Every second Saturday you go home. You still call it home. Like a homing pigeon. Even though your home is now with me. Your instinct is always to head for home. In the fight or flight of the moment, you take off. Home. But not to me. I can’t be homely, not even for you. And I’m not sure I want to be your safe house. I’d settle for being your shelter. But sometimes I think our house is only made from sticks. And sticks and stones break my bones when the big bad wolf blows down our house. Leaving me with nothing but a handful of dust. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Every Ash Wednesday the priest would mark me with charcoal. A smudged cross on my forehead. I am a marked woman. I bear my cross. It is heavier than the albatross around my neck. Who knows if I can rise like a phoenix this time? Your mother cooks you an Oedipal roast and tucks you in. And you sleep soundly. In that childhood bed. Without me. The doona cover hasn’t changed since you were a boy. Beige. Fawn. She still fawns over her dear son. While I try and be your Bambi. But it will never work because I can only offer you stir-fried vegetables or molé chicken. Never venison, even if you are game. But somehow it’s homemade biscuits and gravy that you crave. Home cooked meals. On mismatched plates. You once told me that I was the apple pie of your eye. Pie in the sky. I drive you home every second Saturday and you tend to your garden. Your secret garden. Full of briar roses and day-lilies. A thorny issue, when the day-lilies die after one day in bloom. I am a thorn bird. I impale myself on your thorn. I sing as I slowly die. Alone in our apartment. The only thing you can grow here is bamboo, basil and cat grass. You keep it on the balcony. But I can’t use the basil on my margarita pizzas or spear it on a toothpick of tomato and bocconcini. It’s not mine to take. Consume. So instead I watch it thrive and wish that you would bring me roses instead. So that I could prick my finger and be your sleeping beauty. Spinning your wheel of fortune. The treadmill in our apartment’s gymnasium is no match for the dirt tracks in Riddell. Or the white faded stick you walk to every second Saturday. Countrified. Country matters. I am Ophelia in an undiscovered country. I could be your America. If you knew who John Donne was, but you don’t. So you call me from the telephone seat in your hall until you are too cold to talk. The incubator that is our studio apartment is no competition for the menthol cold at your house. You tell me the cold is invigorating. But I like to be warm. I want an open fire. I want a hearth. Home is where the heart is. There’s no place like home. I click my heels together three times but I am still here.
In my tomb of words
built by the sentences
that didn’t make sense
Typing errors line my coffin
burying me in out-of-place punctuation
Every grammatical mistake
on display for people to recognise
Surrounded by mixed tenses
for people to read
Judging me on how it is written
With critical grin on their faces
when the wording changes
The meaning of the line
In my grave
I wished I knew how to critique
The husband was half asleep when he felt the car slowing. He opened his eyes to see a tall man in a funny hat rushing towards them, arms hanging loosely as if they didn’t belong to the running body. ‘There’s a sight for sore eyes,’ he said.
The tomboy giggled into her hand when the man squeezed in beside her. He was like a skyscraper in the car, shoulders wide, hat kissing the ceiling. He is all solid lines, thought the wife, watching him in the rear view mirror. ‘It’s warm to be out,’ she said. ‘I’d turn the air-con on for you but it’s broken, worse luck. D’you want a drink, luv? Some water. Get him some water.’
The man in the funny hat looked puzzled. The tomboy stabbed a finger at her mouth. ‘Glug-glug-glug,’ she went. The man touched his cracked lips, then smiled ferociously. His teeth were almost green. The wife glanced at her husband, who grunted and passed back some water in an old Coke bottle. The man bowed his head in thanks, his hat clunking the faded ceiling each time he lifted his chin.
‘Glug-glug-glug’ went the tomboy as the man guzzled the lukewarm water.
The wife pulled out onto the highway. The car lurched its protest as she climbed through the gears.
‘Where you off to, luv?’
The man spoke while pointing to a glossy mirage on the dead-straight road.
‘What’s he say, Mum?’ asked the tomboy.
‘I don’t know, sweetheart. I think it’s Russian.’
‘Turkish,’ said the husband.
‘I’m ten,’ said the tomboy. ‘This is my little brother. He’s a sissy.’ She punched him in the arm to prove it. The sissy punched her back.
‘Stop it,’ said the wife, who looked accusingly at her husband. They were his words all right. His son was a sissy. The husband knew he wasn’t supposed to have favourites but bollocks to that.
‘He smells of onions,’ said the sissy, pinching his nostrils shut.
