Art: Adam Jang
The trip to the Philippines was my idea, after my brother Ben and I first saw our mate Niko’s chic two bedroom apartment in South Yarra. There was a fifty-two inch flat screen in each bedroom, and a projector in the lounge. The complex had a gym, sauna and heated indoor pool.
‘If he can afford this place,’ I said to Ben, ‘imagine how he lives back home.’
But after eight and a half hours on a plane, I remembered why I’d never considered travelling with Ben before. Though he’s a lean six foot three to my stocky five-ten, he asked if he could have the window seat. For the view.
‘Don’t you want the aisle so you can stretch your legs?’ I asked.
‘I’ll be all right.’
But, sure enough, he had me up and out of my seat every hour so he could do deep knee bends or take a piss.
‘Sorry. You know I have a small bladder,’ he said as I paused whatever I was watching and snagged my earphones on the armrest.
I was about ready to snap at him for his weak constitution when a blonde flight attendant, wearing a pencil-skirt with a visible panty line, asked me if I needed anything, and I decided that Jack and Cokes could get me through the rest of the flight.
At thirty minutes from landing, the cabin lights came back on and Ben’s head was on my shoulder, open-mouthed and snoring. Deepest fucking sleeper I’d ever known. All oblivion. And if you didn’t wake him fully he’d enter this kind of semi-consciousness—open eyed, talking, fairly functional, but he’d never remember it. Once I smacked him right on the mouth—a hollow pop with my palm.
‘What the—’ His lolling head jolted up.
‘Don’t worry,’ I said, smiling. ‘You’re not going to remember a thing.’ And he didn’t.
By the time we collected our luggage and navigated customs, it was mid-afternoon. The air outside the Ninoy Aquino International Airport was milkshake thick. Sweat was dripping down my legs and pooling into my runners. We sat on our suitcases, under the oppressive Filipino sun, too drained even to complain, waiting for Niko to come and get us from the designated pickup spot.
Eventually, a dusty grey BMW four-wheel drive pulled up and Niko jumped down from the passenger seat. He was a little guy, about five-five, with a round face and a flat, broad nose under which he maintained two caterpillars of airy bum fluff. I teased him about it once—he said it was all he could grow and then stroked the edges with pride. He was wearing a blue and white Ralph Lauren polo with the collar turned up, Aviator sunglasses, tan cargo shorts and thongs. I stood up as he came over and took his hand—he liked to lean his shoulder in before pulling apart, then he’d slide his palm across yours, gripping your fingertips like he’d seen ball players do on TV.
‘Fuck man—you’re wet. Like a pussy.’ That was another thing about Niko. He spoke like a nineties rapper.
‘Yep man, just like your mum’s.’
‘O-o-o-h, snap man.’ He laughed, clapped me on my sweaty back and went to greet Ben.
The driver’s side door opened, and a short bald guy exited the car. He looked to be about forty and wore a short-sleeved white shirt over a pronounced gut, black slacks, and dress shoes. There was a gleam of sweat on his forehead, and his mouth was set in a comic book villain grin as he approached us. I figured he was Niko’s older brother and stuck out my hand, but he passed me, took hold of my suitcase’s handle, hefted it up and walked back to the car.
Surprised, I nudged Niko. ‘Hey Nik, who’s that? Is he your brother?’ The guy was loading my suitcase into the boot.
‘Huh. Nah man. Tsch that’s Angelo. He’s our driver.’
Angelo returned for Ben’s bag, that grin still fixed on his cheeks, and we followed him into the car.
Niko and I played for the same basketball team at the University of Melbourne. It’s a study-oriented place, with a good reputation—attractive to a lot of international students. Come exam time, our team was always short a couple of players, so I started bringing Ben as a fill-in. He didn’t go to uni and was working as an apprentice carpet layer at a construction site. Never one to blend into a new social situation, Ben worked quickly to piss off most of my teammates with endless trash talk. For the most part, they let it go on account of his height and deft jump shot. Niko, on the other hand, never seemed bothered. I figured it was a cultural barrier or something but maybe he just didn’t care.
