Fellow • Sylvan Thomson
“You’re choking the hammer,” Fritz said.
They were on the scaffolding, Henry leaning out at an awkward angle to pry rusted roofing nails out of tin, his brother observing him on his way past.
“What does that even mean?”
“You’re holding it too high up, if you hold it further down you’ll get more leverage.”
Henry shifted his grip lower, but then the hammer felt too heavy, his wrist feeble. “I can’t get any strength behind it when it’s like that?”
Fritz shrugged, sauntered off. “Suit yourself.”
Henry tried again with the hammer, using the grip Fritz had shown him. He was close to tears, knew that to be ridiculous. The first two weeks of his summer job had passed like this, as a series of small but intense humiliations. Even the most minor mistakes had felt unsurvivable, although Fritz and the others never did much more than lightly tease him, or show him an easier way to do whatever it was he was doing. He still hadn’t mastered the art of looping the extension cords into smooth coils. The day before, when the boss, Snowy, had teased him about the tangled mess of cord he’d just finished rolling up, Henry had felt actual tears spike in his eyes. Tears! He’d turned quickly away to another task. Snowy, of course, had been oblivious. Snowy was a kind man, M¯aori, in his late fifties, nicknamed for his startling shock of thick, white hair. He had a wheezing laugh, and wore half-moon glasses that seemed oddly clerical for a roofer. Henry wanted very badly to be friends with Snowy, to joke around with him the way Fritz did, but he never quite managed it; he was always slightly out of step with their jokes, limping along a half beat behind. And then there was the inscrutable apprentice, Toby, a near-silent man in his early thirties, sandy-haired with pale, lashless eyes, huddled in his hoodie even on warm days.
Henry returned his hand to the wrong position on the hammer, pried the last few nails out of the sheet of tin, and eased it off the roof, dropping it onto the pile of scrap below where it landed with a clang. Toby, walked past below, talking on the phone.
“… in the fridge, babe,” he was saying. “I left it in the door of the fridge.”
Toby had three little girls, Fritz had told him this, and Henry tried to imagine Toby going home and being clambered on by blond daughters, their sticky hands on his face. Toby smelled of Lynx, and often farted loudly without either apology or remark.
Henry watched him walk around the corner of the house and disappear, still talking on the phone. At first Henry had tried to make conversation, had asked Toby questions about himself, about his life, but the answers he received were brief, not quite a rebuff but close. Now, whenever Henry spoke to Toby he felt that his own sentences sounded oddly ingratiating, or too verbose, echoing plummily in the air after he had uttered them. He gave up on asking Toby questions when it dawned on him that no one had asked him any questions about himself. No one offered him any information about who they were. They worked, they bantered with each other, they got into their trucks at the end of the day and went home. Henry thought of his friends in Wellington, their endless fetish for expressing themselves. Their outfits and bands, their zines and devised theater pieces.
That day after work, Henry took himself for a walk on the beach near Fritz’s flat. He stood in bare feet at the water’s edge and watched a woman swim back and forth in the bay, adhering to a specific distance as if she were in a swimming pool. After about ten minutes, the woman swam in to shore. She stumped up to Henry, a sturdy middle-aged woman in a white swimsuit splashed with blue flowers, goggles on head, red indents on her forehead where the rims had dug in.
“How’d I do out there? I’m trying for one of these ocean swims.”
She was Irish, he guessed, from the accent. “Good,” he said, “I think?”
They chatted easily about this and that, laughed, and said goodbye. Henry watched her go, suddenly bereft. He had felt more at ease with this Irish woman than he had since he’d arrived in Bluff. Intimacy springing up between them like a wind-filled sail. He could nearly always find a foothold with women, but sometimes men felt like… what? Like walls. Like cliffs made of something inaccessible, huge slippery plinths of obsidian.
