On Phone Num­bers, Writ­ten on Toliet Doors

Hello Mr. Magazine - - LEFT TO CHANCE - Text by Christo­pher Bryant Il­lus­tra­tions by Gabriel Ebensperger

I first dis­cov­ered what ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was at the age of 12 or 13, on a fam­ily va­ca­tion to the ru­ral town of Broome, in West­ern Aus­tralia. My mother stops me as I walk down the street – both hands clamped hard down on my shoul­ders as she leans in close, lines of heat and sweat em­a­nat­ing off her frame – and whis­pers, fu­ri­ously: “Stop walk­ing like that.” I pause, un­sure. Fi­nally: “Like what?” “Wag­gling your bot­tom like that. If you walk like that, a man might snatch you away and,” – punc­tu­at­ing the fol­low­ing with an out­stretched knuckle – “…stick his pe­nis into you.”

I’m un­sure, still, what ex­actly she means, but af­ter she’s loos­ened her vise-grip I take it upon my­self to study and im­i­tate my father and older brother: gait wide, shoul­ders back, crotch thrust out for all the world to ad­mire. Some­how this seems more porno­graphic than be­fore; but nei­ther par­ent com­ments, so I fig­ure I must be do­ing it right.

Late that same night, caught in the mires of half­sleep, I dream of a lone­some shadow man who stretches out from the dark ex­panse un­der­neath my bed, who takes me in his arms and presses my head to his chest. It is a re­mark­ably sex­less dream, but the fol­low­ing morn­ing I dis­cover my pyjama pants are wet with an unknown vis­cous sub­stance.

From then on I in­trin­si­cally link this shad­ow­man – who re­turns to me at regular in­ter­vals for at least a year, al­ways com­fort­ing, al­ways the same – to a se­cret, crum­pled note­book I keep in the depths of my desk at home: a note­book filled with clipped-and-saved pic­tures of Leonardo DiCaprio and Marky Mark Wahlberg.

The fol­low­ing day, an out­ing to see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert turns us into a fam­ily di­vided as the film is deemed too “adult” for my pre­cious eyes. In­stead I spend the day at the lo­cal pool with my mother, still not quite sure why my gaze in­trin­si­cally wan­ders to in­spect the bod­ies of the grown men around me, or why – for a sec­ond, only a sec­ond – I can so vividly imag­ine each man hold­ing me, head to chest, the way the shadow man un­der my bed did. Four years later, an­other fam­ily va­ca­tion. I sit in the back seat of our red Toy­ota, the sti­fling hot leather stick­ing to my naked legs as I try to ad­just my­self against the seat­belt’s choke­hold. Mum and Dad keep at­tempt­ing to point out at­trac­tions con­sid­ered “worth see­ing,” but I am suit­ably checked out, play­ing Snake on one of those old re­li­able

Nokia phones; the kind de­signed to sur­vive flood, fire, or nu­clear apoca­lypse.

We stop for a break some­where in Queens­land and I rush to the pub­lic toi­let, if only to es­cape my par­ents’ mirth­ful, brit­tle com­men­tary on the view, the weather, the ra­dio sta­tion, the view, the view once more. Though I don’t re­ally need to go, I as­sign my­self a cu­bi­cle and sit down, tak­ing in the cool­ness and dark­ness of the bricks, the acrid smell of piss and cheap hand soap.

Writ­ten in black text on the back of the door; star­ing me in the face, is this:

LOOK­ING 4 UN­DER 30 / FIT OVER 30, 4 GOOD TIME.

TXT ONLY. And un­der this, a mo­bile phone num­ber. And un­der this, a crudely drawn pic­ture of male gen­i­talia, kinky pu­bic hair jut­ting off in fa­nat­i­cal tufts ei­ther side as though the artist had got­ten a lit­tle too in­volved in the draw­ing process.

I can feel my heart sud­denly, vi­o­lently beat­ing through my chest and into my mouth as Mum calls ev­ery­one back to the car. Even with­out the vul­gar car­toon I can eas­ily un­der­stand what a “good time” will likely con­sist of, and, al­most in a trance, I save the num­ber in my Nokia.

It’s a while on the road be­fore I dare to text him. I trawl through a num­ber of drafts and imag­ined pick-up lines, each one sound­ing younger and more ju­ve­nile than the line be­fore it. Fi­nally, I set­tle on the sim­ple ap­proach: “Hi.” Al­most im­me­di­ately, a re­sponse: “Hey. What’re you look­ing for?” Just like that. No hes­i­ta­tion, no “who is this?” or “how did you get my num­ber?”

I re­ply: “Not sure… your num­ber was on a toi­let door.” Then: “I’m 16.” And, as an af­ter­thought: “My name’s Chris.”

He replies that his name is An­drew and that he is 36 years old. I re­spond, at some kind of emo­tional im­passe, sick with worry and slight arousal at how il­licit it seems: “Cool.”

