This suburb has not that many trees. A few blocks away I can see the orange neon sign, a petrol station. I pull the car over on the side of a road. We sit in silence for almost a minute.
‘So should I go then?’ asks Corey.
‘Whatever,’ I say. I stare out the front windscreen and after a while Corey leaves.
It’s months since I last did this. I stopped doing this when I started liking Claire and I started watching movies on Friday nights with her and Corey instead of doing this. I only did this once over that whole time, when Corey and Claire were in Thailand.
Corey has never done this before. I used to go alone. Corey is with me tonight because that’s what brothers do in rom-coms when one of them has a break-up; they go out together.
This is called petrol heading. I don’t sniff petrol. This has nothing to do with cars. This is finding a loner in a random suburb and pouring petrol on their head. Just the back, so it doesn’t go in their eyes or mouth, but it scares the shit out of them. Really, it turns everyone into a pussy.
It’s not the kind of thing Corey would usually do. When I first told him about it he said no. He said I was fucked up. Said he was going to tell Dad what I was doing. But I knew he wouldn’t actually tell Dad, and Corey is always bored since Claire left so here we are.
Waiting in the car for Corey to come back, I look up Claire on Facebook. Every time I do this I expect to see Send Claire a Friend Request. Meaning we’re no longer friends. Meaning she deleted me. But this time, like every time, it says Friends. And there it is, her gummy smile.
The first time I ever saw Claire I walked in on them having sex. I wouldn’t usually walk into Corey’s room – that’s not a thing we did – but I’d come home from the cannery and was going to ask Corey what he was making for dinner and I walked in on it, classic rom-com style. Corey’s feet in odd socks at the bottom of the sheets and the back of Claire’s torso and a bit of her crack above the sheets. Corey told me to get out and I remember standing in the doorway, not because I wanted to watch or because I even cared, but because I would stare at any stranger in the house whether they were making a cup of tea or cleaning the windows or fucking my brother. I don’t remember if Dad was home.
The first time I ever saw Claire I walked in on them having sex.
Claire’s blonde with one of those toothy smiles, like, you can see her gums, but she’s hot. She always was out of Corey’s league, but I think that was the point – she’d finished school and been to uni and was experimenting with dating a fuck-up.
Corey has lots of relationships, like guys in rom-coms; he’ll go to the shops and come home with a girlfriend. When Corey worked at the pub the girls used to refer to him as ‘Ten.’ He got fired, though, cos he was too dumb to polish glass.
I remember the first few nights Claire was at home watching TV with us: Dad, Corey and me. Claire asked questions during the ad breaks. She asked me about my last year at school and about work and about weekends. It was like she was interviewing me. Like we were the people on TV.
I don’t remember her asking Dad any questions. He and Corey chewed chops silently in the background as the voices on the ads went ‘down, down, down’. I like ad breaks more than TV so at first found her annoying.
Corey’s returned to the car holding only a packet of Twisties.
‘I told you what to do,’ I say.
‘I forgot the jerry can,’ he says, pulling the jerry can from under the passenger seat.
‘Fuck it. I’ll just go.’ I take the can from him.
As soon as I walk in, the fat cunt behind the counter says, ‘Broken down?’ He’s looking at the Jerrycan.
‘Wilson’s road.’ Fat cunts always nod at ‘Wilson’s Road,’ even if they don’t know where it is, it sounds like a road everyone should know.
As I leave I take a newspaper without paying. That’s against the rules. You should never give anybody in one of these towns a reason to remember you.
I put the jerry can full of petrol in the back seat and hand Corey the paper.
‘What’s the paper for?’ he asks.
Corey opens the front page.
‘The quiz is always at the back, moron,’ I say.
‘What three countries share a border with Thailand?’ Corey reads.
‘Laos,’ I say.
‘Cambodia, Burma, Malaysia.’
‘It says three, dickhead.’
‘I think it’s four.’
‘You think the quiz is wrong?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You went to Thailand with Claire.’
‘I didn’t go to the border.’
