ONLY BOGANS AND dumb ethnics go to Western Sydney University. Real fobs won’t even bother. But I am something different and better because I am half-white. At least that’s what I told myself back then. Dr Kindling, one of the English teachers, stands in front us in the lecture theatre rubbing the top of his receding hairline that’s shaped like the Macca’s golden arches. Flecks of blond and grey stubble shaved down to his milky-white scalp twinkle under the lecture-theatre fluorescents. The theatre is arranged like a mini footy stadium with the chairs layered from highest to lowest all facing a single podium and projector screen. Dr Kindling tells the five of us who bothered to show up for orientation, which is me, two white guys, a real fob and a Chink in a hijab, ‘If you’re thinking of majoring in psychology you might as well sign up for Newstart.’ His voice is crisp and soft like the turning of pages. This is how I know Dr Kindling is smart because only intelligent men are gentle when they speak. I know this because real fobs are always yelling Chur! and Eshayz adlayz! at each other whenever I walk past the Dawson’s Mall 7-Eleven. Idiots. I wonder if Dr Kindling will think I am smart too since I keep my voice at a whisper, am enrolled into a bachelor of arts and on Youth Allowance instead of Newstart. I want men like Dr Kindling to think I am smart because if they don’t, what’s the point of going to uni?
Dr Kindling is demonstrating how to pick and register our units on the large projector screen. I watch as the slight bulge of his stomach stretches out his faded grey T-shirt. I find it cute. I find him cute. In the words of Nabokov – that Dr Kindling, the light of my lecture, would later teach me – it was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight. But in this moment, I continue to watch how his belly bulge bounces, how the dusty light of the projector reflects in shades across his fair hands, how the crotch of his blue jeans sags a little lower than it was made to, probably from years of use. I’ve never known a doctor to teach a class in worn jeans and a T-shirt along with a holey pair of Volleys. I wonder if Dr Kindling knows I’ve seen men who dress like him lining up at the Mt Druitt Centrelink. I don’t mean this in a bad way, I actually like how relatable he looks. For some reason, I just assumed all teachers at university wore suits and bespeckled spectacles and carried large leather briefcases. I feel dumb for thinking this but no one was around to tell me otherwise since I am the first person in my family to go to uni, to graduate high school even. Earlier, when Dad had dropped me off in our family’s beat-up Tarago, he said with a tongue full of sleep, ‘Remember, your degree is my degree.’ His arms, moulded and rounded like stone, were tensed at the wheel, blue veins rippling under golden skin. I know Dad hated driving me to a place he didn’t fully understand. I know I hated that his words had put a rock in my chest. Since I am the first person in my family to go to university, I have to learn for all of us. Even though my dad is half-white, my mum is half-white and I am half-white; his life as the father of eight children along with a nightshift security-guard job at Rooty Hill RSL makes him a real fob. But that doesn’t mean I have to be a real fob. I always get mistaken for filo when people play ‘guess the nasho’ because even though I am brown skinned, I’m skinny. I’m so skinny that I can count all of my ribs, which stick out sharply whenever I hold my breath. Ha. Real fobs can only dream of doing that. If I can’t be recognised as white then I prefer to be mistaken for anything other than what I actually am. Anything is better than being fat, dumb, lazy and fucken fat. Anything is better than being a real fob. Hm. Would anyone ask me for my nash here? Nah. No. No way. No. University is a place where books matter more than race. University is a place where everyone is made equal by education.
‘MOST STUDENTS DROP out in the first semester,’ Dr Kindling sighs, smiling in a way that reminds me of freshly printed paper. In the corner of my eye, I can see one of the white guys is drawing a cumming dick with enlarged testicles. His reddish-white fingernails are chewed down to stubby skin.
What’s up with guys and their cocks? I went to Richard Johnson Anglican School, a religious K-12 up the road from Plumpton High because my parents didn’t want me knocked up by some gronk before senior year like they were. But even at a place as prim and posh as Richard Johnson, I once saw this ranga guy in senior year freezer-burn a dick into his own freckled forearm with a Lynx Anarchy deodorant can. He got suspended for slapping his arm-penis onto the asses of the Year 7 boys and shouting out faggots!, as if it wasn’t already gay for him to be burning a dick into himself. Maybe this white boy near me will be the first semester dropout and he’ll join the Australian Navy just as I saw the ranga guy did on Facebook. Straight up I’ll die before I become a dropkick dropout. I’ve worked too hard to get here. There’s no way I’m leaving like all the other real fobs.
