Short story by Michael Botur
Your parents chase you over the lip of the balcony but they can’t catch up. You throw your limbs into the passenger seat and shriek DRIVE, cackling. The driver-boy paints your dad with exhaust then just as your dad’s about to grab your door handle you hoon off, squirting driveway gravel.
You suck on a tiny square of acid which melts the stars until you arrive at a midnight party clustered around a burning car under a pylon in a stretch of highway that’s cold and dewy. You and all the other girls have black hair and grey skin and metal in your noses and lips. Frozen black legs, orange bodies, bonfire sparks, purple galaxies. The road is a river of sparkling black ice. Everyone sucks cigarettes and shivers. Your boyfriend wallops this nervous, pimply big-talking cousin called Moose with a tyre iron. You’re dispatched to take the unconscious Moose’s rings and car keys from his pockets because your fingers are long and jewellery is for girls to handle. Moose wakes up in the dewy grass, shakes the bottle caps out of his hair. You shine a Maglite in his eyes, check if his pupils are dilated. You’re not sure how you know to check for pupil dilation. Reader’s Digest or CSI or something. You tell him he’s not concussed, luckily. Your boyfriend drives his car into a group of kids throwing bottles and someone screams CALL THE COPS and you jump in and boost, headlights off, the black wind screaming against the windows.
You burgle a farmhouse on the way home, at dawn, when the sky is the colour of iced tea. Ms Farah lives there, old teacher from school with a brown, tight face like a shrunken head. She made you write ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ 100 times on the board one afternoon for yawning in class. Cunt. You and your boy decide to steal the big stainless steel barbecue off the patio but it won’t fit in the trunk of the car so he takes a shit on the floor of Ms Farah’s kitchen to even things up. He tugs at your belt. You roll your eyes and make sure you get the first hit off his pipe before the best rocks are melted. You have sex on the thick, clean carpet of her lounge. You arrive home at your parents’ place three days later and haul the fridge door open, owed something. Your stretching body always yawns for food and larger clothes. Your tummy and bum and boobs stretch in all directions. Your voice deepens. You are always in a car, driving to movies, squealing away from angry people with bloody faces, zooming out to the border of your world and throwing bottles at the mountains. In the back seats of vintage Mustangs, boys fuck you rabbit-like, furious and impatient. You have five day weekends and fuck and break things and eat the leftovers your parents have left for you in the fridge as their way of saying sorry.
That Moose jerkoff has told the cops you were the lookout on this home invasion but it totally wasn’t a home invasion, the family intervention bullshit they make you go through is literally unfair, Gawd. At the end of the intervention, the stuck-up cunt from the Board of Trustees says you’ve got to undergo special supervision by the principal. Within an hour of being chauffeured home by two parents with hunched shoulders and clenched jaws you swallow all the Panadol in the first aid kit but it just gives you diarrhoea instead of killing you. Shoulda gone with the codeine. Fuck. When your stomach’s calmed down, you etch the insides of your thighs with scissors. Like the shit on the kitchen floor, like the burgs and the tyre iron, cutting your tender thighs is a way to tell the world it oughta treat you better.
At school you’re too ashamed to risk the wind lifting up your skirt, letting people see your ripped skin, so you hide in the library at lunchtimes and attack your schoolwork. Fucking blank spaces. Fucking bullet points. You can spit at the world through sharp, sassy answers. You get through your biology exam by writing about relocating arms, thinking back to this one time when a boyfriend snapped Moose’s arm over some bad weed. You managed to do something you later found out was called the Hennepin manoeuvre and got Moose’s humerus back in the glenohumeral joint. You didn’t know those words at the time, so reading a medical dictionary in a shadowy corner at lunch helps to put all these jigsaw pieces together. The librarian doesn’t snitch on you to the principal, doesn’t even know your name. Passing the bridging course and getting into university turns out to be a type of rebellion you never expected. You can guarantee you know more about bio than faggot Principal Gay McVeigh does. If university doesn’t take you away from your stupidass parents, 300mg of Codeine will. It puts your liver to sleep, you explain in a sharp paragraph with perfect handwriting. Biology is the only beautiful thing.
