My mum loves to do the bolt. For her it’s a game until it turns too real. It starts as a playful hop and a jog past some houses. She exhales with a smile then and her eyes expand so much that her brow lines fold. And then she is gone. And then she is bolting down a footpath with her house keys in between her knuckles like jagged bronze knives.
The first time it happened I was in year five and she was walking me to school in the morning. The soles of my original three-stripe shoes scraped on the ground. She turned around to see me squatting on a low brick fence like a gargoyle. Her cheeks fell still, her mouth dropped, she turned around and started running. I thought it was a game so I started following, sometimes running, sometimes skipping until she started screaming ‘Boithia! Boithia! Vrykolokas!’ I caught up to her a few houses away from my school because she’d tired out by then. I calmed her down and after that never asked her to take me to school again.
She looks just like me and at the time it made me sad to think that she couldn’t see who I was. We both have broad noses, big eyes and heads that are so large it’s hard to find hats. When I showed a photo of her to my friends, they said she looked like me in a wig. In time I accepted that some days she wouldn’t recognise me.
When we had a VHS machine, my mum would stay up all night. Her favourite thing was to watch horror movies like Scream, where the last survivor was a girl. When we rented a video from Blockbuster Video she would always fast-forward through the film. Other times she would stay up for the late-night movie and wait until the last quarter of the film. Only then would she press the record button. She never liked gore or violence and often turned her head when a minor character was being killed. She told me that when the woman is murdered it looked too much like a porno. She just watched the parts of the film where the blonde cheerleader or brunette but conventionally attractive poindexter ran through a suburban street or forest or sporting field. The character’s feet would go pit pat pit pat on the path or dirt or grass and just as she almost got away, she would fall over debris that hindered her escape. Mum’s eyelids would flicker and her hand would float up towards the screen, reaching out to the girl with all her fingers trembling. I tried shaking her out of the trance once, but she just took the remote, rewound the scene and watched it again.
Sometimes I think about the man with the shaved head and oversized pants. I picked him up in public once and can still see him on the VCR tape in my head. The tracking needs to be adjusted, but when the streaks stop I see his shaved head and the way his eyes darted up when I locked the car door from the driver’s side.
I was in primary school when I told my teacher Ms Fredricks about my mum’s problems. She didn’t believe me until the end of class when she saw mum was wearing a pink cardigan over a purple top. Her waist-length hair was starting to get lines of grey in it. She had it in a ponytail and she recently cut herself a very short fringe, about one centimetre in length. The ponytail was tied high on her head with a rainbow bobble that had a pink elastic. I watched Ms Fredricks from a distance as mum hugged me and put the cardigan around me. The next day the vice-principal came to our apartment. Mr Pawley looked like Mr Sheen, the cartoon man that advertised a cleaning spray. I had hopes that he would do something. Perhaps he could clean away the damage in her brain. He was short, with a brown ring of hair around his bald head and a moustache. Mum made him a Greek coffee and told him about all the factories she had worked in. Mr Pawley said, what an imagination I had, and that I was good at making up stories. This was before I realised that there would be good days and bad days.
Mum has been 75 years old for a while now, but no-one really knows. She was born on a goat-fucking mountain that’s on an island and at the time they didn’t keep records. Even if there were records of her birth it wouldn’t matter because the place where they kept records was smashed to build a hotel called White Rocks Rooms. The records of the births and deaths in her family would show six little girls being born before her and all of them dying in mysterious circumstances.
She told me once that she only found this out when some school children in the village asked where her sisters were. It explained why they lived on the furthest edge of the village and at Sunday church days they didn’t mix with the rest of the community. I think that sisterly absence made mum reach out to other women. I used to perceive them as women in distress, but to her they were just part of the friendly sisterhood. I have always been envious of the way she kept them around despite her failing mental health. They accepted and loved her. They made her food when she was sick and they were there every time I took her into the community mental health clinic.
We used to watch the horror films on television when they were classified as adults only. On Saturday nights I would stay up late, past the eight-thirty family adventure film. I would secretly hope for films with sex where I might see the cheeks of a man’s arse as he pumped away. But mostly I watched horror. One Saturday night mum and I sat next to each other, sharing a blanket. We were watching Jason chase his sister down the street when mum pressed the record button. I asked her why she liked those moments in horror films. She said, ‘Because I feel how they run.’ It made me wonder about my dad and what happened to him before I was born.
Before I realised that mum wasn’t scared of me, that someone or something had made her brain go wrong, I wondered if there was something in me that was bad. I thought I should do some tests to see if it was there and to find out if I was the final girl or the one chasing her.