The man in the funny hat lifted a bum-cheek and farted.
‘Gross,’ said the sissy.
The tomboy pretended to choke. The husband laughed out loud. The man grinned.
‘Don’t encourage him,’ said the wife. ‘Where-are-you-from?’ she asked, enunciating her words.
The man shrugged then ruffled the tomboy’s hair. She leaned away from him, into the sissy’s chubby arm.
‘Get off me,’ said the sissy, squeezing himself as far as he comfortably could into the car door.
‘I’m-from-Australia,’ said the wife, louder this time. She pointed at her husband. ‘He-from-England. And-you?’
They all turned to look at the man, who blinked and wiped sweat from his eyes.
‘Owstralia,’ he nodded. ‘Owstralia.’ The hat thumped the ceiling.
‘Gawd, you think he’d at least learn the basics,’ said the husband winding down the window. Hot, noisy air rushed into the car. ‘He’s probably simple.’ The sissy heard sour words fly out of the car into the blue.
‘I bet it’s lovely, where you’re from.’ The wife smiled into the mirror but the man in the funny hat wasn’t looking her way. ‘What about an orange, luv? Give him an orange.’
The man accepted the orange, making curious noises as if he’d never seen one before.
Instead of eating it, he threw it from one big hand to the other, as if the casual fling of fruit might loosen the stifling atmosphere in the car.
The tomboy wriggled and huffed. The sissy breathed through his mouth and used a greasy finger to draw ninjas on the window. The husband half turned towards the back seat, pretending to look at scenery, which was just an unremarkable plain with some tufts of grass, when what he was really doing was keeping an eye on the stranger’s tanned thigh touching his daughter’s leg. ‘No luggage?’ he said looking into the man’s face. ‘No water?’
The man held the orange still and squinted out the window.
The husband squeezed his daughter’s leg. ‘We’ll stop soon,’ he said to his wife.
The man gestured at a road sign up ahead.
‘I think he wants to get out,’ said the tomboy.
The wife took it to mean the man in the funny hat didn’t like them, and she had trouble with that. Maybe her husband was right – maybe he was simple. The car crunched to a standstill on the gravel shoulder. The husband got out first. ‘I’ll drive now,’ he said.
They left the man standing in the thin shadow of a green road sign.
‘He forgot his orange,’ said the tomboy when they’d gone a way up the road.
The wife peeled the orange. It was warm and sweet.
Review by Robert Goodman
Ryan O’Neill is a lover of words, and he knows how to use them. The Weight of a Human Heart, his new collection of short stories, contains a challenging, stylistically rich group of pieces, many of them previously published and a few award-winning. He is part of what many are seeing as a revival of the short story both in Australia and worldwide, led by award-winning collections such as Nam Le’s The Boat and short story novels such as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.
The first few stories of the book set out the main thematic concerns of the rest. ‘Collected Short Stories’ is a story of an obsessive writer who plunders her life for short story ideas and in the process estranges her daughter. The second, ‘The Cockroach’, is a heart-wrenching tale of a young Tutsi girl fleeing the 1994 massacre in Rwanda. In ‘English as a Foreign Language’ an English language teacher fails to communicate with his wife. And ‘Four Letter Words’ is an anglo-immigrant Australian family story, sprinkled with liberal doses of both swearing and etymology.
Africa features strongly in this collection and is the setting for two of O’Neill’s most powerful stories: ‘The Cockroach’ and ‘Africa was Children Crying’. The first, as mentioned above, is a retelling of the massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 through the eyes of a young girl. The second is the story of a foreigner riding out a malaria attack in a tiny rural hotel. This story exhibits one of O’Neill’s key themes: misunderstanding across the cultural divide. Other stories such as ‘The Genocide’ and those set in Uganda (‘The Saved’), China (‘The Chinese Lesson’) and Lithuania (‘Understand, Understood, Understood’) explore this theme.
O’Neill knows how to use words and imagery and he often wields them to devastating effect. Just one of many examples from the collection is this passage from ‘Last Words’:
Opposite his house was a decaying corner shop where years ago he used to get his morning paper. A placard beneath one of the broken windows proclaimed a ten-year-old headline that was as unchanging as a tombstone. The walls of the shop were a palimpsest of graffiti. A decaying building’s last words were always curses, Auld thought.