Their next job was a place called Inverary Lodge. A pompous, Queen Anne style house that had never had its tiled roof replaced; instead the roof had just been patched up, here and there, for more than a hundred years. The old terracotta tiles had to be stripped, the roof decking beneath repaired, new terracotta tiles hung on top. From the vantage point of the scaffolding, the roof was a mess to look at, gappy and patchy, the tiles cracked and mossy, slipping and jostling out of their close-set formation. Able, as Snowy demonstrated, to be loosened from their fixings with one sharp tug. For the disposal of the old tiles there was a huge skip placed on the driveway, positioned below the scaffold. A chute, made out of a series of interconnecting, open-ended buckets, went from the scaffold to the skip. Snowy tossed a demonstration tile down the chute and then continued his fluid progress, moving crabwise along the pitch of the roof, tapping with his hammer, showing them where the tiles were loose and where the rafters might be weak underfoot. Henry watched him, marveling, as ever, at the graceful way he moved. Snowy was a short, solid man but he had an easy, studied way of prowling the rooftops that was beautiful to watch.
Henry found that he liked prying up the old tiles, liked the moment of give when they came away in his hands. And he liked carrying them, too, in rough stacks, to the chute. When he placed the tiles in the chute he could hear them scrape and slither all the way down. And the best part of all was watching the tiles emerge and explode against the metal of the skip’s floor. After each load he would hurry back to get more tiles and do it all over again. There were no mistakes he could make here, he could tear up the tiles as quickly as anyone else. He smiled at Toby and Fritz when he passed them on the scaffold, sent the tiles skidding down the chute, paused to savor that jubilant sound as they collided with the floor of the skip, and then dashed off again. As the morning wore on the skip became lined with fragments of terracotta, and the bare, water-stained wood of the old roof deck began to emerge.
That night Fritz went out somewhere, did not extend the invitation to Henry. Alone in the flat for the first time, Henry passed in and out of the shabby rooms, scrutinizing them in a way he wasn’t able to when his brother was there. He went prying into Fritz’s bedroom, noted the grimy bong on the bedside table, the clothes that had slithered from their hangers and lay heaped in the bottom of the wardrobe. Among the pictures and postcards pinned to the wall was one Henry recognized, a picture he had taken on Fritz’s disposable camera. Fritz in the distance walking along a tussocky ridge somewhere in Canterbury, the faint thread of a path both in front and behind. A man-alone picture, the feeling of distant prospects. Next to the picture was a scrap of paper on which a quote had been copied out in Fritz’s squat, capitalized handwriting: “Temperamentally, I am not only careless and irregular, but melancholy; still I have fought both down. ” Henry did not recognize the words but the tone was familiar, just the kind of fierce, self-mastery that Fritz liked.
Henry returned to his own room. This room was much smaller than Fritz’s, less a room and more a sort of slot, a hallway with a bed in it. There were still some things he hadn’t unpacked. He tidied up carefully, folding his clothes and rearranging his books. The quote rattled in his head while he worked, irritating and smug. He didn’t know who the words belonged to but he knew the type of writer it would have come from. Fritz liked to read books about the sea, uncharted rivers, men wrestling with their demons in thick jungles. Books where women were either distraction or consolation. Henry wiped down the small chest of drawers at the foot of his bed, arranged his few toiletries on top of it. He felt girlish and fussy, somehow bourgeois, about his need to make things nice. While he made the adjustments he kept feeling as if Fritz were loitering in the doorway, following his careful movements, smirking at his flagrant displays of materialism and conventionality.
Fritz got home late that night. Henry woke to thuds and shambling sounds. At first he thought his brother was in the hallway, but then he felt the old box spring mattress drop and chime and Fritz was in the room with him, sitting right there on his bed.
“Erica,” Fritz whispered thickly. “Wait, wait, I mean Henry. Henry.” And he patted Henry’s shoulder through the duvet. “Sorry. Henry. We should go swimming,” he said. “After work tomorrow. Let’s go swimming.”
His brother was so drunk that his words came out slowly, thick and halting. Again, he patted, then shoved, Henry’s shoulder through the duvet.
“Okay,” Henry said. He was still muddled up in sleep. “Let’s go swimming.”
