Ape-shaped bouncers, big as bollards stand at the COR-TEN steel door to the club, holding back the gurning late-comers who are dying to enter. Everybody wants in, nobody wants out. Nobody that is, except Bambang Sim.
The night air vacuums the music from his ears as he exits against the tide. Just a ringing remains – tinnitus from the loud volume and his escalating blood pressure. He’s been inside for hours, pushed past and jostled by clubbers high on pingers and low on personal hygiene. He’s been pretending to sip from his glass, scanning over its rim for the silhouette of his husband, Aaron Beck. All night he’s caught glimpses of him in the jerking melee on the floor, a shadow, an illicit embrace, his patterned silk shirt slipped off in a shaft of light, shapeshifting, fragmented by the strobe lights. At some point Aaron will cross the line, but Bambang doesn’t want to see it. Bambang’s out of there.
At the taxi rank he pauses, makes eye contact with two tyrannosaurus pecs in the queue but it’s a thirst trap, nothing more, and anyway, he’s over men. He needs the cold comfort of a lonely bed in a blackout room to sanitise his heart and to clear his head. He crosses the road, weaving through more clubbers, long-legged marsh hens walking squeamishly around lily pads of vomit, necks locked in aloof formation. He doesn’t care what he steps in to avoid them. The sweet, sticky grime from the nightclub attracts tiny shards of broken glass and grit to his shoes which crackle and smash unapologetically, like pestle on mortar. Bambang’s mouth is an angry lyric, his eyes are burning vodka piped directly from his brain. He’s writing a list:
The lease is mine.
The furniture is mine.
The linen. I bought all of that.
The souvenirs from all the years…
It’s a relationship claw-back clause executed cupboard by cupboard. Bambang shrinks inward like a hermit crab, dragging whatever he can salvage behind him on a raft of ruin. Piece by piece, he catalogues what he keeps. The things he had before Aaron, the practical things, anything of worth. As for the stupid stuff lovers gather, like memories, he bins all of that. Sentimentality will be the death of Bambang. He’s always known the risks, but Aaron made him happy for the burden. Still, Bambang rehearses changing locks, throwing all of Aaron’s gear out onto the street so the sun can cook it in the morning. His arms move in glorious, petulant arcs as he walks.
Home is streets away, but he reaches into his pocket to feel for his door key. It’s not where he thought it was. He searches another pocket, then his wallet. Most of the slots in the chic green Hermes leather are filled with loyalty cards. He slides them all out and flicks the wallet, a gift from Aaron, into an industrial skip. It rattles to the metal floor and Bambang stops to concentrate on his hands. Hunger has dulled his dexterity and the plastic cards are slippery. He shuffles them like a cut-price croupier looking for the key in case it’s hiding in between, but it’s nowhere. Shit. Shit. Shit. It has to be here. He tells this to the walking dead around him, though quickly he kills his volume. He knows the dangers of standing alone, emptying his pockets in a busy nightclub street.
He breathes and holds air inside to calm himself, but mostly to lift his gut above the waistband of his jeans so he can push all the cards back into his pocket. Then he notices his phone’s message light is flashing. Neons and the taillights of passing cars illuminate the gaudy night around it, but the flashing phone is Bambang’s lighthouse.
He goes to it instinctively, which maddens him, but he wants to believe. His thumb feels magnetised as he aims it for the unlock. A lift in mood that didn’t seem possible moments ago subverts his anger. He doesn’t know where I am. He’s concerned. Bambang fantasises. A rapid surge of self-possession takes over. He wants to check that I’m ok…Or better, he wonders who I’m with … Yes, that’s it. He’s feeling jealous. He thinks I’m somewhere in a dirty corner, being someone else’s property.
The message opens and punctures Bambang’s reverie with cruel precision: 15% off all-weekend! He stabs the delete button with his index finger, pushing the sales pitch clear through to the back of the phone and into the footpath, further, past the earth’s crust, into its molten core. His anger returns from there with vermillion intensity now that he realizes Aaron has the only house key between them. A drizzling, icy rain begins to fall, flattening Bambang’s hair to his steaming scalp. He turns to enter the rude light of a convenience store. Seeing his pallor and reading it as fever, the clerk points to a sign at the door that says, Are you vaccinated? He stares her down, making her nervous, confused, uncertain, but her vacillation sets off an explosive reaction in Bambang’s legs and feet. He turns one-eighty and heads back out the door.
