Fiction

University material

JEFFREY AND MY mother were together for three years. I lived with them for their final year, when I was sixteen. Before that I lived with my father and stepmother, but my stepmother didn’t like me so I had to get out of there. Jeffrey wasn’t enthusiastic about me moving in, but what could he say? Their break-up was bad. Jeffrey was driving south to spend the weekend with his daughter, and my mother somehow got him to admit he’d made arrangements to stay with his ex-wife. It was a Thursday morning and I was dressed for school. We were running late when the shouting started. I slipped off to the kitchen to give them privacy. I kept checking the clock on the wall as I had a history test in my first period. But as the intensity of their argument grew, I forgot about school and started listening to see if my mother needed help.

My mother rarely yelled. If she wanted to wound you, she’d do it with a remark. To hear her screaming was terrifying. From Jeffrey I heard not a whisper. That concerned me. He was the quiet type, and I was worried my mother’s energy might push him across a threshold. When I thought about what Jeffrey was capable of, it made me shiver.

I hovered in the kitchen, ready to rush out. I had no idea what I’d do if it came to that. My mother was club-tennis fit, and I played small forward for the school footy team, but Jeffrey was a national-level waterskier. If I charged him, a good result would be me bouncing off his pecs.

My mother’s voice cut through the air. ‘Matthew! Matthew!’

I scrambled out of the kitchen. They were facing off at the end of the hallway, a boxer’s distance between them. My mother stood with clenched fists. Jeffrey was watchful and steady. My reading was she’d lunged, he’d parried and she’d called out. Jeffrey’s eyes flickered across to me, and the tension in their confrontation dissolved.

‘Wait by the car,’ my mother said without turning. I didn’t move.

Her voice rose. ‘Go now.’

I back-stepped into the living room and collected my bag. At the front door I paused.

My mother started speaking. ‘Now you listen to me…’ I walked out to the car.

On the drive to school my mother cried quietly. At some point I asked if it was okay to put on a tape. I regret that.

I fished through the tapes in the cubbyhole without wanting it to seem like I was looking for something specific. Normally I’d rewind to the beginning of side A, but this morning I thought it would be inappropriate. I slipped a tape into the radio deck and we dropped into ‘If You Don’t Know Me by Now’ by Simply Red. My mother cried a little harder. I felt awful. The next song was ‘I Won’t Back Down’ by Tom Petty. It was perfect and completely wrong. I reached forward to eject.

‘Leave it,’ my mother said.

You can make a mistake worse by trying to fix a mistake. That’s what I learnt that day.

We pulled up at school and I leaned across and kissed my mother on the cheek. ‘We’ll get through this.’

‘I know,’ she said.

‘He’s an arsehole for doing what he’s doing.’ ‘I know.’

I climbed out and she called after me. ‘I’ll pick you up at four, okay? I’ll get off early. We have to make a plan.’

‘I’ll be here at four.’

That night we got a room at a motel. It had two single beds with lumpy mattresses. There were no chairs, so we sat on the end of our beds. I watched my mother as she scanned the room-service menu, which she held high.

I couldn’t get over how straight she was able to keep her back. Everything about her was correct, and yet everything inside was broken. I sat hunched, and yet my heart was intact. I remember thinking we balanced each other out and that there was something cruel about that.

‘We can get takeaway or eat out,’ my mother said. ‘I’m happy to have whatever they’ve got here.’ She tossed the menu onto the bed. ‘This won’t do.’ ‘Takeaway then,’ I offered.

‘We’re eating out.’

We found a steakhouse across town. A cheerful waitress seated us. It was completely right and completely wrong.

We slid into the booth across from each other. ‘Have whatever you like,’ my mother said.

My eyes were drawn to the lamb burger, potato wedges and salad. I gulped at the price. After a minute of pretend contemplation, I said, ‘Fish and chips. Just what the doctor ordered.’

‘You’re not having fish and chips,’ my mother said.

I looked back at the menu. The burger was twice as much as a McDonald’s meal. ‘Lamb burger,’ I said. ‘It’s actually what I wanted. I was trying to be sensible.’

‘Sirloin steak or ribs. Those are your choices.’ Our eyes met as she reached into her bag for her cigarettes.

I released the menu with a smile when the waitress returned. ‘Sirloin steak. Medium.’