You say no to parties for three weeks until your first assignments come back with A’s, then you allow yourself to go to one of those All You Can Drink For $30 nights and that boy from that Volunteers Abroad stall smokes rocks with you in the toilet and soon he’s pulling down your denim skort and licking your makeup off your chin while punk rockers bang on the toilet door and you tell the boy to hurry up and come, gawd. People are supposed to be grown up at university. Sixteen-year-olds come way quicker than this.
This happens with a couple different guys and you still don’t make any naughty friends or miss any tutorials, but you do miss your period. You listen to a swooning white noise in your ears in the lecture theatres, in the library, on the bus. Trouble is coming. In your dorm you lock the door and try praying. You haven’t prayed since you were, like, 11. You ask God for a baby who’s a copy of you, a mirror-image who will understand what it’s like to implode.
You hammer aggressive answers into your assignments. After a month, the morning sickness starts to come. It’s fascinating. You diarise the symptoms as they are happening to you and you get good marks back with encouraging words from your lecturers. May as well take the baby all the way. By eight months, you’ve got enough credits for a Diploma of Applied Biology. You’re proud you’ve kept your baby alive. She is the first thing you’ve never destroyed.
Baby Kiri brings more satisfied feelings than any pipe you’ve ever sucked. Your baby forgives everything and thinks you’re awesome, even if your parents don’t. Your mum tells all these nurses you could hurt yourself and the baby if you’re not supervised properly, trying to pull your knees apart and point to the scars notched inside your thighs. There are screaming matches in the maternity ward, but little Kiri sides with you. You’re back at university for the next summer school, breastfeeding her in the library, in the crèche, on buses, in the line at Student Job Search. You feed her mouth and wipe her bum in toilets, on the steps in front of a bank, in the registry waiting room, satchel on your back, humming the rhymes you’ve memorised to get through your bio exams. You leave lectures and tests to go to crèche and check on her temperature, ’cause you don’t have any friends to cover for you. Friends get people in trouble, anyway.
It’s only a year after the Bachelor’s that you get your Masters conferred on you, then a teaching diploma the year after, and you pile a gown and a hood and a trencher onto your body and your mum and dad, who are too hairless and thin to hassle you any more, take 1000 photos and you hoist Kiri up. Your daughter starts going to school right beside the campus and you get a little tutoring work which allows you to teach smart people and be shy at the same time and the green hillocks of the campus are soft and there are piles of leaves for Kiri to roll in and rallies and sit-ins makes you feel dangerous and powerful but your student loan hits $50,000 and finally you freak out and stay up till 3.30 in the morning applying for teaching jobs.
It’s weird being taken seriously as a teacher, seeing as you used to chuck firebombs on teachers’ roofs. You have your first assembly, your first class, your first kicking-a-boy-out-because-he-cracked-a-joke-about-breasts-in-sex-ed. At first you think the kids are mean because of what your 31-year-old body looks like, your boobs sticking out too far, your legs too long, knuckles all knobbly, teeth huge and white, hair you wish you had the confidence to dye black. It takes you months to realise the kids think Miss Mackenzie’s unusual because she doesn’t have a wobbly throat or Coke-bottle glasses. You don’t have a belly that sags over your pussy. You’re normal-ish, young-ish, sorta cool, sorta down, at least compared to most of the other teachers with their saggy throats and liver spots. You teach these kids about reproduction and you can see some of them trying to use x-ray vision to see what’s beneath your hard stomach. In class photos you look like one of the Year 13 girls, just lankier, with lipstick and mascara and more exhaustion in the cracks around your eyes. They test you with questions loaded with double entendre, slang, code words, acronyms. They think they know what naughty is.
Your daughter enters school. Seems to you Kiri’s always been 13, always toeing you, questioning, making you remember she was the renewed, more-perfect you that you offered the world to judge you by. She’s set a new standard of Mackenzies. She has your huge gums and hips, big eyes and forehead, bulging chest. She has her period on the same day as yours. You catch her in the girls’ toilet having a tampon fight with some of the kids who despise you. She occupies your couch, your passenger seat, your shower. She leaves hair coiled around the plughole that could be yours or hers. When you fight she calls you names you used to call your mum.
