My watch starts beeping at 11a.m. I excuse myself and head to the bathroom. I find a cubicle with a working lock and inspect my nappy. Some spotting, kind of orangey-yellow, like peaches. Well, I haven’t been drinking much this morning and hydration is the key to a clearer flow. But this is a good amount of leakage, even if the colour is a little off. I will reward myself with a caramel slice from the café across the road once my appointment is done. Two caramel slices, perhaps. Although I may buy one caramel slice from one café and one from another, so that the waiter doesn’t think I’m some kind of fatty. He doesn’t realise that I haven’t had caramel slice in at least two weeks, so I deserve two, if not more.
When I return, Robin is on the phone talking about another Job Seeker she is dealing with. “The thing with Bruno is – and he’s a great guy, he’s a really great guy. But the problem is that he’s ugly – which isn’t at all to do with his ability or his effort, you gotta understand. But he’s one ugly ducko. Great guy, really great guy. And he works hard and has a good resume.”
I step into the room and Robin sees me. She smiles and mouths a greeting before continuing on the phone. “But have you seen his nose? Really wide, really long – like a droopy, fat penis. It’s like that really ugly fish, the elephant-fish or some shit – the fish with the penis-nose. Lots of pock marks too.” She sees me glancing at the clock and rolls her eyes. “Anyway, I have an appointment right now, I’ll talk later. This is with Phil, the guy with the you-know-what. Yeah, that one. Yeah, that one. All right, talk later.”
I haven’t told Robin about the nappies and wonder what could be the ‘you-know-what’. My nose is wide but not that wide. And I’m not ugly for my age. In fact, if I looked like this in ten years’ time I’d probably be a catch.
“Siddown, Phil,” she tells me. “What have you been up to lately?”
“Not much,” I say.
She laughs. “Ho ho, not much! Me neither, Phil. Me neither.”
Then I ask if we can stop pussyfooting around; as my Employment Officer she should know I have an interview in less than an hour. Robin says she does know.
“That’s half of the reason for this surprise meeting,” she says. “For you see, you’ve been seeking employment for some time now. Quite some time.”
“Yes,” I say. “Two and three-quarter years.”
“And recently, regulations have changed. Now you can only be registered as a Job Seeker and earning money from the government for two years at a time.”
She starts eating an apple and I ask her what does she mean.
She tells me through crunches, “Basically, it means we’re cutting you off.”
“What?” I say. “You can’t do that. I have to pay rent. I have to eat!”
She stares at my gut.
Without moving her eyes, she says, “You have two more weeks before you’ll stop receiving payments altogether. Are you okay? Would you like a coffee or a tea?”
I say no, I’m not okay and ask for tea.
“It’s not complimentary. Just so you know.”
I gulp. “Never mind.” I can feel the small change in my pocket, and I think about my empty bank account.
“In other news,” says Robin, “good luck with your interview!”
I vomit in her lap.
I wriggle on my seat and rub my groin with my elbows. I hope the employers can’t see into the waiting room. I’m sure they’d be understanding, being professionals and all, although I wonder how many 35-year-olds can complain about nappy rash? I’m sure they’d be understanding if I just told them the circumstances. About how some people just have smaller bladders, totally unrelated to their own personal decisions, totally a freak occurrence at birth. Like a mole, or a birthmark. Like my birthmark, the one that’s spotty and faded like a day-old dirt smudge. Which people accept as normal. Even though I consider it very detrimental to my bodily appearance. I’m no beauty queen, sure, but I’m no freako – and a blemish is a blemish. A small brown blemish on the hip, sitting and staring like an Easter egg to any sexual encounter. And while not expressly indicative of poor hygiene, it certainly does have the potential to put the idea in the mind. A repugnant idea from a repugnant birthmark. But somehow the point of turn-off is always the nappy, which also smacks of poor hygiene. Again, falsely. But job interviewers are far more understanding than potential boyfriends. They get that this stuff happens, they’re professionals, they’ve dealt with all sorts of people and problems and idiosyncrasies. Which is all this is: an idiosyncrasy. They won’t get into bed with you and then start sniffing and go, “What’s that smell?” and “Why is there plastic under your sheets?” They certainly won’t leave in the middle of the night without touching you. Because it’s not a freaky thing. Nothing that affects more than one in ten of all Australian men can be that freaky. That’s at least a couple for every extended family. Three, four in a crowded tram; more in a train.
I am called into the interview room. A man and a woman sit behind a desk and stare at me with wide grins.
“Hello, my name is Sandra.”
“Hi,” I say.
“Phil, is it?” she asks. “This is Sam.”
Sam grunts. “I’m Sam.”
“Pleased to meet you both,” I say.
They seem pleased by my politeness and tell me that they value manners at their firm. I say that I value manners also.
“Manners are telling,” says Sandra.
“Yes, telling,” says Sam.