Fritz reeled back and lay beside Henry. It was a single bed, they were lying side to side. Henry could smell something yeasty and stale, like a beer-soaked carpet.
“It’s pretty cool,” Fritz said after a while. “The whole you being Henry and… I just want you to know that it’s cool.”
Henry didn’t know what to say. Perhaps if the conversation hadn’t occurred in this strange half-place of drunkenness and sleep he might have conjured up some kind of indignation. But, half-asleep, he felt his throat seize a little.
After a long pause he said, “Thanks, Fritz.”
He waited, hoping Fritz would say something else sweet, or maybe pat him again through the duvet. He even rolled a little closer so that his arm pressed hard up against his brother’s. But Fritz’s breath deepened and he started to wheeze a little in the back of his throat. Henry lay there, wide awake, and listened as Fritz’s breathing gradually turned into snoring.
When he next woke up, Fritz was gone.
They had left the truck parked in the sun and it was baking and airless when Henry opened the doors at the end of the day, the metal of his seat belt scalding when he snapped it into place. Fritz turned right when they reached the end of the Inverary Lodge driveway, which wasn’t the direction they turned if they were going home, but Henry made himself remain silent. If Fritz wasn’t going to explain where he was taking them, then he wasn’t going to ask. Somehow, when he was with Fritz, Henry had begun to feel as if asking too many questions, even displaying mild curiosity about what they were going to do next, was a personal failing, marking him as unspontaneous. So he kept silent, playing with the vents to try and flush the hot, stale air from the cab. Only as they turned up the road to Omaui did Henry deduce that Fritz was driving them to the big beach. Henry glanced over at his brother, but Fritz’s eyes didn’t leave the road. The day had passed without either of them mentioning what had happened the night before, and Henry wondered whether Fritz might have been so drunk he didn’t actually remember. They turned onto the gravel road, the dust banking palely on either side of the truck, the beach getting closer. Was this Fritz’s way of saying that he did remember the nighttime visit? Was this him making good on the suggestion that they would go swimming? Or was it just what he would do anyway, on a hot afternoon?
They parked in the low dunes. Stiff, spiny grass fringed the beach, below them a wide streak of grey sand. The tide was out and the sea, glinting in the distance, looked shallow, with humped sandbars breaking the surface here and there. Fritz never swam in swimming togs, which he declared to be pointless, and because Henry hadn’t brought any swimming things with him to work he wore his underwear, too, running after his brother toward the water. The water was shallow and Fritz, who was a few paces ahead of Henry, flung himself into it when he was only knee-deep, wallowing and splashing and shouting.
Henry did the same. The collision with the cold water seemed to cure Fritz of his aloofness and he immediately tried to leap on top of Henry, who squirmed away and half-crawled, half-swam out to slightly deeper waters.
“I saw a beached whale here once,” Fritz said, following Henry out but making no further moves to pin him. “Or maybe it died at sea and washed up. Either way, it was already dead.”
“Do you remember when we saw all the fish in Fiji?”
“Of course I do.”
That trip to Fiji had been the big summer holiday of their childhood, its events retold and retold, the creamy children’s mocktails becoming legendary in Henry’s memory, so rich and sweet that real cocktails had been a shocking disappointment. One day, on the beach outside their hotel, they had found hundreds of stranded fish. Small, blue-black fish, a carpet of them on the sand. Henry and Fritz had tried to pick them up and return them to the water, but there were so many fish that the task had become daunting, pointless. The fins of the fish had been sharp, stiffer than he expected, a coarse fibreglass texture Henry could still conjure up in his hands. No one seemed to know or care where the fish had come from, or why they were there. Then the tide had come in and taken all the dead and dying fish away. Only a few hours later the beach was white and perfect, like the stranding had never happened.
“So weird,” said Henry.
“Weird that we even went to Fiji.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Mum and Deb were arguing so much then,” Fritz said. “I thought they were going to split up. We couldn’t really afford to go, anyway.”
Henry’s memory held no such information, it was all piña coladas, stranded fish, those fascinating ornaments in the gift shop, assembled from glue and tiny shells. But Fritz had been almost thirteen and Henry only seven.
