by Michael Botur
Otago was an alright place to study, I guess, except I didn’t have any friends. After Orientation had died down I thought by autumn I’d probably have buddies and fuck-buddies, but then it was winter and I sat in front of the fireplace in my empty cream mansion on Cumberland Street every night, burning smashed-up beer crates and listening to The Cure 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 102.4 and talked my way into getting invited to this party where people were getting smoked and reciting Ginsberg and Beowulf but the Alphas took all the choicest cuts of girl-meat into the bathroom and I picked up a whole bottle of vodka and scolled it and broke into an a 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, DRAGGING THEMSELVES THROUGH THE NEGRO STREETS AT DAWN LOOKING FOR AN EASY FIX” and I puked on his shins and stumbled home, shivering in cold vomit.
I wasn’t surprised the English nerds were too cool for me. Every clique I tried to join had its elite. The environmentalist people were getting laid without me, so were the sculptors, the UrbEx crew, the playwrights, the painters. Gentle hippies and poets and peer counsellors were relaxed, at ease, confident. I blackened my hair and rubbed eyeliner into my eye sockets and lurked in dusty dim bookshops and fell in love with girls waiting for buses. I would find someone out in the world, eventually, who would appreciate Spacetallica, the space opera I’d drafted, unpublished on my blog, about the fascists from Planet Republicana who come to earth to shut down free will.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 on earth. Not in this dimension.
The problem was summer would soon settle on the south and flush me out of my drafty manor where the floorboards creaked and spiders hung from the dusty chandeliers. Interrogators in my head were already asking why I skulked around in leather and chains and spikes instead of a singlet. Soon shirtless jocks would call out to me from some deck and ask me to watch their barbecuing burgers while they jammed with Six60. Maybe a Cadillac packed with surfer girls would invite me down to Brighton beach. Maybe I’d drop dead right there on the street without my inhaler or my chill pills.
By October I gave up trying to get fucks or friends and just tried to get enough Cs to get through. Creative writing didn’t inspire me; I handed in sub-par journal entries and went back to sketching while people quoted Kerouac at each other. I sat hunched in a corner of the class, arm wrapped protectively around my sketch pad, creating manga masterpieces of the speccy beauties and their chests and throats and hands. I savoured every glimpse of a woman. I licked my finger and smudged the pencil til the dimple in a girl’s chin was just-so. I inched my wrist across the pad, recording every curl of shiny hair. Saudi chicks in hijabs, Taiwanese girls in Cosplay, girls from Detroit, Dublin, Abu Dhabi, Rubinesque, statuesque – I drew them all. I got entranced by this biggish, sorta-almost-middle aged Pacific lady too, this big girl, Juliet her name was, a woman who always arrived early and sat up front taking careful notes on her laptop. We fell in love, married, bought a farm and made kids and died, all within 50 minutes of a ticking clock. Then there was the little flat-chested angry activist chick with the spiky cheekbones, Ana. I saw colours in her aura no one else gave off. Ana always stomped in late in her vegan Doc Martens and went around slapping down leaflets on people’s desks about sow crates or battery eggs or Palestine. Class would end and I’d fold my picture up. Briefly I would hit the hips of Ana or Juliet in the doorway and we’d apologise to each other as we squeezed out into the lobby, then I was in the open, alone again.
When semester ended we went for a Hemingway-themed banquet at Kama Sutra and we all had cigars and fake beards and big game hunter hats and something about the way we were swirling down the year’s plughole made everyone drop their guard and give up on being snobby to me. Over the guffawing and chinking glasses and applause Ana, with two childish ponytails stretching her fierce eyes, asked what I had planned for summer. Fuck. A girl was talking to me. I pushed my voice down into a steady baritone I couldn’t hold forever. Planned meant plans meant organisation meant commitment meant selling out, to me. There would still be a month or two on the calendar, but when school is out, school is out. I was about to explain my goal of getting baked and watching a sci-fi marathon every day when Abu Dhabi 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 then the big 30-something Islander lady, Juliet, bumped me with her hip and frowned, indicating I was supposed to put my plate on the stack of dishes she was kindly lugging to the kitchen. I watched her waddle and fuss over people and yank the cigars out of their mouths and tut. She seemed to have had some injury that made her limp with her left leg and put too much weight on the right. I tried to ask Ana if she had her student allowance sussed for summer school when a wild debate broke out in my ears about people of colour in the Harry Potter canon and Ana stood on the table and shrieked in this racist guy’s face 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 wriggling up 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, pulled my balaclava snugly down over my eyes and went to work watching.