Many of O’Neill’s characters, in fact almost all of them, love words almost as much as he does – there are the etymologist, short-story writer and language teacher in the stories mentioned above, but there are also journalists, academics, crossword fans and book reviewers. While many of these characters love language, many of the stories turn on their inability to understand other people and the world around them. While this aspect of his characters affords O’Neill the freedom of linguistic experimentation that gives many of these stories their flair, it also results in a sense of sameness to the characters and hence to the stories as a collection.
This is part of the danger in collecting short stories. While individually these stories are inventive and experimental, when brought together they start to appear more like a series of creative writing exercises. Many of the stories retell what is essentially the same story in different styles. The themes, characters and plot lines become repetitive and lose some of their impact, so that towards the end of the collection what should otherwise have been surprising plot twists and character reveals have become predictable progressions to similar ends.
In this respect, the four initial stories discussed above don’t only set the out the thematic concerns of the collection, they form a narrative template for many of the stories that follow. Interestingly, this approach is echoed in the story ‘Collected Short Stories’ in which the mother of the narrator continually reuses the events from her life in different guises in her short stories, as the narrator complains:
In my third year at uni after I had read my mother’s latest story (in which I lost my virginity yet again, and my father died once more), I decided to get a tattoo.
Overall, The Weight of a Human Heart is an impressive collection of stories. The range of styles and use of language is engaging and effective, and if you are at all interested in the future of the short story as a literary form, both in Australia and internationally, then this book should be on your list. As a collection, however, the stories tend to lose their power. Given this, the best way to appreciate these stories is to savour them, slowly and individually.
The Weight of a Human Heart
Black Inc, 2012
225 pages, $27.95
If you haven’t heard of John Clanchy then Verity La is going to fix that. Clanchy was born in Melbourne in 1943, but has lived in Canberra, working as a counsellor and academic at the Australian National University, since 1975. Clanchy has published nine volumes of fiction (five novels and three collections), as well as many uncollected short stories in magazines, newspapers and anthologies. His stories have won many awards, in Australia, Europe, the US and New Zealand. His novel The Hard Word won the 2003 ACT book of the Year in 2003, and his collection of stories Vincenzo’s Garden won both the same prize in 2006 and the Steele Rudd Award the year before. In addition to literary fiction, Clanchy has co-authored two detective thrillers with Mark Henshaw If God Sleeps and And Hope to Die, both now appearing in French and German. His most recent collection Her Father’s Daughter, five long stories dealing with the complex and often fraught relations between fathers and daughters, was published in 2008. Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone.
When did you start writing? And what was the original motivation?
I guess there are two ways of answering these questions, both relevant to what happens later. I first began to write – in the simplest sense of beginning to form my letters – in Grade One under the fearsome eye of a very tall Irish nun with a wart on one cheek, in an ugly red and cream brick building on the outskirts of north-western Melbourne in 1948. This was the parish church school of St Raphael’s in West Preston where we were ‘learnt’ for sixpence a week, and beyond it lay the open fields and farms which became the suburbs of Reservoir and Regent. There were sixty of us in one perpetually chilly classroom and we wrote in cheap, lined exercise books with narrow black lines for making small letters and more expansive blue lines for big letters. My motivation for writing back then was pure fear. Sister Xaveria roamed the rows of desks like a malevolent mobile metronome, a heavy wooden ruler flicking left and right in her hand and cracking the knuckles of any child stupid – or simply cold – enough to go outside the lines. This was the first lesson I learnt about writing: you’ll come to no harm so long as you don’t go outside the lines.
At the age of eleven my father rescued me from the nuns and sent me to the Jesuits. Here we learnt Latin, the language of the Church, and one clearly superior in every respect to English. We learnt to parse, to break sentences into their constituent parts and classify them. We learnt to write essays – usually on social, historical or ethical topics – never poems or stories since these were frivolous forms of self-expression. The purpose of education was to master what had been said by scholars through the ages, not to give vent to our own callow thoughts or feelings. An essentially mandarin education.
I was quite a stupid child and accepted all of this on faith. I was in fact so slow that it wasn’t until the middle of a Classics examination at the end of my second year at Melbourne University that I looked up for a moment from the tasks I was engaged in – composing a sonnet in Latin in Vergilian alexandrines, and translating into the Latin of the Age of Augustus the back page of the previous weekend’s Melbourne Herald newspaper, most of it, as I remember, cricket results and a long account of a golf match – and asked myself, ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’ I switched the following year to English language and literature, and began doing bits and pieces of my own writing, which always seemed to involve going outside the lines, though it was years before I gathered the courage to show anything to anyone else, even friends.