The water was just waist-high so they were both crouched, gently bobbing around as they spoke, only their heads above the surface. While they talked, Henry realized that Fritz had probably never seen his chest before, and even though he was now shirtless his brother still hadn’t remarked on it. At the flat, Henry had been making sure he slipped on a T-shirt after showering and never walked to his room in just a towel. This was less to do with his own self-consciousness and more to do with protecting Fritz. In truth, Henry never quite knew if he wanted people to comment or not. He didn’t know if he preferred the earnest yet somehow patronizing affirmations some people felt they should offer, or the studied, woke indifference of others. But under the water, invisible to Fritz, he ran his hands over the smooth plane of his chest and felt a private surge of joy. It would be so much easier if there was no one else to deal with. No one else’s reactions to anticipate, manage, or appease. If it were just him, slowly becoming alive to himself.
They walked back up the beach to the truck, their shadows hunched like gargoyles at their feet.
“What were they arguing about, back then?” asked Henry.
“Oh, the usual bullshit,” said Fritz morosely.
Henry had a vision of his brother in Fiji. A skinny, tan boy wearing giant, stiff Dickies shorts. Laughing, shreds of mango caught in the tracks of his silver braces. He had followed Fritz everywhere, all holiday long, trailing down the beach behind him, dogging him to the kid’s zone where Fritz had made friends with some American boys. Henry’s mother had even taken him aside at one point, saying that he had to let Fritz do his own thing sometimes; if he did that then Fritz would be nicer to him when they did hang out together. He could still remember the shame of this talk, his mother’s careful wording, the understanding that his presence was something to be rationed, something Fritz needed protecting from. Do your own thing, his mother would say, just do your own thing for a while.
Fritz took a towel from the back of the truck, dried himself off, tossed it to Henry. Henry began to dry himself.
“Last night,” Henry began, “when you came into my room.”
“Yeah, sorry about that, I was hammered.”
“You said we should go swimming?”
“And so we did.” Fritz was upright now, his eyes closed, leaning back against the truck.
“And you said you thought it was cool… me being Henry?”
“And I do.”
Henry waited, although he knew nothing else was coming. Then they got in the truck and drove home, the breeze riffling in through the half-open windows, his arms pleasantly tired from working, a blood-warmed, animal peace spreading though his body.
It turned out Fritz had a girlfriend, or a sort-of girlfriend. Hana. She was related to Snowy in some unspecified way, a niece or a cousin, Henry couldn’t tell which. He had discovered the existence of Hana when Snowy had teased Fritz about her, making some garrulous joke about how Fritz shouldn’t get her pregnant, inviting Henry into the joke with a raising of his eyebrows. Henry had laughed, then wished he hadn’t.
After work on Friday, at the end of a long week of working on the roof, Fritz took Henry to meet her at the pub. Hana was already there, leaning at the bar talking to the bartender. When she saw them she sprang up, hugged them both. She made Fritz take off his ugly orange work fleece and, when he sheepishly kept his arms clamped at his sides, she gave his armpits a brisk sniff and told him not to worry, he didn’t smell. Henry saw the careful way his brother watched Hana, the way he became attentive and slightly stiff around her, and understood that he loved her. Henry could see why. Hana had a commanding face, short dark hair, something merry in her glance that made Henry want to be her co-conspirator. While Fritz looked on, she asked Henry all the questions no one else had asked: what he studied in Wellington, why he was down here, what Fritz was like as a big brother. She was funny, with the cool-girl quality that seemed to demand devotion, allegiance. Henry tried to make her laugh with his descriptions of work, of Toby and Snowy. He was performing, turning his moments of embarrassment into self-deprecating comedy. Watching Hana laugh, Henry remembered how he was actually capable of being funny and charming, and he felt an ungenerous flare of triumph as he noted Fritz’s growing reserve, the hint of something guarded in the way he held himself back from the edge of the table.
