The first time a boyfriend grabbed a T-shirt from the floor to clean up our cum, I felt my view of the world shift. I held it out away from me. ‘What should I do with this?’ I asked. He took it from me and threw it onto a pile of dirty clothes in the corner of the room. He’d grown up in the city; I was in Melbourne by then. I thought about it again later that day: the cum rag that would be washed and worn. The entirely flippant manner with which he’d chosen to use it for cleaning. I’d sometimes lie for as long as I could on his low bed with the residue of our sex drying on my belly, a T-shirt or pair of underwear balled up next to me. It was something I didn’t do in my own bedroom, even with him.
Years later, I sat at a carrel inside the Baillieu Library at Melbourne University and read Krissy Kneen’s Affection: A memoir of love, sex and intimacy. The opening chapter was to me amongst the book’s most striking writing. In the scene, Kneen is naked, bound and blindfolded in a bedroom. She can hear her lover in the kitchen doing the dishes, an entirely ordinary chore. And, when he returns to her and begins the act Kneen has been anticipating, his hands are still wet with dish soap. What was striking? The tension built by the intrusion of Kneen’s bound body into this domestic scene, by the dominant lover’s presence in the next room, a consensual subversion of a deranged serial-killer movie moment? Quite the opposite. It was the presence of the dish soap. The lover’s unwashed hands make the action somewhat unceremonious. That was Kneen’s intention, I think. The dish soap (despite provoking questions about uncomfortable burning sensations) nulls the tension we’re so used to intimating from the quiet interiors of suburban houses. Instead, the tension is all of Kneen’s imagining, part of the game two lovers are playing. The house is just a house.
Being ungenerous runs against the tide of their bloodlines.
When I was nine or ten, a couple with a newborn moved into the house next door. My family lived on a quarter-acre in the middle of a long street one block from the shopping mall in Alexandra Hills, a southern satellite suburb of Brisbane. On the other side of our house was a vacant block that rarely attracted talk of development because it was plain to us, even then, that no one would build there. My father had made renovations to our own house, converting the double garage into a downstairs living room and a bedroom for me, and installing an aboveground pool in the backyard. Our first neighbour was an elderly woman who went to a nursing home or moved to live with family, I don’t remember. In any case, our new neighbours were renting her brick-and-timber cottage. Gareth was in his fifties, balding with a small round paunch and a precise English accent – it was posh, I guess, but he spoke with an authority that made it seem more so. Angela was maybe twenty years younger, from New Zealand and wore perfume and deep red lipstick when Mum invited her and Gareth over for ‘a drink and nibblies’, a welcoming gesture my parents performed out of obligation, just as they did with couples they’d known for years. ‘We should have them around,’ Mum would say maybe twice a year. ‘After all, they invited us for a drink and nibblies at Christmas.’ Dad would make an agreeable whimper. It took me a long time to figure out that my parents were introverts who found entertaining an exhausting experience but would never admit to that for fear it made them antisocial and, therefore, ungenerous people. Dad grew up in the country and Mum is Catholic: being ungenerous runs against the tide of their bloodlines. So, Gareth, Angela and little Harrison were made to feel like innocent intruders in our lives. On Friday evenings we’d gather on the Astroturf my father had adhered to the patio floor to make for a more authentic barbeque experience. We’d call out hello to Gareth and Angela who’d be drinking wine on their own patio. ‘Michael studying hard in his room?’ Gareth would ask. (My brother Michael, the oldest, was sixteen and studying with the hope of becoming a pilot in the Air Force, but preferred not to associate with us regardless.) Angela would single out Nat, the younger of my two older sisters. ‘Heard you playing the piano this afternoon, Nat. I wish I could play like that.’ Gareth, shirtless in a sarong, would raise his chin. ‘It’s so important to teach them about the arts, isn’t it?’ he’d say, and my parents would politely nod and say in their own defence, as if they needed one, ‘They’ve never needed to be pushed, that’s for sure.’ It wasn’t long before my sisters were babysitting Harrison on Friday and Saturday nights. I’d join them for the first part of their shift to watch a video and eat the chocolate slice Angela left in the fridge. Mum would instruct me to go easy on the slice lest it looked as if we’d had a private party in their absence. But if Angela and Gareth were kept at arm’s length by my parents, I didn’t see reason.
God, you might see something you can’t unsee.
Angela and Gareth met while travelling and had decorated their house — sparsely on cream walls and thin carpet — with trinkets and cloth prints from Europe and Asia. They swore and asked us what it was like to go to ‘religious schools’. Unlike our parents, they went out for dinner and stayed past midnight. Angela wore black lacy tops and spoke to us as if we were friends. ‘Gareth won’t go to the movies around here so we’re going into town to see X,’ she’d say, naming a film that meant nothing to me. ‘It looks a bit sexy.’ They had books and were teaching Harrison to count and read because, Gareth said, it was never too early to start. I soon found myself next door, outside of babysitting hours, being led down the hall on my knees by Harrison, playing games with him and watching cartoons far too young for me as Gareth tinkered in the garage and Angela did ‘boring housework’ (I’d heard of housework being mandatory but not boring). It was my neighbourly duty in the eyes of my parents, but it was also the price I had to pay to be included. ‘Harrison loves being around you,’ Angela said one Saturday afternoon, closing the door to the bedroom she and Gareth shared. She looked to her hand on the doorknob. ‘Did you get a peek? God, you might see something you can’t un-see.’
This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #25: The Relaunch Issue. Get your copy now.