So – to get, finally, to the real point of your question – I was a very late starter in the business of writing and publishing stories. I was probably thirty-five before I settled to it seriously, and I’ve been caught up in a love-hate relationship with the practice ever since. My motivation? Two-fold, I guess. First, an inward, inexplicable pressure to get stuff down (there was a lot of personal turmoil in my life at the time and writing stories about it and about my life to that point – autobiographical material, family stories – proved a way of releasing that pressure and also a way of objectifying things which troubled and puzzled me and which no other form of expression offered). I had tried poetry but found that every poem I wrote was a tired echo of what I had studied or read.
Second, I wanted to become part of the community of those people whom I admired most in the world – writers – and that was the reason I began, very hesitantly, to show a few of them my work, and it was through them that I got both initial encouragement and later entrées to publication.
From fear and writing between the lines, to community and writing outside the lines – might that be every writer’s journey. Despite starting ‘late’, as you say, you’ve achieved a remarkable publishing record. Ultimately, what does publication mean to you?
When I first draft a story I never think about publication; in fact, it may even be dangerous to have thoughts of/desire for publication at the forefront of one’s mind. You may be tempted to tailor your story to notions of what is acceptable – to contemporary readers, to editors, to what is in fashion at the time – instead of attending to the organic demands of the narrative you’ve set in motion. Stories have their own inherent requirements – in length, in structure, in voice – and writing to external ‘public’ requirements can falsify the relation between a writer and their material. I’m talking here about getting your story out and down in a satisfactory form in the first place. I’m not saying you shouldn’t think about the reader at all; naturally you should, as in any form of communication. The crucial thing is when you do so.
For me, the reader swims into view when I feel I’ve understood the story I’m telling, and I’ve got it down in a form that is vaguely approximate to my original intention. In other words, thinking about the ‘receivers’ of the story occurs for me only in the revision and editing stages, and issues of ‘signalling’, of style, of clarifying language etc then become important. Until that point, the story is private, not ‘public’ and the only reader is the perfect Platonic reader, who is, I guess, in fact a shadowy, mythic projection of the writer’s self anyway.
More practically, publication is important to me for four reasons.
First, when all is said and done writing is ultimately an act of communication and even if publication means reaching as few as a dozen readers, then the circle of intentionality is nonetheless satisfactorily completed in reaching them. I’m talking about creative writing here, not the consciously ‘private‘ writing of, say, a diary. Writing which never reaches anyone else seems discouragingly incomplete to me.
Second, there is an undeniable thrill in seeing one’s work made public, arising partly out of vanity (That’s me/There’s my name in print), and partly out of a genuine and reasonable pride at having created something that didn’t exist before (You see that? I made that). It’s the same pride as that felt by any maker: a composer, say, or a skilled cabinet-maker.
Third, beyond the initial thrill there is a deeper satisfaction in knowing that others value what you have made. Most writers are congenitally self-doubting, and writing can – in the act – often be more miserable than exhilarating. Getting published is a vindication of all the hard days.
Finally, if you’re lucky you might even get paid for your work. Inevitably any money you do make simply gets ploughed back into further writing (‘buying time’) – but that’s one of the ways you know you’re a writer in the first place.
Is there a story or publication of which you are especially pleased, perhaps even proud? If so, why?
I suppose the story I should be most pleased with is the novel The Hard Word. It gained some good reviews; it won the ACT book of the year and was shortlisted for other awards. And it does have some worthy features: it’s a complex, cross-generational story, and it addresses a range of important contemporary social issues, including the phenomenon of aged dementia (Alzheimer’s), the plight of refugee and migrant under-classes in Australia, as well as the issue of work-life-family balance for women. Technically too it meant an advance in my writing: I wondered whether I could write a multi-layered story (i.e. with vertical levels – thematic, generational) but combine it at the same time with an onward driving narrative (the ‘horizontal’ level, which essentially is provided by the progressive decline and eventual death of Grandma Vera). And I thought I pulled this ‘double-axis’ story off with reasonable success and with a degree of humour – a fair achievement, given the potential grimness of the content.