They got a second round of beers, then a third. Bad karaoke started up in the back of the pub, ignorable, until a guy in a hoodie began slurring his way through “If You Don’t Know Me by Now.” Henry and Hana both strained to watch the fiasco from their table, while Fritz drank his beer, uninterested. The man’s friends were heckling him but he carried on, resolute, barely moving his body, the microphone held so close to his face that the sounds of his mouth came crashing, loud and plosive, over the sound system.
It was Toby, Henry realized. The man was Toby! He nudged his brother, wide-eyed, and Fritz nodded, apparently already aware. The song finished to whoops and boos and some smart-aleck applause. When Toby left the stage, he went straight past the group that Henry had assumed were his friends. Alone, he made his way to the bar, walking with the kind of deliberation mustered only by the very, very drunk.
“Should we go say hi?”
Fritz shook his head. “I wouldn’t bother, he’s pretty far gone.”
“You know that guy?”
“That’s Toby,” Henry told Hana. “Toby from work.”
Henry had just been talking about Toby, the way he farted at work, the way he ate so many mini sausage rolls. He watched as Toby lowered himself onto a seat at the bar. “We should go say hi, shouldn’t we?”
Fritz gave another small shake of his head but Henry felt gleeful, bold. Hana’s eyes were on him. He got up and made his way over to Toby, clapped him on the shoulder, a hearty gesture that he could never have managed sober. It seemed to take Toby a long time to recognize him, but when he did his expression didn’t soften, he didn’t smile.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m just saying hi,” Henry said. “Me and Fritz are sitting over there.”
Toby didn’t look to where Henry had pointed, that was probably the most disconcerting thing; instead, he just held Henry’s gaze and continued glowering at him. Henry stood there for a moment. Then he fled back across the bar to the table where Hana and Fritz sat.
“He just glared at me.”
“What the hell!” said Hana. “What’s his problem?”
“Maybe he doesn’t like you either,” Fritz said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you don’t really like him.”
“That’s not true…”
“You don’t,” said Fritz.
“Well, it was still rude.” Henry looked appealingly to Hana. “Wasn’t it?”
“I think it’s more rude to go and say hi to someone when you’ve just been ripping into them,” said Fritz. Then he took a measured sip of his beer, looking steadily at Henry over the rim of his pint.
Oh, Fritz was so high on his high horse you could barely see him. Henry wanted to punch his brother, to pummel him the way he had when he was little. He knew just how it would feel, his fists flying, driven by fury, indignation, and, worst of all, agreement. But he mastered himself, sat back down on his stool, picked up his beer. Hana moved around the table and slipped herself under Fritz’s arm.
“Well, Toby’s not going to be a hard act to follow,” she said. “What song should I sing?”
The next afternoon Henry and Fritz drove out of town, on their way to collect Hana. They were all going tramping. They had concocted the plan the night before. Henry would have been happy to abandon the idea now that they were hungover, now that it looked like rain was coming, but that wasn’t Fritz’s way of doing things. The truck smelled of McDonald’s; two cheeseburgers and a milkshake churned uneasily in Henry’s stomach. Farmland sheeted past the window, empty pasture broken up by the dark, hulking loaves of windbreak hedges.
“The thing is,” Fritz was saying, “I don’t know why you have this need to connect with everyone.”
“I don’t need to,” said Henry, his hackles rising. “I just don’t like feeling like I can’t.”
“What, you want to be able to go anywhere? Feel at ease anywhere?”
“Well, okay, so do I. So does everyone.”
“Yeah, okay, and I feel like you can.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” said Fritz.
“Well, you seem like you can.”
“I get on fine with my workmates, yeah, but how do you think I would feel in your classes? Or at, I don’t know, a fancy academic party or whatever?”
“I’m a student, I don’t go to—”
Fritz spoke over him. “I'd feel weird, of course. Out of my depth. Uncomfortable. Like you at work, right?”
Henry hated the conversation, wished he had never begun it. This imaginary party filled with snooty academics was absurd.
“So what’s the difference?” Fritz pressed. “Why should you get to be everyone and do everything?”