When I was a teenager, my favourite project was about Sparta. I’d found out that the Spartans sacrificed their impaired babies. On a big piece of paper I wrote ‘This is Sparta’ in bubble writing. On the bottom I put a timeline of events like battles and the roles of the kings. In different paragraphs I wrote about daily life and smuggled in information about men who would be encouraged to have same-sex relations with their soldiers, so they would fight harder to protect them. This was the relationship I wanted. A lot of gym, tan, no shopping and fighting to the death to protect our home. After I finished the project, I wondered about finding my own soldier to fight and die for. I packed away my coloured textas and told mum that I was going for a walk. She never questioned my late-night walks—in Greek culture we have a historical context for the contemplative constitutional as evidenced by Plato. I headed down the stairs of the apartment and emerged into the yellow light. The air was still and the roads were free of cars.
To amuse myself I enjoyed the symmetry of front yards with concrete where the grass should be. I found the clean lines calming, the clutter-free yards were in contrast to our apartment. I was drawn to olive trees or lemon trees sprouting up in the middle of the concrete. I tried to identify the different types of column heads that held up front verandahs. I could tell which houses belonged to Australians who were elderly: they had tyre flamingos and rose bushes, their front grass was glossy. In the houses that had cars on cinder blocks in their front yard, I heard yelling or TVs that were too loud. That evening I recognised the smell of baking meats and curries coming out of the houses. But I wanted to know more about how these people interacted with each other between the walls of their houses when no-one was watching. I wanted to know about how families with kids and two parents organised their dinner times or what they said when they passed each other in hallways.
On one of these walks I ended up in a back lane behind some houses, where people accessed their garages and the bins were collected once a week. Near one of the bins there were some deflated soccer balls and a shoe box for Reebok Pumps that were the same size as my feet. I stood on the bin to look over the back yard and I saw the house had a vegetable garden near the front and rusty gym set not far from me at the back. I heard the pit pat of feet running and saw a young man doing soccer drills in the yard. I looked at his thick legs with black hair on them. The jersey he wore was made of a technical fabric with a colour block on the chest that amplified the V shape of his chest. I thought he’d be a suitable soldier for me. His skin was a colour that could place him in my Sparta project as a Hippolyte. My Hippolyte had bronzed legs with white shins where his socks had protected them from the sun.
The night walks increased, and I kept watching Hippolyte in his back yard. I thought I was looking for a soldier to fight for, but one time I saw the flash of his stomach under his shirt and my groin shifted. On the cusp of night I stood on the bin and peeped over the fence, watching Hippolyte as he exercised. His rhythmic breath made a pattern of sound in the air. As the night went on it looked like he had dragon breath. He was a little older than me.
The sweat marks under his arms and the cup of his back expanded the longer I watched him. I wanted to know more so I looked through the rubbish out the back of his home. I found mail for the members of the family. Their last name was Stamata, which means ‘stop’. Hippolyte’s name was Stelios. Stelios Stamata. Pillar of steel that stopped.
He went to the expensive Greek private school that we poor Greeks called the Archie’s. It was run by the archdiocese. One day, after a few weeks of watching Hippolyte, my pillar of steel, he took off his shirt just before he went inside. I heard the shower turn on and then I booted the metal trashcan. It fell over, the crash alerting the Stamatas inside. When I heard the back door open I started to run. Hippolyte and his father came out and yelled ‘Hey! Mate! Get back here!’ but I had already run down the street. I hid behind a fence because I knew if that soldier of steel gave chase, I wouldn’t be able to outrun him. That was the closest I came to being chased. I didn’t like it. I never wanted to be the final girl.
One day I came home from my nightly walk and found mum watching a documentary about Ivan Milat. She was sitting on the couch wearing a faded pink robe with ruffles down the side that made her look like a cupcake. I sat next to her. Outside the night was turning crisp and inside the warmth of our box-size television was writing our face with light. On the screen the names of all of Milat’s victims appeared in bubble writing. Mum kept repeating the names of the female victims: Caroline, Joanne, Simone, Anja, Gabor, Deborah. During the commercial break she went over to the telephone table seat and sat down. When she leaned down to get her address book I saw the part of her nipple that met the skin. It was soft and pink and melted into her white skin, peeking out from one of the ruffles of her robe.
I turned my eyes away and heard her recite the names of the victims again as she wrote them down. Later when she went to bed I opened the address book to see the women’s names all written neatly in her perfect calligraphy. All the women were under the M tab.
Eventually I got bored with walking the suburban streets at night. The area that I grew up in was getting more and more dangerous and the owners of the houses had started fortifying them. Windows had steel bars installed across them and people spent less time in their back yards after dark. The outsides of the houses were fitted with alarms and when I tried to go into yards to look through people’s windows the fear was too much. The men around here had this notion of protecting their families from the badness outside. I watched them taking out the garbage, all puffed up in wife beater singlets, their wives just silhouettes standing behind aluminium security doors. I still had that need to watch.
At 16 when I could drive I had more freedom to intertwine myself with the lives of other people. I still hadn’t worked out whether I was like one of those scary men that the women ran from in the movies. But I knew that my future would never have neat front yards or a cloistered wife in a home. So I sat behind the wheel of mum’s Corolla and took to the streets, looking for something.
