Outside the bent metal blinds, a mouse-like Corolla sat parked in the driveway. The streetlights shone off its maroon paint, and the sky behind it was lavender. On its roof a sign read in bold blue letters, ‘FLIENDSHIP DRIVING INSTRUCTOR’—except for the L, black in a yellow square, and the P, red in white. What the hell was Fliendship? A play on the fact that there isn’t an el sound in Japanese, so all Asians can only say ar?
Winston had told me he was going to pick me up, so I reckoned this was his ride. I left my house, jumping into the passenger seat as Chris Brown sang: ‘All that bullshit’s for the birds, you ain’t nothing but a vulture, ah, ah, ah…’ Old mate looked like Carver from Disney’s The Weekenders, skin brown and round eyes far apart on an eggplant head. He’d told the country bumpkins at school that he was Burmese, and the Asians he was Latino. It wasn’t till way after high school, when everyone had cut him out for being a dog—always late from fucking his gopher-looking gf—that I found out he was just dark chink.
‘Fliendship, huh?’ I said, opening the glovebox. The little light inside lit up some CDs, a pair of square Ray Bans, and eight L-plates.
‘It’s when you eat my dad’s cock. Tha’s wassup,’ he said, then lapped at his bottom lip with his tongue, making a wet, meaty, sucking noise. It was loud. The car felt small.
My ass spasmed as I shifted in my seat, kicking my feet out. I felt an accelerator and brake pedal on my side. I asked Winston if they worked.
‘Yeah, but if you press ‘em my dad’ll fuck you up. He hustles in this whip, yo.’
I’d only had driving lessons with my mum in our Commodore station wagon. When I told her that the 120 hours was a figure of speech, as in, ‘It takes 120 hours of practice to get good at anything,’ she said, ‘You’ll get good at driving then.’
Couple days ago, Winston Dw Kickonz Chungiez messaged me on Facebook: yo bro yu free thurs? hit up stockies with me.
The last message he’d sent me was from April the previous year, reading, ‘brrrap, owe yu one’ after I explained differentiation to him. He dropped to general maths after. A relief actually—we sat together in 3u and shit was awkward. One time, my crush of five years, Lakshini Perera, sat on the other side of him. He told me the teacher’d given him extra homework. ‘It’s because I’m black,’ he said with an exaggerated frown. I caught a glimpse of Lakshini’s eyebrows past his head, tight and textured like black ropes.
I first noticed her as she was emerging from the pool at the swimming carnival. The way the sun shone off her brown skin reminded me of the rosewood benches at my grandma’s house, scaly dragons and feathery phoenixes carved into the back. I fell for her, hard. She, like every other girl in our grade, had a crush on Winston.
Right after the bell went off, she asked if she could borrow his rubber. Slipping his pencil case into his Nike polyester drawstring bag, Winston said, ‘Nah.’ Slack cunt. But maybe being a dickhead who didn’t give a shit was why she liked him and not me. We got out the classroom and passed by a glass display of dried leaves with a stick insect. ‘Bitches here be dumb and ugly, hey?’ he said. I nodded, even though I didn’t know any bitches from other schools.
Outside, the T-Way glimmered silver as we headed to Stockies in Wetherill Park. I glanced over and noticed the outline of his flat face, the bits of jagged onyx strung around his neck. I wondered what it was like to be him. At a red light he shifted to neutral—the car was an auto.
Stocklands was wide, flat, and the orangey-beige of a rockmelon shell. It reminded me of a Mexican villa, except lit up with signs for Big W, Target, and Woolworths. Winston parked a fair distance away from the shopping centre towards Savanas, a restaurant that had hosted everybody’s birthday parties throughout year 8. We wore billowing button-ups tucked into pre-faded jeans and ordered pasta like we were grown. Winston and I got out the car. He grabbed a Big W bag holding a Breville juicer from the back seat. He fished out a plastic security tag and told me to slip it into my pocket. ‘Can you be cool about it?’ he asked, shrugging and jerking his head to the side like he was trying to scratch his ear with his shoulder. It made him look khó chịu, like a grumpy pain in the ass.
I didn’t know about cool. At lunch, Winston played basketball at lunch with the guys in our group. I sat with the girls, which made me a girl. I couldn’t shoot for shit. And I’d never stolen before, but maybe helping Winston out today would put me in his league.
‘Yeah, I’m chill,’ I said.