The knocking began in my dream and emerged in daylight. I 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’d dyed her hair green and her ears were stretched with hoops. The window was open above the fire escape. Juliet was standing in the doorway, snorting with amusement at how late I’d slept in. The sun said it was lunchtime or even afternoon. I squeezed my thighs together, trying not to get a boner. Juliet 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 it out like it wasn’t leaden with sweat and cum and 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 fuck,’ Ana complained, getting up and stroking my bookcase til she found a graphic novel to disapprove of. ‘You got any plans?’
I could hear my neighbours and their dads lugging their mattresses into Hirepool trailers for the drive back up north. 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.
Juliet and Ana explained they’d hardly seen anybody around town that morning and had spotted 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 Ironic. Then she used her tiny pointy nose to sniff my body like a ferret, waved Juliet over, and the women set about grooming me, pinching my skin til I squealed and consented to a shower. They found a shirt with a collar in my garbage bag of clothes. Juliet 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 both swatted my skull and tsked.
Ana said the day was getting on and she wanted to party. Did that hulking 1985 Ford Falcon in front of my place actually work? Hell yeah, I explained. The Iron Maiden is her name. She burns heavy metal. I wanted to explain I wasn’t sure if the engine would start cause I hardly ever drove it cause I had no one to fill up the seats.
We got in the car and Ana babbled as if she was relieved to have human contact. Juliet 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 Juliet made me cruise past ten different flats where their friends lived and every place was the same: dark interior. Piles of moving boxes. Dressers on the pavement with FREE spraypainted on them.
The supermarket was open, at least. 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 and arrived on top of Mt Cargill under a transmission tower built of steel matchsticks sticking into the sky. Juliet, the mum, the carer, had brought a thick, luxurious, beautiful chequered picnic blanket and a wicker basket with a real tea set in it. She poured cider into our tea cups and then she took a selfie on her phone. Me and Ana, without planning, simultaneously decided to stick our lips out and kiss Juliet on both cheeks and the photo caught Juliet wincing, a big smile softening her face. The wind nipped and my throat, wriggling in search of smoke, gave me a coughing fit, but Juliet’s photo was important to her. We took a dozen more. We hugged and kissed to look close on camera then got drunk and smashed bottles and played Mindmeld and laughed into the wind. 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 – Juliet’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.
I cruised through the silent streets of South Dunedin, eased the car up in front of Juliet’s quiet bungalow in the shadow of the stadium, said Goodbye instead of See ya. I caught a glimpse of Juliet through her curtains hauling a blue and white nurse uniform over her curves, getting ready to go wipe soup off old people’s lips. Outside the yurt Ana was staying in she lingered in the passenger seat of the Iron Maiden, telling me I HAD to read Naomi Klein IMMEDIATELY. I promised. She said good night. 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. Newspaper pages cartwheeled in the breeze. In bed, I replayed the kisses on the cheeks, the fingertips, the wind, the shrieks of delight.