The drizzle is a downer, cutting party plans short for the street people. But not for Bambang, he hits reset for a return to the club. He marches back through the cliches of central casting who are milling about getting ready to call time. As he passes them, they aim their frustration at his passing form, but he registers nothing, just audio wallpaper, degenerate language, the library music of the inner city.
There is a rowdy queue of upwardly mobile avenue sons negotiating with the door girl outside the club. They’re whining for permission to enter. It’s the same voice they use on their parents when they’re asking for the keys to the Range Rover. With practiced aloofness, she stalls their cocky advances. The bouncers look on, ready to knock heads but the door girl has it all in hand. She sees Bambang arrive, waves him over to jump the queue, just so she can mess with the expectations of the privileged.
“Vaxed?” She asks, vacantly.
Bambang gives her the same look he gave the clerk. The headlights from a passing vehicle blast everything white and Bambang can see that the door girl is much older than her painted porcelain face suggests. She winks and nods, waves him through. The bouncers part like boulders. A subsonic rumble heralds rolling clouds from the smoke machine inside. Spiked with laser light, vapour blows out onto the street and Bambang evaporates into it.
There’s a smell of urine that pervades the tiled confinement of the first place he looks, the toilets. He’s found Aaron in there before, attending to his interests, looking after himself despite their pact. The nauseating blue light makes everybody look overheated. It’s a unisex deal, so there are men and women lined up for the cubicles. A paralytic drunk has left his door open. He’s angled over the stainless seat, holding himself up with one arm, trying not to pee on his shoes. The cross-legged patrons waiting for the other cubicles distract themselves with talk of drugs and getting loose and how out-of-it their friends are.
Bambang self-consciously scans under doors, looking for Aaron’s shoes in tangled tango with another’s. He watches who exits and who enters, but after two minutes he gives up and returns to the main floor. The crowd is oddly distanced from the music. The DJ is distracted, chatting to a fan who has invaded his high priest podium, gesturing in gifts of gushing praise. The music sounds like it’s stuck on repeat. People on the dance floor are squirming in some random unsettling pattern that reminds Bambang of maggots.
Behind the lighting rig he can see evidence of quick repairs, electrical tape, cable ties, condensation is dripping from above it and into the grid and there are multiple screw holes in the walls, filled with caulk and painted over like scars on a shrapnel victim. Bambang feels the sharpening of his hunger through the clarity of his anger. It knocks from the inside, elbowing the bones of his chest. But anger brings him x-ray vision too, and he uses it to look into the darkest recesses of the club. The patrons are thinning out now as the desperate and dateless make unwise decisions. Who to leave with?
A movement to his right makes Bambang flinch. A girl with hair across her face swings a glass recklessly and it rains a sticky sweet liquid on his arm and launches a lozenge of ice down the neck of his shirt. He shoves her back onto the dance floor with his elbow and she stumbles away. Her trajectory is perilous, but she somehow doesn’t fall. Drunk luck saves her. She lands in the arms of a burly stranger who takes the opportunity for a grope. But her stupid, windmilling action also achieves something for Bambang.
In the gap in the crowd, cleared by the girl, he sees Aaron. He’s standing still, staring into the cold light of his mobile phone, texting. Bambang reaches for his own phone, hoping the message is for him, but there’s nothing. His device remains darkly silent, a digital confirmation that he has been out of sight and out of mind to Aaron Beck. Staring in resignation at his phone, Bambang doesn’t see him approach, until his ear is flooded with his treacle words and his wolf-like timbre.
I was just about to text you, Aaron says, shooting hope back into Bambang’s heart. Is it home time for us? He leans back, smiles, charming and innocent. What’s the matter?
Bambang searches for the promises he made to himself on his walk, but his resolve has dissipated like the dust from a beaten rug. Laser lights pick up the motes as they scatter. The gritty ball of anger that was fuelling his mission only seconds ago is gone. There’s nothing left to hold onto, just a looseness and an echo. All he can muster is a tight-lipped nod and a wave to say let’s go.