Winston went into Loose Threads first and picked out a couple of clothes. I waited until he headed into the change room to enter. My security tag set off the sensors. They beep-screamed. I stood still. My heart tried to escape out my ears. I looked at the manager, a tiny-framed generation 1.5 Viet—born there, raised here—who’d turned to look at me. My shoulders cramped as I shrugged them. Could he tell how nervous I was? He gave a fish-lipped smile as he shook his head. As the sensors kept going off, Winston left the changing room and slipped out the store. The corner of the Breville juicer box grazed my leg as he walked past me.
I met up with Winston in the food court. People were sitting in black, white, or Shrek-skin chairs. He’d ignored me the entire time in Loose Threads. It reminded me of those Wednesdays he’d sit on the fence surrounding the giant bottlebrush trees with the boarding school students, the Aboriginal and white students. Sitting with their filthy Volleys on the silver seats opposite the demountable English classrooms which smelt like Devon inside. Winston and I never made eye contact when he was hanging out with the Aussies, even when the boarders called out hi to me. I wondered whether he did that just so he could be the only daygo who hung out with the bumpkins. They didn’t mingle with the Asians much cos they thought we were high-strung nerds. But their parents were born here and they were loaded, so they didn’t get why we cared about marks so much. Winston kicking it with the boarders meant that he was both smart and laidback. A racial capybara, chill with everyone.
Winston shouted me an Oporto Triple Bondi burger as thanks. Before we left, he went to Smokemart for a deck of Ice Blasts. He chucked the juicer box in the car. We leaned against the hood and smoked. Opposite us stood a bunch of Lebs—the men bulky with tight-cropped haircuts, wearing T-shirts bearing neon Japanese and thick-bodied women with heavy under-eyes and sleek hair. Two nearby electric blue WRXs were parked next to each other, one pumping bass into the night. I looked away before they caught me staring.
‘Ay fags,’ yelled a voice whose throat needed clearing. I turn to look. Its owner was short and fat with a fuzzy rodent face and a mono-brow like Agro. He was standing in front of one of the WRXs. I couldn’t tell if he was an especially hairy, confident 13-year-old or a stumpy 23-year-old who sounded like Lindsay Lohan.
‘Give us a smoke,’ he yelled.
Winston had the cigarettes. But he was staring at me real hard, eyes flicking towards Ratty Manboy. I’d never seen him like this before. He was supposed to be smooth, cool, invulnerable. Unfuckwitable. Did he think this kid and his cousins were gonna jump us? Shit. Were they the real deal, or were they a buncha hard kients revving up their Rexys when their rents were out of earshot?
I looked over at the Ratty Manboy. The Lebs behind him laughed like cavemen, but they were in their own conversations. They weren’t even paying attention to their little man. They reminded me of the huge groups of people at the Livo Westfields on Thursday nights. Mum closed the shop at 8, so the evening was our only chance to go out together. I’d walk around the shopping centre by myself though, embarrassed to be seen with my family—I was 12 years old and wasn’t allowed to hang out with any of my friends outside of school.
‘You no love me long time?’ sang out Manchild Ratatouille, hairy hands cupped over his mouth. ‘You no want fliend?’
Winston threw his cigarette to the ground. He got in the car and slammed the door. I followed suit. He was hunched at the wheel, shoulders to ears, breathing hard, eyes fixed on Not A Boy Not Yet A Rodent.
‘Brah,’ I said. ‘He’s just being a gronk.’
In that cramped car, Winston’s hands wrung the steering wheel. He was too close, too angry. I heard his muscles tense. Winston started the engine, turned on the lights, put it into gear, and I heard the slap his foot mashing the accelerator. We shot forward. Ratatouille’s eyes widened. I slammed on the brake pedal on my side. Like a puppy whose paw had been run over by an office chair, our tyres yelped. My head rocked forward then back. The car was still for a moment. Ratty was leaning back against the Rexy’s hood, hands splayed and shielding his face.
‘Shit, shit, shit…’ said Winston, hands slapping the wheel as he turned it. We drove off, Winston speeding over the bumps.
In my side mirror I saw Lebs staggering across the bitumen, running after us. Ratty stood there holding up his phone. A light on it flashed and he yelled, ‘Fucking Asians!’
Stephen Pham is a Vietnamese-Australian writer from Cabramatta. He is an original member of the SWEATSHOP Writers’ Collective. His work has been published in the Sydney Review of Books, Overland, Griffith Review, and The Lifted Brow. He has also performed for Sydney Festival, Sydney Writers’ Festival, and Emerging Writers’ Festival. In 2017 Stephen received the NSW Writer’s Fellowship to begin work on his collection of experimental non-fiction Vietnamatta.