Angelo, as it turned out, was fucking crazy. He cut across three lanes of highway traffic, indicating with his horn alone. He tailgated every car at high speed, swerving, only as bumpers were about to touch, into the next lane. On the smaller streets, motorcycles scattered out of our path and stubborn tricycles were nearly nudged off the road. All over were these multicoloured mini-buses packed with people. Painted murals decorated their sides, which were absent of doors and windows. The backs were exposed too, like they’d been blown off in a robbery.
‘What are those Nik?’ I asked.
‘Ah, that’s a Dyipni. Easy to get places.’
I pointed to one as we passed. ‘There’s gotta be like twenty people in there. That can’t be safe.’
Niko turned around in his seat and shrugged. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. I craned my neck to the side to look over Angelo’s shoulder. He didn’t have one on either. I thought about pointing this out to Ben who was watching the landscape pass out the window, but then I figured he’d only nag Niko to put his on.
Outside, beyond the traffic, Manila was a blend of billboards, palm trees and boxy concrete buildings thrumming with the whir of motorcycle engines and car horns. The scenery remained unvaried, as far as I could tell, until we hit a riverbank. The water was brown-grey, and ran parallel to the road beyond the horizon. On the other bank, a flotsam of plastic, scraps, metal and garbage formed a shoreline from which shacks rose, stilted on what might have been bamboo. Multicoloured and misshapen. They were assembled from sheets of rusted corrugated iron, tin, plastic and cardboard and looked as though a strong wind might do them in.
Niko spoke to Angelo, in what I assumed was Filipino, and spun back to us. ‘Hey, you guys wanna eat?’
Twenty minutes later, Angelo pulled into the parking lot of another urban cube, painted bright red and yellow. The word Jolibee adorned the entrance in thick, white, rounded letters. Above the sign a chubby, disembodied, head in a chef’s hat smiled down at the entryway. Two red antennae protruding from a spray paint smooth widow’s peak, also red, were the only indicators that the head belonged to an insect. Angelo parked, Niko got out of the car and Ben and I followed suit, immediately struck listless by the humidity. As we passed under the disconcerting gaze of the giant bee-head, I realised Angelo wasn’t with us. I looked back to the car, but he was invisible behind its tinted windscreen.
Inside, a spaghetti western saloon-style hush overcame the restaurant as we entered and followed Niko to the counter. The turned heads and wide, gawking eyes seemed to be directed primarily at Ben who was gazing up at the menu on the screens above us.
‘What you want?’ Niko asked, unaware or unfazed by the attention we were gettig.
They had everything—burgers, hotdogs, fried chicken, garlic pepper beef with rice, even something called Jolly Spaghetti. I swallowed a mouthful of saliva, withdrew my wallet, plucked out a handful of one and two-hundred peso notes and handed them to Niko. ‘Just get me a range. I’m freaking starving.’
Niko smiled, patted my paunch and laughed. ‘No problem boss.’
Sitting in a cushioned booth, I alternated between a Cheezy Bacon Mushroom Yum burger and Spicy Chickenjoy drumsticks, while opposite me Ben stared into space and picked at his Jolly Fries, breaking into the occasional half-smile.
‘What is it?’ I said, dropping my burger and looking over my shoulder.
Behind us were two girls in plain white t-shirts. They had long brown hair and smooth caramel skin. On seeing me they leant into each other and giggled. They could’ve been anywhere between fifteen and twenty-one.
‘Oh sh-e-e-e-t man you’re in,’ Niko said from across the table.
I shook my head and picked up my burger. ‘Nah man.’
Ben sat back and stretched out his spine. ‘He’s right Nik. It’s me they want.’ He pulled his lips into a smile that was all cheek, and with his elbows on the table, flexed so that his stringy biceps twitched.
‘Seriously? Did you just fucking flex?’
Niko squeezed Ben’s arm, raised his brow as though he were impressed. ‘M-a-a-a-n you gotta go there. They hot.’
I turned around in my seat again. ‘You’ve got to be kidding me? They could be fifteen.’ I lowered my voice and leant towards them. ‘Also look around will ya—we’re the only white people here. And you’re so damn tall. We’re just a sideshow to them.’
Ben shook his head and slid out of the booth. ‘You’re just jealous. Come on Nik.’
