Like being God
Contemptuous smoke filled the car. Kath’s passenger, Rob, had rolled a thick joint in his lap and was puffing it to life as if it was a pipe. She squinted at the liquorice strap of road ahead. They were far from the city now and cows gazed morosely at the hurtling vehicle from dry paddocks. Rob dragged deeply on the joint three or four times, thickening the smoke around them. She didn’t want to ask him to wind down the window or lower her own in case it seemed prudish or disapproving. She was hoping he would just smoke the whole thing because she didn’t want to have to say no, but inevitably he offered. It was a test.
“Nah, thanks anyway.” She said laughing jerkily and registering the smug, put down in his eyes. “It’d make the road look like a video game.”
“Yeah.” He said, continuing to hold it out. “It’s an improvement.”
She dragged at the joint lightly a few times and then once more to prove she was enjoying it. They settled into a silence, hers paranoid, his amused.
She’d wanted to ask him about Mikey. When she’d gone looking for him at the Brunswick squat, Rob had said he was an old mate of Mikey’s, from a nearby town. A bong took centre stage on a crate in the middle of the room. Scattered around it were empty tobacco packets, cigarette butts pushed into beer caps and used needles. Kath pretended not to notice.
“He’s shot through to Beulah,” Rob told her from deep inside the couch.
“’Praps I should visit him there?” She said to fill the silence. It’d taken her weeks to pluck up the guts to find him. What difference would a few kilometres make?
“I need to go that way meself.” Rob had said.
“I’ll give you a ride.” Kath replied.
It was that easy now she had the car. It was a little white Golf with sheepskin seat covers. Her parents had matched her dollar for dollar. She had spent so many hungover mornings working in the bakery for the money, that the smell of fresh baked bread would always make her eyes feel sore and her stomach lurch. But it was all worth it to be able to just say. Lets go, I’ll give you ride. It was like being God. You just pointed the car in the direction you wanted to go, put on the stereo and went.
Towns rolled by signalled only by a battered sign and a sudden turn off. Unless they had a McDonalds, in which case you were being primed for the place every five minutes. It wasn’t like a video game, more like a dismal, relentless fairground ride on a rainy day. She drove faster, worried Rob would think she drove too slow and desperate for it to be over. Some of the town names were familiar. Her Uncle Henry had been a travelling toy salesman and she remembered him reeling off the towns he routinely visited. He sold strange joyless toys. They had brittle, too-pink plastic faces with visible seams or sharp metal wheels and off -centre stickers. They were stacked unceremoniously on shelves in his dusty warehouse. The whole family had gone on a Sunday to see the place. Kath remembered it was cold and she needed a wee. The toys made her feel sad. Were they the only toys the country kids got to see? Kath wanted to write little notes and hide them inside the toys saying: Hi!
Rob got out at Stawell. Wind slapped his dirty hair around his face as he pulled his bag from the back seat.
“Give this to him will ya?” He said, chucking a faded bum bag onto the passenger seat. “and tell him he owes me one.”
Kath was glad this wasn’t where Mikey lived.
“Which way do I go?” She asked.
“Oh just keep going straight, few more hours, there should be a turn off.” He said shouldering the bag and walking away without a smile or thanks.
“Hours?” she repeated dazed. Kath had never driven for this long. But she couldn’t go back, so she kept going.
Mikey’s mum looked just like him: long, flat cheeks with narrow blue eyes peering over them. But they weren’t poetic and soft like Mikey’s eyes. They were full of discomfort. She looked like she was going to retch when she opened the door. She continued standing in the doorway until Mikey’s father came and filled the space beside her.
“Well you better come in.” He said, glancing up at the grouchy, grey sky. “Can’t drive back in the dark.” He added, more to his wife than her.
The front door opened straight into a tidy lounge-room with crocheted rugs thrown over the couches. Posed family portraits smiled down from the walls. Big, wide windows looked into the empty street below. Identical homes that looked straight out of a packet sat along its edge. Mikey walked into the room and froze when he saw Kath standing there.
“What are you doing here?” He asked, rubbing at his eyes. He looked at his parents as if to confirm she was real, then back at her. “Kath?”
“I just…ummm…wanted to see you, see how you’re going.” She answered trying to remember herself what had propelled her into this strange house so far from home.
He had liked her from the first second he saw her. They were both late to their first uni lecture and he sat on the auditorium steps, too shy to find a seat, watching her squeeze along a row, stepping on toes, giggling and making instant friends, before flopping noisily into a seat.
After a few weeks of gazing her way, he began passing her little triangular notes written in blue ink addressed: ‘to the girl who when I hear her name spoken makes me smell beautiful things.’ They were poems and spiky drawings and proclamations of love that he only expressed on paper. Having gone to an all-girls high school, no boy had ever passed her a note in class. Although she already had a boyfriend she accepted the notes happily. They were nothing like her boyfriends clumsy rhyming poetry but sad, sweet lyrics that sent ripples down her skin. They made her look at this long faced boy again and again, turned on by the curve of his handwriting and the heart in his little folded offerings. He carried a scuffed skateboard and always wore worn out long sleeved tops and big pants frayed at the bottoms from shuffling along. His shyness made it easy to let him love her from afar. And so Kath kept her boyfriend but sent flowery provocative notes back.