Henry said nothing. This was Fritz’s tactic when he didn’t like a conversation: prevailing with silence. So he could do it, too. He leaned forward, fiddled with the radio. There was a problem with the truck’s stereo and whatever station Henry got, no matter how crisp it came through at first, the music would buffet and sizzle after about a minute. Somehow this static seemed a symptom of how far south they were; Bluff like a hook of land hanging off the South Island, an afterthought, like a cedilla dangling off a C, and beyond Bluff there was nothing, nothing except a few scattered islands and then, of all places, Antarctica. Henry rolled the dial back and forth, looking for a song that might lift the mood. The night before, when they got home from the pub, he had drunkenly tried to explain himself to Fritz, tried to explain that he was only mean about Toby because he was intimidated by him, intimidated by both Toby and Snowy, even by Fritz, sometimes. Instead of offering comfort or advice Fritz had seemed almost triumphant: “I knew you wouldn’t like it,” he’d said, he was almost crowing, “I warned you!”
This was true, Fritz had warned him, and Henry hadn’t forgotten. That was back in September, three months before, when they had both gone home for Henry’s mother’s birthday. Henry had flown down from Wellington and Fritz, who had said he wasn’t going to come, impulsively drove the thirteen hours from Bluff, arriving elated and stinking of Red Bull and cigarettes. It was a giddy meal with plenty of wine and Fritz doing his big, gusting shouts of laughter that made everyone else laugh, too. Henry had made a cheesecake. He lit the ranks of candles and then raised the cake aloft and glowing, a feeling of piety as he carried the cake from the darkened kitchen into the darkened dining room.
While they ate the cake, Fritz had talked about the summer ahead, how business was good, how his boss would have to take on another guy. Listening to this, Henry had his big idea. The plan arriving inside him with a chock of certainty. Between semesters, during the summer, he had stayed in Wellington and worked for his father in the English department. He was spoiled in this way, a little embarrassed that he hadn’t worked in cafés or painted houses or gone apple-thinning like some of his friends. But that night he had seen clearly what he should do. He should live with Fritz for the summer and work as a roofer, be outside all day, roughen his hands, work for the first time as a man alongside other men. Thick and fast had come the visions of himself being handsome in overalls, elbow poking out the window of a truck, standing with his hands on his hips squinting at some complicated problem. At first, Fritz hadn’t taken him seriously but Henry had insisted. By then he had been on hormones for almost two years, he’d had his chest surgery, he was passing completely. To all intents and purposes a man. Fritz had been flushed, his eyes gleaming and wicked in the dim room. It’s nothing to do with all that stuff, he’d said, waving his big hand toward Henry’s chest, I just don’t think you’ll like it. I just don’t think you’ll like it.
Fritz, Hana, and Henry stood in the doorway of the hut, strobing their headlamps from one unsavory corner to another. The hut looked small, dirty, full of mouse droppings and empty soup cans. Henry waited for someone else to say it: the hut looked pretty awful. But, of course, they had walked there and now they had to stay. So they shrugged off their packs and while Fritz and Hana went to get water Henry moved around the room, lighting the candle stubs that some other trampers had left. He waited as the little blue flames clung to the wicks, strengthened, and then stretched upward. In the modest light the candles doled out the hut became almost cozy, the dirty corners retreating into flattering shadow. Henry swept the mouse droppings up, put the cans in a plastic bag. Hana came back and they put the water on to boil, set the mattresses up in the bunks. Fritz was now out in the lean-to, chopping wood. Gender and the division of labor, Henry thought, listening to the thud and bite of the axe. He got the whiskey out of the bag, poured it into their three plastic camping mugs, and tried to turn off his internal critic.
They ate sausages and instant mashed potato for dinner. Then, even though it wasn’t very cold, Fritz made a fire in the woodstove. The hut grew uncomfortably warm. Fritz wanted to play cards but to Henry’s great relief, no one had remembered to pack them. Instead, they drank the whiskey and chatted. After his second mugful, Henry felt like there was a long, smoldering fuse running from his throat and down into his belly. His cheeks were flaming, his tongue loosened at its root. He and Hana were doing most of the talking and, without really intending to, Henry found himself coming out to her. He had already forgiven her in advance for whatever she might say, but she just grabbed his hand and said, “Hey, thanks for telling me,” which was graceful, more graceful than anything Henry could have invented for her to say.