I use my phone to look up Thailand. This is how I used to do the quiz. Never guessing, just finding the right answers, straight up. Then Claire came along.
There she was, standing in the kitchen on Saturday mornings looking between everyone – me, Corey, and Dad – like we were spending time together. Like she thought we were a family on TV who spends time together in the kitchen.
But really it was just that Dad was on the porch doing his copy of the quiz, and Corey was making breakfast in the kitchen, and I was on the computer looking up the answers for my own copy of the quiz and all those things happened to be done near each other. Claire would drag me away from the computer. She said, ‘It’s no fun if you just look up the answers.’ It was different for Claire; she had lots of good guesses to the questions.
‘Fuck the quiz,’ I say to Corey. ‘Let’s go.’
‘But it’s still really light,’ he says.
‘Let’s just drive.’
I push too hard on the accelerator, the car lurches forward and the Twisties fall off Corey’s lap, the yellow chips spill onto the floor.
‘Pick that shit up!’ I say.
‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’ Corey doesn’t get my joke. It was a reference to Dad. He mustn’t remember. Or maybe he does, but he doesn’t find it funny. Corey’s weird like that.
This one time when I was, like, ten, I’d told Corey I could do it. He was jealous cos he was older then me and he couldn’t do it. I went to my bed and wrapped myself in my doona. After I’d done it I found Corey in the lounge room sitting on the couch eating Twisties. I had my palm in a fist, like I was holding a bug in there. I opened my palm and showed him it. It looked like clag and spit. Smelled milky, sweaty and dirty.
That’s what it’s always been like with Corey and me – even though I’m younger, I figured out how to jack it first. Corey didn’t even tell me to fuck off, he just looked sad. Then Dad’s shadow loomed over us like something off telly. Then Dad smacked my arm and the cum smeared on my cheek. Then Dad grabbed the bag of Twisties from Corey and threw those in the air. Dad had me by the shoulders, lifted off the floor, our noses were touching.
Dad had me by the shoulders, lifted off the floor, our noses were touching.
‘Pick that shit up.’ Dad kept his eyes right on me even though he was actually talking to Corey. Corey got on his hands and knees and collected the Twisties. Then Dad told us to both go outside. We sat on the porch and ate the dusty Twisties, which I remember making me really, really, thirsty.
That night when Mum and Dad were screaming, Dad said that if Corey and I were faggots he would kill her. That it was her fault if we were faggots.
I would’ve thought Corey would remember all that. I’d’ve thought he’d get my joke. Sometimes I wonder if Corey’s some fucked-up retard.
I drive looking for a reserve or a patch of grass. I drive and it’s like road, road, road. Streets with tens of concrete driveways like small roads leading to people’s doors.
‘Let’s go somewhere else,’ Corey says.
I turn the car around, making a big deal of the three-point turn, like a mum in a movie. I look for the biggest roads. The ones that look like they’re leading to the biggest shops or the biggest parks.
‘Seriously, nobody’s around. Maybe people just don’t go out here,’ says Corey.
I yank at the steering wheel.
It’s what all the rules are based on – somewhere, everywhere, anywhere there is always someone who works late so walks home late at night, or works in the day and walks their dog late at night, or exercises in the dark because they work in the day. And even without any of those people, everyone hates their kids anyway and wants to get away when it’s dark. Somewhere, everywhere, anywhere, there is always someone walking alone.
These older guys from high school had threatened to pour petrol on me once. They called themselves ‘Petrol Heads’ which is where I got the name. Looking back, I’m pretty sure they were pussies.
I can see the supermarket’s neon sign glowing above the houses. I drive toward the shining green light that’s supposed to look like an apple. I’m coming for you, big apple.
‘They’re putting an ad online for entry levels next week,’ Corey says. After a silence he adds, ‘You said you wanted a job.’
‘I said I wanted a trade.’
‘Work is work.’
‘Dad said he’d ask Bill to give me a trade.’
‘Yep.’ Corey sounds sad which is probably because he can’t get a trade cos he’s not tough; he’s more pussy than blokey.
