It is 1996 and my brothers and I are jumping on the couch to ‘Great Balls of Fire’. We are shameless. We dance until the tape eats itself. We don’t think of ourselves as boys, as bodies, or even as human. We are just. We are happy.
Dad closes the passenger door with as little as force as possible. This is the first time we’ve seen each other in a year, since I left home with little fanfare and less warning. All he’s brought with him is a backpack and two fleece zip-ups. One is forest green, the other rainforest green. He’s adamant these are distinct colours.
On the drive from the airport, I gesture to the ashy black hills that pile up by the coalworks. Dad says to me, wow, impressive. Neither of us have yet learned to mindread.
I open the door to my new house. He must think it is empty and strange. I take leftover soup from the fridge and reheat it for him. When I tell him I have to get to work by seven he says well there’s no point me hanging around here is there, and I can’t think of a way to gently turn him down. I take the soup out of the microwave and place it back into the fridge.
Dad sits in the passenger seat like a would-be rally car navigator. No, that’s not exactly it — he sits in the passenger seat like I’m a taxi driver, and he’s the customer who is too coy to say that I’ve taken a wrong turn.
At the restaurant, I pick up an order — eight family-size pizzas, four 1.25L Pepsis. The docket tells me that a staff discount has been applied. I get in the car and put on Radio National, so we have an excuse to not talk. Rainclouds enter the scene.
It’s five years before my job at the pizza restaurant. I am sitting in a car, a passenger this time, outside the chapel where my grandmother’s funeral is to be held. Dad is wearing the pale blue wristband for the first time. It is made of rubber, and embossed along its surface are two words: BEYOND, and then BLUE. Code words that ask to be simultaneously understood and unremarked on.
The delivery is for a suburb I’ve never visited. I park on a crowded street. At the same time I tell Dad to wait in the car, he tells me he’ll wait in the car. It’s pitch black out.
Ocker hip-hop rumbles out of the bungalow. I stack the insulated pizza bags onto my arms, as many as I can. The weather worsens. Inside the house, Justin is chatting with a couple of the older kitchenhands. He notices me and says hey fucker and offers me a tinnie and I tell him happy birthday and no thank you. He looks at me like I’ve just taken a dump on his firstborn. Julie tugs at my shirt and says it looks good on me, which is a joke, or a lie, or most likely both at once, because they look like shit on everybody. I stink of grease and sweat.
When I return for the drinks I notice the radio has changed to the youth-demographic station. The same song is playing inside the car and inside the party, but at different points, like a double vision headache. I take the Pepsis into the house, and Julie counts out the change — no tips. What a dog act. But she rolls a TicTac around her teeth and says, hey, here’s your tip. She tugs my shirt and plants one square on my mouth. I comply, because: what was I supposed to do? I’m a man, but more than that, I am shy, I am submissive. Later, I create an excuse for myself: rejection would have made the two of us uncomfortable. She passes me the TicTac with her tongue and I swallow it. That should hit the spot, she says with a wink -- except Julie can’t wink, she can only blink. Obviously it isn’t a TicTac. Why would it have been a TicTac?
As I make my exit, Justin thumps his shoulder into mine, and says, time for you to leave, even though I am already halfway out the door. I walk around the side of the house so Dad doesn’t have a view of me, so I’m invisible. I’ve never been high before and I feel like I’m about to have a panic attack. I call my manager. When no one answers, I leave a message saying I think I’m going to be sick. I take a selfie, hair dripping, standing outside someone else’s party. I can’t think of a caption so I just put a pizza emoji, and then next to that an umbrella emoji.
I ask Dad to drive home. He seems delighted, as if I’ve just given him the birthday gift he’s always wanted. As his hands grip the wheel he considers, for a long while. what he’s going to say next, and then: we gotta get you one of those steering wheel covers.
It is 2000-and-something, the year my brothers and I listen to Electric Six’s ‘Gay Bar’ on repeat. Not dancing, but still: smiling, sometimes laughing. It is 2000-and-something and the words I WANT TO TAKE YOU TO THE GAY BAR have appeared in our bathroom mirror fog. Like an incantation. Dad tells me I’m grounded, and I don’t understand why. It’s not even my handwriting.
The restaurant cuts my shifts for being sick. Dad and I spend a couple of days pottering around the house. We take turns buttering toast, we watch Grand Designs, we avoid eye contact like it’s a game that neither of us are keen on losing. I check how my rainy-day selfie is going: five likes, zero comments. A couple girls from high school and a local cafe that doesn’t follow me. None of my male friends have liked it. I can’t figure out why that’s bugging me so much.
