ONE OF THE nice things about having a baby was how the old Italian lady next door changed.
‘It’s weird,’ Abbey said after they brought Xan home from the hospital. ‘You’d think dykes having babies together would be worse than dykes on their own.’
Apparently dykes who had babies were better. A safer breed.
That was after the old lady, Mrs Baresi, first smiled and waved at them and their brand new bassinet stroller, but before the turkey-baster incident.
The turkey-baster incident happened when Xan was a couple of months old, on the corner of the street where Mrs Baresi’s house was, where she seemed to be always in her garden or standing at her front window. Sometimes she just smiled and waved – amazing enough after six years of neighbourly stonewalling – but on the turkey-baster day she was hovering near her gate and said, ‘Hello.’ And then, ‘She sleep good, eh?’ nodding at the little parcel of Xan in her stroller, who was a champion sleeper. Then without waiting for an answer, Mrs Baresi said, ‘You have boyfriend?’
When she related the story to Jo afterwards, that night, Abbey said, ‘She must know that I don’t. Did she think we were keeping one stashed in the back room for emergencies?’
By then she couldn’t quite remember how she’d answered the boyfriend question (it was always so awkward), only that she was determined – with a steeliness that felt related to every coming out scene she’d enacted since she was seventeen, and also to some future self who would have to learn to come out the right way for her daughter (she saw teachers, soccer mums, the whole suburban catastrophe lined up behind Mrs Baresi) – she was determined not to shirk it.
‘Ah,’ Mrs Baresi said, after Abbey managed to convey that there was no boyfriend, only a Jo. ‘So you do the…’ She trailed off and it took Abbey a few moments to realise she was doing something with her hand. Miming something.
(‘It couldn’t have been,’ Jo said that night. ‘You must have misunderstood her somehow.’ And Abbey said, ‘I’m telling you, it’s what she was doing. It’s like the universal sign for it.’)
Mrs Baresi was standing behind her front gate making the universal sign for ‘turkey baster’. Two fingers held up, thumb tapping towards them. Spurt spurt.
Abbey was too shocked to laugh. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Yes, that was how we did it.’
The infinity of ways, good and bad, that people could surprise you.
ACTUALLY IT HADN’T been a turkey baster, not literally. The turkey-baster thing turned out to be a myth, or at least an outdated option. It was a paediatric syringe. A tiny, unlikely vehicle for life, although not as undignified as the little plastic tubs they purchased eight to a pack in Kmart.
‘You want me to get it into this?’ Tony had said, holding one up with an exaggerated squint. ‘I’m not sure you ladies have an adequate anatomical grasp of the situation.’
Tony quite liked referencing his cock. Abbey was used to it.
‘I know you have a massive penis, Tony,’ she said, ‘but you can aim it. We believe in you.’
The three of them had been sitting around the table in the living room, but at that stage Jo got up and went to the kitchen, clanging things around to make tea. She wasn’t really offended, but still, in that weighty time before they conceived Xan, when they were just following what felt like a diaphanous waft of fate, Abbey could have wished that Tony wouldn’t talk about his cock. She had a feeling he did it to get a rise out of Jo: it always seemed to be when she was around.
Abbey had known and loved Tony forever – since she was a teenager, when he looked after her dying father. As far as Abbey was aware he and her father were never lovers, but they were more than friends. Tony was kin. And yet it could sometimes be painful to see him through Jo’s eyes. His age, his determinedly cheerful campiness. Tony was not the sort of father you could bring to family gatherings at the farm. But then Abbey wasn’t welcome at family gatherings at the farm anyway, so why should she care? Still, when he mimed an awkward masturbatory attack at his little spunk cup she was glad Jo was in the kitchen with her back turned.
AFTER THE TURKEY-BASTER incident it seemed like Mrs Baresi lurked outside her house more and more. Abbey would walk past on her way to and from the shops, or when she was trying to walk Xan to sleep, and the old lady would never miss an opportunity to peer into the stroller, stroke the baby’s cheeks and hair, make some comment about how quickly she was growing and whether she needed more blankets, or less blankets, or more or less direct sunlight. It was sweet, but in another way it made the old conditions of neighbourhood cold war seem quite peaceful.
Today it is the dummy. ‘She stop using dummy, eh,’ Mrs Baresi pronounces after the cheek patting – whether as a question or a statement Abbey isn’t sure.
Xan is nine months old now and they haven’t considered giving up the precious dummy, which soothes all ills. Abbey makes a noncommittal noise and the old lady actually reaches into Xan’s stroller, towards her mouth, as though she might forcibly remove the thing. Abbey finds herself adopting a reflexive blocking manoeuvre, knowing what will happen if the dummy is tampered with at this spiky hour of the day: the howl, the evening-long repercussions. She laughs apologetically and says to Mrs Baresi, ‘Eventually, we’ll give it up eventually. Soon. Not today though. I’d better get her home for dinner.’
Mrs Baresi says, ‘Bye bye, darling, little darling.’ But as they walk away she sends a parting shot about the dummy. ‘Not good for the little mouth, you know.’ There is a laneway that cuts through from Abbey and Jo’s house to the shops, bypassing Mrs Baresi’s house. It is dank and poorly paved, not good for the stroller, but she wonders if she might be able to manage it. She could carry Xan in her baby pack.
She walks the short distance to the house and pushes into the front door backwards, easing the bulky stroller into the hallway. Jo’s bike is there.
‘Hi honey,’ she calls out while she unstraps Xan and puts her down on the floorboards for the crawl-sprint into the living room. ‘You’re home early.’ Following the baby down the hallway, she calls, ‘Apparently we’re ruining our child’s mouth by letting her have a dummy.’ She can smell something pleasantly meaty from the kitchen. ‘Oopah!’ she says automatically when the baby half-falls down the step into the living room.
Jo is at the stove, her back to them. ‘Look Xanthie, Mama’s home and she’s making us something delicious.’
‘Hi babies.’ Jo comes with a glass in her hand, which she hands to Abbey, gives her a peck and then picks up Xan for a cuddle.
‘So this time it’s the dummy,’ Abbey says again. ‘Mrs Baresi is very worried about mouth formation, or something.’
‘What?’ Jo puts the baby down and goes back to the stove. Bolognese.
‘Mrs Baresi. Old lady next door, approves of lesbian parents but not of their parenting?’
‘Oh, yeah.’ Jo doesn’t turn around. She is stirring the sauce when she says, ‘You know they’ve set a date.’
‘What? Mrs Baresi has set a date?’
Jo is silent for a moment. Then, ‘The government. Or the census people or whatever. It’s definitely happening.’
‘Oh. Shit.’ The vote.
‘Helen from Rainbow Families, you know the one with four kids? She’s putting together a legal challenge, they might even take it to the High Court, but the government is just rolling right over that and pretending it isn’t happening, just desperate to get us with their fucking vote.’
Abbey saw a newspaper headline about it at a café she took Xan to that morning, but she didn’t bother reading the article. She thought, fleetingly, that she should give Jo a call. Jo has been involved in the campaign for marriage equality for years, almost as long as Abbey has known her. Now they have someone who is supposed to be pro-equality in prime ministership, they have majority support for it in parliament if the Liberals would just allow a free vote. But the politicians seem bent on making people cast individual judgements about whether Abbey and Jo should be allowed to get married. Abbey and Jo have in fact already gotten married – years ago, in the British High Commission Offices that Abbey can access because her mother was born in England. They’ve also gotten ‘married’ three times, in mass public protest ‘weddings’ at Mardi Gras. All that marrying was a long time ago now, years before they had Xan, but Jo has all the weddings memorialised on Facebook, and she reposts the photos sometimes. Each time they got married she seemed equally thrilled, and each time Abbey was happy to see Jo happy. She seems to be missing the marriage gene. Maybe it’s because of what became of her parents’ marriage. She goes to the kitchen and gives Jo’s shoulders a squeeze, keeping watch on the baby in the living room. She kisses Jo on the neck, above where the ink starts on her collarbones. Her wife. Her ‘wife’.