“You could have a great worker, sure,” Sandra continues, “doing all the work and such. But as soon as you turn your back on them, they’re taking the mickey.”
“The absolute mickey,” says Sam.
“Taking the mickey. And taking it out of you – doing impressions, making observations. And they deceive you, which is not on. Deception is not on. Lying, coercing. And it’s all in the manners, that’s how you can tell. You get that, Phil?”
“Well,” I say, “as my father always says, with people, the teeth may bite, but it’s the tail that’ll trip you up.”
Sandra says she doesn’t understand the metaphor and frankly is confused about why I brought it up. She says that it was strange of me to use a metaphor in everyday speech that is so clearly esoteric.
“Doncha think it’s esoteric, Sam? Doncha?”
Sam nods. “Uh-huh. Esoteric is the word I’d use.”
“See,” she says. “A very esoteric metaphor. Esoteric and strange.”
Sam leans towards me. “Esoteric and asinine.”
“Ooh,” says Sandra. “Now that’s a word. You get that, Phil?”
“I did,” I say.
“Isn’t it a word?”
“Yes, it certainly is a word.”
“It is,” says Sam.
Sandra pours a glass of water and slides it to me. She then explains the mechanics of biting to me as I drink. “See, it’s not teeth that bite, as your charming little number would suggest. It’s the jaw.”
“Uh-huh,” says Sam. “The jaw.”
“You get that, Phil?”
I try to smile. “Yes.”
“So that is why your metaphor didn’t work, you see.” She pours her own glass of water. “I’m assuming your father never had an education.”
Sandra turns to Sam, “I’m sure he could still operate the Bifurcated Skywriting Gun.”
“Even with an education, the Gun can be tricky,” says Sam.
“It’s two buttons and a small rounded lever, Sam.”
Sam turns to me. “What do you think, Phil? Two buttons and a small rounded lever?”
“Yes,” says Sandra and then she freezes. “Oh Jesus,” she says. “Are you okay? Are you chafing down there?”
Sam sits back. “Oh Jesus. Do you need some privacy?”
I notice that I’m scratching my groin at this point.
“Oh, shit,” I say. “Sorry. I didn’t realise. It’s become a bit of a nervous tic.”
They ask me what I am talking about and say that’s ridiculous and am I crazy? So I explain that I get nappy rash sometimes. They ask how can I get nappy rash unless I wear nappies?
I get flustered and say I do not know and elaborate that a skin specialist would be more equipped to answer their questions.
There is a long gap in the conversation.
Sam clears his throat. “Well, shit. Looks like they’re sending them from the farm now.”
“Hell,” says Sandra, “the fuckin farm. Should’ve guessed by the way he walks and that metaphor.”
“Yeah,” says Sam. “That metaphor.”
I wonder to myself what ‘walk’ they’re talking about and if the chafing has anything to do with it. I explain that I am not from the farm. We talk for another couple of minutes before they tell me the interview’s over and that I probably won’t get the job.
“But when a door closes,” says Sam, “a window opens.”
Sandra grins and looks right at me. “You get that? Now that’s a metaphor. But don’t let this discourage you from applying for future opportunities,” says Sandra. “But also, if you don’t apply, we won’t be upset.”
“Ah,” I say. “So what you’re telling me is: Don’t apply.”
“My heavens no!” says Sandra. “Of course not.”
“But,” cuts in Sam, “we won’t be upset if you don’t.”
I smile and thank them for the interview. As I stand I rap my hands on the desk, as if my percussive use of the hunk of wood will impress them or give off the impression that I am confident and laidback. They point out that my tie has been crooked for the last five or so minutes. I laugh and walk out without fixing it. I think about them fingering through the applications later and finding mine. “Hmm… Phil P. Stenders – do you remember this guy?” Sam would say, and Sandra would say, “Why yes. He was the fellow with the nappy.” “Ah yes, quite the intriguing idiosyncrasy.” Then Sandra would read my cover letter before regaling Sam with how I did not fix my tie when prompted to. And then Sam would say, “Yes, I too noted his nonchalant regard for the superficial.” And Sandra would say, “That’s the kind of guy we need at our firm. A man of priorities.”
I overhear them talking about the colour of gumtrees as I close the door.
I run home, which hurts my bladder.
At midnight, I wake to thumping a few doors down from my apartment. “What’re y’doing?” I ask the maintenance man.
He smiles without turning. He is a kindly old man whom I secretly love. He, like me, is different from other people. He is Indonesian and when he got here could only speak broken English. Very few coherent sentences. It made him sound like he had a stutter, which I had as a child.
“Oh,” he says, still examining the doorframe, “old Mrs Carradine was complaining about rot above her door. So I have to assess the exposed timbers.”
He thumps his fist against the wood. I try to think of an uncondescending way to explain that he is at Ms Leftowitz’s door.
“Well,” he says, “it seems fine to me. But you know Mrs Carradine.”