‘He’s having the ribs,’ my mother said. She lit a smoke.

‘Ribs,’ the waitress winked at me and wrote down the order. ‘And for the lady?’

‘Tea. English breakfast. I don’t have an appetite.’

‘Can I interest you in a starter? The calamari salad is excellent.’ ‘If I’m in the mood I’ll take a dessert.’

The waitress turned back to me. ‘Something to drink with your ribs?’ ‘Tap water’s fine.’

‘Make it a bottle of sparkling,’ my mother said. ‘And a cream soda.

That’s all.’

I devoured the ribs and throttled down the cream soda. My mother sucked on a cigarette as she watched from behind her brewing pot of tea.

She only smoked when she was anxious or hurt, and she never smoked around Jeffrey. Between drags she held the cigarette high in her left hand, higher than she’d held the menu.

I declined dessert when the waitress cleared my plate, but my mother overruled me and ordered the chocolate sundae. She didn’t get anything for herself.

When the chocolate sundae was served my mother opened the sparkling water and poured herself a glass. I tried to eat the sundae slowly even though I wanted to eat it quickly. When we left the booth she hadn’t taken a sip of her tea or the water.

 

MY MOTHER’S HURT was soon replaced with anger. She wanted me to be angry too.

‘You know what he told me?’ she said.

We’d moved into a two-bedroom townhouse within walking distance from my new school in Launceston. She was lounging on the sofa reading a National Geographic, and I’d come out from my bedroom to refill my water flask.

‘He said you’re not university material.’

The cover of the National Geographic had a picture of a dinosaur and the heading ‘The March to Extinction’. I’ve never forgotten that. I went into the kitchen and turned on the tap. ‘I don’t care,’ I said.

‘It was after you asked him to help you with your maths homework that one time.’

‘I didn’t ask him; you made him. He and I were both uncomfortable.’ ‘But he did help you. I remember clearly.’

I shut off the tap and capped my flask. I was trying to drink two litres a day, more as a discipline than for the health benefits.

‘Anyway, that’s what he said,’ my mother pressed. ‘I didn’t tell you because I knew it would hurt your feelings.’

I paused outside the kitchen. ‘Why tell me now?’

‘Another thing he said: “Matthew only ever talks about footy.”’ ‘Seriously, Mum.’

‘He meant it as a criticism.’ ‘Mum.’

 

TWO YEARS LATER Jeffrey and my mother started seeing each other again. He didn’t move in. I was eighteen, in my first year of university. I wasn’t bothered when I learnt they were making another go of it. Sure, they had their disagreements, but the truth is my mother was in love with Jeffrey. I got to see a side of her that only came out when they were together. They were affectionate in a non-show-off kind of way. It had to be acknowledged. What difference did it make if Jeffrey didn’t rate me? He was polite and never unkind to my face. It’s not his fault I’d reached out for more. Still, this time around I didn’t invest emotionally. I was cordial, but otherwise I maintained a distance. I could tell Jeffrey appreciated that. Together we mastered a level of small talk that on the surface seemed deeper than it really was. I like to think he respected that I never brought up the topic of footy.

About five months into this second stint, Jeffrey arrived at the town- house an hour before my mother was due home from work. Hearing the grumble of his Honda RC30, I got up from my desk to let him in. After a polite hello Jeffrey drifted into the living room with his helmet, and I went into the kitchen to fill my flask. I watched across the counter as he worked himself out of his biking leathers. Seeing him dressed in his work attire – brown pants, short-sleeved button-up shirt, striped tie woven into a crisp Windsor knot – it struck me that he hadn’t taken off his tie before he rode over.

He reclined on the sofa with a small sigh and placed a hand on each knee. Even then he didn’t loosen his tie. Never has an inaction made me distrust someone more.

‘Can I get you something to drink, Jeffrey? Coffee, tea, water? We have sparkling.’

‘I’m fine. Thanks, Matthew.’

I went back to my desk. I had an English essay due in two weeks and was trying to figure out whether to take a risk. The text was Great Expectations, and my gut was telling me to draw an analogy between the novel’s characters and the disciples of Christ. But my focus was shot with Jeffrey in the next room.