I drove to parks just outside our neighbourhood where I discovered that certain men hung out at night. I thought the men were like me because they walked around the park looking for something. But I could tell that they were trying to distract themselves by the way they kicked dirt with their Nikes. They had eyes as big as helicopter propellers and their arms loose down their sides, waiting to be outstretched. Under the streetlamps they looked like explorers and under the moonlight their faces looked like Jason’s hockey mask. Walking into those parks for the first time at night, I felt afraid. I was scared as men emerged from shadows and my eyes needed time to adjust to the light.
Brays Bay Reserve was a park by a lake and there were all different kinds of men there; hairy bears, too-skinny twinks, chubs, jocks and chub chasers. Lone bears would sit on benches or walk up and down part of the lake until they linked eyes with some twink they liked. Then they would disappear down a path named the Kokoda Memorial Track, like back in the Second World War. Behind tropical plants from Papua New Guinea the men would pair and sounds of grunts and slurps would float down the path.
One night when I was at Brays Bay Reserve I took my place on top of a small hill where I could see the car park, the empty children’s play area and all away across the lake. A yellow car rolled into the car park and I saw a young jock with a shaved head get out. He was wearing jeans that were big on him and they hung low, his underwear visible from behind. I watched him walk up and down the length of the park and then intercepted him just behind a giant metal sculpture in the park. Our eyes linked. In the dark he was a black cat with green eyes. I grabbed him by the wrist and pulled him into me. I ripped open my button-fly jeans and put my dick in his hands. Black Cat had cold hands. He struggled to get a grip on my cock, and I struggled to get aroused. He tugged at me, moving his arm to move his hand. His eyes were dead and looking off into the distance. I put my hand around his throat and got aroused. He kept tugging at me. I was considerate and aimed away from him at the painted the metal sculpture. Then I told him I was going to the 7/11 to get a slurpee and asked him if he wanted to come for a drive with me.
When Black Cat jumped in my car, I drove straight onto the highway and locked the doors from the passenger’s side. The electric lock sound was a bullet point and I said to him, ‘You should be more careful about whose cars you get into. Might be bad luck.’ He tossed his shaved head back and laughed.
Black Cat stared at the dashboard in front of him. I had recently polished the vinyl with Amoral and the shine reflected light. He told me he wasn’t scared of me at all, that some of the regulars had seen us go off together. Black Cat knew the codes of the sex park in a way that I did not. The other regulars walking around Brays Bay Reserve would tell the cops about the wog boy he went off with. I said that he had me beat but I knew he still wanted danger in his life. Guess that’s what cats do. When I took him back to his car, he invited me to come back to his apartment.
I followed Black Cat down the highway and he turned into a high-rise apartment block that had crumbling balconies and flaking paint. I left my car in the guest spot and when I walked into the lobby he was waiting by the lifts. He pointed at the security cameras watching over us. It felt like a stand-off when we stood next to each other in the lift. Both of us were silent and still, waiting for something to happen.
His apartment was what I expected from a gay man who had a shaved head and wore oversized jeans: a studio with a mattress on the floor, a rack of clothing against the wall and most of the clothes heaped in piles. When the door locked behind me I walked towards him and he stepped backwards until his spine was flush against the wall. He looked into my face and I returned his gaze then glanced towards his crotch. As my eyes rested on his torso, I noticed that his T-shirt was yellow and his pecs filled it out, making it look like a breastplate. His Adam’s apple bobbed in and out of his neck and pushed against his skin. I turned my hand into a ball and put it right next to his head. Our stomachs expanded and contracted together as we breathed.
My hand crawled over to his chin and I held it between my thumb and forefinger, turning his face one way and then the other, examining his cut-glass cheekbones and the rim of his nostrils. I pressed my hips to his and felt a spear rise in his pants. When he smiled at me I used my fist to swipe at his face, feeling my knuckles readjust the ridge of his nose. His face shifted slightly to the side with the blow but he kept looking directly at me. There was pride in his eyes as a line of blood dripped from his nose and ran down to his top lip. It carved him in half and he stuck his tongue out and licked it clean, his lips popping together with satisfaction. I bunched the collar of his T-shirt, pushing my elbow into his chest and leaned into him, my lips across his earlobes. ‘You like that?’ He escaped my grasp and moved to the other side of the room.
When I turned around he was holding two black latex gloves, which he threw at me. I didn’t move my hands to catch them. They hit my chest and fell to the floor. He stood there looking at me, mouthing ‘C’mon … c’mon.’ He begged for the violence but I left the gloves looking limp at my feet. I knew I couldn’t get him to run and I knew I wouldn’t be chasing him. •
Peter Polites is an associate director of Sweatshop. His first novel is Down the Hume; it’s part queer, part noir, part wog and all Western Sydney.