Dad says that in the meantime, until Bill can give me work, it’s good to work at the cannery. He says I should learn how to work before I get a proper job.
I wonder if Dad asked Bill ages ago and Bill said no and Dad’s not telling me.
I wonder if Dad never asked Bill.
It was Claire who first suggested I get a job with Corey. I remember because she called his work ‘the call centre’ and I’d never heard it called that before, Corey always called it ‘the office’.
‘There’s a pub, let’s go there,’ says Corey. I’m not sure if he means instead of petrol heading or if he means to pass the time until it’s dark enough to petrol head.
We can’t go to the pub because we can’t give anyone a reason to remember us, so I park the car near a pier and we get high. (Joints, not the petrol.) After only two or three drags I start laughing at things that aren’t here. I think about Perry Feral. Huh, huh.
The first time I liked Claire was the first time I found her funny. We were watching TV and it was an ad break and the news came on and the newsreader was a small chick with a big bun on her head, the kind of bun you only see on TV and mostly on newsreaders. She was reading the news and then she said ‘peripheral’ except she said it like two words, like ‘perry’ then ‘feral’. She quickly apologised – still in the newsreader voice – and said it properly, ‘peripheral’.
Claire pretended to be the newsreader. She put on an American accent even though the newsreader wasn’t American and said, ‘This is Perry Feral reporting live!’
I cracked up. Dad said ‘huh’, just once. Corey tried to say ‘perry’ then ‘feral’ with an American accent, but he sounded dumb. Claire and I laughed. I’d never met a girl who was funny before Claire.
Claire was good at American accents. One time we were having dinner, Corey put a plate of barbecued meat on the coffee table and I lifted a steak with my fork. I was holding this huge bit of meat on the end of my fork and I said, ‘This is one huuuuuge bit of meat.’
I remember Claire leaning all her weight on one leg, pushing her hips to the side, she held each of her arms out and in an American accent she said, ‘Huge.’ It was a reference to Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.
Corey and I cracked up. Dad turned the sound up on the TV.
That’s what I used to do on Friday nights when I found Claire funny: I stopped petrol heading and we watched rom-coms – Corey, Claire and I. Dad was at the pub.
Claire had learned how to watch telly by then. She’d understood that you only talk to make fun of someone on the TV. And that’s how I realised how funny rom-coms can be.
Claire hated Katherine Heigl the most, so we watched a lot of her movies. We laughed a lot. It was a real barrel of laughs. Even Corey got the jokes, not like now. Corey sort of got things more when Claire was around. I used to hate watching rom-com movies, because my ex-girlfriend didn’t realise they’re supposed to be funny.
I wonder if Mum ever made Dad watch rom-coms.
I wonder if Mum knew they were funny, or if she watched them seriously like other girls.
Corey and I are still in the car, getting high, watching waves still lapping on the pier.
‘Shit,’ says Corey. He’s staring at a cop who’s staring at us.
‘Pussy.’ I run my lighter up and down my joint even though it’s lit. The pig walks to the car with heaps of pretend swagger. He reaches the driver-side window and stands, looking at us in the car. I take a drag of the joint. He knocks a knuckle on my window. I wind it down, but don’t turn to face him. I exhale the smoke fast and hard, the way we used to spit water when we were kids. It hits the windscreen then floats out the open window. The pig just stands there, watching.
I exhale the smoke fast and hard, the way we used to spit water when we were kids.
‘Stare bear,’ I say.
Corey cracks up, but then he tries to keep his mouth closed, which sort of makes him sound like an actual pig.
‘Time to move on, mate,’ says the pig.
‘There’s two of us,’ I say. ‘Mate-ssssssssss.’
‘Time to move on.’
‘It’s illegal to drive stoned.’
‘Yeah,’ says Corey.
‘Just leave and don’t cause any trouble.’
‘Nah,’ I say.
‘Are you going to cause trouble?’ the pig asks.
‘Nah,’ I say.
‘So just leave.’
‘I can’t be fucked.’ I finally look the pig in the eye.
