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Verge 2013: Becoming

UNBECOMING

Killian Donohoe

After winning for Victoria in the National Rowing Championships, it was a tradition that the 9 members of the crew and their fathers would get together at the Melbourne Club for a celebratory dinner. The majority of the crew were Melbourne University students and all studied commerce, law or both. Their fathers knew each other through school, university and business. Each avenue seemed to lead to membership at The Club, with its burgundy, its mahogany, its walls both real and invisible, and its staircases that require such noble struggle to climb. Its clientele enjoyed an interior like the Titanic, but a greater confidence that it would never go under.

Gus Penleigh-Patterson was named Best Crewman and the decision was totally uncontroversial. He was the stroke, the captain and the kind of leader who invoked as much fear as respect. His perfectionism bordered on the compulsive. He believed that pain was unavoidable, and therefore one had to learn to live alongside it rather than try to vanquish it. His ability to carry on in the face of immense pain was unparalleled. Indeed, his technique, furious but elegant, remained flawless from first to last stroke, despite a burning hurt his angular face kept secret.

This was a pain of his own making; one he knew would leave him.

He was a taskmaster, but his intensity was in part due to the deep affection he felt for his teammates. He was most comfortable when he was with these men, whether in the gym or on the water or in the change rooms. He wanted to spend time with them and so he pushed for extra weight sessions, warm down swims in the bay after races and, contrary to traditional training regimes for the sport, wrestling matches to inject some aggression and intensity into the dynamic. The latter were something to behold, with none in the crew shorter than 6 foot 3 and all at peak physical fitness. Gus marveled at the primal forces that underpinned these tussles as tangled masses of sinew and sweat rolled and heaved until they lay side by side on the grass, panting and exhausted.

He believed that these 9 young men were bonded by their struggle and by a pain experienced in races that most would never know. His teammates did not necessarily regard their work as so profound. Yet still he was well liked by the crew, almost all of whom were good friends, albeit somewhat preordained by the bequeathed social circles of previous generations.

They brought the same intensity to their social pursuits as they did to rowing. Grey Goose and soda in hand, tiny bag in breast pocket, they would dance with hungry girls who would only let their classiness err after midnight, and only in the presence of the right kind of man. Melbourne, though a city of four million, was surprisingly small and, as the years went on, the web of sexual entanglements became increasingly messy and overlapping. But everyone was aware of the small pool of socially viable sexual candidates and they were accordingly lenient with their reproach.

Despite the weekend habits he maintained, Gus was invited to Olympic trials. But there was a tacit understanding in his family, with its long line of talented oarsmen, that sport, noble as it is, is an amateur pursuit. To make a living off it would be tacky and unbecoming, as though you did not have the brains or the clout to make money like a real man in banking and finance. That is why at the conclusion of his degree after this, his last semester, Gus would take up a position at a Big Four bank where he had interned the previous summer.

When Myles’ dad asked about his plans for next year, Gus told him of his Big Four position. The fathers uniformly laughed the knowing laugh of a fat politician during question time.

They won’t be seeing you at home on Friday Nights.

Or Saturday mornings!

Fish in a barrel, my boy.

They say there’s no such thing as women’s Viagra—I had the recipe twenty bloody years ago. Cab sav and a Big Four business card!

You’ve got big shoes to fill Gussy.

Their steaks remained untouched for a few minutes as they reveled in their pasts and his future. His father ruffled his hair, proud of his son, who had lived up to every expectation to become the kind of man befitting the Patterson-Penleigh name. As Gus was growing up, his father would sit him down, man to man, and speak to him about what it is to be a Man: hard work, dignity, class, the love of a woman. These things were expected of all men, but especially of the Penleigh-Pattersons, who were held to a higher standard. His father’s words were heeded.

The other crewmen snorted and smirked at Gus—his inability to close girls had gathered the force of lore. He was six four and had the bone structure and wardrobe of a Ralph Lauren model, so illicit offers whispered on dance floors, lips brushing lobes, were not uncommon. But he always declined, ensuring easy justification by being fucked up enough that performance anxiety was a valid excuse.

Gus, with all eyes on him and unsure how to respond, laughed as he so often did in such situations. He learned that the roiling anxiety that produced his nervous laughter would be mistook for coyness if he just maintained a smile, even if with jaw locked.

When the subject finally changed, he scarfed the rest of his steak and washed it down with a full glass of pinot, trying to move the proceedings along. It was a recent tradition for the crew, between the cheese platter and dessert, to each make a trip to the bathroom to do the first lines of the night. The fathers obligingly played dumb, rather than dampen these chemically enhanced spirits. Most had begun their careers in banking in the 1980s, and the very same toilets were used far more often than excretion demanded, and rarely only after dessert.

As the captain, Gus kicked off proceedings as soon as the waiter had lifted the first platter. He cut two long lines on the marble shelf above the toilet, racked them with his rolled up fifty, and then put the bag and the note in the toilet roll for the next one in. Within five minutes, chemical drip still at the back of his throat, he became confident in his ability to say and do the right thing.

After a largely untouched dessert, they toasted once more, shook their fathers’ hands and headed out into the night.

It was suggested that a trip to the strippers was in order and they walked down Collins Street singing, laughing, giving piggy backs and directing traffic. At King Street they straightened their ties and jackets, put hands in pockets and adopted the nonchalant expression of a car salesman.

They were met at the door of the Melon Patch by a large bald man in an ill-fitting tuxedo. He surveyed them closely, and though they were all quite obviously wired they were too valuable to knock back, so he pulled aside the velvet rope and made sure they felt his eyes on them as they filed in.