We drive to the cinemas and watch a Ryan Gosling film. It’s the only thing showing that’s designed to appeal to both men in their 20s and men in their 60s. He buys me a beer because it’s one of those cinemas where that’s the expectation. We say cheers, but our glasses don’t touch. While the movie unspools I wonder: is the non-linear plot confusing? Did Dad get it? I’m not sure if leaning over and whispering whose-related-to-who will come off as patronising. I don’t know how to talk to him. The film is an intergenerational thing, more or less, about two men’s inherited violence clashing against one other. It goes for two and a half hours, and then we leave. I say, I liked it. Dad’s review is that it was a bit long.
I am fifteen, and Dad is watching me as I attempt to ride a bike. I never learned as a kid, but now I’m on a deadline. I fall over on the grass, and when he doesn’t come to my side – he waits to see what I’ll do, like the father in an American film about adolescence and baseball – I begin to cry. I cry even though I know I am not supposed to, even though I’m too old to act this way. But it feels necessary: like I’m performing a time-displaced ritual. Dad performs his ritual, too. He ignores me. I lie on the soccer pitch until I can’t stand the itchiness.
At school camp a month later we all ride mountain bikes into a pit of mud. The pedals bruise my shins. When we descend the hills I place myself at the rear of the pack. I feel exhausted, and proud.
The last day of Dad’s visit coincides with my birthday. We jump into my car and hug the shore northwards. He asks, notice anything different? and I realise he’s put a leather cover over the steering wheel. I laugh and say, thanks. Lunch is chips and chicken by a Bottle-O. We drive on. We pass by an op shop and even though it’s not his usual thing – it’s Mum’s usual thing, if it had to be someone’s – he nods to it and says, want to check it out?
The op shop is a refitted warehouse that smells like unwashed linen. While Dad rifles through old records and bric-a-brac, I approach the secondhand books. The metal bookshelf looks like it's been torn straight from a library wall, but the books themselves appear to be meticulously arranged. Each section has a category denoted by the curling label-maker label below. I skip past ‘Romance’ and ‘Fantasy’ and ‘Unwanted Dan Brown Novels’ and stop at a small section simply marked: ‘Time Travel Machine’. A dozen copies of the same book occupy the shelf. The spine of each book is shiny, refractive — but when I take a copy from the shelf and hold it before me, it looks more like a muddied pond. I have never seen this book before, or any book like it. I flick through the pages and all the text is at an oblique angle, as if it wants you to crook your neck before you start a single word.
When I read the text on this book’s cover, my head begins to feel peculiar. The letters are an anagram that keeps on rearranging. The letters won’t settle down, not for a moment, not with a wife, three kids, a dog, a job that doesn’t pay overtime. I can’t even make out the author. What does it say? For a second I swear it spells out my initials, my surname. When I look again the cover is fuzzy. It gives me déjà vu — it gives me a double vision headache.
I think I need a new glasses prescription.
Do you want it? Dad asks. I didn’t hear him approach me. Before I can respond that yes, I think I need this, I think this has the answers I’m looking for, a high-pitched alarm begins to whirr. The owner escorts us out, the stub of a cigarette smoldering close to his lips, and says, bloody thing’s always playing up.
It is before or after the turn of the millennium, and I want a Ken doll for my birthday. Even though something about it makes me feel silly – and I do not know why it makes me feel silly – I ask my parents for this doll. They reply in the uncertain affirmative. But I don’t think they understand. I want to tell stories with Ken. He will be my actor.
It is before or after the world forgot to fall in on itself, and Dad, who has been interstate for my birthday, returns with a gift. I unwrap the doll-shaped box and there he is: Action Man. He is a plasticised body, like Ken, almost exactly what I imagined. It feels peculiar. It feels like a punishment, but I don’t know what for.
This Action Man is special, though. He has a special toggle on his head. This Action Man can move his eyes from side to side, as if his only action is to be suspicious of everyone around him. He casts sidelong glances at the world and I say to Dad: thank you.
On the drive back, we stop in an unnamed town to visit a squat, white lighthouse. In the attached museum we find, pinned up behind Perspex, a rope with dozens of pennants hanging from it. Each pennant has a different pattern; every pattern has an agreed-upon meaning. A fixed meaning. A precise meaning. There’s something reassuring about this, and for a minute I picture myself as a sailor.