Every morning Kiri hops into the passenger seat late, changes the radio station, then puts earbuds in anyway. Kiri disguises herself with sunglasses so the bus kids won’t be able to see she’s getting a ride with a teacher. You report this shit to Mr Hogan or whatever teacher is sitting beside you in the staffroom and they look at you like you’re speaking a fresh language. They want to talk about the six o’clock news instead. They say they’re nervous that these three girls with hijabs sit together. The home economics teacher refers to one child as a ‘quadroon,’ whatever that is. Some racial shit. There are no alternative rooms to escape to when the staffroom starts to feel like a furnace so you take your lunch to your classroom. When the day ends, you pick up Kiri from the auditorium. The dance teacher has a saggy chest and drooping arms and smile lines radiating from happy eyes. The dance teacher is what a normal mum looks like.
Gavin Hogan is one of the physical education teachers. He’s also the father of this boy Clyde who has a skinhead haircut and bent nose and unflinching blue eyes and gets to leave class two mornings a week for boxing because he’s too naughty for team sports. The two arrive in the parking lot in the same car each morning and Gav gets out and stands over Clyde in the passenger seat, criticising him till the kid drags his legs onto the asphalt, even though Clyde weighs more than his dad. Gav elbows you in the staff room one wet, windy morning and nods towards this perfectionist Chinese student, Lotus Chua, who’s brought a moon cake to Mr Rashbrook, who’s the Head of Department for Physical Education.
‘Love is in the air,’ Gav tells you, slurping the carrot and wheatgrass shake he says his doctor told him to drink to give his liver a break. He has to lean right down, as if he’s tying his shoe, to tell you in a low-enough voice that Mr Rashbrook is fucking Lotus Chua. ‘He’s not the only one,’ Gav adds, zipping a tracksuit over his gut and pointing the toe of his sneaker towards Ms Bennett, the young art teacher with the nose ring who suddenly got divorced one holiday weekend. You’ve seen Ms Bennett snogging a male in the parking lot, but you assumed it was her young fiancé or something.
‘This place is incestuous,’ Gav whispers, ‘Let’s get out of here.’ His knees creak as he stands up. Your dad’s knees used to creak when he would get up to put his dinner plate in the sink. You feel you have to laugh, still processing Gav’s revelations. Gav clops down the corridor, escorting you to your class, says he can help check your drawers and windows, make sure the room’s locked up tight when you go home so it won’t get burgled again. Gav keeps talking until he seamlessly asks for a date and you’ve been agreeing with everything he’s been saying all afternoon anyway so you try to give him your phone number and he says he already has it from the staff contact list. He says he knows everything about you except how to find you on Facebook. ‘I had to ask my son how to work that godforsaken gizmo!’ he laughs.
You promise you’ll add him. Instead you make your security settings one notch tighter and you dwell on Gav for a whole afternoon, trying to think up some things to like about him. You pace the hallway, ask Kiri if you can use the bathroom for a while to see if the mirror agrees you still look the way you picture yourself. You’re plucking your eyebrows for eight, nine minutes at most before Kiri bangs on the door. You try telling her you need a new profile picture, if Clyde Hogan’s going to probably share your personal pictures across the school anyway.
‘Clyde?’ Kiri asks, screwing up her eyes and mouth. ‘It’s pointless anyway,’ she decides, knocking you away from the mirror with a waggle of her butt.
You worry about the date for 48 hours then you drink too much dessert wine and your stomach hurts during the movie and you need to fart but can’t get away with it. The night is torture. There’s a young couple in front of you with perfect skin and thin arms and they’re sucking weed from a secret smokeless vaporiser and snickering and squeezing each other’s thighs. You look over at Gav, who’s scoffing the Maltesers he bought for you. There is a seat between you for his jumbo popcorn to sit in.
At the end of the evening, as the black streets trickle past the car windows, you get ready to blow him if he asks you to, because he spent $180 at the restaurant and it seems like the polite thing to do, but he pulls into the driveway of your flat and the security light invades the car and he shakes your limp hand and says, ‘See you at the meeting tomorrow, yeah?’
