my parents that was actually acid. I told them how I thought nobody in the world would ever really play Wet Biscuit at a party, it was a joke, a set-up for big city Christchurch fags, and how it wasn’t my mates from the first eleven forcing me into the bathroom and pulling my pants down just so they could pollute the privatest bit of my body and have some belly-laughs while I curled up on the bathroom floor, nah, not my mates, it was zombies hungry for flesh, like as if there wasn’t enough room in the lifeboat and my own people had to devour me. I had a shower and all the evidence got washed off forever then we trudged back to the car where my mates were waiting for me, as if what they’d done to me wasn’t any reason to hate them, and we all put our seatbelts on cause we were too proud to die. They even let me pick the music. I’d never gotten to pick the music.
After we’d shared stories, we moved in numb black silence to Julia’s place. Nobody was chasing us. I stood in the middle of the road, daring something to strike me down, letting wind nip between my legs til the girls pulled me on. Julia had left some coals burning in her fire, the curtains drawn. She flopped me down on her hotel-stiff bed. I arched my pelvis. Julia’s heavy head and thick lips were hard at work, sucking me til the tingling spread from my hips all the way up my stomach, arms, lungs, brain. Ana got on top while Julia licked my sides. After I came, Julia lay on her back, keeping her hands over her big brown breasts, and Ana and me worked on her for half an hour, then 45 minutes, then it hit dawn and the birds were squawking and the windows were dribbling and there was so much pleasure pouring out of her holes we kept going til she rumbled and shuddered and bellowed beautiful music.
I didn’t lust for Julia. Making love to her seemed important, a duty, like making art. I put hard work into her and gorgeous, undiscovered, heavenly reactions revealed themselves. Sex wasn’t how I thought of it. I mean, if any dudes reappeared in our empty city, I wouldn’t be bragging to them that I’d pleasured a big tall chick with a limp. Nah, pumping the cucumbers and rolling pins and dildoes in and out of Julia as she squeezed the edges of the bed and wept while Ana nibbled her nipples? That was a creation that would be acknowledged after my death. My masterwork. Simple charity. The gift of ecstasy for a fellow soul. Something born from the cooperation of two people healing with their bodies. No bragging. No egos.
We didn’t make love every day. We saved it for magical midnights when we forgot we were adults and collapsed through Julia’s door after some mission, giddy, giggling, stoned on happiness from splashing through blueblack sea caves, pissing into the wind from the helicopter pad on top of the hospital, racing wheelchairs, waltzing with mannequins in the mall. We pashed on the bean bags in the children’s corner of the library. We walked into the stadium, sat on the centre line, imagining All Blacks and boots and balls. The invisible crowd in the stands roared like an ocean. By day we took so much heat on our skin that we could feel warm for hours afterward. By night we dined and debated and whispered compliments in each other’s ears and peeled off painful scabs with shocking stories. I wrote poetry for two hours each day from the Throne Room of Larnach Castle, looking down on the Southern Ocean. I recited my best ballads at the dinner table. My girls clapped and hooted and threw their knickers at me. We ate off the mayor’s silverware. We drank from golden grails I’d borrowed from the museum.
Christmas Day, Julia made me help her with all this kitchen stuff I’d avoided my whole life, like I’d never known how to make gravy, or what went into stuffing. Julia took pride in cramming fistfuls of crumbs up the chicken while Ana made her own meal out of nutmeat and I drank whiskey after whiskey. I got all rosy and warm and started to make a reference to what we did last night and Julia whacked my knuckles with her wooden spoon. ‘We don’t talk about night-stuff,’ she said.
On December 31st the girls listened respectfully as I drank a tall glass of Sambuca, steadied my body, lowered my eyes from the adoring audience onto my page and performed the libretto of Spacetallica. I didn’t squeal. I didn’t stutter. My show ended after 18 and a half minutes and the girls gave me a standing ovation. We smashed shot glasses together and tumbled into the bedroom and rode a flume of pleasure into the new year.
I woke, reached for my hazelnut latte, realised I was inside my Slipknot sleeping bag in an unheated room with dribbling windows. I sat up. I could hear thumping. I’d been getting up and walking around naked for two months. Now I had to slam my bedroom door closed as soon as I’d opened it. I pulled undies on. There were people in my flat. VISITORS. STRANGERS. Dozens of people, actually, and a landlord wearing a bow tie. People were manhandling mattresses, arguing, cradling banana boxes of books, pressing cash into the hands of the landlord, stroking the walls of rooms. Someone tried to enter my room and I pushed back against the door and kicked a wedge under it.
I sneaked down the fire escape, sprinted to Ana’s place amongst the bushes up on Maori Hill. I’d never been but I remembered she’d said it was house 343, unit 2. The place looked like Bilbo Baggins lived there. A Japanese flatmate opened the round wooden door, this man Itsuki I’d thought was history. I was panting so bad I had to stand there, doubled-over while Itsuki looked at me patiently. Over Itsuki’s shoulder, I could see Ana on the deck out back. She had half a dozen people with her. They were all sipping cups of tea and passing round vacation photos and telling her they couldn’t beliiiiieve she’d stayed in this shithole all summer. I pulled my hoodie up and told Itsuki never mind. Wrong house, bro. Even if she’d spotted me, even though I’d been inside her soul, there was some kind of barrier up now. A force field. Ana probably didn’t even know it. Same with Julia – not that I saw her again. I phoned; she was at work. I phoned again: work. The new flatties at her place said she’d be back later. She owed me an email, or I owed her, or something.
Julia retrained and got a job teaching nurses at tech up in Wellington and we friended each other but then one of us defriended the other at some point and when I looked at her LinkedIn, her last name had changed and all she wanted to talk about was having a baby at 44. I couldn’t relate to that. Julia and me were both healing but our scars were different shapes. Ana entered law school. Now she could fight fatcats. Her pictures soon showed a nice apartment, and a toddler stumbling on a beach, and her receiving some medal from some woman, then Ana and some spiky-haired lesbian were getting married to each other. I drifted over to the Coast, got a job in the meatworks, and only, begrudgingly, recited Virgil’s Cantos to impress backpackers at the pub, passing through. Occasionally rednecks I worked with saw the pictures of the girls I kept in my wallet, elbowed me and asked questions. I took all my cards and cash out and tossed my wallet into a mossy crevass. Next time I tried to remember thingy’s last name, the girl from Maori Hill, with the boots and plaits and something about a tangi, and bushes, and some big protective motherly spirit-woman, I couldn’t tell if it was the dregs of a dream, but I was drunk, anyway, spilling my pint, and it didn’t matter cause there was this prettyboy from Ontario at the pool table waiting for a game and he kept licking his lips every time he looked at me, clouding my thoughts, filling up every bit of RAM in my brain til I couldn’t think about anything but him.
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