Jo says, ‘So I’ve been speaking to Helen about where we most need fundraising: public campaigning or community support. I mean obviously we’ll need both, but this is happening so quickly, the Christian right are already mobilised. You know the government are siphoning funds to the hate groups? They’re gonna allow TV ads, signs on buses. Helen thinks the hotline will be flooded, they’re already receiving way more calls than usual, there aren’t that many services for the community and they might be overwhelmed.’
Abbey feels a guilty sense of overwhelm herself. She should definitely have called Jo this morning. She hasn’t given it a second thought all day. She should call her mother, who is in the local chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and will probably be upset. But can she stomach her mother’s moral outrage at the moment? She will say something about Abbey’s father, Darling Luca, and Abbey will have to make decisions about how much to go along with her mother’s selective memory about Darling Luca, who has only been canonised post-mortem: when he was alive Abbey’s mother tried to stop her seeing him, and seeing those people he had taken up with.
Xan starts pulling herself up on the coffee table. They have to get that thing baby-proofed, the corners are right at temple height.
‘I should call my mother,’ Jo says, and for a disorienting moment Abbey feels like she has projected her thoughts. But Jo’s tone is grimmer, flat and hopeless.
Abbey says, ‘Why don’t you let me take over dinner? You sit down with Xan, have another glass of wine.’
Jo keeps stirring the sauce. ‘I don’t even know what to hope for with Mum and Dad, you know? Do I hope that they just ignore the whole vote thing? That would be bad enough. But if I bring it up she’ll probably come out with some fucking diatribe about God’s order.’
‘Yes.’ Abbey moves into the living room. ‘It sucks.’ She positions herself on the sofa where she can still see Jo but is close enough to Xan’s head to intervene if it gets too near the sharp edge of the coffee table.
‘And I won’t be able to say anything,’ Jo goes on, ‘because I’m supposed to be so grateful for all this progress she’s made with me. Did I tell you I got another lecture about it from Darren?’ Jo’s older, more forthright brother. ‘About how I can’t expect too much from Mum because she’s so old and she’s been surrounded by cunts forever.’
Abbey laughs. Jo looks up, looks at her. Not meant to be funny. ‘Sorry,’ she says. ‘Mental image.’
Jo goes back to the sauce.
‘Maybe you could take Xan up to visit,’ Abbey says. This is the most effective weapon they have in the war for Jo’s mother’s affections. Unexpectedly effective; another baby boon that no one saw coming, like the transformation of Mrs Baresi. Jo and Abbey had both worried that Barb would reject her granddaughter, treat her as a cuckoo’s egg. Nothing to do with her real family. But Xan is miraculous: her powers extend into the iciest regions of her grandmother’s heart.
‘Barb hasn’t seen her since after Easter,’ Abbey goes on. ‘She won’t believe how much she’s grown.’
Jo shrugs. ‘Maybe. But it’s not like it’ll help with the vote. If all three of us went up, that might at least make a point.’
Abbey turns around on the sofa and makes sure Jo can see her face from the kitchen, to convey her scepticism without having to say anything too nasty about Barb. The last time Abbey and Jo visited together Barb tried to put Abbey in the little lean-to guest room out the back rather than in with Jo, which led to things being spoken aloud: things they’d all known were lurking behind Barb’s mask of offended civility but that no one needed to hear. There was the God’s order stuff, and some predictable prurient disgust, and talk of bringing some minister in for conversion therapy that almost made Abbey succumb to a bout of hysterical laughter. As if they were in some Gothic family drama from the ’50s. Which in a way they were. The evening ended with Jo and Abbey bundling into the car and driving into town, staying at a motel for the night, and they hadn’t gone back. When they asked Barb last year if she’d like to meet her granddaughter they arranged it on neutral territory, a park in town. Now Barb loved Xanthie – ardently, extravagantly, a demonstrative love that seemed geared to defy the devil’s deal of Xan’s origins. But she appeared to have mentally unshackled Xan from Abbey. As if the baby had nothing to do with her biological mother, even while breastfeeding. Barb treated Abbey with the same stiff civility as always, as though she were a wet nurse, someone inconvenient but temporarily necessary. And Tony: she had never met Tony and wouldn’t even acknowledge his conceptual existence. If Jo said something about some characteristic of Xanthie’s that might come from her father’s side, Barb would turn the conversation quickly, and once she said, ‘I think Xanthie’s little mouth looks exactly like yours as a baby.’ As if Xan had sprung through some miraculous surrogacy arrangement from Barb’s own stock. Possibly this was what she had actually convinced herself, with her religiosity and magical thinking. Jo managed to laugh about it a bit, and they agreed that in future it would be better if she took Xan up to visit Barb by herself, without the wet nurse. They’d managed two visits like that, including Xan’s first night away from Abbey, which was stressful for everyone and required hours of preparation with the hated pump. Jo came back from those visits quiet, withdrawn, a heaviness about her. ‘At least she loves the baby,’ she said. There was no joy in it.
To steer Jo away from the topic of her mother, Abbey says, ‘I wonder how Tony’s coping with the whole thing.’
Jo blows air out her nose but says nothing. Abbey ignores it and pushes on. ‘Maybe he could use his connections in the community to help campaign. I bet there are heaps of people who’d listen to him. He’s probably slept with someone at the census office who could fiddle the numbers.’
Jo turns around at the stove so Abbey can see when she rolls her eyes.
‘What?’ Abbey says. ‘I’m sure he’d love it if you asked him to get involved.’
‘Yeah, because he’s so passionate about marriage equality.’
Jo is not a sarcastic person. She has a directness, a guileless lack of bullshit, that Abbey thinks (but would never say out loud) is a country thing. Sarcasm doesn’t suit her.
‘I know he’s not that interested in marriage equality in general,’ Abbey says, ‘but I think this would be different. This affects the whole community, he’ll see that we have to come together about it.’
She wonders if the spectre of her father is present for both of them when she says that. Of course Jo doesn’t have those direct associations with Tony: she didn’t know him during the great existential threat that brought him into Abbey’s life. But she knows enough.
Jo only shrugs and says, ‘Yeah, well, I’m not gonna be the one to ask him. It didn’t go so well last time I raised the topic of marriage with him, did it?’
It’s lucky then that Xan bumps her head on the coffee table and lets out a howl. Only a small bump, Abbey would normally jolly her through it quickly, but now she picks up the baby and cuddles her and rubs her back, shushes into her fuzzy head. She has to resist being drawn into this tired fight with Jo, especially now. Although maybe a fight about Tony, a fight with Tony, any kind of fight, is exactly what Jo needs. But the predictability of it: the choreographed sequence of moves and countermoves by which the fight will play out, is tiring to contemplate. And then the unspoken resentments that will swirl around them for days or weeks afterwards, both of them watching each other, watching their marriage as though the whole thing might be a mistake, as though they are too different after all. Abbey will be incredulous and resentful that Jo can’t see Tony’s necessity: how can she not get that he’s family? Not only through the genetic ties of their daughter but through that binding alchemy of Abbey’s history, the concoction of death and care and her father, and how could anybody deny such a painfully purchased love? And Jo’s insecurity about her place in Xan’s life will come dangerously close to the surface, without ever being named. Abbey will long to reassure her but, unable to give voice to this structural weakness, will become exasperated with the repressed Anglo fumbling of it all, and will say exactly the wrong thing: something about the bond between Tony and Xan, something about the terms of the parenting agreement, which she knows that Jo regrets now that Xan is not an abstraction but a warm and terrifying little mass of variables, her love the greatest commodity.