Dr Kindling continues, ‘So, you all must think carefully about why you’re here. I can assure you all that human life is but a series of footnotes. Any questions?’ He looks right at me when he says this, with blue eyes mirroring the wings of Nabokov’s Vanessa incognita butterfly. I feel the rock of my father’s words in my chest shift and grow heavier. I look down at my notebook and fidget, rubbing against the carpet fabric of the seat. It sets off the faint scent that permeates all of Penrith – especially here at Kingswood campus – Mother Original and sweat. Does Dr Kindling think I’ll be one of those dumb cunts like my cousin Leki, who, last I heard from the aunties, dropped out of TAFE only to smoke weed and get held up at the St John of God Hospital in Burwood for being a skitz? Fuck. Wait. What’s a footnote? Will I get kicked out for not knowing? Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
‘Yeah, sir. What are you actually going on about?’ A thick voice, which sounds like it has bits of taro in it, echoes off the lecture theatre walls, halting my panic mid-swear. It is the real fob. She gets a harsh bark in response from the white guy next to me, who is now using a black biro to colour in the massive cumming dick. Was that meant to be a laugh? The hijabi stares down at her iPhone, clearly having better things to do. The other white guy, who’s got blond emo bangs like a 2010s Justin Bieber, is nodding off to sleep. I turn up and around to look at the real fob. I know she is Samoan from the way her malu stretches over her fried-brown KFC thighs that barely fit in her seat. I turn away and slide down into my own seat, full of space. Fucken. Dumb. Coconut head. Doesn’t she know? Doesn’t she know we’re not meant to be here? Doesn’t she know she makes the better ones like me look bad? When I look up at Dr Kindling, his pink lips are set into a thin, chapped line. He asks real fob what she’s confused about. She tells him that she is pissed about everything – the signing up, the units, the lectures, the assignments. When I look back at the Samoan, her round cheeks expand as she keeps listing more and more reasons why university is, in her words, shithouse. Her bloated cheeks make her face look heavy as if the weight of her words is crushing her. Her malu trembles from underneath the small pull-out desk. I want to call her a sad cunt. Tell her off for not hiding how stupid she is like the rest of us. Shout out for her to just go back home then. But all I can see is how the lines of her malu are breaking.
Dr Kindling sighs heavily, like the closing of a thick book. His delicate eyes sparking. ‘I can see you’re anxious. Best to take it up with student services.’ This is what it means to be sharp and objective. This is what it means to be smart. I write down, ‘STUDENT SERVICES – look up’ in my notebook.
Even though I’m on Dr Kindling’s side, I feel the rock in my chest plummet when I see that the real fob’s brown-black eyes are shining. I get it. I’m the first in my fam to go to university too but for God’s sake couldn’t she just hide it? Real fob sets her curved, full lips in a hard line and I watch how the water in her eyes dries up as she spits, ‘That’s exactly what a palagi would say, sir.’
I take in a sharp breath. I’m the only other person who knows what the word palagi – or, in the Tongan spelling, palangi – actually means. In the nicest way, palangi means white person. In the harshest way, which I know is how this fatso Samoan meant it, palangi means white devil. I narrow my eyes at the real fob. How dare she arch up against a doctor of literature. Her and her malu can get fucked for all I care. I turn to look over Dr Kindling’s face. Maybe in the squareness of his jaw or in the sparseness of his eyebrows I’ll see that he knows what palangi really means, but his smooth white face is as blank as paper. It is only his flickering blue eyes that tell me he’s annoyed, that he’s over having to answer stupid questions and take on racist insults from a sorry bunch of undergrads.
When Dr Kindling replies the spark in his eyes is behind his words. ‘Sir is my father’s name. I prefer to be called John. This is university. I am a doctor in literature, not a psychologist. If you have any concerns you can take it up with the student office. Now, does anyone have any real questions?’ The Samoan scoffs loudly. I turn back one last time to watch her shove bits of paper into her bag before thrusting open the lecture theatre doors, her malu wobbling behind her. Guess we know who the real dropout was. It is fobs. It is always fobs. I may not be smart but I’m smarter than any real fob because I know that being half-white makes me closer to a man like Dr Kindling than it does to some sad Samoan with KFC buckets for thighs. I thought doctors and professors were all about their titles, especially at university, but no. Dr Kindling is just some guy in holey Volleys asking to be called John, asking us to take university seriously without any dumb, fat, lazy excuses. The rock in my chest settles. Later, John – light of my lecture, fire of my annotations – would show me everything from Defoe to Dostoyevsky, Plath to Pynchon and Nabokov to Nabokov. And even later still, John would stand over me in a patch of sunlight, in between the shade and light of a jacaranda tree, with a question. But for now, I put up my hand, nursing a small, mad hope, waiting to ask him what a footnote is.