Like Dancing with a Cigarette Lighter
Gold Coast, Australia, 1995
It’s Friday! You fumble with the notes and coins in your weekly pay packet; you want the latest fashion magazine from Milan. In the summer heat, the fierce–looking newsagent narrows his eyes again at your grey catholic boy’s school shirt with its buttoned-up collar. You tell him they’re for your mother, but as always, he rolls his eyes.
Beaming, you zip home on your racing bike. The heavy magazine slaps your back in your schoolbag, urging you on. Snaking down footpaths and gliding down driveways you weave through the closely clipped suburb like a bicycle ballerina. Towering high–rise apartment buildings sprout like concrete talons between neat weatherboard houses on flat grassy blocks. They plaster the sandy beach opposite with long slim shadows. Stowing your bike by the back fence of a white weatherboard house you pull the local paper from the mailbox, and flick it onto the kitchen table inside.
An ad on the back page tells you a plastic surgery has opened in Beach Road. Your mouth drops open. They want $6000. That’s just what you have in your bank account from your part–time job.
School ends next week. Your hands tremble as you call to make an appointment for mid-January.
Mum and Dad are still at work.
In their bedroom, you slip off your school uniform. The vintage lime, chiffon evening gown catches the afternoon sunlight in your parents’ wardrobe mirror like silk drapes on a stage. The cut accentuates your waist and slimness. You think your sandy coloured hair would look great platinum blonde.
Finding your mum alone in her bedroom one afternoon, you tell her about the operation you’ve booked. She turns to you, alarm in her almond eyes and sobs on your shoulder.
Wiping her tears with her fingertips, she says, ‘My beautiful boy, I know for long time.’
On a cool, black night with a smooth, salty sea breeze, you find your dad sitting alone before dinner. Beneath the single lightbulb, he’s a hulking shadow at the kitchen table.
‘Dad, I’ve got something to tell you,’ you say, sitting down across from him.
Your mum turns away and stirs the meatballs until you think they’ll turn to dust.
‘Mmm?’ he asks. Dozing, his head is almost on his chest.
‘I’ve booked an—’ You stop. His eyes meet yours. ‘—Operation. I want to look like a woman.’
He catches his head before it hits the table.
And the next thing you know, he’s standing and pushing the table away, grabbing your collar with one hand and trying to punch you with the other.
‘Why you do this to me and your mother!’ he says into your face like a blowtorch.
Your mum says, ‘Stop Robert, stop, you’ll kill him!’
When she covers his eyes with her hands, you slip from his grasp and run into the night, trip in the gutter and cut your cheek. You catch a bus to a friend’s house and don’t come back.
At school end, you stand alone waving your friends off on buses that turn right onto the Pacific Highway headed to Sydney or Melbourne. They’re chasing careers in fashion design. Tall and slim with long blonde hair, you think you belong on the Coast. You’re just not sure why.
Surfers Paradise, Australia 2000
As you serve punters at The Clock Hotel, the story of that distant night is often on your lips. But there it stays. Stuck like you. You can’t trust anyone enough to share anything about yourself. And it’s been like this for as long as you can remember.
Take Dave for instance. Here he is now, with a stained blue t–shirt over his dirty blue jeans. You pull beers together on a Thursday night. He’s telling you all about his wife Shelley and their three boys. And the frankfurts on Tuesday night. And the sound of the splat where they hit the wall. How Shelley laughed so hard she sprayed Coke through her nose on his shirt. He laughs and points to the marks.
So that’s what being comfortable in your own skin looks like. What must it be like to be Dave? Proud to wear a shirt stained with coke from your wife’s nose?
As always, the night seems longer after midnight. The short–skirted biscuit–baked girls with their frosty curls teeter as the hours grind on. They try and catch your eye. But you look away.
It’s 2am when your alarm beeps. Raising a hand, you catch Dave’s eye, untie your apron and hook it up out back. You tear off your heels; your sneakers are soft and cool on your sore feet. As usual, the younger girls titter when they see you in the change room.