I was a different person to the one he knew when we lived together. I was interested in things. I still had my footy mates, but my new pleasure was hanging out with my university friends. We drank espressos, talked books, discussed art. We argued philosophy. These friends didn’t play sport – they read Kafka, Bukowski, Camus; they watched Fellini, Lynch, Godard; they listened to Nirvana and Vivaldi. Because of them my vocabulary had developed a new dimension. Thanks to them, I was more confident expressing myself.

Fuck it. I’d be putting Jeffrey in a position, but I didn’t care. When I came back into the living room he was reading a National Geographic. I don’t recall the cover.

I suggested it as if it were neither here nor there. ‘You want to grab a coffee? There’s a place around the corner.’

Jeffrey looked up, and I knew I’d made a mistake. He shifted on the sofa. ‘I’m going to wait here. But thank you, Matthew.’ He raised the magazine. ‘I’ve been going all day.’

I smiled, hiding the disgust I felt at myself. Jeffrey turned back to the article. I retreated to my room and slumped down at the desk. I sat there for the longest time, staring vacantly at the book before me. I’d made such progress, and in a single moment I’d undone all my promises.

 

MY MOTHER AND Jeffrey broke up a month later. We didn’t hear from him for a year, and then out of nowhere he resurfaced in a scenario I still don’t fully understand. I was preparing for final exams – my second year of university – and as was custom I was at my desk hunched over my books. My mother tapped on the door and leaned against the frame. We never closed our bedroom doors but had an unspoken pact of knocking and speaking without stepping into the other person’s space.

‘I’m away for the weekend,’ she said. ‘You’ll have the car.’ I glanced at her. ‘Cool.’

She waited for a length. ‘Lake Barrington. So you know.’

I’d assumed Melbourne. After my grandfather passed my mother tried to get across every few months. Lake Barrington without a car meant only one thing.

‘Okay.’ I tried not to show a reaction.

She remained in the doorway. I didn’t offer a comment.

She shrugged. ‘Don’t judge me. He called, he asked. I said yes.’ ‘I’m not judging.’

Another moment passed. She wanted me to say the wrong thing.

‘There’s a waterski meet,’ she said. ‘He needs a spotter. What could I say? I’ve always been his best spotter. We’re camping. No strings. There, I told you.’

‘It’s not my business.’

She pushed herself away from the door. ‘In any case, you have the car.’ I dropped my eyes to my books.

That Friday I helped get her bags out to Jeffrey’s Land Rover. The speed-boat was hitched to the back. When we were living together we used to go waterskiing every weekend, even in winter. My mother and I learnt how to slalom at Lake Barrington.

I didn’t wave as they drove off. I felt bad about that later.

That night I went to the university library to work on a philosophy essay. Friday evening was my favourite time of the week. You’d be lucky to find two dozen students hidden in the lamplit nooks of the three-storey building. The atmosphere was somehow comforting; evidence I’d travelled a worthy distance from my school days when I daydreamed my way through lessons. School examinations were such a stressful and humiliating time. I still don’t know why I couldn’t engage, if only to alleviate the trauma.

Back at the townhouse I grabbed my mother’s cigarettes from her bedside table and sat out on the patio with Kozzy, our Staffordshire bull terrier. We stared out at the quiet night side by side.

Saturday was spent at my desk, and in the afternoon I took Kozzy to the park for a run. On the drive home I crashed the car.

 

KOZZY JUMPED FROM the back seat to the passenger seat and down to the foot area. In the slow second my eyes left the road, the car glided through a turn and smashed into an electricity pole. Kozzy and I were fine, but the front engine was obliterated.

A family in an SUV pulled up. They were compassionate and gave Kozzy and me a lift home.

I called my mother to tell her what had happened. She took the news calmly. Assured Kozzy and I were okay, she gave me the roadside assistance details. ‘Everything will sort itself out,’ she said. The whine of the speedboats in the background was traumatic to me. I hated knowing that she would tell Jeffrey.

 

A FEW DAYS later my mother took me to a pet shop. She wanted me to get a fish.

‘Maybe get two. For company. Do fish even get lonely? I don’t know.

Get two.’

I’d never expressed interest in fish. ‘What’s this about?’ I said.

We were standing in the fish section of the pet shop, speaking in lowered tones. I think she was as self-conscious as I was.