You can’t debrief with Kiri, sitting on the edge of her bed, laughing the night off, ’cause she’s not in her bedroom. You don’t see her for a night and a day until she struts into your classroom at 4.59pm on the Tuesday, beaming, and slams the lid of your laptop shut.
‘Guess who just got asked out by Clyde FREAKING Hogan,’ she says, her eyes creasing as she smiles. Your eyes used to crease like that.
‘Congratulations,’ you go, ‘Where have you been?’
‘Where have you been?’
‘For your information, I went on a date. With Mr Hogan.’
Kiri pretends to vomit in the rubbish bin then sits on a desk and tells you about Clyde, kicking her dangling feet. She says you HAVE to come watch him train, and she drags you across the hopscotch grids and the memorial garden and past the graffiti wall and into the dark boxing gym where you watch a heavy boy throwing punches which BLAP against an old man’s leather pads.
‘See what I mean?’ she whispers.
You don’t eat anything except an apple juice all day and you get cranky and your breath stinks as you explain the 14 distinct enzymes and proteins that make up semen to a class in which the girls giggle more than the boys. Showing the film clip of a penis haemorrhaging cloudy semen is part of the course requirement and you try to deliver the material with zero jokes to quell the class but it doesn’t work, everyone gets excited and they won’t even call semen by its proper name and Clyde, who seems either high or badly in need of Ritalin is standing on his chair, pointing at each girl in the class, shooting them with his crotch gripped in his fist and saying ‘Virgin, blam, virgin, blam, virgin, POW!’ and blowing imaginary smoke off the tip of his dick. He aims his fistful at you, holds it there forever, eyes spasming, wordless.
You order Clyde to follow you to the detention room and you feel the air tickle as his body pushes through it. What’s your Twitter handle, miss? I’ve got the sickest Snap to send you, what’s your number? You gotta check out my Snaps. You finally get rid of him and return to class and shout at your monkeys till they don’t find sex exciting anymore and stay extra-long after the bell rings with your head buried in your palm, refusing to look at the clock, putting red crosses beside incorrectly labelled vulva and labia on the kids’ work and when you feel you’ve done enough goodness to fix everything you broke when you were a kid you race home, shower and confront yourself in the mirror. Kiri’s halter top is on the clothes horse beside the washing machine and you pull it over your boobs. It fits you perfectly.
Then he’s here for Date Number Two, parking in the driveway, getting out and approaching the door like patient people used to, and you don’t have time to return the lipstick you’ve borrowed from Kiri and you race out the door. She’ll turn into Godzilla when she finds out you’ve taken it but you don’t have a choice. Life is made up of little 50-minute plans so the hour doesn’t defeat you.
Let Kiri be mad. Let Clyde sneak in and spend the evening. Let them see one minute of a two-hour horror movie and grope and snog on the couch for the rest of it.
You tell Mr Hogan about your shitty day but he says he’s tired and you watch a sci-fi instead of a comedy then go and eat fried food this time. He doesn’t notice you’re pulling off the amazing feat of fitting into Kiri’s top, just talks about how awesome the school’s superannuation scheme is. It’s not all that long till he retires and can cash in, he explains, sucking the marrow out of the bones of his pile of fried chicken.
‘They match you dollar-for-dollar,’ he says. ‘I can’t wait.’
Kiri says you have no right to be friends with Clyde online and you tell her she has no right to cut a circle out of her top to show off her belly button piercing and you tell her a 16-year-old is too old for her anyway and she screams HE’S ONLY SIX MONTHS OLDER and she says You’re too old to let my friends follow you on Twitter and you say Do you want me to have zero friends then? and she screams YEEES and you both stomp into your bedrooms and slam your doors and you manage to Tweet Clyde before Kiri can and tell him to come around to your house like a man instead of sneaking around and he does come round and you give him a dressing-down at the door and wipe the blood off his badly-shaved jaw and tell him that even though his moustache is asymmetrical – and you have to explain what asymmetrical means – you admire him for fronting up like a man.
‘You’re panting,’ he says, gawping at your heaving chest.