Juliet and Ana woke me with coffee and bagels they’d got from one of the last stores open in town. Juliet 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, pretty much, had been emptied with the suction of the summer tide. Library, cafes, campus: all closed. Juliet took down my curtains, folded them under her arm and took them to my washing machine, which she made work somehow. Ana hosed the mould off the mountain of dishes downstairs. I smoked 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 just took a box of donuts and left $5 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 warm wind passed through us and we stopped. I went for a smoke to break the tension and Juliet 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. Juliet was bigger than me. We went back to playing Who would you rather? and I didn’t want to admit I would have shagged both of them right then and there. It was the comfort that made me rise, the lack of walls, the laughter. None of the rapist dicks from Otago Boys High who used to keep spreadsheets on their photo recording how much pussy they’d crushed. We confessed to brain-crushes on Emily Dickinson and Christopher Hitchens and James Baldwin. Then Ana whispered in Juliet’s ear and Juliet pushed Ana away and leaned forward and said to me, ‘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.
From the top of Baldwin Street we rolled pumpkins down and watched them explode into orange chunks at the end. At the bottom, Juliet picked up the pumpkin shards and tenderly washed them in somebody’s yard, where I hoped someone would come out and tell us off. Back at her place she picked out the gravel from the pumpkin pieces and boiled up a peppery pumpkin soup which she kept saying was only an entrée. We had ciabatta bread and olivani then this incredible mousse Juliet confessed she’d made herself. She stood up for most of the meal, offered me a second course of everything. She watched me pull the food inside my ribcage with her lips wiggling in a tiny smile.
We played cards and drank this expensive chardonnay Juliet had in the fridge and I made fun of her, called a hoarder, like who has alcohol just lying around undrunk? Like, don’t you have any mates to drink it with? I dared the girls to flash their tits if they lost at Blackjack and I hit them with some big cards. Ana ripped her 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. We sprinted through the blue mist, penis and nipples waggling, and congregated naked round a cold stone podium in the middle of campus.
A shiver ran from my toes up my legs into my spine as I heard one of the lights 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 purple. She sucked on the night air like it was a cigarette. ‘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. Everyone’s grief bubbled and stank. The body lay wrapped in reeds. Aunties fainted and wailed. She’d only been 11, Ana explained. It was dreadful. The sky went black with grief. She had this 14 year old cousin from Poverty Bay 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. He didn’t belong. Not to Ana. Something happened in those bushes – a finger, a shriek, a hand over her mouth. Angry 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 circuses and setting the elephants free 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. Everyone she’d ever met so far was a slave, chained to their penis or their culture or a concrete pad in a shitty circus tent.
‘That’s me. You guys are next. You’re not backing out.’
We all sat on the plaza tiles watching a hedgehog push through some leaves until Juliet unclogged her throat and began muttering. Juliet’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; people were being hauled out of their beds at 5am and dragged onto Boeing 787s. Juliet’s family felt they had to prove something to the pale people born here, people who seemed to be able to sleepwalk through life on one language. Juliet pulled all the air in the city into her lungs, lit a smoke and exhaled for ages. ‘Fuck, man, 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?’ Juliet mashed out her smoke. ‘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 retarded. I’m pretty sure he had a family back in the islands already. Yeah: positive.’
Juliet stared at the purple hills 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 it with no shame. I didn’t even look down at what my body was doing. I was hypnotised by that boy. GOD he made me feel special. I was so in love 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. My fucking 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… .’
Juliet 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.’ Juliet kicked the podium, checked for security guards then bellowed into the night. ‘AAAAARGH. Go, little boy. Hurry up and tell us your story already.’
‘Yeah,’ Ana added. Her teeth reached for me as she leaned in. ‘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, it was zombies led by their stiffies, clones of me, boys with the same hairgel and eyebrow rings as me, as if there wasn’t enough room in the human lifeboat and my own people had to feed me to the sharks. Then we got up and trudged back to the car and put our seatbelts on cause we didn’t wanna die.
We drove in slow black silence to Juliet’s place. She had left some coals burning in her fire, the curtains drawn. She flopped me down on her hotel-stiff bed, unlaced my boots tenderly. Ana got to work unbuckling my belt. I arched my hips. Juliet’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 Juliet licked my sides. After I came, Juliet 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 there was so much pleasure pent up inside Juliet’s unhappy soul we kept going til she orgasmed for an hour, loud as a foghorn, shuddering like a washing machine, and no one heard her moans.