‘I don’t trust your room. There, I said it.’ She waved a hand. ‘It’s too clinical. Your books, your studying. Your energy is down, down, down. That’s why I talk to you from the doorway.’ She glared at me. ‘Have you not noticed I never come in? Jesus, Matthew. Your room lacks life.’

Her comment astonished me. ‘I’m the life. Me. In the room. I’m it.’ ‘Lower your voice. You know what I’m talking about.’

I had no idea what she was talking about. We purchased a tank, and I randomly picked out two orange-coloured fish. I later learnt they were molly fish.

The tank presided on the side of my study desk and, I must say, the two mollies really added something to the environment. At night when I turned in, I’d gaze at the green hue of the water and listen to the bubbles. The colour and sounds healed me like the university library healed me. I started sleeping better because of Special Agent Dale Cooper and Cherry Pie. I was thankful to my mother. I could never have known I’d love fish had she not pushed me to get them.

 

AFTER LAKE BARRINGTON my mother tried to keep it going with Jeffrey. He wasn’t interested. They had a couple of lengthy phone conversations, but they didn’t meet up again. The phone calls became shorter, and after a time I noticed it would ring out when she tried to connect with him. It was a month before she stopped crying.

One Saturday I asked if I could use the car to make a pet-shop run.

I needed fish flakes and cleaning supplies for the tank.

As I was leaving my mother said, ‘The fish was a good suggestion by Jeffrey. I’ll give him that.’

I froze at the door. She was at the sofa with one foot up on the coffee table, painting her toenails.

‘He thought the crash happened because you lacked responsibility,’ she said. ‘He felt you hadn’t matured in that way.’

I stared at her, unblinking and expressionless, not wanting to show how deep the remark cut.

She ran the brush smoothly over a nail. ‘He suggested I get you a pet so you’d learn the lesson of putting others before yourself. He thought fish would be a good place to start. “A fish is a basic animal and doesn’t need much caring.” That’s what he said.’

She glanced at me and dipped the brush into the jar. The colour was lavender pink.

My throat burned.

 

TWO YEARS LATER Jeffrey intersected with my mother and me a final time. I was doing honours, with plans firmly in place to continue onto my master’s.

It was around 10.30 pm. I was lying on my bed re-reading The Myth of Sisyphus. I was tiring but needed to finish my notes for a tutorial I was leading the following morning. I had an urge for the toilet, but if I got up I’d be done for the night. I pushed on.

Not long after there was a knock at the front door. It was a cautious knock, the kind a neighbour would make. Tap-tap-tap. The kind of knock that said: I know it’s late, don’t be alarmed, it’s a friend.

I raised myself up onto my elbow. My mother started speaking, but I couldn’t make out the other voice. Whoever it was now came inside. They talked some more, and I knew. I closed my book and turned off the lamp. For a long time I stared at the shadows of Special Agent Dale Cooper and Cherry Pie, carving their horizontal routes through the bubbling green water.

I woke a few hours later, bursting to pee. I was about to hop out of bed and scuttle to the bathroom when I heard sounds coming from within the house. My room backed onto my mother’s room, and it was there the commotion was occurring.

As I became alert, I realised my mother and Jeffrey were having sex. The more I awakened, the more I realised they were having serious sex. Let me put it another way: they weren’t making love. As things escalated they seemed more unencumbered in the expression of their interlude. I was faced with two urgent problems: how to block out the noise of their activity, and what to do with the fact I needed to empty my bladder immediately.

The sounds were excruciating to my ear. I knew each passing groan and grunt was scarring me with tissue that would take a lifetime of therapy to undo. Their chorused frolicking was jeopardising my future self.

Even were I to hold my bladder for ten minutes, there was no way I could creep into the bathroom. They’d detect me and realise their private interaction wasn’t very private at all. When their ecstasy passed, their self-loathing would resurface, and in their own ways they’d take it out on me.

My bladder situation was extreme. It would be an achievement if I could hold it for sixty seconds, let alone until they concluded their transaction. So urgent was my need, I had to clamp my dick to shut off the pipe. But the banks were about to burst, and my options were limited. I didn’t know which was hurting more: the pain of my stretched bladder or the escalating sounds of excitement bouncing through the townhouse. In any other situation I’d clasp my hands to my ears to block out their activity. But my need to urinate was so great that with one hand squeezing hard, I had to allow the sound effects of their humping enter one ear as I halved the torment by blocking out the other with my free hand. Other than their first break-up and the time I wrote off the car with Kozzy, it’s the most helpless I’ve felt. In those excruciating minutes I calculated one third the length of a ski rope between my head and the unwelcome activity on the other side of the wall.