The air is dark and pure after the beer–soaked club. Running into the night, you hail the first cab. Young male tourists leer and circle you, shouting for your phone number. You smile and punch a random number into the phones they push into your hand.
Tonight, a guy in a suit gets to the first cab. You’re stranded and exposed beneath the fluorescent lights. A swarm of young people cross the road from the beach towards you, in time to the beat of the pedestrian button. The odour of their sweat is mixed with expensive cologne, smoke and beer. Crossing the highway, you long to be part of such a large group of friends.
‘Nice tits,’ one of them hisses into your ear as you cross in the opposite direction. You almost walk into the light post.
Then they’re gone. Alone again with the pure scent of the ocean and the heaving, cracking surf coming at you through the night sky like an outdoor cinema. You could stand here for hours, waiting for the future to unfold. When the ocean breeze embraces you, you cross your arms to keep warm.
A bouncing light catches your eye at the furthest end of the beach. Shadows are dancing around a cigarette lighter, like it’s New Years. Leaving the harsh fluorescent lights of the street, you cross the highway towards them, staying hidden in the sand dunes. There are women in wetsuits and men in board shorts, and men in suits and women in long dresses. And then you’re not sure. It’s like they’ve swapped clothes. The tall person is wearing a long dress, but when they turn—their smile is framed by a big bushy beard.
Your heart is jumping.
You tiptoe closer. Ten or more people are standing inside a ring of backpacks, handbags and briefcases.
Someone turns on some music. As they dance, they turn and notice you.
‘Hey!’ someone says.
Looking behind you, you find no one there. As you inch closer, their eyes narrow and they tighten their circle. You emerge from the shadows. Someone holds the lighter in front of your face.
‘Aaaah,’ they sigh together.
In the soft light of the single flickering flame, you tremble and wonder if they’ll like you.
An arm encircles your waist. They turn you this way and that. A finger slides down your Adam’s apple. Their silent smiles turn into animated chatter.
‘Why, you’re beautiful.’
‘How have we never met you before?’
You melt like wax beneath their warmth and the light of the single flame.
And for the first time, your story rushes out of you like a freight train. They scramble to hop on board as you take them on a ride back to the first day you dived into your mother’s wardrobe.
After sitting on the sand and sharing stories until almost dawn, Wayne invites you back to his place for a drink. Still in his red silk gown, his full, bushy beard is curving into a smile as he hands you a glass of white wine. His high–rise penthouse at the top of the thirty–six floor building commands 360–degree views of Surfers Paradise Beach.
‘Very pleased to know you, Tina,’ he says.
‘I’m so glad I’ve met all of you,’ you say, peering at him from behind your curtain of blonde hair.
‘We’re a mixed bag. Some of us run hotels and restaurants. Me and some others are artists, photographers and writers. And what about you? You must be a model?’ he asks.
You stare back at him.
‘I’m surprised. I think you’ve got what it takes.’ He runs his index finger down the scar on your cheek.
He jumps up and grabs a stack of fashion magazines from the timber sideboard. His mop of brown hair bounces as he flicks through the pages,. ‘These are mine…and these…and these,’ he says as he points.
In his black and white photographs, the women are long, languid and liquid with endless limbs and faces like china dolls. Their mouths are dark and their hair cascades like silk ribbons down their backs.
Wayne says he’s a fashion photographer and stylist. And he’s going to make you a star.
When you arrive in New York a few months later, you write to your mum and tell her you’re safe. You ask her not to tell your dad where you are.
Surfers Paradise, 2018
Your key fob slides easily across the scanner, releasing your front door with a loud click. Pushing it open with the full weight of your body, the soft closing mechanism ushers you into a comforting, cinema–like stillness. The dark heaving ocean greets you through the sliding doors of your apartment.
You’ve come a long way, you think, as you pass the framed black and white posters of you in Paris, Milan and New York. But something just keeps pulling me back to the Coast.
The pings from your laptop start at around midnight. Your video blog is making waves around the globe. Your followers are just waking up in London. The stats on last night’s YouTube movie show more than 44,000 views and 2,000 shares. Tall and blonde, you make movies about your life on the Gold Coast. Thousands of followers inhale and ingest the details of your glamorous lifestyle post by post across the oceans.