I didn’t lust for Juliet, but making love to her was really important. I put hard work into her and gorgeous, undiscovered, heavenly things revealed themselves. Sex wasn’t how I thought of it. I mean, if any of my old friends reappeared in our empty city, I wouldn’t be bragging to them that I’d worked to pleasure a big 100 kilo six foot tall chick with a limp and a pussy that was tired and easy to slide into. Nah, pumping the cucumbers and rolling pins and dildoes in and out of Juliet as she squeezed the edges of the bed and wept and shuddered with orgasm while Ana nibbled her nipples? That was a work of art that would be discovered after my death. My masterwork. Something remarkable created by the synchrony of two people healing with their bodies. Pure trust making pure art. No bragging. No egos.
We didn’t make love every day. We saved it for midnights when we collapsed through Juliet’s door, giddy, giggling, stoned on happiness from splashing through sea caves, pissing into the wind from the helicopter pad on top of the hospital, stealing wheelchairs, dancing with statues in the art gallery. We pashed on the bean bags in the children’s corner of the library. We walked into the stadium, sat on the centre line, listening out for All Blacks and boots and balls, and had a Teddy Bear picnic with soft toys we’d taken from open homes. The invisible crowd 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 said beautiful compliments in each other’s ears and peeled off painful scabs with shocking stories as condensation dribbled down the midnight windows. I wrote poetry for two hours each day from the Throne Room of Larnach Castle, looking down on the Southern Ocean, and recited my best ballads at the dinner table. My girls clapped and wept and hooted. We ate off the mayor’s silverware. We drank from a grail placed by ancient settlers.
Christmas, Juliet 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. Juliet took pride in cramming fistfuls of crumbs up the chicken while I drank scotch after scotch. Jamming things up inside that chicken reminded me of the things I’d put inside Ana the night before when we were massively stoned. I started to make a reference to it, and Juliet whacked my knuckles with her wooden spoon. ‘We don’t talk about that,’ she said.
On December 31 the girls listened respectfully as I drank a tall glass of Sambuca, steadied my body, lowered my eyes from adoring audience down onto my page and performed the libretto of Spacetallica. I didn’t squeal. I didn’t stutter. My show ended after 25 minutes and the girls gave me a standing ovation. We smashed shotglasses together and tumbled into the bedroom and rode a hydroslide of pleasure into the new year.
I woke, reached for my hazelnut latte, realised I was in my own bed in an unheated room with no one to look after me. I sat up. I could hear thumping. I’d been getting up and walking around naked for as long as I could remember. Now I had to slam my bedroom door closed as soon as I’d opened it. There were people in my flat. VISITORS. STRANGERS. Dozens of people, actually, and a landlord in a tuxedo with bad English and a BMW outside. People were selecting rooms, 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.
I sneaked down the fire escape, sprinted to Ana’s place amongst the bushes up on Maori Hill. The place looked like Bilbo Baggins lived there. A Japanese flatmate opened the round wooden door, this man Tsusiba I’d thought was history. I could see Ana on the deck out back over Tsusiba’s shoulder. She had about five people on the deck with her. They were all sipping cups of tea and passing round vacation photos. I pulled my hoodie up and told Tsusiba never mind. Even if she’d spotted me, even though I’d been deep inside her mind and her body, there was some kind of barrier up now. A force field. Ana probably didn’t even know it. Same with Juliet – not that I saw her. She was always at work, now. The new flatties at her place wouldn’t even let me in.
Juliet 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 40. I couldn’t relate to that. Juliet and me were both healing but our scars were way different shapes. Ana entered law school. Now she could fight fatcats who really deserved to die. Her pictures soon showed a penthouse apartment, and a toddler stumbling on a beach, and her receiving some medal from some woman, then Ana and some spiky-haired Asian lesbian were getting married to each other, for some reason. 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 elephants and struggles and something about a tangi, and bushes, and some big protective motherly spirit wrapped around me for some reason, I couldn’t tell if it was the vestige of some 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 blushing 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.