Kiri messages you to say she’s on a hunger strike and will only communicate through texts. You don’t know what else to do with Clyde and his bad moustache except sit on the couch and sip wine. You’ve accounted for all the scissors and box cutters and blades in the house, and there are just six Oxycodone in the medicine cabinet, same as last week. Since she can’t harm herself, all there is to do is wait for her.
Clyde plays with his switchblade knife, plays with your phone, plays with the remote control. The only thing on TV is Frozen, that one with the Disney princesses.
‘I can’t believe you ain’t seen this,’ he goes.
‘I’m not the child here. Explain it to me, Mr Sweet Sixteen.’
He tosses the wine down his throat, belches and says, ‘You’re the one who’s sweet,’ leaning in so close you breathe his burp. You push his goofy face away. Clyde tells you it’s the story of this icy princess whose heart is frozen and she needs the right man to defrost her and he jokes that if a man has to warm a woman up, there are cosier cavities to insert himself than the woman’s chest cavity, and Clyde guffaws like maybe he’s just stoned again, or his dad’s beat him until he’s got a head injury, and speaking of frozen flesh you remember you’d promised to cook Kiri those imitation veal fillets made of soy you took out of the freezer and left on top of the dryer last night but Kiri’s already released herself from her bedroom and she’s screaming that you can’t even feed her, what kind of a mum are you, her dinner is RUINED and you tell her in a calm voice, over the breakfast bar, that everything you’ve done in your life has been a mistake and you’re going to apply for a job as a crop and seed researcher for a private firm and this family can make a fresh start and she goes back to her room and slams her bedroom door once again.
‘Want a hug?’ Clyde goes, and you jump.
‘GOD. You still here?’
‘I am here. For you. If you want.’
She turns 16 and you dictate it’s a Zero Boyfriends Day and you get along for 10 hours, go shopping together, share a smoothie, read magazines naked in a sauna, pretending not to check out each other’s bodies. You’ve got management units now, meaning you’re supervising a new, junior teacher, Mr Barrow – a thick-lipped, curly 24-year-old with auburn chest hair spilling out of the top of his tight shirt. You’re busier than ever, always missing lunch, too busy to get in Kiri’s way. She’s getting better at sliding around you, anyway. The extra $300 a week you get paid for managing a junior teacher is a glue that holds her close to you for a few days at a time before you’ve spent triple digits and when you stop spending money on her, she doesn’t want to be around you. You pay for driving lessons, new shoes once a month, plus the school uniform additions you should’ve bought her a whole term ago. She takes herself to the doctor to get the tetanus shot you forgot about. She does her own laundry ’cause her mum’s useless.
You buy her this black silk underwear with a little red rose embroidered on it, and when she doesn’t wear the undies for two weeks, you decide it’s fair game to wear them on another date with Gav.
He talks about who Mr Rashbrook appointed as captain of each of the winter sports teams before Mr Rashbrook got the sack and you ask if Mr Rashbrook is still fucking Lotus Chua and Gav says, ‘Oh yah. Hit him with a dismissal missile. What kind of a sicko does that with a child?’
When you walk out of KFC sipping your milkshakes, you spot Kiri driving your car. At first you’re happy, you’re proud, you’re glad the lessons have paid off, then you realise she’s not taking Clyde through KFC’s drive-thru. She’s parking between two dumpsters, where the light from the glowing Colonel Sanders sign can’t reach, and they’re folding the seat back and Clyde is rolling on top of her. They’re not even kissing.
As Gav’s car slows outside your house, you tug his hand off the steering wheel and push it between your legs, and he yanks his hand away, checking his wristwatch.
‘You should see a counsellor or something,’ he says, and reaches across you to open your door.
The corn company loads you up with coffee and bagels before they tell you during the job interview that your Masters qualifies you to teach bio, not research bio. There’s a significant difference, they say. But thanks for coming all this way. Here’s a petrol voucher.
Your students sense you’re angry the next day and they don’t mess with you but you wish you didn’t have to be suffering for people to leave you alone. Gav pulls you aside in the staff kitchen and pushes tickets for a South China Sea cruise into your hand and says, ‘30 days and counting!’ and you sidle past him and simply say, ‘You should see a counsellor,’ and all afternoon, looking out the window and across the quad, you watch surprised-looking students being kicked out of his gymnastics class and you know he’s smouldering. You weren’t born to cruise. You were born to go FAAAST and crash at the end.