When she went outside to pee, Fritz turned to Henry, speaking for the first time in what seemed like hours. “Why’d you tell her that? I thought it was a secret?”
“It’s not a secret,” said Henry, indignant.
“You told me not to tell anyone.”
“That doesn’t make it a secret.”
Fritz looked annoyed. “Doesn’t it?”
Henry wanted to explain himself but Hana was already coming back, kicking off her shoes, more firewood stacked up in her arms, her bare skin slick with the rain. She looked lovely. She was lovely. The night before, she had sung “Heart of Glass” and Henry had felt so lumpen, so ponderously male, standing next to Fritz while they watched her dance and sashay and strike mock-ingénue poses, pointing at them in the back of the room. Henry had leaned into his brother, whispered, “Your girlfriend is amazing.” Fritz had shook his head wonderingly. “I know.”
Later, Henry lay in his bunk, thinking over what Fritz had said. Was it a secret? He wasn’t ashamed, not exactly, but it was true that he wanted to conceal the fact of his transition from some people. He argued with himself: No, it was only from people who might judge him, or treat him differently, or even do him harm. But was that even true? Did part of him still believe that there was something lesser about himself? Other people always seemed so solid to Henry. Hana and Fritz, they were so… substantial, whereas he felt himself to be ill-defined, sketched very lightly on the surface of the world. But maybe that had nothing to do with transition, maybe that was just how he was.
The therapist he’d been to see in Wellington, Calvin, would be exasperated with this train of thought. “It takes strength to change, Henry,” Calvin would say, “it takes strength to become your authentic self.” Henry always wanted to believe Calvin but he had never understood exactly how it was you determined what the authentic self was. Was he any more authentic now than he had been a few years before? The question felt like a riddle, infuriating, circular. When he went spelunking down into the depths of himself there was no gleaming kernel of selfhood waiting there, just a sense of murkiness, of further reaches. What did other people find in there?
The hut was dimly lit, quiet apart from the shifting sound of cinders in the stove. Hana was already asleep but Fritz lay stretched out on his back, holding a paperback in one hand, the left hand coming up to the spine of the book when he turned a page. Fritz had such beautiful hands, big but delicate. His brother’s eyes moved down the ladder of one page, then across and down the other. A page was turned, Fritz’s rough thumb scraping on the paper. Watching someone else read had always amazed Henry, the incredible privacy of it. All he saw was his brother, the puppetry of his hands and the pages, but inside Fritz’s mind who knew what voice was speaking, what scenes were being played out, what thoughts were being kindled out of view.
Monday was their last day at Inverary Lodge. The broken terracotta shards had risen to the top of the skip and the roof deck was finished: clean, new plywood covering the whole angular landscape of the roof. Another contractor was going to hang the new tiles, a restoration job that apparently Snowy wasn’t qualified to do. In the meantime the roof was to be wrapped in plastic to protect it from the elements. While the others began this, Henry was tasked with cleaning up the site, sweeping the front steps, dumping wood scraps and tufts of insulation into the skip. When he had tidied up the most obvious messes he made his way around the garden, picking up any stray tiles from the lawn. He hadn’t been told to do this, but at least he would appear busy if Snowy looked down from the roof.
