She’s in year nine. This is her first job. She’s wearing a second hand uniform and an ill-advised lipstick shade. And she knows me. But she knows me like you know a car you buy off the Internet from ten years before you were born. She packs the groceries like I’ll do tomorrow, asks about school and I can’t find a form of words that says want I want to say. I’m searching for phrases, I’m looking for a language with a saying that makes sense, but I’ve got nothing. I start a sentence, but can’t finish, so I try again, until I settle like an exhausted horse lying down. The phrase is inadequate and it makes me feel sick, but I need to stop talking.
It feels so wrong to say “I dropped out”. It feels like I’m lying, or worse that what she thinks when she hears those words is exactly what I think when I hear those words. Maybe when she hears those words she thinks about that one guy two years above her that just straight up stopped going to school, or that other guy that went off to become a bricklayer, maybe she hears the work “dropkick” when she hears those words.
Because I do.
In the beginning, my sister used the word “dropkick” like little kids use swear words; with no context for their effect on people, but the feeling that these words are different to all the others. You could hear the meaning in the way she said it, like her words were laced. A “dropkick” is an idiot. A “dropkick” is someone who was dropkicked as a baby and that’s what why they’re so stupid. She insisted that a “dropkick” was not specifically a dropout, but she never described someone who had dropped out of high school without relying on that word.
I hear that word when I tell people what I did. It rings in my ears while I imagine it ringing in hers.
We’re sitting in camping chairs in year eight, wrapped up in each other’s jackets and picking around through half-cold fish and chips. The garage has no heating and we feel it. There are boys in the tent beside the garage, the brother of my friend, it’s her garage, and a friend of his. The evening wasn’t well planned and we sit like old people. Talking, but not talking. I find myself in the middle of conversations, or I find myself staring at the wall, shivering.
I don’t remember my friend’s dad coming in, but he walks by my chair, so I look up at him as he goes by. He’s been calling the boys homophobic slurs all evening. But jovially. I don’t remember if I had a response, I don’t think I minded. I imagine him as a teenage boy from school, once he decided those words were appropriate he denounced his adulthood. But I’m still in his home. I don’t remember why he came in, but as he leaves he yells at the boys. He uses those words again.
I don’t respond, but my friend does.
She stops him in his tracks, she points at me.
“You can’t say that. She’s gay!”
I wasn’t ready; I was caught off guard so I stare at her as though I’ve got nothing to say. She’s got a look of righteousness on her face and I realize instantly that she has no idea what she’s done. Her effect on me blows right past her like the breeze. He leaves in a hurry and I want to call my mum. I want to call home and ask that they come and get me because I was feeling a bit uncomfortable before, but now I feel unsafe. I feel like she has stripped off my skin, that she has broken open my ribs and scrawled the word “gay” on my heart in permanent marker.
But I don’t call home, and instead I am sharp with her. I narrow my eyes like I am strengthened by her declaration and my duty to serve justice. I cover my weakness with my firmness. I tell her never to out me again to anyone, I tell her that if I want it said I’ll say it. I watch cognizance blossom around the corners of her eyes and she apologizes and I try and forgive.
We never mention it again.
I want to tell all of my friends to quit school. Every time I see them after school, every time I hear about some test or some teacher I want to grab them by the shoulders and preach. I want to tell them that they don’t have to feel this way; that they don’t have to feel so stressed and so scared all the time. Or at least you can be stressed and scared in your own home. I want to arrange to have coffee with them, or knock on their doors to tell them about how beautiful and huge the world is.
I suspect this is how cultists feel right before they start a cult.
But I don’t do any of this. Because I’m not here to fuck with people’s motivations.
This town on weekday mornings operates like a well-oiled symphony. All the pieces fit together perfectly, without a word, intertwined with delicate intricacies. It’s organic composition, and I play my part. Each piece relies on the others, and together we make music.