Your movies take them on an adventure on the dazzling Gold Coast, all through your iPhone. Browsing, shopping and modelling clothes, you film as you go. Later, your business partner, Isla dubs an audio track. She explains the cut of the cloth, the texture of the hardware and where to find your most gorgeous pieces.
Influencers speculate how you make your money. Your bank account takes an awful beating these days. $24K a month from several make–up brands; $65K per month from a handful of designer brands. Women all over the world are making your fortune.
But no one told you about the longing. It hangs over you like a black cloud even after all these years.
You miss your family.
Sometimes they visit you in your dreams. You push and kick them away, pull them close, beg for forgiveness, shout at them to leave you alone. You tell them to stop talking about you behind your back, stalk them in the supermarket, aching for a smile, a touch or something. It’s a haunting¾there’s no other word for it.
Standing on the balcony in the dark, you look down at the white weatherboard houses. You see yourself again as a teenager, gliding down the footpaths on your racer bike.
The Room Service menu catches your eye. The organic vegetarian dishes are double the price of ordinary vegetables. You look back down at the houses. Everything at the Clock Hotel is organic as well; brought in from Byron Bay or Mount Tambourine.
Maybe, just maybe, you think.
The little white weatherboard house is easy to see with your binoculars from the Kurrawa Beach headland. It’s only a short Uber ride down Old Burleigh Road from your apartment in Surfers Paradise.
There he is. Right on time. A small, balding man in a green Bonds t–shirt, khaki King Gee shorts and sparkling white thongs. It’s 7am and he’s watering his tomatoes.
He doesn’t use pesticides. Something about the salt air seems to keep the bugs away. Well he’s about to hit the big time.
You dial his shop number.
‘Hello,’ says the grocer. He’s diverted the shop number to his home line.
‘Hi. You don’t know me, but I know you. You grow organic fruit and vegetables.’
‘Yep, that’s a–right,’ he sings in his deep Italian voice.
‘And you sell them in your fruit shop.’
‘You know lots–a things about me,’ he says swivelling his head to scan the sky.
‘I also know you’re the only one on the Coast that grows organic fruit and veg. The restaurants have to truck it in from the hinterland.’
‘No, really? Only one?’ he says, shaking his head.
‘Yep. I want to make you a deal. I’ll take it all off you every month. I’ll give you $10K a month.’
Leaning in closer, you hold your knees tight. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. He takes the phone away from his ear and hangs his head. He wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. You blink away your tears.
‘Is this–a for real? If there’s a camera around I’m gonna be really pissed,’ he says shaking a finger up at the sky.
‘I’ll send you the paperwork today. Show your lawyer. You’re going to be rich.’
He sits down heavily on the step. Dropping the phone by his side, he sobs into his hands.
The grocer was as good as his word. He sent the signed contract back within a couple of days. You booked a van and gave them the addresses of all the best organic restaurants and cafes on the coast. You’re delivering them faster than any other grower can.
Today is the best part yet. You set up the transfer on your phone.
012–355 7896 98765.
The deed is done. You can already see this transaction rippling across the world. Tonight, he’ll Skype his family and tell them he’s going to send all his nieces and nephews to University in Rome, as well as cover his sister’s mortgage. They’ll tell their friends and family about the rich Australian uncle.
Every couple of weeks, you still stop by for a drink with your old mate Dave at the Clock Hotel.
‘Don’t say much, do you?’ says the new guy, swivelling his nose ring towards you. A green snake tattoo climbs the side of his neck looking for his ear.
Shaking your head, you smile and swivel away from him on your stool, as you usually do. But this time when you turn back, he’s standing over you. His breath is on your neck. The bar is hitting midnight capacity¾standing room only. Everyone is talking louder and faster. You take a step to his left. Then to his right. He blocks you both times. Twisting around you search for Dave. He’s chatting with a pretty brunette.
‘Why won’t you talk to me?’ he hisses.
You recoil when his cigarette breath and the stink of his unwashed hair hits your nostrils.
‘Oh! I get it. You’re too good for the likes of me.’