But actually, you know, the stories writers are deeply (privately) pleased with are often different from the most ‘worthy’ or well-regarded ones. The story of mine I’m privately most proud of is Lessons from the Heart, which is the sequel to The Hard Word. This novel appeared, received a couple of pleasant reviews and disappeared without trace in a matter of a couple of months. In a recent reading group about a different book, one of the participants said to me: ‘You know, I think your best writing is in Lessons from the Heart. What I don’t understand is how a nearly seventy year old male can get inside the mind of a seventeen year old girl like that – let alone sustain it for 300 pages.’
It’s the nicest thing any reader has ever said to me.
I wished it were a phantom pregnancy. I prayed I was really Christine and had been impregnated by the Angel of Music. Or the ghost of Gaston Leroux. Not you. Never you. Never Dale Fiddich. Not Mr Dale Fiddich of Ascot Vale. No letters after your name. Just the school roll at your fingertips. I scrolled through the results thinking that ‘yahoo’ must be a sick joke in this context. A sorry smorgasbord of choices. ‘It won’t be long now,’ I told myself, ‘not too much longer.’ I scrolled more furiously. Titles blurred. Blue font filled the screen. I felt the buzz in my veins. Life blood. Blue veins. Blue like the computer screen. And the Wedgwood my mother had locked away in the crystal cabinet. Just in case. Fear of the two ‘S’s: smashing or selling. But I had never wanted to break china. Only men’s hearts. And I couldn’t be bothered stealing either. China and hearts weren’t worth all that much in the end. They couldn’t smother or suffocate or crush so I had no use for them. I clicked on the third website.
Sheryl Lynn Massip placed her six-month-old son behind the tyre of her car and ran him over, repeatedly crushing his head.
Josephine Mesa beat her two year old son with a toilet plunger then buried her battered baby in a trash bin.
I didn’t have to read the screen, I knew it off by heart. But seeing it in print made it real. Made it possible. Made the blood rush to my head. Made the plane ticket under my pillow my last chance. Last week I had been given a Barbie suitcase on wheels. Small enough for hand luggage. Pink enough to be mine. You told me that New York would make it dirty. Your orange case was filthy from all the travelling. But I wasn’t going to New York. Not this time. No little apartment in Brooklyn. No Empire Diner or Tom’s Restaurant. No celebration eggs sunny side up. No eggs at all. Ever again.
If only they had photos on the website. Photos of the dead babies. Photos of the mothers’ relief. The mothers’ first uninterrupted night of sleep since the baby’s birth. No conscience. No Macbeth to murder sleep or somnambulist Lady Mac to wring her hands. Just joy. Joy at the silence. At having your life back. At being in control again. And having bubble baths and a social life and young friends who have never contemplated being stitched up after giving birth. My best friend’s dad fainted during a video of a woman giving birth in a Health and Human Relations class when I was in primary school. He had five daughters. We thought it was funny. He didn’t faint during the video of the abortion. I closed the lid of the computer. I knew when I opened it again that Sheryl and Josephine would still be there. Waiting for me. Inviting me to join them. Special club. Perhaps there would be an addition. I decided to refresh the screen when I returned. Just in case I was already there. For my murderous thoughts. And vanity. I wanted a caramel macchiato. For all of us. Bitter but syrupy. If the barrista asked me if I wanted extra caramel on the top I would tell her ‘only if you criss-cross it across the top. Like ballerina’s ribbons’. I wondered fleetingly if anybody had ever strangled a baby with a pointe shoe ribbon. Starbucks. I remember what it was like. Before I knew. Before the plane ticket. Before the search for filicide.
I didn’t know I was carrying your baby then, I just wanted more tenderness. But you were always scared. Too scared to touch me or bring me daffodils until I asked. You wanted the schoolgirl and I just wanted to play house. But I only had six more months to be a schoolgirl and a lifetime to be a wife. Meeting lonely men in Starbucks was the saddest thing I have ever done. Up until now. If they have sex with me then the onus is no longer on you. It could be any of their babies. It wouldn’t necessarily be yours then and that would make it easier. For when the time comes.
He sees me and I can feel him smiling into the back of my head. I continue writing. It’s his lucky afternoon. He sits down and he tells me about his daughter and his passion for swimming. Solitary sport. Too much time to think in a place too much like the womb. I’m afraid of drowning even though I am a good swimmer. I represented my school in backstroke at the interschool sports. At Oak Park. I got caught on the ropes. Perilous zig zag. I peek at the clock on my mobile phone and hope he doesn’t see me looking. If he had a knitted hat with a pom-pom on the top and a set of mittens he could be straight out of an American Christmas movie filled with snowmen and turkeys.