Niko shrugged and followed Ben out of the booth. You fucking idiot Ben, I thought. Unwilling to watch, I faced the empty seat in front of me, snatched up a handful of his fries and shoved them into my mouth. He was always pulling shit like that for attention. Particularly if it involved girls. Once, when he was eight, he repeatedly yanked down his pants in front of the girls on the school bus, seeming to enjoy their cries at the sight of his tiny pre-pubescent cock. Though he was eighteen months older than me it was like we were developmentally switched. I started shaving before him, and it was at least a year after I had my first wet dream that I noticed bleached spots of white on his towel in the bathroom. I helped him with his homework and gave him his first sip of beer. I was the older brother in every way except how time told it. Mum coddled him, giving in as though she thought there might be a limit to his thirst for attention. After he got caught jerking off at the back of his maths class, Mum put pressure on me to look out for him.
‘He’s your brother,’ she said. ‘Take him under your wing. He doesn’t have as easy a time of things as you do.’
A few minutes later, Ben and Niko returned and sat back down in silence.
‘So?’ I asked.
Ben smiled. A smug upward turn of his stupid thin lips. ‘They asked if I’m a basketball player. I told them I am and they wanted a photo with me.’
I laughed sardonically. ‘Well I guess technically you do play basketball. So—phone number?’
Niko shook his head. ‘Sh-e-e-e-t man. Those bitches were fourteen.’
Niko’s house was in a gated community. I didn’t know that was a thing until Angelo pulled up to a black wrought iron gate and two men stepped out of an attached guardhouse. They were wearing navy blue uniforms, baseball caps and holding pistol-gripped shotguns. After inspecting the car, they spoke to Angelo for a bit and opened the gate. We parked in front of a two-story, yellow stone mansion with terracotta roof tiles. It had a circular private driveway in which two sedans were parked, both Mercs, shining like new.
Exiting the car, I looked up at the house and smiled. ‘Fuck me Nik. What was it you said your dad did again?’
‘You know,’ He shrugged, ‘trade.’
We followed Niko inside and upstairs where he led us to a room with a king-size double bed in it. There was a double mattress on the floor as well—a sheet, blanket and pillow on top of it. That was odd—I assumed there’d have been at least two spare bedrooms in a house that size, but I wasn’t about to complain. Ben, on the other hand was staring at the mattress and doing his best to bite through his lower lip.
‘You have the bed.’ I said, figuring he was worried about waking up with a sore back or some such pussy shit.
‘Really? There was this high inflection when he replied, like he suspected I was trying to trick him.
‘Sure. I’m happy anywhere.’ I dropped onto the mattress and bounced a couple of times. ‘This’ll do me fine.’
He sat on the bed, and looked at me with big, stupid, earnest eyes—the kind he put on whenever I’d helped him out of a fix. ‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘Thanks for doing that.’
‘Jesus. It’s just a fucking bed.’
The next day we ate a breakfast feast of rice and marinated pork, made by an unseen cook, and Niko told us about a pickup game he played every Saturday. The court was in the complex. I expected it to mirror the one in the park back home—faded lines on cracked concrete, slanted rims loosely attached to splintering backboards. But it was an indoor court in pristine condition.
‘Damn Nik this is nice.’ I dumped my bag on the polished hardwood and admired the transparent fibreglass backboards and spring-loaded basketball hoops that framed each end of the court. Guys milled around the rings, shooting threes and mid-range jump shots with varying accuracy. They were short for ball players—the tallest barely taller than me. Each of them wore the too-large jersey of a different NBA player, as though they’d coordinated. On their feet were LeBron sixes, the black purple and gold Kobe fives and even a pair of Air Jordan twenty-threes—the ones that cost over four-hundred dollars and came in a silver briefcase. That guy was about my height with an athletic build and broad shoulders. At second glance, his wasn’t an NBA jersey but belonged to a Filipino club of some sort.
There was none of the rubbernecking of the previous day. A couple guys glanced Ben’s way once or twice while we warmed up, but the majority seemed more concerned with starting the game. Amid their ranks was a kind of hierarchy, with Jordan twenty-threes at the top. He spoke quickly, directing players to each side of the court. They went without comment until there were four alongside him and two across the court, beside Niko, Ben and me.