A pause. We bar­rel down the scorch­ing tar­mac of the free­way, silent ex­cept for the punc­tu­at­ing sound of tiny rocks hit­ting the un­der­side of the car. Slick with sweat, I wrap my hand tight round the plas­tic edges of my phone, and will An­drew to re­spond. Or to not. Buzz. “Have you had sex be­fore?” The ques­tion stares me in the face, al­most ac­cusatory in its blunt­ness. The words seem scar­ily per­ma­nent – they’re out in the world now, on my tiny black and white screen, burn­ing a hole. Up front, Mum makes some com­ment about the fam­ily’s col­lec­tive som­bre mood, and be­gins to search for some­thing “fun” to lis­ten to.

Slowly, slowly, my thumbs crank into gear and type out the fol­low­ing: “I haven’t. But I want to.” I send. A pause. Then: “I’m with my fam­ily. On hol­i­day. We’re a cou­ple of hours out of Mooloolaba.” An­other pause, slightly longer, then: “I’m horny, like, all the time.”

With that, I turn the phone on silent and sit on it. It’s the wait­ing that’s caus­ing me an­guish, I tell my­self, not quite ready to wres­tle with the fact of my sex­u­al­ity in such a bla­tant man­ner.

An­drew’s re­ply is al­most in­stan­ta­neous, and I ex­tri­cate the phone to read: “Me too. ;)” Sud­den ter­ror.

For­ward­ness and all, he seems nice, an­swer­ing my ques­tions and ed­u­cat­ing me about gay his­tory in be­tween pix­e­lated pho­tos of his nude torso. The bar­ren land­scape out the win­dow – wide slabs of sand and azure wa­ter, bro­ken up only by the oc­ca­sional road sign or ram­bunc­tious seag­ull – slowly turns to pink and red as the day rolls on and I con­tinue to talk with my new friend.

He tells me that ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was il­le­gal in Aus­tralia un­til the 80s. He tells me how lucky I am to be born in this time. He tells me my fu­ture is bright. Most of all, he

tells me not to worry. He asks if I can send him a pic­ture of my­self. I tell him my phone doesn’t have a cam­era, though it does. I worry I will scare him away.

As my phone vi­brates for the umpteenth time, my mother chirps from the front seat: “Good­ness, some­one’s pop­u­lar. Who on earth keeps tex­ting you?”.

I ig­nore her ques­tions, turn off the phone and pre­tend to fall asleep as night swirls down around our tiny car. A year later.

I am sick with emo­tion (and a bot­tle of Bai­ley’s), curled up on the na­ture strip out­side some­one’s rau­cous house party. I clutch a pil­fered cord­less phone close to my chest, a tele­phonic life-pre­server boldly stolen from un­der the nose of my gen­er­ous hosts. Bored of the mu­sic, the com­pany; pin­ing for a silly crush, a boy I can never have, I drink the en­tire bot­tle of al­co­holic milk I’ve pil­fered from my par­ents and trudge out the front door.

My head is cloudy and I wait in stub­born­ness, an­tic­i­pat­ing help that will never come: a friend, fol­low­ing me out­doors, ask­ing if I’m okay, if I need some­one to talk to, if I need my hair held back while I vomit. But the truth is that I’ve lucked my way into this party, filled to the brim with the primped and tanned Year Eleven so­cial elite, and some part of me knows this. I am out of place, out of sorts, out of time, and distinctly aware that I should have stayed home where there’s home­work to be done, din­ner to be had and ev­ery­one is bless­edly sober.

The night drones on – per­haps five min­utes, per­haps five hours – and as the warmth and sweet nau­sea of booze washes over me I pull my­self, an in­valid, into a nearby gar­den bed. My clothes are filthy, cov­ered in plant mat­ter and de­tri­tus, but I am drunk enough to re­main un­fazed, and not ex­actly the height of teenage fash­ion ei­ther way. As I crawl, a sac­cha­rine voice un­furls in my head; the voice of a litre of Ir­ish Cream and the ine­bri­ated self pity of a first-time drunk. It says: “Call him. Call him. Call him.”

Hands shak­ing from drink or nerves, I steady the hand­set and punch the num­bers in, writ­ten down from my trusty, beat-up Nokia. My host’s par­ents, ap­par­ently, can pick up the tab of my drunken, fren­zied con­fes­sion.

I hold the phone to my ear and it rings, in­sis­tent. Then, a voice: “Hello?” I pause. The voice is older, deeper than ex­pected, and a cur­sory ine­bri­ated glance at the num­ber I’ve di­alled re­veals a new level to my id­iocy. “This is An­drew speak­ing. Who is this, sorry?” I’d like to say that I asked him if it would get bet­ter and that he replied yes, it would. Or that I told him about this boy from school, and that he told me in re­turn that straight is straight and ab­dom­i­nal mus­cles don’t make a per­son good, or bad. Or even that he some­how rec­og­nized me; had a dis­tinct mem­ory of a day-long text mes­sage chat with a shy, con­fused 16-year-old. In truth, I re­mem­ber only this sin­gle snapshot – noth­ing af­ter it, and barely the events pre­ced­ing: ly­ing in wet dirt, phone pressed hard to my numb, sick face, un­able to speak but lis­ten­ing to his voice, low and some­how com­fort­ing in the thick mid­night air. “Hello? Hello, who is this?” And then I am alone, mut­ter­ing to a traitor dial tone:

“Chris. Chris. This is Chris.”

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