The carpets, though a similar shade of burgundy to those of the Melbourne Club, stuck to the soles of their shoes. The neon spotlights spun and pulsed to the beat of the electro R ‘n’ B blaring from the speakers. A petite girl of about 20 was inverted on the pole onstage, her hair hanging down, her massive breasts staying still.

Gus headed to the bathroom.

When he returned to the bar he ordered a double Goose and soda and surveyed the room, looking for his teammates. A tired thirty-something in a silver bikini and with barbed wire tattooed around her bicep sidled up to him and put a hand on his chest.

How are ya gorgeous? It’s not my birthday, what are you doin’ here?

One of his teammates saw this and pulled Gus’s arm from the other side to direct him away.

Jesus, Penners! What are you doing in the fucking pig pen? Everyone’s in the Champagne Room.

There, in that smaller room adjacent the ‘pig pen’, the carpet was less sticky and the girls less weathered. Gus ordered another drink and surveyed the scene. His friends were being straddled, patted and whispered to.

As Gus looked on he tried to figure out how to be in this place. He managed to dull his anxiety, but still knew that action was required: a drunk Man in a strip club celebrating a victory would not be drinking at the bar alone. One more drink.

Once more unto the breach.

Which of you pricks is buying the skipper a fucking dance?

The girls who were not engaged started circling, rubbing Gus’s arms, running the backs of their hands across his cheek. Gus spotted a thin brunette who shouldn’t have been in a place like this. She clumsily shadowed her older, more experienced colleagues, but there was an uneasy fear about her. She was shaky in her massive platform heels; her breasts, though pushed up, looked small and unenhanced.

You.

She stepped between the other candidates and took Gus by the hand to lead him away.

No, let’s stay in here with the fellas.

She let him take a seat on the black leather couch and sat on his lap, arching her back so that she was cheek to cheek with Gus; he looked out of the corner of his eyes to ascertain where his teammates were. They were spread out around him, with tits and arses in faces and laps, all of them engrossed.

Yeah, Bitch!

She winced. So did Gus, hearing it as he said it, borrowed and false. She gyrated in front of him, straddling him and swinging her long brunette hair back and forth so it hit him in the face, forcing him to lean back. She registered this and stopped flipping her head around. Their eyes met. He gave her a tight, downturned grimace in apology, empathy or both. The corners of her mouth turned up in recognition. One pushed by wealth, the other by poverty, but both were pushed to become something they were not.

The dance went on.

Gus drained another glass as she bent down to put her arse at his eye level. He scanned the room and saw his teammates at the bar watching his dance.

Sorry.

He slapped her arse with a rigid hand—the smack rang out over the bass. She fell, rolled over and lay sprawled on her back, a large red handprint where the slap had landed. It wasn’t his intention to knock her down and he didn’t feel great about it. He imagined it was an occupational hazard she would need to get used to, just as a rower’s palms had to harden and callous.

Nevertheless, it achieved the desired result, and as the pony-tailed bouncer dragged him from the bar in a sleeper hold, Gus could hear hoots and cackles from his teammates, who were being rounded up and pushed out of the club by another tuxedoed goon.

On King Street they pushed each other and jostled as they walked from the scene.

Couldn’t help myself!

Raucous laughter, pats on the back.

As they walked in search of a dark club in which to be seen, Gus was stopped by a man who smelled of piss. Despite the balmy weather the man wore gumboots and a big coat that seemed to swallow him.

Got a spare smoko, bro?

Gus was feeling playful.

Apologies, sir, I do not. But indulge me, if you smoke, then why on earth would you not have a packet of cigarettes on your person?

Exaggerated round vowels, consonants that cut—the Australian cousin of the English boarding school accent.

Cock’ead.

Gus put a hand over his mouth and turned to his teammates in pantomime horror.

Such language! You, sir, are not a gentleman!

The bedraggled man skirted the suited throng, but left one last word before shuffling on.

Go fuck yourself poof.

Gus’s teammates prodded.

Don’t cop that Penners!

He turned on the man.

What’s that you piece of shit?

Gus’s hands were shaking. He could not hide his rage.

You ‘eard ya pretty boy faggot!

The man was ten metres away but Gus seemed to cover the distance in three steps. Gus shoved both hands into the man and the man’s head snapped back before he hit the ground. He grabbed one of the man’s shoulders and turned him over. Blood trickled from grazes on the lined face.

Gus punched the man in the nose and felt it flatten.

I. Am. Not. A. Faggot.

With each word, another blow landed.

Gus was pulled off the man after thirty seconds, his punches windmilling. The man turned his head to spit out blood and fragments of teeth.

Gus pushed his teammates away. He looked down at his hands, his palms covered with open blisters from the day’s race, his knuckles and fingers dripping with someone else’s blood. He glanced at each of his teammates; they stood looking at him with their brows furrowed.

With tears forming in his eyes Gus turned and walked past the bloodied concrete.

He considered his fate without caring what it would be. As an educated man from a good family with infinite prospects and a flawless record, he doubted he would get anything worse than community service. He did not fear the law, but this story would spread and implications would be drawn.

Gus was resigned in that moment. His parents would not be, and nor would he come morning. This would require spin. Addiction to the right substance was fairly aristocratic, indeed it was a lesser evil than the alternative suggested by his actions.

So he would go to rehab for an addiction he didn’t have, knowing there was none for the attraction he could not control.

Verge 2013: Becoming

   by Peter Dawncy and Camille Eckhaus