Into uncharted waters
He lived in a tottering terrace off Brunswick Street crammed with kids from the country who had come with their drum kits, keyboards and guitars to play in crashing Melbourne bands. Above the sticky cobble stones alongside the house was a wall with the words sprayed across it: Sail your ship into uncharted waters. So she stayed the night at Mikey’s place but it was his friend Matt who joined her on her mattress on the floor. He had little brown dreadlocks and dimples so she couldn’t refuse, despite Mikey being in the bed beside them.
The notes became more tragic and wonderful. Kath wondered if she would taste that gorgeous melancholy if she kissed his strange sad mouth. They walked from the city together one day talking in cluttered sentences and saying nothing. Eventually she pulled him into a doorway where they sat with their knees pressed together on the step. But instead of kissing her he showed her the marks on his arms.
“What’s that?” she said, instantly ashamed of her ignorance.
“Smack” he said miserably but with more than a sprinkle of pride.
“Smacks for smack!” She said slapping his arm to mask her confusion. She didn’t know what smack was. She felt stupid and left him sitting in the doorway.
They could hear the TV sitcom from his parent’s room clearly through the thin walls. It had been loud enough to cover the sound of Kath sneaking from the study into his room. She snuggled under Mikey’s worn Star Wars doona. She wanted to make love to him. Her boyfriend had broken up with her after she told him about Matt. He’d gone up to Cairns leaving her sifting though her letters and photos, wondering what it all meant. She had read and reread all Mikey’s notes and realised his love was truer than anything she had known. She had decided to surrender to it. She clutched him on the narrow bed and moved her hands up his thighs, inside his T-shirt and down his boxer shorts. But there was no erection to guide her way and she faltered and reached up and stroked his face instead. His skin felt clammy and he was shivering despite the doona. Kath rubbed her hand up and down his arm to warm him up. He pressed his stubbled jaw against her forehead and sighed.
They trailed around the dusty oval the next day. Kath could see his mum watching them from the big windows of her house. What was she so suspicious about? Kath was used to smiling suburban mums who left a pile of clean towels by the pool and went off to work. They wanted their kids to have fun and lots of friends, but Mikey’s mum seemed to resent her even taking a piece of cake from the Tupperware on the kitchen bench. Couldn’t she see Kath had come to give Mikey some love, which was just what he needed? They stayed out as long as they could and when they came back with cold cheeks and wind blown hair it was obvious someone had searched both their rooms. Mikey just shrugged. That night while chewing through an overcooked roast Mikey’s parents said the town football match was on and Mikey should go, alone.
“Good for Mike to see his old mates.” Stated his Dad firmly. Mikey jammed on a beanie and walked out into the dark street with his hands in his pockets.
Kath lay awake on the sagging camp bed, staring at the underbelly of the old school desk in the study. Two pieces of ancient, pale pink bubble gum clung to the wood beside the word GO scratched aggressively into the grain. She wondered if it was etched by Mikey or by one of his brothers, it could even have been scratched there by Mikey’s mum it looked that old. But it was clearly a message to her now. Lying in the tiny room where three boys had studied hard and forged their escape to the city Kath couldn’t wait to leave herself. This place was just a turn off in a journey she had begun. If she could drive all the way here she could drive further next time. She hugged that knowledge to her under the sheets. Mikey didn’t return before she fell asleep and although she strained for the sound of a football crowd Kath heard nothing.
Mikey stood awkwardly in the driveway as she got into her car. Lying forgotten in front of the passenger seat was the bum bag.
“Your old mate Rob sent this” she said picking it up.
“My old mate?” he repeated, and then stopped, seeing the bag dangling from her hand. “Yeah, right, thanks.” He muttered, grabbing it quickly. He shoved it down the front of his jeans. His hung-over yellow face brightened.
“I got something for you too”, he said jovially and dashed back into the house, streaking past the window where his mother had been hovering. When he returned Kath noticed the bulge of the bag had gone. He presented her with a toy that had a big, ugly pink head made to look like Rocky. It had a black eye and sneering red lips. Mikey pushed his hand up inside its dress to show how you could make the arms punch with their little plastic boxing gloves.
“Boxing Rocky” he smiled “I loved this thing so badly when I was a kid. Mum bought it straight after the toy guy had come to town. It was the only one.” He gave her a quick prickly kiss that was over before it began and headed for the house.
Boxing Rocky was a much nicer passenger than Rob. They travelled windy kilometres of head- banging blonde grass in silence together. Kath’s little car rattled from the fury of her driving. Once she was clear of town she checked Rocky to see if there was a note hidden inside. There wasn’t. So she wrote a note to herself.
Like being God,
into uncharted waters