‘Dear, don’t do that.’ His mother, lipstick dark, scrapes her knife down each side of her fork, metal-on-metal sounds. She twists the child-safe cap off a bottle of Stilnox and shakes a pill onto her palm. Deep red fingernails. Washes it down with the vodka she is drinking out of a short, fat glass. The ice clinks against the side.
His younger sister, Anna, is sitting opposite him at the table. She reminds him of unrisen bread dough. Two blonde plaits. Playing with her food, she lines her peas up into a tower, fingers smeared with tomato sauce.
In his bedroom he masturbates. It doesn’t take very long. He cleans himself up and rolls over to face the wall. Loud silence buzzes just inside his ears but he eventually falls asleep.
In the morning he comes downstairs, school shirt buttoned up, and puts two slices of bread in the toaster. He pushes down the lever and looks at his mother, curled into herself, as she grinds up pills in a mortar and pestle. These aren’t the Stilnox. The toast pops and he puts it on a plate, starts nibbling the corner and watching his mother as she teaspoons the now-crushed pills into her coffee, stirring.
‘Don’t eat like that, Justin.’
He keeps watching her over his toast, looking at her neck. ‘Do I have to go to school today?’
‘Take proper bites, please.’ She walks from the room.
In geography, a snickering boy passes him a note. Shay Turner wants to blow you. Meet her at the baths. It’s the last week of school and Justin doesn’t like his chances of avoiding Shay Turner at the ocean baths over summer. He looks down at the note, wonders if it’s a joke, isn’t even sure he wants to find out what being blown feels like. Shay Turner has braces and pimples on her chin. He crumples it, shoves it in his pocket.
Justin’s best friend Lila is a chubby fourteen-year-old with wild blonde curls who lives down the street. This afternoon, she’s taken off her school blouse and wears a t-shirt that says I eat my feelings. Justin stares at it as she walks towards him, across the school oval, and thinks that most people don’t have the guts to admit just what they do with their feelings.
She reaches him and nods, serious. ‘Your day, fine sir?’
He can never tell if he’s in love with her, or wants to be her. ‘Nothing to report.’
‘Pity. No year-eight-gossip either.’ They walk towards the front gates, heading home.
‘Slushie?’ he asks as they approach the 7-Eleven on the corner.
‘Of course.’ They share a half-watermelon, half-grape, dash-of-cola concoction. Giggling with their heads bent down as they walk awkwardly, both drinking out of the same cup from two coloured straws. Lila’s is green, Justin’s orange, but they don’t mind if they switch.
Around the corner from home Lila turns up a narrow dirt path between two houses. Justin follows mutely and they come out at the dumpsters behind the milk bar and hairdresser. Lila pulls out a cigarette and lighter. ‘I stole it from my uncle when he visited last month. Been saving it.’ She hands it to him and he puts it between his lips and leans towards her, wondering what this might feel like if the cigarette were to miraculously disappear. She lights it and he inhales, then coughs, shaking his head and passing it back to her.
‘Don’t like it?’ She holds the cigarette far down, near the V of her fingers, brings it to her mouth then lets out a cloud of smoke.
‘I think you’re meant to breathe it in,’ he offers.
Lila scrunches up her nose and throws the cigarette to the ground. They look at it. Justin says, ‘I wonder why people do something so gross that makes them die.’
‘People do all sorts of stupid shit, I guess.’ Lila stamps the mostly unsmoked cigarette under her school shoe and they walk back the way they came. ‘Sorry that was so anticlimactic.’
Justin lets this hang, looking down the street ahead of them. The air shimmers in the heat that makes his pants stick to his bum and his palms sticky. Eventually he says, ‘Actually, something interesting did happen today.’
‘Been holding out on me?’ Lila shoves him playfully.
He smiles, looks at his scuffed shoes, and tells her about the note.
She laughs. ‘No shit! There’s something to look forward to this summer.’
‘I’m not sure I even want a blow job,’ he says. ‘Not from Shay, anyway. Is that weird?’
‘I don’t reckon. Who cares? Maybe you’re gay.’
‘I don’t think it’s that.’ He looks at her sideways. She’s so pretty.
‘There’s nothing wrong with being gay.’
‘I know. Whatever.’ He rubs his palms on his school trousers.
‘I think I might be.’
‘I think about girls that way more than I think about guys.’
They walk a little further in silence. ‘We’re going to the beach this weekend, right?’ Lila asks.
‘Yep. So long as it’s sunny.’
‘Good,’ she flicks her hair over her shoulder, ‘we need to get tanned.’
His mother is doing exercise videos in the living room. She pauses it mid knee-lift to call her assistant. ‘Mandy? Yes. Hi. Can you remind them that everything tomorrow should be orange? Not yellow. Tomorrow’s Wednesday and you know I don’t like yellow on Wednesdays.’ She hangs up, wipes her unsweaty face with a towel and, readjusting the blue sweatband around her forehead, mutters, ‘No yellow on Wednesday, motherfuckers.’ She hits ‘play’ and keeps knee-lifting.
‘Dude.’ Lila whispers, as she and Justin watch from their mostly concealed position at the top of the stairs, ‘Your mum is out of control.’ He doesn’t respond, just watches his mother’s frantic star jumps and wonders how many blow jobs she’s given. He tells himself to stop thinking about that – it’s weird. But the more he tries not to, the more he pictures it.
