Where Were You?
The Medium Writing Prompt
2542

It was a strange one. Fourteen years later it’s still strange. Domestic-unreality. Bourgeois-surreal.

I was sixteen; filled with adolescent dissatisfaction and a hungry churning in my sense of identity. I think I had long hair. I was likely underweight. I wore motorcycle boots and a dinner jacket three sizes too big… some sort of angry David Byrne.

It was the weekend. I wasn’t doing anything productive. I don’t remember ever doing anything productive. At some stage I made a 30 second stop-motion from putty, fuse wire and a borrowed video camera. Record / Stop. Record / Stop. As fast as I could. No edits. No take-backs.

But nothing productive.

I guess it would have been 2001. My sister lay on the lounge watching music videos over and over. The outline of her body had faded into the couch.

I don’t know if I had come to the terms with my mother’s alcoholism at the time. Maybe I had. I don’t think I cared either way. I had a scrappy beard and my voice had broken early. I could buy liquor. I smoked with terrible form; without inhaling. The glory days.

My bedroom smelled of deodorant, testosterone and ash. My mother called out across the house. It was a big house — six bedrooms, all floorboards and poor insulation. I remember walking along the hall to her room. We had pulled up the carpet and polished the floorboards ourselves. In five years the splinters hadn’t smoothed out.

I hated her bedroom. There was a disturbing humidity in the air. It seemed… damp and warm and too human. Probably vague flashbacks to the womb… swimming in 86-proof amniotic fluid. It smelled like Freudian nightmares.

She had a jewelry box on the dresser. She kept my Father’s wedding ring in it. His fingers must have been so fat. I hadn’t seen him in twelve years at this stage. Twenty seven years by now. At the time I was afraid of seeing him again. The return of the Father. Extrapolating from the size of the ring — his fists would have been enormous.

I’m not afraid of Fathers now. I don’t like them, but they’re aren’t a mainstay of nightmares. It took a long time to get there.

I don’t think she was sitting on the bed; an ancient too-soft floral-designed brass-trimmed thing. She was probably standing by the window. We had a view out from the hill and across the suburbs; a soccer field, a highway, and the steelworks on the horizon.

No stars at night. The three blast furnaces ran in sequence all day and night. The sky was orange for the most part — and I’d heard that if you lived closer to the steelworks you couldn’t hang your laundry outside; the soot would turn it black. I had no idea if that was true.

I stopped in the doorway and she looked at me. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. Her eyes were rimmed with dark purple. It wasn’t a special occasion. It was her perpetual style. Her skin was white, folded like a doormat and the pores yawned and likely wept nicotine.

“I need to tell you something”

And she chased that statement with:

“You’re old enough to know, now”

I raised my eyebrows. My hands were still frustrated by my sides.

She pushed a framed photograph at me. Tacky wooden frame, pine or worse — stained to simulate something better.

I knew the photograph. My father, my sister and I on a dated sofa. I was probably two years old. My sister was one. Our father looked young; smiling broadly with white teeth and trademark gap.

I didn’t really process him as a human being with thoughts and feelings and aspirations and a position in time and space. I just knew him from a handful of memories — likely corrupt beyond parallel with reality. And I knew that he was bad. Potentially evil. But it was all so distant and I was so young that it was purely theoretical.

I’d never been to Portugal. But all signs indicated that it existed.

Why was the photo in a frame? Thirteen years divorced. Likely a traumatising memory. Strange woman.

What had she said, again?

“You’re old enough to know, now”

She pointed at the photo with her middle finger. A yellow-gold ring with a sapphire. Equally yellow fingernails.

I looked at the photo and back at her.

“Your father…”

Again, I looked at the photo and back at her.

“…is Black.”

I wanted to laugh. There were so many things wrong with the situation. But her face was so earnest. I think it was my turn to speak but I had nothing to say.

I made some sort of noise with an upward inflection.

“Aboriginal…” she said.

“Half aboriginal…”

Still nothing to say.

“…half native-american”.

She smiled, slightly. Was she proud of this? Like some sort of euro, phallic safari hunter?

It made sense. She didn’t have much else going on.

He had been in a biker gang. She never got tired of telling us that.

She looked at me expectantly. Did she want a high five? Should I cry? Was this going to be the peak drama of her year?

“Okay.” I said.

She looked deflated. I half-turned.

“Do I have to… do anything?”

Her mouth hung open but she didn’t reply.

“Okay.”

I sat on my bed and twisted the information around in my head.

I couldn’t see any angle that changed anything. I was still an adolescent from a single-parent middle-class family.

It was needless genetic metadata. Gossip at best. And the legitimacy of the news was in severe doubt. Fifty-fifty that it was half-information borne out of a desire to say something interesting at an anglocentric dinner party.

I was vaguely angry. Vaguely insulted. Frustrated anticlimax.

Decades later some government administrator would ask me if I identified as “Aboriginal”.

“What difference does it make? And do I need a certificate or something”

“No”

I smirked.

“Fine. Yes, I do identify as that.”

They pushed a stack of laminated cards across the desk.

“What are these?”

“These are a… gentle reminder to potential employers that they will be subsidized for hiring you.”

A gentle reminder.

“Gentle reminder.”

I kept the cards as a conversation piece for a while, as a little bureaucratic curio. Eventually I threw them away.

I tell the story occasionally — as a little joke, a deadpan critique of the latent racism in the generation that founded political correctness. But it’s too dry. And the punchline is too subtle.

And the conversation dies… and we sip our drinks and avoid eye contact.

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