Abbey goes to the kitchen and pours herself a large second glass of wine, thinking as she does it about how Xan will want to breastfeed tonight – she is down to just a morning and a night-time feed but those two are sacrosanct. Sorry kid, blame your government. This fucking plebiscite. No, not plebiscite, she has to remember to think of it as a postal survey: that way when they find out what proportion of people disapprove of them they can at least excise some other portion who don’t give a shit one way or another. Like Abbey herself. She takes a large sip of wine and stands in the kitchen, just a couple of feet away from Jo, whom she has married three times. The thought almost makes her laugh out loud. She has to remember this: that she doesn’t even really care. That she has never seen the point of the mania to get married, never kept bride books under her bed or given a thought to her dream wedding. Wasn’t that what being queer was about, the ominous lack-of-care factor for those things that motivated other girls?
Jo hasn’t turned from the stove. Abbey can see her flicking her gaze between the pot of bolognese and Xan on the floor in the living room. She can see the tight muscles of her shoulders, the way Jo carries her tension right there on the surface with the ink. She goes and stands behind her and pushes in gently with her body. Jo is not like her: she looks tough but never had the same chance to grow into it, to build that place in herself where it doesn’t matter what the world thinks. It’s okay for Abbey: she grew up in Sydney; she had her dad to show her the ropes (so to speak), walking down Oxford Street with him and feeling the spreading warmth of a new world, taking some kind of ownership of that glittering strip before she was even old enough to drink there. And after her dad died her mother became a beacon of acceptance so quickly, building a retrospective shrine to Luca that Abbey could also take refuge in, her mother’s new-found ally zeal. And by then there was also Tony, with his gentle hands that had cared for her father’s body. There was safety.
Not for Jo, stuck in her shithole school in her shithole town, with the rabidly Christian parents and hateful kids. It’s those people – the parents, the schoolkids, even the mildly tolerant but subtly judgemental brothers – that Jo wants to fight, needs to win over, dreads being judged and hurt by again.
Abbey wraps her arms around Jo’s middle – still firm and unscarred, unlike her own – and presses her lips against the smooth skin at the back of her neck. She can feel the hair growing back there, prickly and soft at the same time.
‘WELL WHATEVER THE result of this fucking thing I’m setting up my gift registry and anyone who ever loved me had better buy me a fucking spice rack or whatever. I don’t even care anymore if he goes through with marrying me.’
Tony looks at Finn, who is within easy earshot in his recliner near the bar. Maybe a very subtle rolling of eyes, an even smaller smile buried in the thick beard.
Nicholas and Finn have been living in various kinds of sin for thirty-eight years, since before Tony arrived on the scene. This back room of their bookshop has served for most of that time as a community den and sometimes a speakeasy, the hub of their famed hospitality, which really is worth the price of a spice rack to many hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people.
‘He’ll go through with it,’ Tony tells Nicholas. ‘He knows he’ll never pick a riper peach than you.’
Nicholas laughs, a high single note, and Finn in his easy chair lets out a low growl, gentle and dismissive.
Finn was one of Tony’s lights when he moved to Sydney in the ’80s, blinking from the darkness of Brisbane and the Latter Day Saints. Finn’s beard had been no less encompassing and his silence no less anchoring, and Tony loved him right away.
‘Pour me another drink, Antonia,’ Nicholas says, handing his wine glass across to Tony. They don’t let many people behind the little ’70s-style bar and Tony enjoys the privilege. It is mostly for the camaraderie and the wine that he came straight from work to the bookshop today. There have already been other people in and out of the back room as well: Chris and Garry, Phillip, some of the old dykes from Nicholas and Finn’s crowd. Normal, to want to be together with their own people while hostile forces mass at the gate. Ancient flight muscles twitching from the predatory threat.
Tony has not been able to resist the middle-aged drift towards contrarianism, which he has exercised forcefully and at every opportunity on the topic of marriage. And of course there are many opportunities, because marriage is all anyone wants to talk about anymore (along with real estate prices, but he quite enjoys talking about real estate prices since he paid off the flat). He isn’t the only one who has represented the negative in those dinner-party mock-court proceedings, usually in Nicholas and Finn’s apartment above the bookshop; but the gay anti-marriage side is always extra happy to have him on board because he can still embody, in some ghostly form, the persecuted parochial kid who is conjured as a winning hand by the marriage crew: won’t somebody think of the children? etc. Tony would say, ‘The last thing I needed when I was getting my teenage head kicked in by Brisbane rednecks was fucking marriage laws,’ and his side of the table crowed.
Some of them, the crowd at these dinner parties, were around back then when Tony got to Sydney, leaving one scene of damnation for an even bloodier one, and what Nicholas and Finn and the bookshop had been to them all then: it was for that sense of refuge that Tony knew people would keep shuffling in today, scanning the rows of second-hand cultural studies books as a ritual before sticking their heads back here into the inner sanctum. Especially now that the Imperial had closed. Mostly old-timers, people with a long enough memory to know that the sky isn’t really falling now; that what they are facing is a polite form of torment. Maybe that is partly why they come here, to brace themselves against the terrors of their shared past? Celebrate the fighting spirit? Pay respect to the fallen?
Fuck, he is getting maudlin.
Nicholas downs the last of his shiraz and says, ‘This country is just determined to keep me away from lace and tulle.’
The fighting spirit.
WHEN NICHOLAS BRINGS up the girls and the baby, Tony knows it’s time to leave.
‘How are the wifeys feeling about all this?’ Nicholas says.
Nicholas is happy for him. All his friends are. It’s why they give him shit about it.
‘Haven’t spoken to Abbey,’ Tony says, which is the truth but also probably what he’d say even if it wasn’t, because he is attuned to the teasing. A caged dog, trotting on the wifeys’ leash, sent off to buy nappies and called in to babysit at a moment’s notice. Not babysit, parent, Tony would correct with only a flimsy layer of irony over the pride. He should call Abbey. Check in, as they say.
‘Thank Dog that baby of yours isn’t older,’ Nicholas says. ‘At least she won’t know what the fuck is going on over the next couple of months.’
Tony, who has had the same thought whenever he felt the need to think of something positive about this marriage absurdity, is suddenly tremulous with gratitude for his friends. They tease him about the family stuff, but they keep a respectful pocket of air around these new realms. They know what it all means to him: what Xan means, that nuggety little life born of his still-healthy body. Family man.
Feeling himself at risk of getting soppy, he takes his leave of Nicholas and Finn. (‘Just go, abandon me in my hour of need,’ Nicholas says with a wave of his wine glass. Tony kisses him on his shiny head.)
He goes out into the chilly street and checks his phone. A text from Abbey: Hey, how you doing? Jo’s freaking out about the postal vote thing. I feel sort of bad for NOT freaking out. Really glad Xan’s so little though, at least she won’t know what’s going on. Come over any time you want. Or we’ll see you Friday.