I do know Mrs Carradine, four doors down from me. She used to have a cat, Bon Spott, even though pets aren’t allowed in the building. She told the landlord that she needed it because otherwise she would become very depressed and lonely and he wouldn’t want that now would he? He told Mrs Carradine he’d give her a month to find a new home for the animal. She then threw a small pink dumbbell in his direction and said he could pay for her therapy when she goes batshit crazy from loneliness. Once she said to me that her cat was truly man’s best friend and that the landlord isn’t a man but a monster. I told her that I thought Bon Spott sounded like a dog’s name and she told me to go shit my pants.
“Remember when Mrs Carradine used to have a cat?” I ask the maintenance man.
“Yes,” he says, “I had to evacuate and relocate the stupid animal.” He packs a hammer into his toolbox and turns to me. “How’s everything with the bladder, Phil? Get that surgery?”
I shake my head. “Turns out it was a scam. Or a prank.
Not sure which.”
“Boy, oh boy,” he says, walking towards me. “That’s not something to make fun of. It’s a serious condition. Are you okay?”
“Yes,” I say. “I’m fine. I’m used to it.”
He knows how I feel and is kind to me because his niece who is around my age has the same thing. He compares my story to his niece having her car vandalised with the words, “pisspants whore”.
“Imagine,” he says, “having to explain those words to neighbours or work colleagues. Not that anybody asked or thought it was anything beyond mindless graffiti. Although she lost her job a month later for antisocial behaviour.”
I tell him gee, that’s too bad. He tells me peaks and troughs and that this is a trough. I agree. This is a trough.
“But,” I say, “I hope you’re taking care of yourself.”
I pat him on the arm and he gives a big smile to my face. I tell him I like him and he reciprocates. This is it. I lean in to kiss him.
“What the hell are you doing!” he says.
“Nothing,” I tell him.
“Oh, hell!” he says. “Hell! Is this how you’ve seen me all along? Oh, hell, this better not be how you’ve seen me all along! Is this what you do when somebody’s nice to you? They said you were the weird guy in the building but I thought, give him a chance. Give him a chance! Not like he’s going to try and sexually assault me when I’m on the job!”
“It wasn’t assault! I’m not some kind of sexual assaulter!”
He winces. “My niece! I told you about my niece! God knows what you’ve thought about her!”
Through tears I ask him to stop and please love me and potentially consider financially supporting me through this difficult period.
“Oh, hell!” he says, “what the hell!” and shoves me back.
“Please,” I say and dive forward, but he backs away and I fall to the ground.
I say wait and he kicks me in the face and leaves. He rambles angrily in a mix of Indonesian and English on his way down the stairs.
I have my next job interview in the morning. I think about the job title as I walk there: Product Tester. It makes me think of those old pictures of monkeys with lipstick on – the animal rights ones. But this is testing on people and it’s okay to put lipstick on people. Although lipstick is difficult to get off. Maybe I’ll get lucky and the interviewer will tell me they’re testing nappies or cream for nappy rash. “We need someone who wears nappies for this one,” they’d say. “Someone who has experience – an adult.” And of course I’d confide in the interviewer that, yes, I wear nappies and, further, am happy to wear a variety of nappies for the job; I have worn them for my whole life and thus have personal experience. They’d say that nappy-wearers are rare and undervalued – an asset to society. That more people like me ought to exist. That the more soiling the better because then they can test the fabric to its limits. Or maybe less soiling would be good too, because I can do both. Maybe they’ll ask me to be their head of nappy testing based on my personal experience and flexibility with soil-level.
All this thinking and walking has made me tired and short of breath. I used to catch the tram to interviews. But not since this one time when a guy started having a seizure and everybody kept asking if there was a doctor on board. I felt so useless, I couldn’t go through that humiliation again.
I arrive and take a seat. Soon I get called in from the orangey-yellow waiting room by a receptionist with strange glasses who keeps on scratching his elbows. I smile but he does not smile back. Inside the interview room there is a small ceramic bowl stacked with rectangular pieces of gum, which I restrain myself from going wild on. The interviewers mention testing for pharmaceutical brands. I smile and nod and wait for a silence and then I mention nappies. They seem confused and it goes the same way as last time.
“Please,” I say, “I need the money. Please consider my idea.”
One of them clears his throat and tells me they will not be considering my idea. “We will never hire you. Please, see yourself out.”
I grab a piece of gum and chew it quickly.
As I trudge out I can feel the small change in my pocket, and I think about my empty bank account. I think further. I think about the mould developing at the back of my fridge. About my apartment falling apart at the corners of the ceiling. About when I moved in and found it small even then. And I think about how desperate I am to be able to keep living there.
I think about the maintenance man. My swollen jaw. And all the added expenses of nappies and talcum powder.
I think hard and for a while and walk through the streets
I repeat to myself: Things need to change. Things need to change.