The first time I saw a pig was not that long after Mum had left. A small bit of time when Dad was around a lot. I was lying on the floor beneath my bedroom window. The pigs’ voices travelled in from the front doorstep.
‘Why is that, Mr Ashton?’ asked the pigs.
I walked from my bedroom to our entranceway.
The cop and the lady standing at the door both looked at me, which made Dad turn around. He scooped his arm, like he was calling me nearer. I walked until I was as close as two steps behind Dad. He put his hand on my shoulder and pulled me into his leg, the only time I can remember that happening.
‘I just can’t be fucked.’ Dad was staring at the cop and the lady. The cop and the lady were staring at me.
The pig watches us as we drive away from the pier. Never do anything to make anybody remember you. We blew it.
‘At least he didn’t arrest us,’ says Corey.
‘He couldn’t arrest us. It’s not illegal to sit in a car. He just wishes he lived in America and we were black,’ I say.
‘That lady at school said I should be a cop,’ says Corey.
‘Bros don’t let bros become cops,’ I say. I accidentally stall the car, then I stall it again on purpose.
‘Do you reckon if you met Claire and she wasn’t my girlfriend that you’d fuck her?’ asks Corey. It’s random cos it’s the first time he’s talked about Claire since they broke up.
‘Yeah,’ I say.
‘Did you fuck her?’ he asks.
‘She was your girlfriend.’
I remember Claire asking me if I wanted a girlfriend. She told me about girls at the call centre and dating apps that were ‘cool now’.
‘I don’t want a girlfriend,’ I said, which was true. All my girlfriends at school either had fucked up lives or if they didn’t they would tell me how fucked-up my life was.
‘You’re not even thinking about it. Just imagine it for a second,’ said Claire.
Corey was cooking pancakes in the kitchen behind us. It was late at night. I think this must have been after we watched The Notebook because they cook pancakes late at night in The Notebook and we were probably having such a shit conversation cos the movie was so not funny.
Claire went on, ‘You could have one arm around her and you’d be cruising ’round.’ Claire held an arm to the side, pretending she had a chick there, and held her other arm in front of her, hand in a fist, pretending she was driving.
‘I don’t have a car,’ I said.
‘You’re not even pretending! Pretend at least, Easy!’ Claire used to call me Easy.
Corey’s pan hissed and he waved his spatula in front of his face.
‘If I had a girlfriend I’d fucking crash the car,’ I said.
‘Ian.’ Claire stared at me like chick teachers at school used to stare at me. ‘Ian, that’s not funny.’
‘Has Corey ever hit you?’ I asked.
‘What?’ Immediately she wasn’t pissed at me anymore.
‘Has he ever hit you?’
‘Why would you ask me that?’
I stared at her and we were quiet for a bit.
‘Has Corey hit someone before?’ asked Claire.
I left a pause before I said anything. ‘Nah.’
‘Then why are you asking?’
‘One in every fifty men hit their partners.’
‘It was in the quiz last week.’
It’s dark now. We’ve found the main street. The main street, the main event. Huh, huh.
‘Should we go to a strip club?’ asks Corey.
‘There’s chicks there.’
I park the car and grab my backpack from behind the seat.
‘Dude, we can’t do this anymore,’ says Corey.
‘We talked about this yesterday,’ I say.
‘Nah, that cop copied down the number plate.’
‘He didn’t copy down shit.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yeah, I saw him.’
Corey grabs his backpack and follows me out of the car. We walk past a takeaway shop that sells Chinese and Indian food. Inside, people are wiping down tables and stacking up chairs.
‘I’ve never seen a stripper,’ says Corey.
‘What are you obsessed with them for?’ I ask.
‘I’m single now.’
He has a point. Some guys in rom-coms do go to strip clubs, broken-hearted guys and arseholes.
‘You don’t even care that you guys broke up.’
Behind the takeaway shop and the Big Apple, there’s a roundabout. It’s a more exposed spot than is ideal, but it is grassy. We sit facing the backdoor of the Chinese-Indian shop. The dumpster next to the door is graffitied, Stay High Forever.