I know he is the one I have arranged to meet because he looks out of place here. Argyle scarf. Hair too long and shaggy. Not as good looking as Darcy in Bridget Jones but just as dated and daggy. He might even have looked better in a reindeer jumper than Colin Firth. If he has a daughter he could easily be the father of my baby after we have sex. Except of course that I am already pregnant. But that is just a minor detail. Insignificant in the scheme of things. He is nervous and tries to look into my eyes but I can’t give him that. I can only give him my body. Once.
‘How old are you?’ he asks before we leave Starbucks.
‘Old enough. Does it matter?’ I smile at him.
‘Well, I guess not. Are you older than my daughter?’ he presses, taking my elbow like my old-fashioned grandfather.
‘How old is she?’ I reply.
‘Fifteen,’ he continues.
‘Absolutely.’ Absolutely leaves no doubt. I will absolutely have sex with him. Dale is absolutely the father of my unborn baby.
‘But not by much?’ he pushes.
I wanted to scream Freud and Oedipus. I wanted to fiddle with the salt shaker but there are no salt shakers on the tables at Starbucks. I always feel better when I feel up a salt shaker. I don’t mind the glass ones but my preference is for the cold, metallic, phallic ones.
‘Look, are you up for this or not?’ I snap, already knowing what his answer will be.
I return to my computer. Hand on my stomach. Throw my sodden panties in the wash. I pick up Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. I pin up a poster of Brooke Shields and her children. I fantasise about leaving my child with Gwen Harwood in the park.
Late at night. I don’t rely on the moonlight. I have an electric lamp. I switch on my computer. There is another one.
Asuka Lee electrocuted her baby in a bathtub and then buried her in the basement beneath her old toys and clothes.
It wouldn’t be long.
I wish I could say that I had a plan.
But when I eventually decided to say something… it was as if the awkwardness in my gut dissolved and carried me along with it. A moment before, I had been prepared to shut down Skype, close my laptop, and go to bed as though I didn’t have a thousand threads of disappointment squirming like tapeworms in my belly.
Looking back, maybe it was because I could see Mum’s face, not just hear her voice.
‘Actually, Mum… there’s something else I have to tell you.’
Immediately I could see she knew that it was serious, whatever ‘it’ was. Which only made me even more nervous.
‘Don’t worry… I’m not on drugs, I’m not gay, and I haven’t got anyone pregnant.’
What else could she possibly think it could be now? That you’ve murdered someone?
She won’t like it she’ll look at you like you’re a monster and that’ll be it over done finished a disappointment
THAT’S ENOUGH. Just say it. Say it. She’s your mother. Think of your stepfather, your stepbrother- no, she’s my stepsister now… quickly, before you run away again, say it, say it, say it, say it!
‘Mum… I… I have a condition called Gender Dysphoria… I’m a girl.’
Beat. Mum nods slowly.
Another silence. In hindsight, a second.
‘Well, I can’t say I’m surprised.’
That was when the mouse escaped into Mum’s kitchen.
‘What if… hypothetically speaking… I was your daughter instead of your son?’
‘Darling, I’ll always love you. No matter who you choose to be, you’ll still be you.’
I wish I could remember that conversation as it happened. All I know for sure is that we were driving away from the theatre one afternoon. It was cold, but the sun was shining so brightly.
I take a quick look in my wardrobe after hanging up from Skype two hours later. A fluffy black scarf, complete with matching hat. Kitty ears. My favourite skirt. Two pairs of jeans, carefully shaped. Elegant leather boots with perfect heels that I’ve never had the courage to wear in public.
I always told myself that I was good at hiding who I really was. Even now, I’m still surprised when someone, usually someone who I’ve never met, manages to actually see me. That friend of Mum’s whose first thought on meeting me was ‘what a lovely woman he’d make.’ Katie’s first boyfriend, who, just after I’d figured out who I was, took her aside after a long day of Dungeons and Dragons to ask her if I was transgendered. Another friend of a friend, after seeing me from a distance, asked Katie who her ‘gorgeous’ companion was.
Every time it happened, I couldn’t figure out why. I wasn’t beautiful, or even pretty. I was about as feminine as a gorilla, with the hair to match. … or so I thought.
Did you know that every human being is female in the womb? It’s a difference of a few degrees in temperature that determines our eventual sex, but every single tiny embryo starts off as a girl.
