Excerpt: 'PWIP' by Shirley Le

The guest speaker was tanned and had wide shoulders that strained at the seams of his navy suit. He reminded me of Brad Pitt’s wax figure in Madame Tussauds museum down near Darling Harbour. Back in Year 8, we had a day collecting donations for the Cancer Council. My best friend Tammy and I snuck into the wax museum instead. Tammy pretended to marry Brad Pitt and I pretended to marry Bruce Willis. A thousand people came to our joint wedding at Crystal Palace in Canley Heights. Under the plastic chandeliers, the DJ played ‘Time After Time’ by Cindy Lauper. Bruce and I intertwined our arms and poured whiskey into each other’s mouths while Tammy made out with Brad. A big security guy with skulls tattooed on his neck ambled over. His nametag read ‘Fetu’.

“You Westies are better off staying in school than drooling over movie stars.” His bread loaf hands steered us out into the daylight. If only Fetu could see me in uni now, attending lectures held by Brad Pitt look-alikes.

“Time is money but life isn’t about money. Just be yourself and know what you’re passionate about.” Fake Brad Pitt’s voice echoed along the smooth curve of the auditorium. Each seat was covered in a thick red fabric that tickled the back of my thighs. He wasn’t saying anything new and yet everyone was applauding.

People got up and surged to the front of the room. One girl pushed her way to the lectern and grabbed the mic. She said her name was Kelly Agathocleous and she wanted to thank Brad for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak to us. His name was actually Brad.

I left the lecture and wandered to the food court. While I stood in line, I looked up Brad’s multi-million-dollar juice company on my phone. It was called Better Leaves and the head office was in Surry Hills. I tapped on Employment Opportunities and saw that Better Leaves were also offering five internships for undergrads. All unpaid. I ordered a lasagna with extra cheese and sat on damp grass. My thumb was covered in red sauce when a long shadow was cast over me. It was Carina Tan, a regular HD scorer with posture like a prawn. She had a thin face, thin lips and thin black hair drooping all over her pale collarbones. Without saying a word, Carina licked her index finger and dropped a shiny pamphlet. The sheet of paper spiralled down and one of the corners lodged in the melted cheese of my lasagna before it nestled in my lap. Then she walked off. The golden letters on the pamphlet glowed like brand new coins. “PWIP. Put Women In Power,” I murmured.

Our first meeting was in C5T2, one of the accounting tutorial rooms at Macquarie Uni. There was a bowl of browning guacamole on the table. Carina Tan ripped open a bag of Doritos and put it beside the guac before scuttling away. She sat in the corner, hunched over her notepad – expecting an apocalypse by the looks of it. The rest of us three girls hovered near the food. My fingers nervously pecked at the dip, unsure what would happen if I ingested rotting avocado. Another girl, South Asian with vitiligo around the corners of her mouth and thick hair gathered in a plait that lay against her spine, scooped up a handful of chips and took a seat in the front row. The remaining girl had Paris Hilton’s straight nose and Ray-Bans combing back her long blonde hair. She rolled her eyes at the guac and chips and also sat in the front row. I swirled my fifth chip into the dip and took a seat in the second row. Sitting in front rows is never a good idea. It would be too obvious if you tried to sneak out.

Then a plump girl walked in with the strut of a rooster, chest puffed out, footsteps calm and deliberate. Kelly Agathocleous. President of PWIP.

Up close, Agathocleous had an egg-shaped head with a brown top knot. She was wearing a grey coat that had silver buttons and a furry collar. As she spoke, the freckle on her upper lip barely moved. Something something... “Thanks for coming here.” She stared at my forehead the whole time.

Agathocleous reached into her bag and pulled out a book that she said changed her life. On the cover was a middle-aged woman with a sleek brown bob, pearl earrings and a white cardigan smiling with all her teeth showing. Her knuckles were tucked beneath the left side of her chin. The rest of her body was cropped out and her head rested above the title Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. I wanted to wipe the sweat from my upper lip but my fingers were gritty with Dorito crumbs.

Clutching the open book in her ricotta hands, Agathocleous recited a few lines: “Women hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, by pulling back when we should be leaning in.” Then she exhaled and closed her eyes. My heart beat faster. My hands and legs went all numb. Sheryl was going to save me.

That night, I repeated those lines to myself while I drove over to Tammy’s house in Fairfield to use her wifi. Kyle was squawking to Jackie O on the radio, telling her about a piece of meat that rested between his balls and arsehole. I hit the mute button and wound down the windows of my dad’s old Corolla. The wind pushed back all my hair and I passed the Lansvale Macca’s which had a 2.8-star rating on Google. I promised myself that I was going to be like Sheryl. Powerful and confident. That meant no more sweating and avoiding social situations. I slammed my foot on the accelerator and roared down the Hume Highway. I was going too fast to notice a pothole and went straight over it. The impact lifted me out of my seat. My head hit the ceiling and the seatbelt cut into my collarbones. I was in shock and wanted to pull down the mirror to check whether I was bleeding but the car behind me honked so I pushed the accelerator harder. The front tire became unstuck and I could smell burnt rubber for the rest of the way.

This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #35. Get your copy here.

Shirley Le is a Vietnamese-Australian writer from Yagoona. She is a member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement.