Erin Riley: Daughters
By Day, Erin Riley is a social worker, having spent most of the last decade working in community aged care. By night, Erin is a skivvy-wearing fanatic, a Scandinavian crime drama aficionado, Americana folk-music listener, and a real kitchen top. A dedicated reader, wrestling fan, swimmer of laps and lover of food, in a former life, Erin was an aspiring golfer, and once was an editor of UNSW’s student newspaper, Tharunka. She’s regained a love of writing after devouring Fiona Wright’s back catalogue, Alexander Chee’s short stories, and finishing Rebecca Mckay’s The Great Believers in almost one bite. I was thrilled that she decided to use that love of writing to write a piece for Queerstories. She performed this in Sydney in 2019.
We sit in the front seat of my car. You, in the black ribbed dress. The dress you modified with the scissors.
“Do I look too slutty?” you ask, turning to me, your never-nude boyfriend. My head and hands poking out from an oversized flannel.
We’re going to dinner with my parents. The first time since I’d proposed to you on a dancefloor with a crumpled note summoned from my bumbag.
“You look hot.”
I’d have preferred our news to have come from us both. Instead, it was divulged after a visit when my dad began hypothesising, “What the fuck would I say?” if his eldest daughter – me, were to ever get married.
Mum piped up, reiterating a conversation about a celebrity losing an adult son. Dad had expressed how devastated he would be to have to bury me. His internal rationalisation seemed to be:
She may be gay but at least she’s not dead!
“Well, you might want to start thinking about that speech dad, because it’s happening” I croaked.
I’m anxious. I want my family to welcome you in the way yours have me – to ask you about your life.
“I have all that I need,” you say. You kiss me on the mouth and remind me that I am loved.
Holding hands, we close our eyes. Rain drums on the windscreen, the white noise, a perfect backing track to our preparatory self-affirmations.
“Regardless of what happens, we are beautiful queer freaks making life together.” You say.
We step out of the car. The rain has stopped, the low-hanging grey sky is split by a piercing orange orb. A rainbow shoots across the sky. The gay gods are looking out for us.
It really actually was rainbow. Lakemba is full to bursting. There are people everywhere, eating, spilling onto the curb, darting in and out of shops, balancing bags filled with food treasure. We stop at a grocer that looks like the one next door, and the one next to that. We buy mango for breakfast.
Jasmine’s is tucked away at the very bottom of Haldon Street; a no-frills, unflatteringly lit Lebanese joint. A treat without the trimmings. We’re early.
We skim the menu.
Our backs are to the street, you flinch and I jump as Mum arrives, startling us both. Mum’s size matches her personality. Effusive and loud. Her thoughtfulness, justice-doing and imaginings of a kinder world live in my blood too.
Mum’s an expert storyteller. Each story disappears into the next; a tumbleweed of words.
When I unceremoniously disclosed the engagement, Mum had found fault with my newly beloved moustache. The dusty-coloured moustache you’d so tenderly painted on for me with the eyebrow dye you snuck home from the shops.
“I thought you hated the patriarchy,” she decried.
“Don’t you want to be a woman anymore? Why do you have to make yourself look so unattractive?”
At 35 I was finally enjoying all the permutations of my queer masculinity. Mum’s understanding of this grey area in which I quite happily now lived, I thought had softened. For years, I’d been trying to be a better daughter and saw my adulthood as opportunity to make up for all the ways I believed I’d failed them as a child, and not measured up. As if in winning them over, the judgements might be dampened – caught in the back of the throat, swallowed and digested, never to be uttered again.
Crushed, I was too tired to explain social constructionism. My moustache was epic and mum was oblivious to the deep joys it had unearthed.
She ruminated loudly on her belief that the next logical aesthetic step was that I would surely soon tattoo my face.
Dad strolls in. He greets us with an earnest hug and a congratulatory word. He sits down, opposite me. Mum is opposite you. He’s got on a new shirt.