Any time you want. He does want, actually: he feels that he would quite like to bury his face in the softness of Xan’s little neck, perform the easy miracle of making her laugh. Abbey and Jo’s house in St Peters is a manageable walk from Newtown. But Friday, his Xan day, is only a couple of days away. Ironically, he might have gone to see them on a day like this, before they found themselves in this new relation to each other, before they had a baby together. Now he feels the pull of their domestic sanctuary stronger than before, but also rife with new complications, subterranean tensions barely nameable but somehow manifested by the line in Abbey’s text: Jo is freaking out. They are all freaking out, a little bit, although it makes him angry to admit it. (I fucked bareback in 1984; I sponged down the ravaged bodies that everyone else crossed the street to avoid: how do you think you can hurt me?) But Jo will be freaking out in a different way. He thinks, not for the first time, that it’s strange he and Jo never developed solidarity. They both dragged themselves up through kinds of adversity that Abbey has no first-hand experience of. They are the reviled ones; the ones who couldn’t keep their radioactivity under wraps, couldn’t hide themselves from the little shits at school and got no protection from the big shits at home. They come from the same place, give or take a few hundred kilometres and one sullen decade that wrought no change out there on the fringes. And they both escaped to Sydney and, in their different ways, to Abbey. But they reached safety with wildly different ideas of what to do when they got there. He feels Jo’s drift towards defensive domesticity as a warm current swirling all around him – one not just made up of lesbians; half the gay men he knows are luxuriating in it – and he could easily get caught up. But something keeps him on the outside. If he wanted domesticity he could have had it in Brisbane: some sweet unquestioning LDS girl, a life in the suburbs with boltholes in the suburban park that he’d already found by the time he was fifteen, was drawn to through some osmotic connection with the freaks and exiles of that sticky outpost. He came to Sydney to evade the clawing inevitability of domesticity, looking for something outside everyone else’s normal. And he found it too, through Nicholas and Finn and their tribe of ’78 deviants. Through Luca. He wouldn’t let himself go back to anything less.
He turns north and heads towards Oxford Street. There are two saunas he usually goes to; he knows which one will suit the fragile cast of an afternoon with bad news adrift through the world and no drugs in his system. He could walk there but suddenly the need for refuge and release feels urgent; he gets out his phone and orders an Uber, and when it arrives he sits in the back so he won’t have to talk to the driver and register the guy’s response to the two-storey building where he gets dropped off, the name on the plaque that is nondescript but somehow also incriminating. That feeling of sneaking, of being hunted, that he still gets when he pushes through the heavy door into the warmer spaces inside, which he has every right to be in.
THE SAUNA WOULD not usually have picked up yet with an evening crowd, but as soon as he is in he feels the energy of many men, although he can’t see them yet. The guy on the desk looks bored as he takes Tony’s money and hands over the towel and locker key. Bored and young: twenty-two, twenty-three. Tony wonders what he thinks about what’s going on out there in the world, if he thinks about it at all.
He takes his things to the change room and strips quickly, shoving clothes into the locker, knotting the towel at his waist. Then he pushes through the swing door on the opposite side into the heat: the sudden immersion of all his senses in a new element – like swimming, like sleeping. A deep thrum of music and dim lighting and perhaps more than anything else the smell: clammy and crisp at the same time, eucalyptus and amyl and the underlying waft of bodies, of men. He can still remember the shock of recognition, a vague sense of déjà vu he got the first time he went to a sauna. As if he’d always known it was here, this space on the flipside of the regular world, the truth and rawness of it.
Once he is in and his senses have relaxed into the transition, he deliberately slows things down, lingering in the spa room where a couple of guys stand around chatting, nobody in the spa. Postponing the real entry because anticipation is sweet and he knows the reality might disappoint. He sits on the warm bench for a minute and closes his eyes, lets his mind empty. Perversely his half erection stirs, unwilling to accede to nothingness.
Once he goes into the venue and his eyes adjust to the low light of the corridor he is not surprised to see how many men there are – almost a Sunday volume. Men leaning languidly against the walls – they could be waiting for a bus – and drifting along past him. A young guy – so young – gives him a brazen once-over as he goes by. Tony moves slowly, casually, aware of the automatic pulling in and tightening of his gut. He hasn’t been here recently and has been letting his gym routine slip. He hasn’t given it much thought, the falling away of this part of his life (not permanently, just a phase), but at the edge of his consciousness the knowledge sits, a hard little weight that he doesn’t want to test the dimensions of, doesn’t want to know too well: it is since Xan. Nicholas and Finn’s teasing: family man.
He is not obsolete, he is still part of this world, still good for it. He pumps his biceps inconspicuously, squares his shoulders. He is in good shape.
But the crowd today seems so shockingly young. He wonders if the bored kid on the front desk is doing more than token card checks. He walks past a Middle Eastern-looking guy – a boy, his body all angles and his eyes darting, haunted. Tony turns to look without making eye contact, not wanting to give the wrong idea, the kid is too young for him but he feels his eyes drawn. It is not sexual; he is relieved that his dick backs him up and doesn’t respond. What he wants to gauge from the kid’s face and body has to do with him, Tony, and the ghosts of himself: that fallow kid from Brisbane who seems sometimes like a faint remnant, barely anything to do with who he is now; other times like a solid presence just beneath the skin, still dictating his decisions, still him. The Middle Eastern kid carries his terror and, Tony thinks, his self-disgust in every jarring movement of his body, in the anxious planes of his face, and suddenly Tony wishes he could take him somewhere – not for sex but to sit with him and get the kid’s story. Hand him whatever comfort he’ll take: the things that Luca gave Tony at the same age. You are okay. You are not a freak – or if you are then you are a freak among freaks. You have a family here.
But this is not good for his erection or his sense of purpose. The kid has moved on anyway, Tony tries to put him out of mind. There is someone here for him. Someone to remind him of his place in the family of the body. His dick can feel it.
There are men standing against the walls, deliberately casual. One guy watches his approach – again young, but not so young, not dangerously. Hot, in a tall reedy way. There is a long second – time for the whole scope of the thing to play out in Tony’s mind, to imagine pulling the guy into the booth beside him, cupping the back of his head and tasting his mouth, yanking off his towel – before the guy breaks eye contact. He looks away, down at the floor, and then looks deliberately past Tony to the space behind him. The exchange – the approach, the negotiation of their eyes, the rejection – is over in a matter of seconds. No big deal. Tony has made the same call many times. All part of the exchange. He is saying these things in his head, practically chanting them to his dick, but his dick doesn’t want to know. He feels himself wilting, succumbing to a shame that is partly about the young guy’s rejection but is also infused with the magical thinking of this day. Being reminded of his place in the pecking order: up for public scrutiny and judgement, probably to be found wanting. The guy’s eyes had, he is sure, scanned down over his pecs before cutting away to the floor. He curses all the time he has not spent at the gym recently. Distracted by Abbey and the baby. He crosses his arms over his chest and pumps his abs, trying to give his pecs a boost.
There are plenty of other guys – hovering near the booths, drifting along the corridor. But Tony seems to have lost the will to catch one, lost the urgency of what he is here for. The men look random, context-free and uninteresting in their identical towels, even the good-looking ones. He has left venues without getting laid before. He could go to the café upstairs: the guy who usually works behind the bar is a friendly face. Tony tries not to feel the full deflating failure of these thoughts, the acceptance of decline and rot. The teasing of Nicholas.
Then, from further down the corridor, a spectre comes shuffling towards him in flip-flops. Ghost of Christmas future. An old guy, his gait apologetic, his glance furtive at the men passing by, at the open door of an alcove. The flip-flops are profoundly troubling: the daggy pathos of them, fighting the humblest fears of the body, of tinea. Of course there are old men at venues, there are all men at venues. But somehow the sight of this one, here, today, feels like it might unstitch some tenuous arrangement of selfhood in Tony’s chest. How much older than him? Close to Nicholas and Finn’s age: fifteen years? No, more than that, surely. Maybe twenty. But then how fast have the last twenty years slid by. The old man gets closer; Tony’s near future, his obsolescence shuffling towards him in Kmart flip-flops.
