Stag by Adrienne Corradini
Your father is in hospital with a cracked skull and a savaged liver. You only know this because your brother has helped the guy next door live-bait his greyhounds since he was 12 and he still sometimes goes over there to stand hands-on-hips and look at the Gouldian finches swarming in huge aviaries that back onto your fence.
The neighbour sees you while you’re hanging out male underwear on the line and says, “Sorry about your dad, mate,” and you have to nod gravely and then go inside and ring your brother to find out what he’s talking about.
Over the phone, your brother throws the information into one of his sentences as if it is minutiae: “Oh yeah, we didn’t get to go camping because Dad had another seizure and we ended up stuck at the hospital…”
You feel old guilt swell inside your gut, but you think: if you visit him now, are you opening the floodgates? Then you think: wow.
Instead of going to the hospital, you follow Hugh, the guy whose underwear you’ve been washing for 4 months, to a Caribbean island where he is using high-powered telescopes to look into space so he can write a paper with some other Latin American researcher and tick some boxes on the university’s expectations list. The nuances of his work are fairly abstract to you; mostly the artist in you observes the way his jeans fit around his tight, tiny arse in case you ever want to sculpt it, how when he gets sweaty his hair curls closer to his hairline and his glasses slide down his nose. Without breaking concentration, he uses his index finger to push them up, presses them into the bridge of his nose. Sometimes he does this when he’s not even wearing them, finger into the third eye.
On the island, you relish the torrential rain and the humidity and you struggle not to eat the steak Hugh cooks for himself in the evenings. Usually you’re indifferent to the allure of meat; you haven’t eaten cow in six years and have never worried about lovers eating meat. Hugh has no idea why your mouth is suddenly going slack whenever he’s out on the balcony amidst the veil of barbeque smoke.
“Don’t.” He warns, catching your eye. “You’ll hate yourself.”
You picture yourself at four years old on the front cover of a hunting magazine.
“You’re right,” you say.
At night, Hugh wants to lie out on the balcony in the hammock, sharing wine from the bottle and caressing your feet. He’s the first lover who’s ever sucked your toes, who stopped by your house to bring the bins in for you when you threw your back out. But tonight, he brings up children and you crack. You tell him you were raised by a man who kept a magazine cover with your face on it underneath a baton, a tube of lubricant and some cable ties. Does he really think you are capable of parenting?
After this, you make a point of pushing through the mood, inviting him to fuck you the way you did the second time you went home with him and he accidentally called you by his ex-girlfriend’s name.
When the rain stops, you walk down to the beach. The ocean sucks water out from under your feet. A large family is playing that game where you blindfold one person and they have to find you with their arms outstretched, mouth open and sheepish with focus. You wish, not for the first time, that you could find something recognisable in the rhetoric of forgiveness. You wish the families on this beach moved you, but you can’t mine anything out of your history that even remotely resembles the way these fathers negotiate the space around their kids—the way they touch their heads and pivot around them after they secure the blindfold.
When you come back to the cabin, Hugh is tired and in a silly mood. You try to read an Ondaatje novel but he keeps laughing into the fan. He looks beautiful and warm against the backdrop of wooden walls. The green canopies of native ferns press against the steamy windows, the fronds leaving minute chicken-scratch imprints on the glass. This hut is nicer than your apartment. You put the book down and laugh with him. He tries to make jokes but his words keep tripping over his tired tongue, heavy in his mouth and in the sound that carries out the back of the fan’s propeller.
On the second last day, Hugh comes back from the observatory to find you deliriously hunched over a T-Bone.
“It’s so fucking good,” you say with your mouth full.
He leans against the doorframe and folds his arms. You can see sweat glistening on his collarbones. He sighs, “It’s alright. You can start again tomorrow.”
“But why should I?”
“You’ve got your reasons.”
Later, after you have apologised to Hugh for forcing him to witness the process of dredging up sludge from the sink of your insides, he cocoons you inside his arm under the white mosquito net.
You remember your father’s finger curled around yours inside the trigger guard and your left hand cradling the wood grain stock of the rifle, a Beretta 12 gauge. There’s a cut on your eyebrow in the photos from that day when the force of the shot blew back against your face. He made you kick the deer afterwards to make sure it was dead and then again three times to prove you weren’t a greenie. Family isn’t a barbeque on a beach. Family is the thud of a boot against dead weight and the coiled toes that couldn’t be sorrier—the lesson that when thrown a curve ball, a person must adapt in steadfast silence.
You picture yourself on the front cover of the hunting magazine, a rifle and a blonde bob in between the antlers of a bloody stag with a tongue as heavy and swollen as the space opened up by your brother’s words over the snapping phone line.