Ben and I looked at each other and shrugged. I’d assumed they were going to pit us against each other, and he must have thought the same. As it stood, I didn’t mind the teams. Ben had a gift for the game—oil slick passes and a wet jump shot. But he was also a cocky sonofabitch with a tendency to mouth off. It was a front though. Break through that confidence—call him a lanky cunt, elbow him on the boards, don’t bite on his pump fake and he’d crumble like soggy Weet-Bix. I hated that. How he’d shrink inwards when challenged—wet eyes and stooped back, tail between his legs. All the fucking talent in the world and for what? ‘Stand the fuck up,’ I’d say. ‘Stop being such a pussy.’ But that only ever served to push him further inward.
Ben started hot that game, dropping a few pull-up jumpers over his defender. Jordan twenty-threes must’ve taken notice, because on our next possession he insisted on a switch, so he could guard Ben. He played him close, trying to deny any passes to him, but Ben got free off a screen from Niko, rose up and dropped in a fadeaway from the elbow.
‘You got nothing,’ Ben said to Jordan twenty-threes. He didn’t respond and I wondered if he’d understood Ben.
On our next run up the court, Ben demanded the ball at the top of the key. When he got it, Jordan twenty-threes cosied right up to him, raising a flat palm in front of Ben’s eyes.
‘You going to faceguard me? Really.’ Ben said. He jab-stepped with one of his long legs to create space. But Jordan twenty-threes had quick feet, and he managed to stay in front without giving Ben any room. Ben swung the ball up high, using his elbows to shield the ball, and then brought it down low again. I knew what was coming next, and I guess Jordan twenty-threes did too, because as Ben pump faked he stripped the ball from his hands and bolted down the other end for an easy finger roll.
And that was it. Ben was done. Jordan twenty-threes wasn’t going to let him score another point, and Ben wasn’t even going to try. For the rest of the game, he would walk back on defence, stop cutting and not set a single screen, so I would have to pick up the slack. Lacking Ben’s physical gifts, I relied on extra effort plays—diving on loose balls and going for boards against men whose chins stood a foot above mine. My jumper was consistent but there was a hitch in it, giving defenders an extra second to close in. I did what I could, taking hits inside and scoring mostly at the rim, but we were effectively a man down.
After the game, exhausted on the sidelines, I thought about giving Ben an earful. But as I watched him slump onto the bench, rest his head against the wall behind him and close his eyes, I thought, what’s the bloody point?
Jordan twenty-threes approached us, wiped his sweaty palm on his shorts and held out his hand. ‘Good game guys.’ His accent was something close to American. I hadn’t expected that.
His shake was short and firm. ‘You too. Great defense,’ I said.
He offered his hand to Ben. ‘Thanks. I’m Paolo by the way. You guys are staying with Niko, right?’
Ben waited long enough for Paolo to start retracting his hand before he finally took it. ‘Ben.’
‘Nice to meet you,’ Paolo said. ‘Are you enjoying your time in the Philippines?’
‘To be honest,’ I said, ‘we haven’t seen much so far. Just Jolibee.’
He smiled at that. ‘Well I’m having some drinks at my place tonight. You guys should come. Get a taste of Pinoy life.’
Paolo’s house was sleek and flat roofed, with large front windows and a transparent railing on the second floor. All that glass, combined with the dark grey exterior, gave the impression of a modern art museum more than a house. We were all in freshly pressed shirts, jeans and dress shoes for the evening. Niko rang the doorbell. There was no answer for a minute or two, and he was about to call Paolo when a woman appeared from a side gate. She was wearing jeans and a plain pink t-shirt. Her brown hair was tied back in a ponytail and she seemed to be assessing us for a second before saying something to Niko and lowering her head in slight deference.
‘What is it, Nik?’ I asked.
‘We have to go here.’
We followed her around the side of the house on stone tiles. Out the back was an expansive wooden pergola, underneath which Paolo and some of the guys from the game were sitting around a glass table on cushioned wicker chairs. Bottles of liquor and soft drink, glasses and citronella candles littered the table.
‘You made it! Have a seat.’ Paolo stood up and gestured at empty chairs at the opposite end of the table. ‘Drink?’