A new group of bros at the door are attempting to shoulder their way in, pressed from behind by the urgency of dawn. It’s an impossible squeeze. The door girl is castigating one of them, quizzing him about his vaccination record. Bambang and Aaron can do little but wait for the argument to resolve. Aaron turns to Bambang, reaching for his hand in the humid gap between their hips. The bros are boiling over but this gesture, this one protective move from Aaron has cracked the ice inside Bambang’s chest and shards of guilt and confusion make breathing hard. He squeezes Aaron’s hand in return and then Aaron leans in over his face, blocking the light from the exit sign above Bambang’s head like they’re under a doona together, in love and alone.
Gay bullshit! The side of Aaron’s head takes a blow that sounds like a baseball bat on a cabbage. One of the bros from the door has hit him from behind. A coward punch. He pushes past, climbing over Aaron’s crumpling bulk which no longer blocks the path to the club. The door girl is attached to the bro’s shirt with a cabled grip, pulling him back, both of them stepping on Aaron’s body. She’s screaming. Vaccinated only!
Bambang reaches across to attack the bro who hit Aaron but is lifted and thrown by the bouncers who push all three of them out, Bambang, the bro, the attached door girl. They’re all in the street now, on even odds and the bro wants to do some damage. But Bambang is quicker. Bambang is enraged. There’s a reflex like a camera shutter, flipping the mirror. The bro’s reality is inside out, back to front. The men he saw kissing, weak creatures in his eyes, are now on top of him. Both of them. Aaron brutally present, miraculously recovered. Bambang, titanium fast. His knuckles connect, snapping the bro’s head back like a light switch. A string of drool trails from a tooth that has become airborne. Like a gem, lit by the approaching dawn, it lands at the foot of the door girl, who turns away. Not her problem. The problem is the bro’s problem now. He was warned. Get vaccinated. The smell of immunity could have protected him. They won’t touch you if you’ve got it. It’s your choice. Live or die, stupid.
Bambang’s teeth sink first, through the underside of the bro’s bicep, deep into the Basilic vein, deliciously worked out, pumped up just that evening at the gym. The bro stares in shock but his back convulses into an arch, his head scraping concrete, butt clenched, toes pointed. Ecstasy. Aaron is next to bite. He tears at the crotch of the bro’s skin-tights. In there is the real prize. The mainline. The Femoral. It takes nothing to separate the membrane that holds it together, a wet paper straw chopped by an axe. Aaron’s face is flooded, no need to suck, this boy’s an open hydrant. Driven by panic and thrill, the bro is unable to stop his big heart from pumping. Everything he has he gives to the couple who hold him down and drink and drink, facing each other at either end of his speeding death.
They stand, still staring. It’s always the same. Satiation and then guilt. And then they flee. What’s left of the bro slumps broken in the alley, eyes open, watching the sunrise coming, a stunner by the looks, a clear blue day. The sky parties in, lifting its skirts over the high-rise, but deep shadows still lurk under it and that’s where Bambang and Aaron run. They’re chasing the night together, although Bambang shrugs Aaron’s hand away. Why do you run? Aaron tries to charm him with platitudes. I’m here, always.
Bambang doesn’t react.
They round the corner to their street. There isn’t much time. The sun is painting out the shadows, its roller turning everything it touches gallery white. We better hurry up, Aaron says and it’s ironic, as if he had nothing to do with the risk they’ve been taking. As if Bambang hadn’t wanted to go home hours earlier. But Bambang is thinking about the bro and how he had provoked them. It’s like they want it.
They turn the final corner into a backdraft of cool air that is being drawn toward the sun on their backs. On the stoop of their apartment, Bambang turns to face Aaron who is smiling his chainsaw smile. Bambang gives a bent smile back. I lost my key. Where’s yours? Aaron digs into his pocket, locates his copy and dutifully hands it over.
A minute later on the mat outside the door of Bambang’s apartment, Aaron’s ashes blow round and round in a morbid eddy, a rip in the morning breeze. Upstairs, Bambang has locked himself away in a dark room of conscienceless sleep. Two blocks over, a morning patrol finds the depleted bro. They check his ID and register his status, shaking their heads.
Beyond them and departing the scene, a 20000-kilometer line of demarcation between night and day travels west at 460 meters per second. As quickly as that line is moving away, its mirror twin, the line between day and night, is coming in behind it, unstoppable, eternal, still 12 hours away, but time flies. The night feels long. The days seem shorter. And the line that divides them is narrowly drawn. Just a blink, really, between waking and sleeping.