He thrusts his hand under your t–shirt. For a split–second you consider screaming but realise no one will hear you. A bottle of Absolut vodka winks at you, reflecting a shard of light from the fridge. You swipe the bottle into the glass cabinets. The shattering glass turns everyone’s heads. He glares at you and brings a fist to your face. The veins in his neck bulge and twist purple as he brings his nose to yours. Dave comes running and shouting down behind the bar.
Then, like a ghoul he’s is gone.
Running out of the hotel, you stand doubled–over on the pavement, gulping down the cool night sky.
In your apartment, you flick the shower mixer onto HOT and jump in still wearing your clothes. Tearing them off under the water, you dump them at your feet in the double–sized frameless shower. When the water reaches scalding, you allow the onslaught to disintegrate you and that guy’s touch.
The phone rings, returning you to the sanitised cubicle the cleaning lady scrubs twice a week. Wrapping your seared body in two plush towels, you pad a path of wet footprints to the kitchen.
‘Tina, it’s Dave. Are you alright?’ he says.
‘Yep,’ you reply.
‘The guy was a total bastard. I told the boss and he’s gone. Just wanted to let you know if you want to come back.’
‘I was hoping to catch up with you,’ you say, looking at your hands.
‘I know. I’m sorry. Call me if you need anything,’ he says.
There’s a pause. And then nothing. Just that emptiness, gnawing at you again.
That night, the nightmare that chases you most often returns. It’s your mother’s funeral. You stand at the edge of her grave clad in black from head to toe, right next to your father. But he doesn’t know it’s you. The handfuls of pink rose petals you release into the grave are soft like kisses. They float down and come to rest on her coffin. The faint tap as they land is one of the saddest sounds you’ve ever heard. Never to feel her cheek on yours again.
The following morning, the eastern sun’s spotlight discovers you in bed, and urges you out with a brilliant incandescence that lights up your 16–foot ceilings. You reluctantly pull on a silk robe and draw open the towering sliding door to your terrace. A dissonance of gulls, ocean waves and human voices rise up to greet you. Twelve floors below, the local fisherman conducts a group of frolicking seagulls with morsels of bread.
The pings start the moment you turn on your espresso machine. It’s Friday night in New York and your fans are looking for inspiration for the weekend. Then the burring of a Skype call animates your laptop. It’s your business partner, Isla, who lives in Berlin.
‘Hello, sweetie! Have you seen the stats from The Coast campaign?’ she squeals, holding her iPhone up to her laptop screen.
The royal blue trench coat you modelled this week reclines across your dining room chair. Isla’s screen shows the views have hit 100,000. OMG! Your agent said if you hit more than 50,000 views, you’d get $125K each.
You flick screens to your online banking page. The money is there.
‘We’re rich, we’re rich, we’re fil–thy rich!!’ she screams, jumping up and down on her sofa.
‘When did this happen?’
‘Last night,’ says Isla.
‘I know what I’m doing with my share,’ you say.
‘Yeah! Jump on a plane outa there! That coast is not for you my friend.’
‘I’ve got some stuff to sort out…’ you say. Her words setting off a dull throbbing in your head.
‘Don’t mind me then if I celebrate in Vegas!!! I’ll see if anyone else is free,’ she says falling backwards onto her sofa.
‘Tell them I’m sorry.’ You stare at your reflection in the blank screen.
You fill your demitasse cup and roll the expresso across your tongue. May as well keep going, since I’ve got this far, you think.
You make this month’s transfer to the grocer and pick up the phone.
‘Hi, it’s me again,’ you say to the mumbled hello.
‘Hi—yes! I have more fruit and vegetables for you—lettuce, cu–ies, tomatoes, figs, dates. I been keeping the bugs away,’ he shouts.
‘Great to hear it. I’ve just made this month’s payment. I’ll book the van for Monday.’
‘Thank you,’ you hear his voice waver.
‘Pleasure,’ you reply and quickly hang up.