‘Sure,’ I said.
Paolo said something in Filipino, and the woman who let us in rushed over. ‘How about some vodka?’ Paolo asked us.
Ben and Niko both shrugged. ‘Vodka’s great,’ I replied.
Paolo addressed the woman again and she ducked away.
Hardly a moment seemed to pass before she returned, carrying a tray of glasses and an unopened bottle of Grey Goose vodka, which she placed on the table. She was young, likely our age, and not bad looking either. Odd, I hadn’t noticed before. As the last glass touched down on the table Paolo spoke to her again—his voice sharp this time, whipping her upright. That was weird—I couldn’t imagine what she’d done wrong. She spoke softly. What I assumed was an apology, turned on her heels and left.
‘I’m sorry guys,’ Paolo said, smiling now, ‘but it seems we’re out of ice.’
I wrapped my hand around the neck of the bottle. ‘No worries,’ I said. ‘It’s plenty cold.’
After I’d poured shots for myself, Ben and Niko, Paolo raised his glass, and the other guys around the table followed suit. ‘Kampay,’ Paolo said.
‘Kampay,’ I repeated and took the shot—it was the smoothest vodka I ever tasted.
‘So tell me about yourselves,’ Paolo said. ‘You’re at university with Niko?’
Ben was inspecting his empty glass, as though there were something interesting in it. That was a sore spot for him—not going to university. Growing up, Dad put a lot of pressure on him in school, expecting him to fail without some kind of intervention. He got rid of the TV and made him keep his bedroom door open at all times, cracking the shits if he was anywhere but his desk, nose deep in a textbook. Eventually, Ben snapped and locked himself in the bathroom with a handful of knives threatening to open his wrists.
‘Idiot,’ Dad said to me, outside the bathroom door. ‘Much cleaner if he used a razor blade.’
I tried to keep myself in check after that, but when I was younger I liked to wind him up every now and then by calling him dumb arse, dipshit.
‘We all play for Melbourne University,’ I said to Paolo. ‘Speaking of which, what was that jersey you were wearing today? Who do you play for?’
Paolo smiled as though it were a point of pride. ‘Ateneo.’
I turned to Niko. ‘What’s that?’
‘Good team man. College,’ Niko said. ‘But college is big here. Really tough man. Not like Melbourne.’
I nodded. Impressed, but also glad. For the most part we’d kept up with him. We spoke largely about basketball after that, drinking the rest of the bottle as we went.
‘Before we go out,’ Paolo said, standing up, ‘pour yourselves one final drink and share with us in a Filipino delicacy.’ He waved and the girl appeared from the shadows with a stack of plates, spoons and a basket of what looked like hard-boiled eggs. She placed a plate and spoon before each person, delicately lifting an egg with another spoon onto the centre of each. I smiled when she came round to me and tried to catch her eye, but she kept her head down and moved on to the next person.
‘This is called balut,’ Paolo said.
I turned to Niko. ‘Is it a boiled egg?’ I asked.
Niko nodded. He picked his up and tapped the bottom until it cracked.
‘What makes it a delica—’
‘First you open the bigger end of the egg,’ Paolo used his spoon as Niko did, ‘then you suck out the broth inside.’ He raised the hole in the shell to his lips and tipped it into his mouth.
Ben and I cracked our own eggs and followed suit. The broth was salty but otherwise almost tasteless.
‘Now peel the rest of the shell and enjoy.’
The crackle, crunch and tear of shells surrounded the table. The naked egg was a discordant mash of yellow, white and black, wrapped in dark spider veins. It smelt like egg, though, and all the booze had made me hungry so I took a bite. An egg, that’s all it was. I chewed thoughtfully. There was a hint of something else too, not quite chicken, it was like chicken flavoured chips or something. ‘This is good Nik,’ I said, eating more.
‘Really? he said, eyes wide, sucking the juice from his fingers. ‘Most visitors don’t like balut.’
‘Why not?’ I asked, chewing my mouthful.
‘Because it’s duck baby.’
I held the half I had left up to my eyeline and focused on it. There was a discernible shape to the black part. A head with a pinprick glowing eye towards the front. It was curled up. Miniscule claws tucked into a glistening pink beak.