‘I wonder if you’re transgendered because you were born premature, Callie?’ Mum muses one evening. We’re both curled up in our respective thrones in that sleepy half-hour between eight-thirty to nine o’clock at night (she in her red-and-white striped armchair, me buried in my nest of pillows on the couch,) so it takes a little while for her question to filter through my daydreams of maiden knights kissing sentient stories and even longer for me to think of a response. It’s honestly never something that I’ve thought much about before, but the thought that I might have been born in that magical period of time just before my sex was imprinted on my brain by those few extra degrees makes a lot of sense.
I try to convey this as best I can without sounding as though I’m about to fall asleep. The last thing I see before I close my eyes is Mum smiling to herself.
Whenever I think about telling my Father, I seize up.
It’s not that I don’t know he loves me. Or that I don’t think he’ll support me. But in the moment that I do tell him, I know that I’ll be taking away his son. And the disappointment in his eyes when I do… I don’t know if I can take that. I really don’t.
‘I’m sorry darling… right in the middle of the most important conversation we’ve ever had- ACK! Kimba, no!’
‘Drop a towel over it, Mum! Drop a towel over it!’
Finally, after a frantic minute of shrieking from both of us, flying towels from Mum, and hysterical laughter from me, the furry invader is trapped underneath a fluffy white bathtowel. Our cat, a sleek ginger specimen, looks up at Mum with an expression of shock on his gormless face. It’s not surprising: to him, we’ve just taken his squeaking, scurrying dinner and erased it from reality.
After that talking about my situation is easy. I tell Mum everything: the visits to the endocrinologist that I’ve been keeping secret, the hormones I’ve been taking, the wonderful way my body is slowly changing. I tell her about how scared I’ve been to say anything, how every time I’ve tried, my fear of disappointing her has paralysed me. She shakes her head.
‘I’m only sorry that you had to go through all of it alone.’
After I tell him, my father sits silently, staring at me. My stomach slowly begins to fold in on itself.
‘I think you’re wrong,’ he says finally. ‘I’d rather you lived a little more of your life before you made a decision like this.’ He sighs. ‘Go on. Get it over with.’
I blink. ‘Wh-what..?’
‘The name. What name have you picked out for yourself?’
‘Callie,’ I mumble.
‘Thank God for small mercies. When was Gender Dysphoria first recognised as a condition?’
‘I-I don’t know.’
‘I say this to all my patients: become an expert on your condition.’ He takes a sip of wine. ‘If you expect me to take this seriously, you’re going to have to put in the work for me. Can you do that?’
Something inside me snarls. What do a few dates have to do with how I feel, with what I’m trying to explain to him?
‘You haven’t disappointed me. I’ll always love you, and I’ll never judge you. I’ll do whatever I can to support you.’
‘But I am going to challenge you every step of the way.’
I don’t reply. Around us, the bustle of the restaurant continues unabated.
It’s my twenty-second birthday.
Growing breasts hurt. They remind me of the growing pains I used to get in my elbows when I was younger: dull, prickling aches that can last anywhere from a few seconds to an hour or two. Sometimes they grip me so tightly that I have to grit my teeth. Once, I forgot that they were there and whacked them against a doorframe: I used expletives that I never thought I knew and have never thought of again. So many different pains, large and small, chasing each other across the growing wonder of my chest.
I love them all.
When I first talked to my supervisor about possibly putting the story of my coming out into writing, he was enthusiastic, if a little wary.
‘I think it’s an amazing idea… I just hope you can do it. Whenever I try to write about my own coming out, it comes out sounding like rubbish!’
I think I know what he means now. This story is so close to my self, the core of who and what I am, that actually trying to put it on paper is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. Impressions become mixed, events and dates blur, feelings whirl together in a maelstrom of extremes eight years in the making. How could I possibly set out a story like that in a way that makes sense?
Perhaps I don’t have to. Perhaps I can be content with this. After all, my journey has only just begun.
I’m hunchbacked over keys, typing faster than electricity, and I’m melting into the couch and the clackettyclackettyclack is the erratic rhythm of everything and everything is about to come together when a subtle sound (‘fftt’) jabs my reverie. I swivel my neck, possessed, looking for the sound. My eyes laser to the sliver of blue hall-light under the door. A sudden white rectangle slid there also. I clamber over the back of the couch, scamper over electronic, organic and uncategorised waste. An envelope. No address, just two words: CLUE ONE. Grasped. No contents. From that, my first and last case begins.