It is the ankle bracelet that saves him. An odd thing to see, out of place above the guy’s right foot, just a thin silver band. Luca used to wear one. And that’s all it takes for everything to be transformed: the old man is not the age of Tony’s encroaching decrepitude, he is the grand and dignified age that Luca would be, should be now. Around that. Tony’s eyes, to his horror but to the relief of some internal pressure valve, fill with tears. Luca.
The man is close now and he lifts his eyes to Tony’s face, and Tony doesn’t look away. The broken architecture of a once-strong assemblage of features, hanging jowls and baggy skin beneath the eyes. But the eyes themselves: the man has lovely dark eyes. Not like Luca’s, which were blue, but it doesn’t mater, the magical association has already been laid. Tony doesn’t break eye contact: three long seconds, four. A subtle nod of the head, an even smaller smile. The man actually looks over his own shoulder, checking it is not someone directly behind him, that the invitation is for him. And then, once he is sure, he comes at Tony with unexpected force and directness: unusual in these faux-casual corridors. Kisses him on the mouth where they stand, then pulls him towards one of the booths. Tony has a fleeting, shamefaced thought that he hopes nobody sees, that it doesn’t damage his stock, but he banishes the thought and lets himself be pulled into the little room, and grips the flesh of the man’s shoulders, his back, his thighs, and Luca is there through the whole thing. Tony is with the old man and also with Luca; Luca embodied in the great slick welter of love. The spiritual family of bodily delights.
IT WAS AN expression – the spiritual family of bodily delights – that Luca used to use about the Imperial, where he performed, where Luca and Tony met. 1985, when the world was ending and Tony moved to Sydney to end with it.
At seventeen he’d been having sex with men – frantic, shameful, dirt-dark sex – for two years. Most of the men were older and probably went home to families, and these hypothetical families haunted Tony’s imagination and his nightmares even more than the hellfire laid down for faggots. This hellfire was in fact beginning to wane: he could sense the possibility of mentally evading it, if he could just stop thinking of himself as a wanton murderer of innocents. He didn’t even know if he had it, the disease, but he knew he deserved to have it, so ipso facto and God’s righteous vengeance, etc. He wished he could claim ignorance, as much of the world and probably many of the men who fucked him in Toohey Forest Park still could – most people didn’t know about it in the early ’80s, but his father, as well as being a mission-leader and scourge of homosexuals, was an avid reader of signs of the end times, some of which could be found in a popular medical journal he subscribed to. The gay plague entered Tony’s home and his psyche a good five years before it infiltrated other suburban homes. The homes of those innocent families, mothers and babies Tony was eviscerating with every compulsive thrust.
‘You’ve been messed up by some God shit, haven’t you, my love?’ Luca said on the first night they met, before he knew anything of Tony’s background. The directness of the incision was typical of Luca, but it also wasn’t out of place at the Imperial in 1985. The world was ending; there was no time for pleasantries.
At the time, Tony was living in a boarding house near Central. He didn’t have a job and had been watching his small stash of money trickle away with the same sense of doom with which he’d fucked the men in the bushes. It was God’s plan for him and all the other miserable faggots to end up flat broke and dying in the street.
God’s plan didn’t factor in Luca. They were in the lowest bar, below ground. Luca was in his early forties but looked a decade younger, slender and pretty with cut-glass cheekbones and a large forehead that might have looked receding on anyone else but on Luca looked elfin. Not Tony’s type at all, but when Luca offered a bed his only thought was that the older man wanted to fuck him; he agreed instantly and leaned forward to get things started.
Luca put a hand out, fingers splayed against Tony’s chest, not in a sexual way but as a gentle barrier.
‘You’re lovely, my boy, but no, you don’t have to consort with an old queen like me.’
Even though Tony hadn’t wanted it he felt himself stiffen in all ways: his dick hardened by challenge and his back up against rejection. He was just over six foot, his pimples had gone and his muscles had come, and the only thing he knew with more assurance than his hell-path was that he would be wanted and taken all the way along it. Luca reached up and touched his cheek. Again, not a sexual touch, but tender and curious, like a sculptor learning his clay. He said, ‘All that God shit and they didn’t teach you the one good thing that might have come of it.’
Tony raised his eyebrows, sulky but interested.
‘Don’t you know that you’re precious,’ Luca said in his soft voice. Tony noticed small clumps of mascara in the older man’s lashes; he’d performed earlier in the night. A quick-forming pressure bloomed behind his own eyes and he made an escape to the toilets.
He slept that night in Luca’s spare bed, which was in a kind of foyer room in what was essentially a one-bedroom apartment, above a mechanic’s in Newtown. He would stay there for six weeks until Luca found him a decent share house, and by then the world had transformed. Luca talked to him as no one ever had about his future as a gay man: asked him what he wanted to do with his life, what he loved. As soon as Luca figured out the self-inflicted death sentence, the Brisbane men in the park, he forced Tony to take an AIDS test, dragging him bodily into the clinic. The test, in a greater blow to God’s omnipotence or omniscience than any that had been dealt before, came back negative. Luca got Tony enrolled in an HSC equivalency program at TAFE, and eventually an accounting degree at Sydney Uni.
And he introduced Tony to all his, Luca’s, friends. A group of gay men who danced at the Imperial and ate at each other’s houses and cried extravagantly on each other’s shoulders, and who took him in and called him Antonia, as if they had the right, which made it feel as if they did, as if Tony had known them forever.
They all knew many people who were sick. Two of the core group were sick. It took Tony a while to learn how to be normal with walking cadavers, their stick-thin arms, skin dappled with lesions. One of them went into the AIDS ward at St Vincent’s, where Luca volunteered. Tony started volunteering there too, as if this had been his plan all along, as if he’d been drawn to Sydney not on a suicide mission but a mercy one. Ward 17 South – there was no sign above the door, nothing identifying it as what it was – where Tony met the living embodiments of the plague his father had called down, and where he saw hell, yes, but also found a different kind of love. It was cleaner there among all the bodily muck than anything his parents’ God had to offer. The people who worked there: doctors, nurses, nuns and volunteers, many of them gay men facing the same gaunt future, all of them practiced this fierce and devotional love together, made up of bodily care, even in the body’s last convulsive or whimpering moments. Tony learnt to change catheter bags, held little chips of ice against parched lips, sponged the loose-skinned limbs of the dying. He learned to laugh with the patients at every opportunity. At first he performed in this role for Luca, to impress Luca, and in some obtuse way to pay him back (although Luca was always adamant that he had no payment coming). But more and more he felt himself expanding to fill the dark spaces where this work happened, and then he did it because he could, and because it changed his relationship with despair. He wiped shit off the legs of a boy younger than him, who couldn’t stop talking about the things his parents had said when they’d kicked him out, and Tony knew what to say, what Luca had taught him. You are precious.
He wasn’t the only stray that Luca took in over the years (Luca was no good at walking past pain), but he was able to convince himself that what he had with Luca was special. Of course there was some father-figure stuff going on in there, or perhaps – a thought he had only years later when he met Abbey and registered an off note when she called Luca Dad – perhaps it was mother-figure stuff, or father and mother rolled in together. Luca told Tony before anyone else about his own diagnosis, which came in 1995 in the biggest denunciation of God’s glory, his existence, his fucking decency. Letting Tony care for him when Luca was ill was another gift – Tony knew this, although it was the hardest thing he ever did. And then, of course, Luca gave him Abbey, and through Abbey there was Xan.
