Hi, I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories. Today’s story is by Joshua Lobb and was performed at Wollongong Town Hall as part of a partnership with Wollongong Libraries. It was quite the event. In October 2020, one of the first chances for the queer community there to come together after the year’s lockdowns and event cancellations. Joshua was recommended to me as a storyteller through the glorious, interconnected web of queer creatives I rely on each time I host Queerstories in a town where I’m not a local.
Joshua Lobb teaches creative writing at the University of Wollongong. His stories have been published widely and his novel about grief and climate change, The Flight of Birds, was shortlisted for the 2019 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, and the 2020 Mascara Literary Review Avant-Garde Awards for Best Fiction. He wrote this piece as part of an exercise for the acting students at his uni and, when I approached him, was pleased for the opportunity to give it another outing with an audience likely to connect with the tale. Enjoy
Nathan says. “Let’s go down to the water.” It takes me a while to hear him. Everyone’s suddenly got rowdy. Trent just did the world’s biggest burp and the girls are all going, “Eww, that’s gross!” and Dave and Craig think it’s the funniest thing ever. Then Mel does one a million times more disgusting than Trent’s, and the girls cheer and whoop and clink their West Coast Cruisers together.
I don’t say anything. Nathan says, softer than breath, “Let’s go down to the water.”
We’ve just finished the HSC and we’re down at the Apex Park on the edge of town, the one that slopes down to the river. Well, creek. Shallow and gravelly, except for the waterhole downstream. On massively hot days, everyone swims there. I don’t. Mum worries about ear infections and Dad says I should be business-savvy and get extra shifts at Coles over summer. But everyone says it’s the best fun ever.
There’s the water, down there. There isn’t a bridge over the river, just a cement slab that you drive over to get to the other side. Every now and then, a car bumps on the cement and its headlights dip and swerve. The light gets in your eyes.
We’re all up here. The ground’s patchy – a few bits of dry grass, gum leaves everywhere. Over here is Trent and his current-girlfriend Monique. She’s an American exchange student, from… Iowa? Oregon? Somewhere not here. And going back next week. Trent’s got her wrapped up in his German greatcoat. We always wear these, even on a boiling night like tonight. Here’s Craig, his coat spreadeagled. Over here is Angela and Mel. They’re finishing off the last of the Malibu, and there’s Dave, swigging down some revolting butterscotch Schnapps he nicked from his dad’s liquor cabinet. We can now actually buy stuff from the bottle-o, but we don’t. We just got used to nicking it, so why change things? Schnapps is foul. I prefer Malibu.
And here’s Nathan. He’s using his greatcoat as a pillow. He’s looking up at the stars.
Angela says, “Pass us the Schnapps when you’re done.” And Dave says, “What do I get in return?” And Angela says, “fuck the shut up, Dave.” Monique, the exchange student, laughs. I’m right here, in between her and Nathan, and it’s like I can see it sort of floating out of her, sort of ribbony, in the air. Nathan must be able to see it too because he suddenly reaches up into the air like he’s trying to catch it.
I can see the glint of Nathan’s eyes.
Mel says, “We’re going to miss you, like, so much.” She’s up on her elbows, talking to Monique. She and Angela swear they’re going to come visit Monique like, “Soon as.” Monique laughs again like she knows that “soon as” actually means “not any time soon.” Mel’s going to Armidale Uni to do Events Management and Angela’s scored a job as a Dentist Technician. Trent’s got an apprenticeship in his brother’s plumbing company so he’s probably not going to visit Monique, either. Not that it matters right now because he’s got her wrapped up in his greatcoat and he’s putting his mouth over hers. “Get a room, guys,” says Angela, taking the bottle from Dave.
Nathan hasn’t said much about what he’s going to do. I know he’s going to Sydney. He’s good at economics, so he’s probably going to do something with that. I should ask him, but I don’t. I’m okay at economics but I’m not going to Sydney. Dad says uni is a waste of time and money, and Mum says it’s better not to rush into anything, and Bruce, my manager at Coles, says he can probably get me some shifts in the upstairs office.
Dave has crawled closer to Angela and they’re passing the bottle between them. Monique and Trent are whispering to each other. Nathan reaches up into the sky again and stretches his arms over his head. A full-bodied yawn. I keep completely still.