‘Fuck yeah. Motherfucker.’ Corey nods to the dumpster as he lights another joint.
They broke up because that’s what couples do when they’re not in movies. I watched them talking in the backyard from the porch. They spoke quietly, like two people speaking in a waiting room. Even the clothesline that was being pushed by the breeze was louder. Squeak, as it went in a circle.
Nobody yelled. Nobody said they didn’t understand. Nobody said someone did something that somebody hadn’t done. Nobody said much but a few quiet words as Dad’s paint-stained overalls rotated on the line behind them.
Nobody yelled. Nobody said they didn’t understand. Nobody said someone did something that somebody hadn’t done.
When Mum and Dad broke up there was screaming. I remember I crawled out of bed to the hallway that was full of the sound. I remember taking slow steps, one at a time, like that dopey walk people do down the aisle at weddings. I remember I opened their door and I remember Mum on the bedroom floor, knees and thighs together, feet angled outward behind her. Hunched shoulders, her hair over her face, like a broken mermaid. I remember Dad staring at me standing in the doorway of his room.
Maybe that wasn’t exactly the time Mum and Dad broke up, but just another one of their arguments. Sometimes I’d hear the screams travelling down the hall, like a protest coming at me. I remember Mum walking into my room and Dad standing in my doorway, pleading with her to go back to their room. He used her name: Louise. That happened a few times and then one time Dad stood there in my bedroom door and served her one in front of me and after that Mum never walked into my room again.
She left not long after. Forever, that is. It’s a better way to go, I think. Wait ’til things are so fucked up that when you do break up everyone is like, fuck yes!
Corey and Claire were together and then they weren’t. It just ended. Claire was around and then she wasn’t anymore.
I left the porch and I sat in the lounge room. I didn’t turn on the TV, but sat alone on the couch staring at the blank screen. I thought about crying. I thought, fuck that. Before Claire left the house for the last time she said, ‘It’s okay. I’ll still see you.’
That was months ago. Fucking bitch.
‘Dude, I told you, nobody comes out here,’ says Corey.
There is no one out, which means that if someone comes out now they’ll be perfect. Only petrol head when nobody else can see you.
‘There was that Indian before,’ I say.
‘That was ages ago and nobody has come out since then, he must be the only guy that works there,’ says Corey.
‘Fuck that, Indian places have so many chefs.’
‘Let’s just get high.’
‘We are high.’
‘But let’s do it somewhere else.’
‘Let’s wait for the cop to come by.’
Eventually three men walk out of the restaurant’s back door. Corey shuffles onto his stomach like he’s trying to hide in the grass even though the grass is freshly mown. The men talk and light cigarettes next to the dumpster and then they split. Two men walk one way. One man goes in another direction. I go for the pair.
‘Dude, what are you doing?’ Corey asks.
I told him we should only ever go for a loner. Corey is following me anyway.
I reach the two men and they turn and look at me and I look at them. I shake the Jerrycan, thrusting it forward in the air. The men start running and I try to run after them, but it’s too hard when both hands are holding something above your head. I throw the can at one of their retreating backs and I yell to them, ‘I have a match. I have a lighter. I’m gunna fucking light you on fire!’ I’ve never said that to anybody. It was never in the script before.
The guys just run. And Corey is running far the other way. The sounds of the men’s steps and of Corey’s are retreating, becoming fainter in different directions. And then I run. To the men. Running, moving, passing rapidly.
I think, I’m going to run as long as I can feel the cold bitumen smacking my feet. Forever I’m gunna hear it thud, thud, thud, thud.
One of the guys looks back and sees me following and he shits himself a bit and a moment later the other guy shits himself a bit too, as in they’re both running faster. So I run faster because they’re running faster and because I bet they’ve fucked off on someone before in their lives and it’s like what goes around comes around or some bullshit and I’m coming for you pussies.
Corey pulls up in the car beside me.
‘Easy.’ Corey says. ‘Easy, mate.’
Thud, thud, thud becomes scuff, scuff, scuff.