On the weekend it rains. He sits on the closed lid of the toilet and rubs the part of his chest that seems to hold all his anxiety. Rubs until it’s red and he feels calmer. He climbs into the bathtub and sits down, draws his knees up to his chest. He isn’t wearing socks and his ankles are pale and bony above his runners. He closes his eyes, tries to relax his face, waits for the bathroom-calm to spread over him.
When Lila arrives, he is lying in the empty tub, the doona from his bed pulled all the way over him, tucked in at the sides to avoid gaps.
‘Whaddya doing under there?’ she asks. He pulls the doona back a little near his feet and draws up his legs. She drops her bag to the floor and climbs in, pulling the doona over her head and looking at him expectantly.
‘Outside world’s scary.’
‘It’s like that sometimes. You want some cordial?’
‘Cordial? Yes. Maybe.’
‘Be right back.’ She wriggles out, careful not to expose his head. She’s walking out the door when he tries to call her back, ‘Lila?’ But it’s only a whisper and she doesn’t hear. He wants to ask her to please bring the cordial in his green plastic cup, the one with the pink robot on it, but now she’s gone because she didn’t hear him and she’s going to come back with cordial in a glass which will be almost as complicated as leaving the bathroom. He breathes in and out, rubs his chest. Soon enough Lila returns and hands him his green plastic cup, a blue one for her, and they drink their cordial under the doona in silence.
It’s the first week of holidays and his mother drives Justin, Lila and Anna to the ocean baths. They get their towels from the boot and she sits in the driver’s seat, reapplying plum-coloured lipstick in the rear-view mirror. ‘Don’t drown each other,’ she says absently, rubbing her lips together and searching her reflection for signs of change. ‘I’ll pick you up in a few hours.’
Justin puts Anna’s Floaties on her, the flesh of her arms soft and bulging. He pats her head and she trots off in her frilly, pink-and-white bathing suit. He and Lila wear sunglasses, lying on their towels, pretending they are grown up. Lila sips her Fanta and says in a high voice, ‘Dear, go and fetch me the vodka, there’s not nearly enough in here. I want to be positively squiffy, I say, squiffy!’ and they laugh until tears threaten. Justin watches his sister out the corner of his eye, making sure she always comes up for air. But he tries not to look around too much in case Shay’s here.
‘Justin?’ He squints up at Anna, one of her purple Floaties partly blocking the sun.
‘What is it, corn kernel?’
‘That boy peed in the pool.’ She waves an arm.
Lila shrieks with laughter. Justin wrinkles his nose, an effect for his sister, for he is sure there are far worse things in the baths than someone’s piss.
‘Want to go to the beach, then?’
She nods, bottom lip pushed out. He stands and wraps her towel around her shoulders. She holds it at her chest with a small, tightly clenched fist and he holds her other hand as they walk up the side of the baths and over the squeaking, feet-burning sand to the red and yellow flags. They dump their towels and race each other into the water. Lila splashes about, pretending she’s a mermaid and squealing every time her foot brushes seaweed. Justin crouches so he’s neck deep and stays very still, watching. He turns to the shore where Anna is standing, a few metres back from the water’s edge. For a moment, he sees her growing taller. Braces and pimples, offering blow jobs. But she is small and warm. Soft skin and milk-breath. He wants to curl her around his ribs like clay. He makes his way back, stands next to her and gazes out at the ocean.
‘Do you want to swim?’
She nods. Her small, serious face watching Lila’s large bottom disappear as she dives into the waves.
‘Come on,’ he offers his hand, ‘we’ll stay in the shallows.’ Anna motions for him to lower himself to her height. When he does she whispers, ‘But what if a seahorse eats me?’
Justin frowns, contemplating this for a moment, before whispering back, ‘I think that’s quite unlikely, kernel. Seahorses aren’t very big.’
She nods, processing this information, then takes his hand and says in a firm voice, ‘Don’t let go.’
At home he Googles blow job. Scrolls through endless photos and articles, tips and tricks, how to give and how to get. His heart jumps around, nervous. He deletes the history and closes the browser.
He refuses to go to the baths again. Lila can’t convince him. Anna likes to swim so his mother inflates a paddling pool in the front yard. Lila comes over and the three of them drink cordial through straws. When they get too cold in the water they climb out and lie on their stomachs on the sun-warmed concrete, watch the soldier-line of ants march in single file. His mother will emerge from the house, a bug in oversized sunglasses, and sit on a deck chair on the lawn, a short round glass full of pale orange liquid. Just a splash of juice in her vodka.
‘Don’t forget to reapply the sunscreen.’
‘We won’t,’ they say in unison.
‘Don’t drink too much cordial. Rots your teeth you know.’
‘We know.’ She readjusts her sunglasses and watches her children like they are strangers.
He is huddled in the wardrobe. Two long black socks over his hands to keep them from falling off. When his mother finds him like that, curled into a ball with socks pulled up to his elbows, she lets out a long breath through her nose and taps a nail twice against the side of the door. Then she says, ‘I really ought to have named you Esau,’ and shuts the wardrobe.
Justin sits cross-legged on the driveway, Lila next to him, her chin resting on her drawn-up knees. In the fading light the breeze is cool and he pulls his cardigan over his hands. The paddling pool is just a shape in the growing darkness. It hasn’t been paddled in for weeks and his mother has taken out the stopper. The bottom is slimy and the stale water full of dead, floating insects.
‘You don’t have to get a blow job if you don’t want. You know that, right?’
Lila sighs and rests her head on his shoulder. He can feel her hair on his neck.
‘It’s getting cold,’ she says.
Justin nods, looking forlorn, and they sit in silence watching the paddling pool hiss and slowly deflate.