Nathan and I have sat next to each other in class since Year 7. We sat next to each other in Geography, and Science, and History. We learned about compound interest, pretended to read Looking for Alibrandi, got busted making star darts in Metalwork. We’ve always hung out together at recess, always in the same group: Trent, and Craig, and Dave, and Nathan, and me. Riding endlessly round and round on our bikes on weekends, and playing Call of Duty, stuffing faces with Burger Rings and Coke.
I don’t think I’ve ever said a word to him. I mean, we’ve talked about Call of Duty and not reading Looking for Alibrandi, and all that stuff, and eating Burger Rings and everything. But…
In Economics before the trials, we had to do an individual assessable presentation on one of the modules set for study, and Nathan did his on Globalisation and Economic Development. Afterwards, I wanted to say to him how great it was. I was going to, but then Mrs van der Veen came over and started correcting his points about aggregate demand. She said it can be tricky to work out the nuances but it’s little errors that can make a big difference in the exam.
Nathan never looks at me. But he doesn’t look at me in a particular way. You’ve got to look so it seems like you’re not looking.
He’s not looking at me like that right now.
No, it’s different tonight. It’s …
Craig is telling Mel the plot of the new Star Wars movie, and Mel is saying, “Who’s Palpatine?” and “What’s a lightsaber?” just to piss him off because she’s seen all the movies and totally loves them all, but she likes to watch him squirm. Dave is correcting all the bits of the story Craig hasn’t got right, and Angela wipes her mouth and hands the Schnapps back to Craig up, and Trent comes up for air from a pash with Monique and tells everybody that he thought the ending was shithouse, and Monique laughs, and the boys argue, and the girls drink, and Nathan says, “Let’s go down to the water.”
He’s managed to stand up. He looks really tall.
In the exam, Nathan wrote pages and pages. He had to ask for a second booklet. There aren’t any issues about aggregate demand at Coles.
Nathan stands against the flat, dark sky. The stars are like lights in his hair. I’m going to get up. I’m going to tell him how great his presentation is… Soon as.
In the exam, when he was writing out all the nuances of aggregate demand, the hair on his forearms flowed backwards and forwards against his skin.
“Let’s go down to the water,” he says, looking at me. Not soon as. Right now.
Mum says she’s so relieved that I’ll be settled in at home, and Dad craps on and on about the crime in the city, and Bruce told me he once went to Sydney during Mardi Gras and there were poofters everywhere, like, in tutus and everything. Nathan’s already a few steps ahead of me. I look back at the others. My greatcoat is stretched out on the ground. I’m a bit wobbly. It’s the Malibu, probably. Or the gum leaves under my feet.
He’s still ahead of me. He’s following the line of the creek, past the reeds, round the bend to the waterhole. There’s a ribbon of cool air coming up from the water. I want to reach out and catch it.
It’s darker here, and quiet. I think Nathan has taken off his shoes. There is the softest splish as he steps in. There’s still time to, if I want to. I can still go back and crawl into my greatcoat, and argue about Jedis, and confirm the net sales figures and…
The water is sharp and cold against my feet. The air smells of gum leaves, and night-time, and gravelly sand. The water is still, and quiet, and dark. And…
I’m not sure if he’s kissing me, but I can taste the Malibu of his lips. I can feel his hand on the back of my neck, running through my hair. I don’t know what to do with my hands. I reach back and I run my fingers over the soft hair on his forearms. I feel him breathing in the night. His other hand is on my lower back, down the elastic of my shorts. The water sloshes around our ankles. His chest presses into mine, and his groin, and I’m pressing too, and I’m tasting his breath, and breathing in the same air as him, and it tastes like eucalyptus, and Malibu, and cold, and dark.
It’s now, it’s right now. Down by the river. Creek. Water flowing through my body, and through Nathan’s too, and…
And I know that tomorrow Nathan isn’t going to say anything about this. Or maybe he will. Or maybe he’ll come back to town next summer a different person, with a new haircut, and words, and attitude. Or maybe he’ll never come back and I’ll never get to run my fingers over the soft hair on his forearms like I’m doing right now. Maybe Mel won’t go to Armidale. Maybe Trent will visit Monique in Oregon, or Utah, or wherever, and they’ll get married and have American babies. Maybe I’ll go to Oregon, or New York, or wherever, or maybe I’ll stay in this town in Coles in the upstairs office forever. Maybe we’ll stagger back up the slope from the river and they’ll say, “Are you guys faggots?” Or maybe they won’t care or won’t have even noticed we were gone. Maybe…
I don’t know any of that. All I know is that right now I’m here.
In the water.
In this moment.
And anything is possible.
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