Next to me, Ben’s chair shot backwards. He coughed and a mouthful of balut sputtered onto the ground. Pale, looking like he was about to gag, he asked where the toilet was and rushed off, trailed by a wake of Filipino laughter.
‘So it is.’ I said. And then I put the rest off the egg in my mouth, picked up my shot glass and swallowed.
I’d been in that scenario before—arriving at a club late with a pack of guys, all drunk as hell. Experience told me it was going to be a long wait in line before we got in, if at all. But rather than heading to the back of the queue, Paolo told us to wait where we were while he talked to the bouncer. They spoke for about a minute, shook hands and Paolo ushered us forward. ‘After you,’ he said, with a smile, as the bouncer unclasped the velvet rope.
‘Fuck me,’ I said to Niko once we’d entered. ‘What is he, some kind of Filipino royalty?’
Niko laughed and shook his head. ‘Nah, man, he paid for us.’
Inside was pure noise. My skin was jumping off the bone. A thicket of bodies flickered under strobe lighting. Ben’s sickly white face mirrored how I felt, and I pointed to the stairs nearby.
‘Fucking hell,’ I said, once we reached the top, and I could hear again. I stuck a finger in my ear, as though I might be able to unplug the tinnitus.
Thankfully, there was a bar upstairs and plenty of room to breathe. I bought us some beers and scanned the room for any of the others, but they must have stayed downstairs.
I thought Ben was doing the same, but he must’ve had something else on his mind. ‘How about them,’ he said, pointing to two Filipino girls on a table in the seating area.
Why not? I was good and drunk, could be fun. ‘All right. Lead the way.’
They were good looking girls. One wore a silky red dress and had light brown curls that covered her shoulders. The other was wearing a black singlet and a leather skirt, which hugged her thighs. Her hair was dead straight, black too—jet black like it’d been dipped in tar. Ben asked if we could join them. The girls looked at each other, wordlessly coming to some kind of conclusion, before simultaneously saying ‘Yes.’
Black hair was Jasmine. Curly—Carole. I made a point of taking the seat next to Jasmine.
The girls didn’t appear eager to start a conversation so Ben did. ‘Do you girls live in Manila?’
‘Yes, we do,’ Carole replied, stirring the straw in her drink.
There was a brief lull while I imagined Ben was waiting for them to reciprocate the question. ‘Cool. That’s cool. We’re actually from Australia. Just here on holiday.’
Carole smiled half-heartedly and said something in rapid fire Filipino to Jasmine.
Ben must have been desperate for something to break the ice, because he drained his beer and said he was going to the bar. Experience told me, he did that so he could offer to buy the girls a drink. A schmuck move, but Carole took him up on his offer, asking for a rum and coke, even though she had a half-full drink in front of her.
As soon as Ben left the table, Carole took her phone from her purse and tapped away. My shot to make some headway with Jasmine. ‘So,’ I said, turning to her, ‘what brings you out tonight?’
‘Our stupid boyfriends,’ she said and then rolled her eyes. Her accent was similar to Paolo’s.
‘No,’ she slapped her hand on her thigh, ‘that’s just it. They were meant to meet us here, but they’re gone somewhere else.’ She took out her phone then and texted someone.
‘Oh, that’s shit. I’m sorry to—’
She dropped her phone in her bag and stood up. ‘Do you want to dance?’
‘Dance? Ah, yeah.’
‘Great.’ We left without a word to Ben or Carole.
I expected Jasmine to take me back downstairs, but she led me around the corner and down a corridor to an empty balcony overlooking the dancefloor. It was still loud as hell over there but not earsplitting like below. Jasmine faced the crowd, held onto the handrail and shook her hips. I moved beside her, gripped the railing and shuffled my shoulders up and down.
I felt a tap on my shoulder then. Jasmine said something, but I couldn’t hear her. She grabbed my hands, put them on her waist and turned around. Then she wiggled her arse backwards until it was flush against my crotch. That had me instantly hard. She continued to grind against me, though there was no way she didn’t feel what was going on in my pants.