You’re tied up in white cloth, in a quiet, dark room. This dream pins you down on hot still nights. When your ocean sentinels depart and the Pacific is as still as glass, the memories roll in. You twist and turn, trying to tear off the bandages. Perspiration is pricking every inch of your skin. The cloth is damp now, cooling you dangerously. You can’t get free. You pant and squirm in fathoms of darkness punctuated only by the beeps of medical computers.
‘You loser!’ shouts the voice. ‘You’ll never make anything of yourself!’
You sit up. It’s just a dream.
You’ve got to get out of this apartment.
Saltimbanco’s fruit shop is just a short walk away, down at the corner shops. In the bright, steamy morning you put on your darkest Chanel sunglasses, a wide–brimmed straw hat and an aqua sarong.
His Gala apples are large, luscious and precisely turned out on the wooden display cabinet. There he is. He seems shorter and older than you remember.
You take a seat on the chewing gum dotted wooden bench in front of his shop. Beneath your enormous hat, you pretend to scan your copy of Madison. Peering over your sunglasses, you spy his new sneakers and a Gold watch. Every detail of the scene is intoxicating, like an old foreign movie. From the rolled up Italian newspaper pushed to one side of the cash register, to the transistor radio in the leatherette case. And you pray for a happy ending.
‘Good–a morning!’ he sings out, tipping his chin to you.
You smile. Bummer. Time to go.
The endings always choke you up.
Slinging your bag over your shoulder, you put your magazine under your arm and clip clop down to the newsagency in your wedges. The latest Marie Claire from New York has arrived. A piece of glossy perfection in your hands. Meghan Markle is gorgeous on the cover. You head toward the payment counter. There’s a familiar scent of unwashed hair, cigarette smoke and a snake tattoo…My god, it’s him.
‘You,’ he growls, blocking your way.
You stop in your tracks, dropping your bag and magazine.
‘I lost my job because of you,’ he says.
You try to escape in the other direction, but he grabs your arm.
The Indian man behind the counter calls out, ‘Hey, I’m calling the police!’
He reaches for his phone and starts dialling. The man runs out of the shop.
‘Lady, what’s going on? You alright?’ he asks, rounding his counter to stand in front of you.
‘I…I…’ you stammer.
You’re gathering up your things and running out of the store to hail a cab. But the rank outside is empty. Tap for an Uber. Here comes one. A dodgy looking Falcon.
The faded blue sedan screeches to a stop in front of you. Ducking your head into the open door, you’re glad to escape to safety. The man with the nose ring peers over the front seat at you.
‘I’ve got you now,’ he says locking all the doors and stepping on the accelerator.
For a split second you think this isn’t happening. As the car hurtles away, you suck up the air while digging your nails into the seat in front of you. A voice in your head is screaming, You’ve got to get out of here. His repugnant skin seems to pickle in the heat of the airless car. The odour invades your nostrils, ears and eyes. In the confines of the vinyl–seated speeding car, every name and slur you’ve heard, every slap, push, kick and shove burns through your veins. You reach into the front and grab him by the throat, pinning him against the steering wheel.
‘Stop this car right now and let me out,’ you growl in baritone.
Your eyes lock with his in the rear vision mirror. His mouth drops open and he releases the wheel. The car swerves and spins 360 degrees in the two–way road, streaming pine trees, a park bench, council garbage bins, a telephone booth and a red post box through the windows. The sedan careers back down the street, towards the shops. It narrowly misses a black Benz and then stops across both lanes.
Damn, he got you to speak.
The sweat is broiling on his brow.
‘You’re a bloke!’ he says, curling his top lip.
With your other hand, you take a photo of him.
‘Now open the doors!’
He’s stunned and doesn’t move. You slam his head into the steering wheel and reach across the seat to unlock the doors.
Grabbing your handbag and straw hat you scramble out of the car and run to the kerb. Saltimbanco is standing on the path behind you.
‘Lady, I saw everything! You want me to call police?’ he asks, his eyes round.