He can’t let himself think about Xan now, that would undo him in the wrong way, but he lets his mind stay with Luca: Luca in the beginning, the old-fashioned way he said consort with; Luca at the end, his beautiful eyes looking out from the tip of a wave of pain, still assessing other people’s happiness, his hand lifted in a swirl that encompassed Tony and Abbey the first time they were together in his hospital room: an affectionate flourish as though joining them up. Abbey was just a teenager, fierce and awkward in her grief, and when Tony found her afterwards sitting in the hallway it seemed natural to sit next to her and put his arm around her shoulders, and talk to her about her dad, his life rather than his death, what he had done for his friends, for them all. It seemed to comfort her.
Somehow it is not wrong to think about these things as the man takes Tony’s dick in his mouth, as Tony wraps a hand around the back of his head, this man who is the age Luca should have been, who has lived in the same times as Luca and must have walked through the same hell, seen the carnage everywhere. Tony throws his head back against the wall of the alcove, reaches his hand out convulsively and thinks about Luca reforming the world, dying in a hospital bed while the future gave birth to itself outside in the hall.
ABBEY TRIES TO pay more attention to what is happening with the postal vote over the next few weeks, the debate over the legitimacy of her marriage. She thinks she will perhaps never bring herself to care properly about it, to be a good card-carrying marriage-equalising gay, but she cares that Jo cares. She cares about Jo. And Jo, over the next few weeks, hunkers down.
‘My mother would call you a whirling dervish,’ Abbey says. ‘A heavily tattooed whirling dervish.’
Jo doesn’t look up from the banner she is making.
The first thing is the High Court challenge.
‘Better to stop the whole shit-show if we can,’ she says to Abbey as she stands back to consider the effect of the banner, which spreads across the living room and reads No to the Vote, Yes to Love. It will be sent to Canberra with a lawyer and a small group of activists.
But meanwhile the surveys are already going out, stinging little pests flying into everybody’s mailboxes, and there is fundraising to be done to counter the ads run by the Christian right, media opportunities to chase. Closer to home they have to draft an information sheet for their neighbours, all the streets around their house, something introducing themselves and their family with appropriately normal domestic details: a description of their suburban life, an appeal to the future of their baby. Abbey helps Jo draft it, and walks Xan around the streets slipping the little folded begging notes into letterboxes.
And then, closer to home still, there is Jo’s family. Her mother.
How the bulwark of Barb should be approached and tackled is a source of daily deliberation. It is lucky that Jo has a job, otherwise she would spend all day fretting over her phone, that totemic connection to her mother, a glass of wine in her other hand. It seems clear to Abbey that Barb is a campaign that can’t be won and therefore shouldn’t be fought, but whenever she tries, obliquely, tactfully, to suggest this to Jo – that maybe she should just step away from her mother, disengage – the overt register of loss it produces is too much. Once, when Abbey suggests more explicitly than usual that Jo might be better off accepting that her parents will never come on board with Jo’s sexuality or relationship, Jo says, ‘But I just can’t handle the idea that they might vote against my existence, I don’t think I’ll be able to live with it.’ And the threat beneath the statement scares Abbey silent. Jo has a history of anxiety and depression – one doctor tried to diagnose her with PTSD, a dripping tap of misery left running from her youth. Jo rejected the label and downplays the depths of the hole, but the keloid scars beneath the ink on her forearms can’t be denied away, and she’s had less dramatic relapses into the void since Abbey has known her – although none in Xan’s lifetime.
So Abbey rehearses phone calls with her, strategises about a possible visit to the farm – would it be best to take all three of them? Just Xan? Lead with Xan and have Abbey follow, the rear flank of the marriage guard? For the phone calls they agree on a slow approach – calling often, every day or every other day, but not mentioning the vote, not yet. Keeping things safe for a long time and chatting to Barb on her own terms, about Xan mostly: her walking, her teething, how well or badly she slept the night before. Then, once these conversations have settled in the safe harbour of Barb’s granddaughter, Jo will slip something in about Abbey, about Jo and Abbey as a couple, parenting together. Abbey and I are looking at day-care centres this week, we’re going to put Xan’s name down for when she’s older. Or, Xan likes to walk between Abbey and me, it’s the only time she’ll do it without holding onto a safety object. It is a direct inversion of past conversational tactics, from the times when Jo had the luxury of minimal contact with her mother, of avoidance as survival strategy.
THE HIGH COURT challenge is a bust, as everyone expected it to be, and by then the marriage cat is out of the bag. All over the place people are discussing the legitimacy of Jo and Abbey’s relationship: you can hear snippets of conversations on park benches, in cafés, drifting through the wintry Sydney air. Straight friends start calling and messaging, checking in: How are you coping? How is she coping? She doesn’t know. Her wife is a fast-talking mess and her daughter is fractious with teething and perhaps with the strange frenetic atmosphere; sleep is scarce. She feels momentarily like she might break down, a private and public outrage different to any other she has known. Perhaps some tenuous link to what her father suffered. But no, that is sacrilege. Fine, she tells the wellwishers on the phone. The whole thing is bizarre but I’m fine. And then, only to a couple of friends she trusts: Just worried about Jo.
But some time in September the country seems to change tack. The first polls come back and they forecast a landslide. People come up to Abbey at the shops, people she knows only by sight, and tell her that they support her, that they are in favour of her and her lovely little family. A random woman gives her a thumbs-up on the street. Old Mrs Baresi has a rainbow flag up in the window of her front room. Other neighbours have them too: the middle-aged couple across the road, the sprawling house of young people further up. Someone has papered all the lampposts along the park where she walks with Xan, a line of rainbow sentinels. The public debate is at fever pitch: the ads being broadcast by the Christian right are just as noxious as everyone anticipated – a mum fearfully imploring that School told my son he could wear a dress next year if he felt like it! – but the resistance to them is enough to fill reams of newspaper and social-media space, although nobody seems to want to suggest very loudly that it might be okay for boys to wear dresses, or that any kid who wants to go to school in a dress probably isn’t a boy. ‘That’s what the conservatives want us to say,’ Jo tells her. ‘We can’t get dragged into a conversation about gender and trans rights, we have to appeal to common denominators.’ And anyway, everyone forgets about the ads when some high-profile politician goes on telly to say he has renounced his bigotry and supports marriage equality; the papers go nuts about that for a couple of days. A new age of tolerance and acceptance: Jo shows her all the headlines, brandishing her iPad like a trophy. Something viscous rises in Abbey’s throat, a resistance to all this newly minted tolerance. She wants to point out that the politicians seem happy to have everyone distracted from all the other shit they’re doing: in the last couple of weeks they’ve smashed up Aboriginal reconciliation and abandoned hundreds of asylum seekers without water or power on some godforsaken island.
But still, she is probably being contrary. Why can’t she be grateful for what she is given? If not on her own behalf then at least as balm to Jo’s wounds. And not just the rough childhood stuff; Jo has struggled so much for recognition as Xan’s mother – even before Xan was born, when she was just a conceptual baby. Abbey thinks of the scene they had in the lawyer’s office, where they’d gone to get the donor agreement formalised. All they needed was a signature; they’d worked everything out with Tony, and the document wasn’t even legally binding, so they didn’t shop around for a lawyer but went into an office on the main road near their house that had family law listed as one of many specialties. The middle-aged man they were ushered in with had cricket paraphernalia around his walls; he smiled blandly as Abbey explained things. When she got to the end he said to her, ‘So let me get this straight, you’re planning to have a baby and you have an agreement with the father.’ He turned to Jo, ‘But who are you in this situation?’