Mum’s adorned with a chunky necklace, a kaleidoscopic blouse, her dead sister’s shoes and I notice she’s wearing her wedding ring, the half she still has – the other half my sister buried in the family backyard in 1997.
The food arrives, wafts of garlic lift our spirits and our hands move fast. Though, as happens often, there’s a lot of storytelling. I fear that we will eat this dinner together but mum and dad may not ask about the thing that has sparked this invite.
My parents, up until this moment have been welcoming of you in my life, even if the questions have been slow as if on an invisible palm card in their hands, a reminder: “ask her a question!” The finer details of interactions and idiosyncrasies you don’t see – only I notice the gaps – more striking, too, in the context of my sister’s engagement – a future wedding where my dad where would know what to say.
An hour in, my fingers greasy. You hold them tight at dad’s first and welcome question – “how did people respond to your news?” Beaming, we recount words of beautiful, affirming friends. Your family’s collective operatic screams and jump of joy – the group hug that left me speechless. Speechless, because in my mind, our minds – we are play-acting. This is a play-act because we didn’t dream of this as a possibility for our life. Individually, we didn’t dream of it for ourselves. Firstly because it wasn’t possible for queers but also, it felt like an ideological queer crime. But we met and we loved and we wanted to have a party to celebrate this wild discovery of a lifetime. To let everyone know how fond we were of each other. That we hoped to love each other for as long as we could, ideally until we died.
Our desire to be married sat next to wanting to fuck it up, sat next to not wanting to have a baby, sat next to wanting to wear a ring, sat next to wanting to fuck someone else with it on –
– sat next to not wanting the only time everybody who loves us gathered in such numbers to be at our funerals.
Theatrically, Mum patted down her chest, bringing attention to the beautiful, kaleidoscopic blouse. Worn on purpose because it was the top she wore to her piano recital. The piano recital I took you to.
“November 25” she said. “That’s when I knew. That that you were going to be together for a long time.” She had noticed how we were separate and together all at once.
My chest feels full – it’s a bodily response. I look at you as if we’ve both shafted the same pill, an understanding of this moment needs no words. Your squeeze on my knee, the biggest yet. It’s huge, it says. Look at this. You are being seen. We are being seen. I feel my chest expanding – as if creating space for this new knowledge. Mum really has seen us in a way that I had not imagined was possible. Perhaps expanding also to hold space for the guilt I felt in underestimating how far my parents could come. That their love for me could live alongside their distaste for moustaches and fades.
My eyes teemed, my eyes teemed tears of joy.
Mum slid across the table a book, neatly wrapped. The card she’d written in mid-feast. “No time before,” she said – because “Your dad was writing his poem in there!” Opening the card, dad’s carefully crafted words were imbued with the nuances we felt; a thoughtful engagement with our queer life.
It was as if my parents had sensed my despair. Their very interest and curiosity was enough – but poetry! I’m not sure what had happened but it was enough, more than enough.
It wasn’t the getting married, the participating in a thing they understood that had hooked them, I don’t think. More that some magical penny had dropped, one jammed for years in the machine – now free, the prize, accessible, finally.
We peeled out of the restaurant into the dark of the night. Dad, off to get the car, you on my left, squeezing my hand, mum with her stick in one hand, the other interlocked with mine. She’s happy, proud even. Looking at you, Mum projecting all her own stereotypical anxieties onto my dad exclaims, “You know your dad, well, he can deal with the Merryns and the Charlottes of the world, but you, you butcher’s hook – he has more trouble with that!”
To what in the past would have had my back up, we could only laugh at. It was a dream sequence – this night. The golden moment at the end of the gay rainbow. The anticipation, the steeling for disappointment – the surprises at each and every turn. Mum clambered into the car – waving us off with her walking stick – half in, half out.
We stand and we wave. The car drifts from the curb. We walk, arm in arm, speechless. We pull the book, ‘The Thinking Woman’, from its wrapping. Mum’s inscription reads:
On the special engagement event,
Dear Erin and Merryn
Our thinking women
Love makes the world a safer place
Love Mum and Dad