What luck. But maybe that’s what counted for dancing in the Philippines? I was about to pop, and to be honest, beginning to chafe pretty bad, so I pulled on Jasmine’s hips till she got the hint, spun around and let my tongue in her mouth. She bit my lip, pulled on my hair and cleaned my gums with her tongue. I lowered my hand till I got bare thigh, and she was quick to intercept it with her own, but then she surprised me by yanking it down and slapping it right on her pussy.
Fucking amazing. Would she be up for a root? I should ask if she wants to sneak into the disabled loos. The handbag wedged between us vibrated. Fuck. I hoped she hadn’t felt it too, but sure enough, she took a step backwards, held up her index finger and went searching for her phone.
A moment later, she stood on her toes and shouted in my ear, ‘It’s Carole. I’ve got to go. She needs me.’
I tried to shout back. Telling her to stay—to come to the loos with me real quick, but she couldn’t hear. Her mouth shaped some other words, which might have been “Nice to meet you.” And then she was gone.
I found Ben in the seated area. Niko was with him. ‘What the fuck did you do?’ I said to Ben.
‘What? What are you talking about? I didn’t do anything.’
‘The girl. Carole. What the fuck did you say to her? I was about to screw her friend when she called for help.’
‘The girl—oh. She left ages ago. I didn’t say anything. I swear.’
‘Bullshit. Bullshit. You said some weird fucking shit and she freaked out. You always do. Why do you have to be so fucking useless? My whole god damn life I’ve been looking out for you. Well you know what, I’m fucking done. You’re on your own. I’m done.’ I headed downstairs, intent on finding Paolo and drowning out any knowledge that I had a brother.
When I woke the next morning, I couldn’t swallow. There was no saliva in my mouth. It was as though a pin were stuck in the back of my throat. Panicked, I leapt up from the floor to the bathroom, stuck my head under the faucet and lapped at the water like a dog. My stomach, swollen with water, swished on my way back to the room. Ben wasn’t in his bed and it was still perfectly made.
I found Niko downstairs, eating from a plate of rice and sausages.
‘Hey, man, where’s Ben at?’
‘M-a-a-a-n!’ Niko replied. ‘You were so fucked last night.’
‘Yeah. I’m feeling it today,’ I said, rubbing my forehead. ‘So, where’s Ben?’
‘Fuck, don’t you remember? Ben got some pussy.’
‘What? He did?’
‘Yeah, man. Last night he say he was gonna go to a hotel.’
‘A hotel? What the fuck? What was she, a whore?’
‘That’s what you say last night man. When Angelo pick us up, you say she just some ugly whore. Then you go on and on about this bitch you pick up and how you were gonna fuck her if not for Ben.’ Niko laughed. ‘You were funny man.’
‘Jesus, a hotel. Have you heard from him?’
Niko shook his head and spooned a chunk of sausage into his mouth.
‘Shit. All right. Thanks.’
I went upstairs and found my phone on the mattress. No text messages. No missed calls. I dialled Ben’s number. It went straight to voicemail. I tried again. Same result. ‘Sonofabitch,’ I said to myself. ‘That stupid sonofabitch.’ I imagined a bathtub filled with ice. A pimp with a baseball bat waiting behind the hotel room door. Sexual slavery? Probably not. Still, if he had no phone and no money—did he even know the address of Niko’s place? I didn’t, so how the hell would he? ‘Fuck fuck fuck.’ Better start with the hotels. ‘Nik,’ I called, as I went back downstairs, ‘get Angelo. I think we should start checking hotels.’
Niko met me in the Kitchen. ‘Why?’
‘Because—Ben. He’s not answering his phone. He doesn’t know how to get here.’ I pictured him limping down the highway, bloodied.
‘Yeah, but he—’
‘This is serious, Nik. He could be hurt. We need to check the hotels near the club, then hospitals, and I don’t know—police. Come on get Angelo.’
‘Okay, man chill. Angelo’s gone.’
‘What? Where is he we need to—’
‘Day off. But I call him?’ Niko took his phone out of his pocket.
I saw birds circling. Ben’s bloated, grey body, bobbing on the river’s surface. ‘Fuck. We don’t have fucking time, Nik. Call a cab.’
‘Nah, man. I call Ange—’
I shook my head. ‘I’ll fucking pay, Nik. What’s the numb—’
Niko’s phone vibrated in his hand. He answered. ‘H-e-e-e-y, man. What you—okay yeah, sure.’ The rest was in Filipino and then he hung up.