Jo laughed it off – it was Abbey who got fired up, told him he shouldn’t include family law in his areas of practice if he wasn’t up to date with the legislation, that two mothers could be on the birth certificate and Jo was
the baby’s mother. Jo put her hand on Abbey’s arm: easy tiger. But afterwards she was quiet all day, and when Tony came over for dinner and Abbey started telling him the story, Jo got up and left the room. She wouldn’t be drawn on it later. The scars on her arms stood out in the cold, and after she showered.
Now something is happening for Jo, something even more significant than the soothing acceptance of the general public. In her daily calls with her mother, occasionally twice daily – Barb seems suddenly to want to find reasons to call – there are references to Abbey; references not initiated by Jo. In one call Barb says something about the baby’s breastfeeding regime, which has always been off limits, too literally tied up with Abbey. And then a wildly unexpected development: Barb mentions, out of the blue, that the minister has given a sermon about tolerance and acceptance. About God’s love extending to different kinds of people and families. The congregation, she says, is in an uproar over it, some people openly criticising the minister: radical, they call him. ‘Can you imagine?’ Barb says on the phone, ‘Reverend Ian, a radical leftist or something like that.’ Barb herself has stood up for the minister and argued for his wisdom and authority under God. All this delivered to Jo with mild gossipy outrage and no mention of how Reverend Ian’s words relate to them, to Barb’s gay daughter.
Days of speculating and strategising: does Barb want to talk openly for the first time; is this her way of signalling from her island, and Jo should make the next move? Or should Jo not push it but wait for further signs from her mother, follow Barb’s lead? The surveys have to be returned soon. Have they already voted, is it too late for a change of heart? If the change comes too late, Jo says she won’t be able to forgive them; she won’t even feel like part of her birth family anymore.
Eventually they decide on an unprecedented manoeuvre. Jo’s father, Kevin, is not one to get involved: busy on the farm from sunrise to teatime, he knows his work; everything else – the business of people and family and God’s will – he leaves to his wife, to Barb. Because of this stark division of labour Jo has never really known the extent of her father’s own homophobia. He has stood silent, shifty eyed and uncomfortable during the crises – when Jo came out, when she took Abbey to the farm – desperate to get back to the cows.
Now, after an evening-long drafting process, Jo sends him a text. Hi Dad. Please don’t tell Mum I’m messaging you about this. I was wondering if the two of you are planning to vote in the survey about same-sex marriage. I just need to know.
They stare at the phone after the text has gone out into the ether. They have agreed – Abbey has made sure that Jo can accept the possibility – that Kevin might never respond, he might pretend the message never happened. But, amazingly, the phone buzzes almost instantly. We are discussing dad.
They are discussing. Jo’s life is being discussed. Her marriage, the very core of her is being weighed up. Jo keeps going back to pore over the four words, which induce in Abbey a guilty impulse to laugh: the exaggerated brevity, the lack of punctuation that makes it sound like they are discussing someone’s dad. Jo and Abbey go back and forth about what it might mean: in what terms are they discussing it, and will they tell Jo when they finish discussing, when they come to a decision, and is the minister involved? It doesn’t help that the rest of the country is reaching a synchronised fever pitch of speculation: opinion pieces and counter-pieces for and against them on every website, more ads on TV, religious hawkers in the city foaming at the mouth and people stopping to engage them in the street: mostly friendly, and not just gays, people who wouldn’t have given a shit about Jo and Abbey’s ability to get legally married a few weeks ago. The calls and emails from concerned straight friends keep coming; they are drowning in dinner
And then, three days after Kevin’s text, when Jo’s phone has become a source of constant anxiety, both of them jumping whenever a call or text comes in, Barb messages. Unlike Kevin’s text, Barb’s is perfectly punctuated.
Hi Jo, I just want you and Abbey to know that we sent our postal vote forms back today, we both voted yes. Love Mum xx
Jo sits down, staring at the text as though it will evaporate as soon as she moves her eyes away.
‘Holy shit,’ Abbey says. And then, ‘Babe? You all right?’
Jo looks up and her eyes are swimming. She lets out a little yelp – half laugh, half shout – and then they are hugging, Xan zooming over from where she’s been playing on the floor to get in on the celebration, the three of them clasped and bouncing around the room.
‘They voted yes, they voted yes,’ Jo chants in a sing-song voice, dancing with the delighted baby.
They can’t stop talking about it, going back to the text again and again with wonder. It’s something like a miracle. The distance Barb has travelled, between the Barb they knew who talked about conversion therapy and this one who wants them to be able to get married, and puts kisses at the end of her texts (those little crosses are as amazing as anything else in the whole amazing evolution of Barb). It is all a brave new world.
Jo embarks on the last weeks of the campaign with optimistic zeal. The whole country is backing them, or the bits of it that matter. Early voter polling suggests a thumping victory. Abbey gets a bit worried that their friends are counting chickens, getting ahead of themselves: they’ve already received two invitations to lesbian weddings; people start texting her When’s the date? She has to remind them that she and Jo are already married and won’t need a ceremony. Their status will just magically transform.
They have competing invitations to vote-announcement parties but they decide to stay home and watch it quietly on the ABC. Jo takes the day off work. They sit with Xan between them on the sofa, and Abbey is surprised, when the nervous suit from the Bureau of Statistics reads out the results, at how emotional she gets. All these years thinking she didn’t give a damn what anyone thought of her life, and now that it turns out 60 per cent of them approve of her life she finds herself overtaken by a gushing relief; it wells beneath her skin and up her throat, threatening to spill out in tears as she and Jo and Xan are dancing around the living room again. The baby has been kept awake from her nap and is delirious with tiredness and glee.
Congratulatory texts come all that day. It feels like their birthdays. Hurray, we’re so happy for you! And, Congratulations, Mrs and Mrs! And, About bloody time, maybe we won’t all move to Canada after all. And the best one, as well as the most bizarre: Well praise God for that! Barb. Jo laughs out loud when she reads it, an incredulous bark of laughter. Her mother, bringing God into the service of the gays. (‘It’s about time He did something good for you,’ Abbey says. ‘After all the shit He put you through as a kid.’)
Thanks Mum xx, Jo writes back. She also sends magnanimous texts to both her brothers. She doesn’t say anything to them about the postal vote, because they never contacted her or offered any support, but she says it would be great for them all to get together as a family with Mum and Dad. She tells her younger brother that they would love to meet his new baby, especially Xan, who is mad for babies littler than her. That’s what brings on the family Christmas idea.
‘I wonder if they’re planning to go up to the farm,’ Jo says. And then, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have all of them here? I mean,’ she laughs, perhaps catching the apprehension on Abbey’s face, ‘great in an awful way. But for Xan’s first Christmas, or the first one she’ll be aware of, to have a proper family thing here in her home. We could have your mother over too, it’s about time she met my parents.’
Xan’s first Christmas. Abbey says nothing for a minute. She can’t believe Jo could be blind to the sticky threat at the centre of this idea.
‘Well?’ Jo says. ‘What d’you think?’
‘The whole family?’ She raises her eyebrows and tries to weight the words, but Jo isn’t looking at her, she is looking at Xan. Abbey takes a breath. ‘So we’d invite Tony then.’
She says it as a statement, not a question, but it is perfectly clear when Jo looks up at her that she hadn’t thought of it. Wilfully or obliviously, she’d forgotten.