My apartment: an office. I make a sign bearing ‘P.I.’ and affix it to the desk/couch, then venture out into the aqueous corridor, to the garbage disposal. The two-doors-down lady across the hall, she doorway glares, all curlers and stareful judgement circuits, bags of fluid. I size her up with detective instinct to instantaneously decide she knows nothing and so hiss at her. Slam. Well, good. I investigate the chute, peering down darkness. Nothing. Process of elimination rocketing to victory. Scuttling return to office, shifting eyes, swipe my card and enter, almost slipping on another rectangle, deposited while my back wasn’t watching.
Horizontal, I later lay in wait, forehead to doorjamb, eyeballs moist and freshly peeled, scanning up and down the glowing hall sliver. But: fruitless. I reluctantly hobble off to excrete stench into my cubicle. Awaiting my return, secreted into my cleared sentryway is yet another accursed postal infiltration. Clearly a well-matched adversary, pending nemesis. Roll the dice, make a move, hide, seek, repeat. I hold my poor poker player hand triptych and consider the portents of their contents. CLUE ONE: empty. CLUE TWO: ‘get out’. CLUE THREE: ‘or else’. Certain of warning and meaning in the envelopes, I deduce espionage.
Constant beyond shutters, dark hours hurtle into light relentless, like the insect vehicles below far. My cybersearch yielded little, my calculation literature: inconclusive, but I hesitate to look further than askance. Through the dim, I sustenance slurp from tins of oiled cabbagefruit, keep attuned with high-vol rumblewave. Perseverance. But the peeking mystery morning prickles my retina, vicegrips my mindmince. A vendetta to sleuthtaunt, sinister epistles, communiques of gumshoe confoundment, slow beckon, stupor greyout. I awaken in sixth-sense seizure. CLUE FOUR arrived as I snored. ‘Final Warning’: the fine-fonted memo within. My clockwork jigsaw conundrum clicks and whirrs, self-constructs revelatory panorama.
It’s that trickly hepcat downhall: Klaus Dagmar! With his cursive whiskers, typographical spectacles and poisonous flares – Nemesis! Incipient checkmate, elaborate takedown. Finally: hallbound. I go to grapple with his doorbell, with bundled documents, holstered eviction drafts. But affixed beneath his door numerals: CLUE FIVE. Prodigal evidence. Victory grin. Momentary clutched, then taloned apart. I blindburst inhale a choke of white. Spore scrabble, hollering revulsion, jarring bellowing enemy mirth behind doors. Headpipes sizzling, tumbling elevator evac, whooshing earthbound, spluttering apocalyptic. My initial mission: de-mystery. Now: pending detective infection hospitalisation bracket incognito vagabond eviction peripatetic itinerant endbracket. End investigation. Ever-closed case.
‘Look at me. Listen to me. This is who I am.’
CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS
A special project of Verity La, and a collaboration with Calli Doyle-Scott from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Out of Limbo is a web-based series that aims to collect the ‘coming out’ stories of Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Intersex and Bisexual individuals, as well as the ‘secret stories’ of those people who haven’t yet come out but want to do so.
What we’re looking for:
- short stories of up to 2000 words, based on or telling the story of your own ‘coming out’. We’re also looking for ‘secret stories,’ the stories of Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Intersex or Bisexual people who haven’t yet come out, but who want to do so, that tell us why they have decided to remain silent. These could be anything from the first conversation you had with your family about your sexuality, to the moment you first realised the truth about your own sexuality. Be creative, be brave, and above all be true to your own thoughts and feelings.
- We want well-written stories; the better the quality of your writing, the higher the chance that your story will be selected.
- If you wish, you can submit your story anonymously or under an alias.
- Send all submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org
- Submissions close on the 22nd of July 2012.
From Out of Limbo project editor Calli Doyle-Scott:
‘For Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Intersex and Bisexual (GLTIB) individuals, the realisation of their sexuality, and the moment they reveal that realisation to someone else, are two of the most important moments of their lives. For many of us, this act of ‘coming out’ can define who we are, how our family and friends see us, how we live our lives from that moment on, but in my experience this transition isn’t widely recognised for just how important it actually is. Instead, despite the many advances that have been made towards a tolerant society, people like us are still subject to levels of hatred that are bewildering in their intensity. However, being Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered, Intersex or Bisexual isn’t a lifestyle choice, a sickness, dishonourable, or immoral. It’s who we are. The moment we reveal that self to the rest of the world can be the most exhilarating and frightening experience of our lives.
These stories deserve to be told.’