When there were no more tiles to collect, Henry went to use the bathroom. The owners had left a side door unlocked, and it opened into a dusty hallway that contained an empty storage room and a narrow, pistachio-colored bathroom. The interior of the house was cool, dim and private. Though they had only spent a week at Inverary, the hallway and the bathroom felt like his domain. Each time Henry went inside, he felt like he was ducking into some quiet, sanctified place, away from the glare and bustle of the roof. As far as he knew, he was the only one who used the side door. The other guys pissed in the garden, but Henry did not want to get caught squatting in the bushes so he made two trips inside each day. He limited himself to two trips, lest the other guys began to think he had some sort of bowel problem. He’d wondered if Toby and Snowy had noticed that he didn’t pee in the garden like they did. In the bathroom at Inverary he always left the seat up afterward, as if when Snowy or Toby chanced to come in they would see this signal and realize he wasn’t actually taking a series of dumps throughout the day, he was just someone who preferred to urinate inside rather than outside. Henry knew no one was paying this kind of anthropological attention to his bathroom habits but he lifted the seat regardless, and each time he stood up from peeing and clacked it back against the cistern, he experienced a private moment of exasperation and hilarity.
Henry washed his hands, smoothed his hair in the mirror. The glass was foxed with age, the light in the green bathroom murky. The mirror offered a pleasantly lo-fi reflection, in which he could choose to see certain things, and ignore others. His face was both uglier and more handsome than it had been before, both more and less like himself. If he looked in the mirror, if he waited long enough, he could see his old face swim, momentarily, beneath his current one, as if two sheets of acetate were laid one over the other and someone was shifting them slightly. He tried it now, waiting for Erica to come into focus, then Henry, then Erica, then back to Henry. Henry, he thought, with a disorienting sense of amazement. Who on earth was Henry? Sometimes, he felt like he had invented Henry and now everyone was indulging him in his game. Sometimes, just hearing his new name in the mouths of others still caught him off-guard. But being called his old name was more jarring. That still happened occasionally, when his mother or Fritz or one of his old friends forgot. Correcting them was awkward, and he never felt entirely convincing when he did it. As if the very idea of having a name, or even a face, was somehow trivial, embarrassing for him to insist upon it.
He stared at himself in the mirror, trying to catch himself as a stranger might. Henry stared warily back at himself. Maybe, deep down, he was neither Henry or Erica. Perhaps he was something else entirely. He felt a stirring, as if behind each of the names, beneath each of the faces, was a presence that balked at having to declare itself to be anything at all.
At ten it was time for morning tea. The others were sitting on the scaffolding. Behind them, the roof was already half-sheathed in plastic, a blazing white canopy against the blue sky. Snowy called out for Henry to come up and join them. They had a bottle of Budget cola, a bag of chips, some chocolate biscuits between them. A little party, to celebrate how quickly they’d got the roof done. Henry took a seat next to his brother, dug his hand into the bag of chips.
“I heard you boys had a pretty big night on Saturday,” Snowy said.
“Pretty big,” said Fritz. “Not nearly as big as Toby’s though.”
Toby just shrugged, turtled deep inside his hoodie as usual. No one said anything for a moment.
“Well,” said Snowy. “What’d you do, Tobe?”
“Just went down the pub.”
Very softly, very softly, Fritz began to sing the opening lines of “If You Don’t Know Me by Now.” Toby said nothing but Henry could see that his face was getting red. Fritz kept going, building in timbre and intensity. Finally, Toby gave Fritz a shove.
“He put on quite the show,” said Fritz.
“I forgot about even doing that,” Toby said. He managed what looked to Henry like a shame-faced grin.
“Well, I’ll personally never forget it,” Fritz said. “It’s burned into my memory forever.”
He leaned over and grabbed some of the chips, giving Henry a small wink. Henry ate his own handful of chips. He had the feeling that Fritz was dancing circles around him, or maybe offering him some sort of truce, but he couldn’t have pinpointed exactly how. And anyway, at that moment he didn’t really care. He ate one chocolate biscuit, then another. The talk moved on to other things, the week ahead, the next job.
Henry let the chat around him fade. The sun was warm on his face, the sky clear. In the distance he could see the smelter at Tiwai Point, a plume of white rising from low, glinting buildings. The day was so still that the steam hung plumb, perpendicular to the horizon. It looked solid but as he watched it frayed and thinned and then, as his eyes strained for the last threads, it was gone.
Sylvan Thomson is from Nelson, New Zealand. His work has appeared in the Wireless, the New Zealand Review of Books, and Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 2016. He is a 2019 A Public Space Fellow.
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