Abbey can see the process of thought moving across Jo’s face before she says a word, and she doesn’t want to hear it, she wants to keep their celebratory day intact, so she gets up and goes into the kitchen, starts looking in the fridge and the pantry for what they might make for dinner.
They leave the fight there between them, uncracked, undisturbed, all afternoon. It is probably a mistake: it gives them both time to formulate grievances and rehearse each other’s errors. Jo will say, ‘Can’t I have this one time, this one thing?’ She will say, ‘You know my parents can’t handle Tony.’ And Abbey will say, ‘But he’s family.’ And Jo will say that he doesn’t have to be part of all Xan’s family events, and Abbey will say, ‘But he’s my family.’ And then she will probably storm off, because she doesn’t want to have to spell it out, this piece of the puzzle of Tony; she doesn’t quite trust Jo not to rubbish something that is at the centre of her, a vulnerable underbelly. Tony is the family her father left her. In some way that she might not be able to articulate properly, a rejection of Tony is a rejection of Luca.
When the fight finally happens out loud, that night after Xan is in bed, there is a sense of plodding through the steps, a tedious inevitability about it all. The excitement of the day is gone, sapped, because it is all so predicable, and can’t they do any better than this? They are queers, they don’t have to follow the script, and yet here is Jo saying, ‘But my parents aren’t ready for someone like Tony,’ and Abbey parroting, ‘Someone like Tony?’ with a nasty leer, and Jo saying, ‘You know what I mean, can you imagine him talking about his dick while my dad carves the turkey. Can you imagine him saying, Call me Antonia to my mum?’
Abbey feels trapped, suddenly: trapped in the stupid argument, in the house. She knows that Jo will see it as a retreat and a defection, but she has to get out. She grabs her phone and keys and goes towards the front door, Jo calling after her, ‘Oh come on!’ She ignores her and leaves.
Out on the street, she knows without having to think about it where she wants to be. It is there inside her like a neglected charm, smooth and gleaming from her old life. As she strikes off towards Newtown she remembers when they were house hunting, years ago when you could still buy a house in Sydney, how she had insisted on staying in this area. Maybe she had known then that she would need to keep it within reach, that other home.
Further down King Street is the bookshop owned by Nicholas and Finn. She imagines them in there now, probably upstairs in the apartment laughing and drinking and taking the piss out of each other. She’s known Nicholas and Finn – all Tony’s friends – since she was fifteen. She came out at seventeen: shy and proud and happy to have the connection with her father’s people, but also hoping no one would make a big deal of it. They threw her a party at the bookshop and invited all their lesbian friends, with instructions to give her advice (‘For God’s sake, darl, don’t move in with the first bird who gives you an orgasm,’ an old butch named Lisa told her).
She turns off the main road towards Erskineville, and another time with her father’s friends rises up to the surface. She’d run here – literally run – from her mother’s house. This was before she was out, and she was underage, but they knew her at the bar as Luca’s girl and they let her in. An immaculate drag queen ordered her a weak shandy. Her father was performing that night. In hindsight he must have been already sick. He emerged from behind the curtains and the spotlight hit: Lucille LeSueur. A tumbling dark wig and shimmering dress that clung in the right places. He’d told her that most queens padded up their bums to give them curves, but Luca had a gentle swell of hips that filled the dress perfectly.
Lucille kept her eyes closed through the long opening bars, a yearning exhalation. Then she threw her head back and opened her eyes as the lyrics started: ‘This Woman’s Work’ by Kate Bush. It could have been theatrical and campy but she played it straight, miming without exaggerated expressions, imploring with the song, all the things we should’ve done. The men stopped drinking. The bartenders stopped serving. She was stunning. They all belonged to her, and to the music dripping with longing and sadness and hope.
There was silence for a long beat after the last note. When the applause came it was deafening, and Abbey was choked up with pride. They loved her. They loved each other. There were men in wheelchairs, men who were emaciated and hollow-eyed, arms thrown around each other. She didn’t know yet that Luca had it.
After he died, some time after the funeral, Tony and Abbey were sitting at that same bar downstairs at the Imperial. A quieter night, no drag. Out of the blue, Tony said, ‘You know she was transgender, right?’
Abbey didn’t look up from her beer. ‘Who, Dad?’ She could feel him looking at the side of her face. ‘Nah, it was just what he did for fun.’
They were silent for a few seconds, then Tony said, ‘Okay.’
She has replayed the short conversation many times in her mind. The slight prickling across her skin when he said transgender. It melded and got confused with the other shame, deeper and more acute: that Tony was the one who looked after Luca when he was dying. Abbey tried, in a fumbling way, to insert herself into the care rituals in her father’s hospital room, but as soon as things got messy – it was before they put a catheter in – Tony moved her aside. ‘He doesn’t want you doing this,’ he said. She went to the door but turned back. She saw Tony lifting Luca’s skinny frame to turn him over. He ran a damp cloth over Luca’s legs: so gentle, there was something devotional about it.
The day she asked Tony to be their donor, to be Xan’s father, he said, ‘I’m touched, Abs, I really am. But are you sure you want my old man spunk?’ It wasn’t a moment to get teary, but Abbey did. She didn’t tell him that she’d always known it, on some level she’d known that she wanted Tony in her life like this – as father, or carer – since she’d seen his gentle hands washing her own father. She should have said it.
Approaching the Imperial now she is surprised by the quietness of the streets. It’s a big night – where are the crowds?
It is dead. The hotel: shuttered, closed. But she knew that it had closed – everybody knows; how had she forgotten this? They are doing something to it, refurbishments; one day soon it will reopen, transformed into something else. Something unrecognisable, like all these gentrified streets with the little boutique shops and renovated terraces. Not her old home.
She feels unaccountably bereft, as if she has lost something precious. And also foolish. She looked away from it and it vanished. She forgot to pay attention.
Where is Tony? Without really thinking about it she had been hoping to find him here. She pulls out her phone and calls him. As soon as he answers she can tell there is a party going on in the background.
‘Abs!’ he shouts.
‘Where are you?’ she shouts back in the quiet street.
‘Bookshop, out back. Hey, congratulations!’ Still shouting, and there seems to be an answering squall of celebratory noise in the background. He is with Nicholas and Finn, and the others, the community, partying together.
‘Tony,’ she says.
‘Hold on. Taking you somewhere quiet.’
There is rustling, a cacophony of a movement. Then he is back, clearer.
‘Abs, sorry, it’s crazy here. Hey congratulations. Will you and Jo renew your vows, have a proper Australian wedding or what?’
‘I don’t know.’
The grief rises up in her chest.
‘What is it?’
They are silent for a few seconds.
‘You okay, Abs?’
She doesn’t know what to say. Because she has to say something, she says, ‘I miss Dad.’
‘I miss her too. She would have loved this.’
‘Do you think? Would she?’
It’s the first time they have switched pronouns. Abbey tries not to notice.
‘Oh yeah. Nothing Luca loved more than an excuse for a party. You should come down, there’s an impromptu show out back.’
‘Okay, I might.’
It is not on the way back to the house, she would have to walk the other way down King Street. Suddenly she longs for it: a friendly crush of bodies, the safety of a like-minded crowd. But is she still one of them? A legally married woman with a baby. Family Christmas, her father-in-law carving the turkey. Everything has shifted around: is Tony the one shut out? Or is she?
‘Give Xan a kiss for me,’ he says, ‘if I don’t see you.’ He sounds light, happy. Young.
‘Okay, you too. Give someone a kiss for me.’
Tony laughs and hangs up.
She stands on the chilly street outside the Imperial, its vacant face looking down at her.
A little shudder, a moment of decision. She turns and walks quickly towards home.