Slapping your sunglasses and hat on, you shake your head. He turns his face up to yours. Tears sting your eyes. You want to speak, but the words don’t come. The fear wells up again in your chest like a trapped pigeon. Willing yourself to stay just one more second. You wrestle the urge. To wait one more minute to see if anything will change. His wrinkles…there are so many of them! He reaches out to touch your arm, but this is too much. It’s like an electric current, turning higher and higher, urging you to run, run, get away, get away, the voice shouts at you in your head. But things could be different this time, you scream back.Something inside you disagrees. It says, stay safe.
You turn and hurry down the street and look back briefly as you turn the corner. Saltimbanco and the Indian newsagent are surrounding the Uber driver. The sound of their raised voices and the slamming car doors echo down the street as a police car pulls up. You run back to your apartment and collapse on the floor behind your heavy front door.
The espresso steam is dancing in the morning sunshine on your marble kitchen counter. It’s been ten months now since your first payment into Saltimbanco’s bank account. That’s $100K in his bank account. Wonder what he’s doing with the cash now.
From your spot on the headland, you line up your binoculars.
What’s that sign? You re–focus the lenses.
Shit. It says ‘For Sale’. He’s selling his house!
You dial his number.
‘Hello,’ he says.
Through the binoculars, you can see he’s sitting cross–legged on his balcony, reading the paper. Hospital issue glasses perch on his nose. But his collared shirt is new.
‘This is your friendly neighbourhood fruit and veg buyer,’ you reply.
‘Yeah, how are you? Not heard from you in a while. Fruit and veg is growing good.’
‘Have you got something you want to tell me?’ you ask.
‘What you mean? Oh¾you seen my sign.’
A pause. Then he sighs.
‘I wanna go back to home. I got no one here,’ he says lowering his voice.
The words sting.
‘How much do you want to make you stay?’
‘Who the hell is this?’ he asks, leaping out of his chair and peering up at the sky. ‘You blackmail me? What I done wrong? Tell me!’
You can’t think of what else to say. He’s going to leave.
‘It’s me, Dad. Thomas.’
A silence. An intake of breath.
‘Why you—! Did you know your mother pass away?’ he shouts.
‘Yes, Dad. I was at her funeral.’
He’s still as stone. He sits down and cradles his forehead in his right hand and rests his elbow on his knee.
Don’t rush in, you tell yourself.
‘Was that you in the Uber?’ he asks.
‘It was you who gave me all this money?’ he says, narrowing his eyes into the sun, sweat glistening on his top lip.
‘Yes.’ You stop breathing.
He puts the phone down on the table, coughs and wipes his eyes. He stares at the long fronds of his 50–foot palm trees, keeping time with the pounding breakers beyond the sand dunes.
He clears his throat.
‘I looked for you for months. I never stay angry! I saw your friend at the shops. He said you move to Melbourne—’
‘No, I didn’t—’
‘—you and your mum was always too nervous…’
You sit down heavily on the timber bench behind you. Your heart is hammering.
‘—but Dad—I’ve done well. I’ve got a good job.’
His pause is excruciating. You’re a heartbeat away from slamming the phone down.
‘Good, Thomas,’ he mumbles, wiping his eyes.
There’s something more in the gaps between his sighs.
‘It’s hard since your mum died.’ You press the phone against your ear. You can barely hear him. ‘I been on my own for years. I think of you all the time,’ he says and pauses. ‘I know now I was wrong. I shouldn’t have hit you.’
A sob and a honk as he blows his nose with his handkerchief.
‘Thanks Dad,’ you say, tears choking your throat. ‘And Dad—’ you say.
‘My name is Tina,’ you say, gripping the phone with your clammy hand.
There’s a pause and he pinches his mouth with his hands.
‘Yes—’ he says, looking up into the sky. ‘—Tina, I need help with the next shipment. I getting old. Can you come Thursday?’
‘Sure,’ you say.
‘And, Tina, don’t worry for money. I doing OK.’
Hanging up the phone you shake with sobs, finally expelling the terror of that distant night—the meatballs, the punch, the fall in the gutter and the cut on your cheek. You slump on the timber bench and hold your head in your hands.
There’s one last memory…those other painful words: ‘You shamed to be my son? You don’t want to help the family?’ he had shouted.
That night, you didn’t know the answer to his question. But now you do.