I dismissed pissing into a pillowcase and shoving it under the bed to deal with later. I regret that, as it was the best available solution. I couldn’t do the deed out the window, as my bedroom looked onto the tiled patio of our townhouse. As far as I could tell there was only one decompression option.

Ever so quietly I slid out of bed with my hand clasping my dick. Even with a vice-like grip, liquid expelled through my fingers and dripped to the carpet. I clambered onto the chair and rested my free knee on the desk. I pushed back the lid of the fish tank and aimed truly. Those first seconds of peeing into the tank remain the greatest single moment of relief this physical body has experienced. After the initial seconds of that breathed life, I was able to fully perceive my surroundings.

In one lightning second it dawned on me that the euphoria in the next room had ceased. I strained my ears. The townhouse was still. My bladder was in the early stages of release. Although I’d nipped the pain, there was more to come. As my piss streamed into the tank, I stared into the shadowy spaces outside my door into the hallway that connected my bedroom to my mother’s bedroom and the shared bathroom. The urgency now was to empty my bladder and get back into bed. I lowered my dick as close as I could to the surface level to mitigate the noise of expulsion. In that position I held my body, and prayed, and hoped.

A figure emerged in the corridor and paused. Jeffrey. Silhouetted, semi- hard. Our eyes fixed on each other: me seeing him standing there naked; him seeing me kneeling nude on my desk, pissing into the fish tank. We maintained contact for a good, strong three seconds. With a blank expression he turned into the bathroom. By the time he came out I was back under my bed covers, wide awake and turned away from the door. Fuck Jeffrey. I hated Jeffrey. I hated myself. The trouble was, I didn’t know who I hated more.

 

THE FOLLOWING MORNING I woke to the muffled sound of my mother and Jeffrey talking. I quickly realised they weren’t talking, they were arguing. Then I understood they weren’t arguing: my mother was shout- ing and Jeffrey was silent. The images from the previous evening flooded my mind.

Soon enough my mother came to stand in the doorway, her arms folded. ‘I suppose you heard that.’

I pushed myself up onto my elbow.

‘I don’t want to hear a word,’ she said.

She was trying to provoke it out of me. She was angry and upset, and she wanted me to be angry and upset.

I refused to offer myself up. Life was hard for everyone. That’s the thing I’d learnt. For my mother, for me; even for Jeffrey. Nobody figured it out.

She glared at me. ‘Don’t you have a class to teach?’ ‘I’m on time.’

Inside I was pleading for her to leave so I could get up and get out of there. I was also trying to suppress the sounds and images from the previous night. Her gaze tracked to the fish tank and skewed. My heart plummeted.

‘The fish are dead.’ She crossed the room with her arms folded but stopped short and peered into the tank like someone looking over the edge of a cliff. ‘My God, Matthew, the fish are dead.’

I stared vacantly past her.

‘They’re floating on their sides. Look how pathetic they are.’ She shot me her daggers look. ‘Did you not notice? How is it possible you didn’t notice your fish are dead?’

My eyes watered. It was my most hated thing about myself. When I was caught in anxiousness or hurt, my eyes jugged up in less than a second. I wasn’t crying; my eyes were simply saying my soul had emptied itself of feeling. She maintained her stare, and it took all my strength to not blink.

‘You’re just going to lie there? Without emotion?’

It plunged out of me. ‘I sleep naked, okay! If you leave the fucking room I’ll get out of bed and deal with it. I won’t be your punching bag every time Jeffrey uses you!’ I immediately regretted saying that.

My mother’s talent was conveying judgment via a sequence of looks. In one motion I watched her expression shift from anger, to disdain, to disappointment, to pity.

Finally she said, ‘Jeffrey was right about you.’ She closed the door behind her.

My gaze remained fixed on the fish tank. The green light and the bubbling sounds were upsetting to me. I slipped out of bed and went over to turn off the tank at the plug. I didn’t look inside.

I climbed back in bed and lay there, listening and waiting for my mother to leave for work so I could get ready for class.

 

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