There’s a chart Blu-tacked to the wall. The flag that corresponds with the first letter of my father’s name is navy blue with a square of white at its centre, just like his beloved football team. At sea it means: Your lights are out or burning badly. I look for my own flag. It has the same colours but in a different shape and arrangement. Diver down. Keep well clear.
In the car park outside the lighthouse, Dad asks me to stand by his side. He takes a photo of the two of us on his phone; he takes three photos, just in case. We smile like two men having their photo taken together, and Dad says, without even having looked at the resultant image: there we go, that’s a good one.
It is a new year and I am visiting my parents for summer. The antidepressants I’ve been taking since Christmas should be kicking in any week now. Any day now.
When I see the blue-yellow prescription paper stuck to the fridge, Dad’s name visible on the top, I think: oh! I fantasise that my father and I are taking the same meds at the same time. I relish in the feeling of synchronised sinking.
I live in this fantasy for a few days. Eventually I let my curiosity – OK, my invasive tendencies – take over. I peek. The prescription is for back pain, aging body pain. I allow myself an evening to feel disappointed. The next morning, I fly home.
The following afternoon, driving back from the airport run, my phone begins to vibrate; it vibrates off the passenger seat and into the footwell. I pull over. The phone rings again. It’s Justin. He wants to know why I’m late.
I don’t have work tonight, I say. He thinks I’m taking the piss. I tell him that someone cut all my shifts. A car holds in its horn as it passes.
Whatever, Justin says. Just get your arse over here.
Deliveries are hectic until they’re notl. I have a missed call from Dad, but only the single missed call, so it can’t be important. Justin and the servers are hanging out behind the oven.
I scrub pizza pans until my palms are raisined. I can hear the other staff talking around the corner about their favourite topic. They sound like hyenas. I dither by the sink because I know what happens next.
Hey champ, Justin beckons. What about you? What’s the worst place you’ve done it? Not one for subtlety, he pumps his pelvis as he speaks.
If there’s anything I’ve learned while working here is that it’s best to give them what they want and be done with it. So I tell them: a tent, in the pouring rain, and they laugh. I knew they’d laugh. I emphasise how my legs cramped. They laugh some more.
I don’t tell them the reality; that I didn’t want to be there in the first place. How it felt like I had no choice in the matter, even if this was untrue — I was a man, and she was a woman, and the scenario would play out as prescribed by the laws of the social universe. How I was acting out the role given to me, even if I didn’t like it. How neither party reached climax. How, later, I recounted the story for my actual friends, turning to reclaim it as a joke; the handjob was like trying to reconstitute animal bone from Aeroplane jelly — how they laughed until I cried. How even the women laughed, at the incredulousness of it: how could you not want to fuck? How could you not make her come? How could you let yourself be the butt of the joke? How could you not play your part?
The pizza shop is all laughs. I excuse myself, and escape to the bathroom. I return a minute later, having remembered how to breathe.
As I’m clocking off, I ask where Julie is. She normally does the Sunday shift with me, I say.
She doesn’t work here any more, says one of the cooks, his back turned to me. He sounds angry.
Couldn’t hack it, I guess, says Justin. He raises his eyebrows like it’s supposed to mean something. On my way out, he punches me on the arm, but kindly, brotherly. A secret handshake that I never asked to learn.
I check my messagebank. Thanks for showing me around, Dad's voice says. You’re a true gentleman. I’ll call you back.
I am dizzy, or light-headed, or woozy — I don’t have the language for it right now. There is a tick in my shoulder and its toxins are inside my body. Making me nervous. Dad has a pair of long-armed tweezers. He has antiseptic and years of know-how. I feel safe and I feel sick and I feel protected.
After removing the tick’s body, he drops it into a cup, and says, hold on, now I have to get the head out. I close my eyes. I want it gone. I want the whole system dismantled and removed. Burnt and never spoken of again.
I close my eyes and he says, trust me, I’m a doctor — even though he’s not. It’s an old joke of his. A dad joke. I feel guilty when I don’t laugh. I wish I had laughed.
Eventually he says: there we go, I think I got the last of it.
It’s a year later, or five years later; it’s whenever in the future. I’m visiting home, or I’m at a funeral, or Mum’s 70th, or a cousin’s wedding, and Dad asks me to pass him his mobile phone. As I do I notice his wallpaper. It’s a selfie of the two of us, from years ago, from paragraphs ago, from outside the lighthouse. In the photo he looks chuffed, smiling in his forest green zip-up, with his pale blue bracelet around his wrist, his wrist resting on my shoulder. He looks earnestly happy. I hand him the phone, and I don’t mention a thing.