‘All good man. He’s coming now.’
‘That was Ben? Where the fuck was he?’
‘Quezon City. Near the club. I told his taxi where we are.’
‘Thanks man.’ I took a deep breath. ‘I’m going to kill that piece of shit.’
Thirty minutes later, Ben came through the front door. ‘You stupid motherfucking idiot!’ I shouted. ‘What the fuck were you thinking, you dumb arse? This isn’t home. You don’t know anything about this country. How stupid are you? Going to a hotel with some damn whore. Anything could’ve happened.’
Ben stood tall and puffed out his chest—assertiveness I wasn’t used to. ‘Whoa calm the hell down. Firstly, she wasn’t a whore and secondly—’
‘Did you even have Niko’s address on you?’
‘Oh—no. But I had my phone, so he gave it to me this morning and—’
I shook my head. ‘But what if the battery died? What if you lost it? Or she took it?’
Ben’s features settled, his eyes went downcast, like a chastised dog. ‘Well none of that happened, so—’
I sighed, suddenly feeling the full weight of the hangover and everything else. ‘Look, just think next time, okay. I’m going for a walk.’ And then I stepped past him and into the late morning sun.
As sweat crept out of my pores and settled on my skin, my rapid heartbeat began to relax, and I remembered a time when Ben and I were ten and twelve, and our parents took us on a trip to Western Australia. The weather was different over there. It was hot all the time—the kind of heat that blistered the soles of your feet when you went to the shop to buy an icy pole. Somehow, our parents stumbled on a private beach. Sand, white as a sheet of paper, soft too, and mostly free from shells so that you didn’t have to look out when you were kicking a footy or diving for a mark. The water wasn’t too cold, like the beaches could be back home, and it was a good distance before it got too deep to stand. Dad bought a fluoro orange boogie board, and we took turns riding the small swells into the shoreline where Mum often read under an umbrella.
On our last day, a strong wind blew in from the coast, whistling through the trees and rattling windowpanes. But the wafting, muggy heat remained, and Ben and I insisted on a last dip at the beach. Dad relented. Mum opted to stay indoors. A dark streak ran through the water that day, and the waves were double what they’d been before. Ben and I agreed to give Dad the first go on the boogie board—a kind of thanks.
Standing ankle deep in the ocean, I watched my feet, buried in the thick sand, as the water coursed over them, making it look as though I was gliding beneath its surface. Looking up, I saw Ben bodysurfing—he caught an oncoming break and rode it almost to the tide mark. I waded forward until I was waist deep, and the tug of a current pulled at my hips. I turned and saw Dad on the board, out beyond where he could stand. He was kicking hard for the shoreline but didn’t move an inch. I edged toward him until the water lapped my shoulders and I could feel my toes losing their grip on the sand. Dad paddled with his arms as well, but the constant shifting of his weight had the board swaying, and he slipped.
I let myself be carried forwards for a second and tried to stand. Water glugged my ears, burnt my nostrils and stung my eyes. No way, I thought. No fucking way. I turned to shore and ploughed my arms into the sea until I was spent and back in the shallows. I didn’t know what to expect when I looked back out there, but what I saw was Ben, alongside Dad, on the boogie board, guiding him to shore.
Once they arrived, Dad threw the board on the ground and lay down beside it, taking long exhausted breaths, like a snore.
I went up to Ben, who was crouched to his knees, catching his breath. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but what I did was shout at him. ‘You idiot! What were you thinking?’
‘What? Dad was in trouble. What was I meant to do?’
‘Dad would’ve got out. You could’ve been killed by that rip. That was fucking stupid.’
Ben stood up. We were the same height back then, on account of my early growth spurt. ‘Don’t call me stupid.’
Ben stiffened. ‘Take it back.’
‘Why should I?’
‘Take it back or else.’
‘I’m not taking anything back—you stupid retard.’
And then he was on top of me—his knees pressing into my chest, fingers wrapped around my windpipe, pushing it against the back of my neck until bright spots appeared. They danced on his face, more all the time, till there was more of them than him, and he shone.