Clyde and Kiri have got some conflict going on as well, she’s going away to this Model United Nations camp in two days and Clyde can’t understand how doing something which doesn’t involve muscles can be counted as an achievement. Clyde has a fight with his angry dad in the parking lot and goes into the school bushes and makes a bivouac while he sulks, sharpening sticks with his knife. You wait in your driver seat until the car park has cleared, watching him fume. Soon even the cleaners go home. You coax him out and tell him he needs a ride before he gets rained on and just as he’s lifting his blue legs into the car, thunder drums across the clouds and you look at each other wide-eyed and laugh nervously.
His house approaches and you sort-of slow the car but he doesn’t ask you to stop and finally he says, ‘Up here,’ and directs you into a construction site where no one can see you and he tells you to park on the mud behind a pair of steamrollers. He figures out how to recline his seat all by himself and tips back, reaching into his pants and fondling some thick, stiff cylinder. You play with your car keys, look for an excuse or distraction, then sigh and recline and lie beside him with cranes leering over you.
‘Y’ever smoked before, Miss?’ Clyde says, pulling a pipe out of his pants.
Principal Hosseini slides forward the contract and says the Board of Trustees describe you as extremely dedicated and believe you will do really well as Head of Department of Science. You tell her thanks, yes absolutely, shake hands, then when you’ve pushed your chair in and gathered your satchel and reached the door, you turn around and tell her, ‘Sorry, actually no. Fuck that.’
Principal Hosseini gasps at the same time as you. You can’t believe the F-word came out of your mouth. You start to tell her about the Homunculus, this little person that people before Linnaeus’ time thought actually lived inside people and influenced their actions, then you just laugh and say, ‘Sorry, I’m still stoned from yesterday,’ and there’s no point discussing whether or not it’s okay to smoke crack outside of work hours so you cut to the chase, cut to the end of your life, tell her you’ll email your resignation to her.
The bedsit you’re moving into doesn’t have a TV but Kiri says It’s okay, that’s why it’s only $150 a week, you can take my flatscreen, I only ever watch stuff on my computer anyway. You notice Kiri’s tall strong neck muscles flex as she helps you carry boxes of stuff to your car. She’s built like a fighter. She could tear people apart if she wanted, or heal them. You haven’t kissed anyone in years, you never even kissed Gav, or his son, so now you cover Kiri with three years of pent-up kisses and she bearhugs you and tips back, showing she is powerful enough to lift you off the ground, digging her fingers into your ribs.
‘Eat something,’ she says, ‘Fat-shaming isn’t cool anymore. Maybe no one tagged you.’
Your daughter reckons she’ll be able to pay you $90 each week in board money now that the whole house is hers and you tell her Sure, sweetpea, sounds good to me, knowing that she only works about 14 hours a week and only when the other checkout operators are sick. She acts grown-up, but she has heaps to learn. You’ll wait a while before revealing that the mortgage on the flat has always been about $400 a week. The bank might come calling soon, actually. You can’t wait. Getting in trouble makes your heart pump, makes your pussy wet.
She comes into Subway just about every day. She has the house to herself, but she clearly misses you. You tell the people at work that you are 26 and she is 22 and you two are BFFs. People don’t disbelieve you. Lies are a quick way to get high. You give your baby as many free sandwiches as you can but you can’t stop her wasting her money on cans of $5 energy drink. You would hate yourself for not showing her how to save money by shopping at Reduced To Clear, but ever since you left teaching you’ve decided you’re not allowed to hate yourself. You spent 34 years hating yourself. 34 years is enough.
The bell chimes as Kiri stands in the door of Subway.
‘What time am I picking you up again?’ she goes.
You put down the customer’s sandwich, crane your neck to talk over the customer’s head. ‘Eight o’clock, please. Bring those sparkly pants, I love those. We’re going to Hustlers.’
‘Isn’t that that biker bar that was on the news? Isn’t that place, like, a real creepo rape-fest?’
‘Pretty much,’ you go. ‘It’s gonna be awesome.’