art by Peachboy
My brother’s boyfriend told me I should try out. They were hiring for the summer. It was outdoors and on the beach which certainly beat working at Countdown or for Uncle Yusuf in his shop. Besides, Roddy added, girls think lifesavers are hot. I wasn’t so sure. It would be just another reason for Baba to be disappointed with me. Behind closed doors, Mama’s hushed voice would try to smooth the edges, once again, though she understood me only a bit more than our Baba, the imam.
Baba had taught my older brother and I to swim. I often wondered what others thought, what was behind their eyes when we came to the swim centre. Here’s a man, obviously Muslim, in a long bushy beard and spectacles with his two small round-bellied boys in tow, all in knee-length togs and towels. I remembered quick glances and sometimes hidden stares and once a genuine double-take like the ones seen in comedies on TV or in movies. Once Baba got into the lessons, though, we were ignored. They saw Baba as just another father teaching his kids to swim. Aziz, you work too hard, Baba would say to my brother. Let the water hold you. Look at Hasan; look at the ease. It should not be such a struggle. For the longest time, my brother had fought the water. In the pool, he had little control. He was more embarrassing splash than skilled buoyancy, though he always worked so hard for Baba. You must learn to breathe correctly, Hasan. You forget the basics. Baba would say to me as he showed me how to turn my head to gather the next gulp of air. I always found it hard to do most things correctly, properly. I liked the shortcut, which drove Baba crazy.
My cousins, Nasir and Naira, thought being a lifesaver was choice. If they weren’t Uncle Yusuf’s children, so obligated to work behind the counter of the shop, they would have jumped at the chance. Nasir was girl-crazy and imagining tanned beauties in bikini tops and slick sunscreen was almost too much for my cuz. Naira wasn’t any better. She had said that she would give anything to be out and about in the sun and not stuck checking inventory or stocking shelves. She also had a thing for Māori guys and Jarrod, in particular. He was a couple of years older than my cousins and me. My brother Aziz and Jarrod had been in the same class at college. At nineteen, Jarrod had been lifesaving for three summers already. In yellow and red togs and singlet and Aviator sunnies standing in front of the lifesaver’s tent I had to admit Jarrod was impressive. No wonder Naira thought he could walk on water.
Tomorrow was the try-outs. We were finishing up tea. Mama was clearing away the plates; Baba had been suddenly called away to the masjid. As imam, Baba had many duties and responsibilities at the mosque. He led the salah or five daily prayers and gave the Friday sermon, the khutba. We were a small community on the East Coast of New Zealand but Baba’s leadership and advice were always needed. He answered religious questions such as is it halal to eat Kentucky Fried Chicken or what is the view of hongi on the marae between Muslim men and women and Māori. He also served as a counsellor and even once as a matchmaker for a young man from Somalia.
Aziz was home from uni for the summer. He kept eyeing the door all throughout tea, but made certain he did it discreetly. He was meant to meet Roddy after Isha, the last prayer of the day that happened after nightfall. Baba would more than likely be involved with other masjid business after prayers. Mama would let Aziz go or pretend that she didn’t know he had gone but she would question him mercilessly when he returned. If he returned. It was only last week that I had caught my brother slipping in before Fajr or the dawn prayer. He had told me he had lost track of time, but his T-shirt was sandy and inside out and I could smell jizz or maybe Roddy’s jizz on him. I knew what sex smelled like. I was just as bad as my cuzzie Nasir. I had sex on the brain all summer. Just the previous night, my hand had cramped after trying to beat my personal best of five times.
My brother and I sat on the front door steps, waiting for the final prayer of the day. Roddy had pulled up in his Mum’s dusty Honda. It was still just light outside and the waves from the beach a few streets over were so loud I could hear them from our house. I also heard Mama still in the kitchen, the plates clattering as she dried and put them away in the cupboard. Roddy had been out surfing. He smelled like the sun and sea. In boardshorts, singlet and baseball cap, Roddy was the typical kiwi summer. When he reached us, he sank onto the steps below Aziz. He asked me about the try-outs. I told him I was still not sure if I’d go or not. He looked at my brother and there seemed to be some unspoken message sent back and forth between them. It reminded me of the way Aziz and I were, growing up. We seemed to be able to read each other’s minds. But I knew that what Aziz and Roddy had was something different and, seeing the ease with each other, wondered how could it be such a bad thing. Aziz, sensing my doubt over the try-outs and Baba’s response, placed a warm hand on the back of my neck. He did that often when I was smaller and I needed my big brother. I wasn’t the smart one like Aziz so Baba and Mama were disappointed every term when reports came out. It was frequently stated that I didn’t apply myself, that I was lazy. Aziz’s hand always said I wasn’t.
With the way Roddy leaned back against Aziz’s legs, I didn’t think my brother was fooling anyone. I had known about my brother for some time. What clinched it was when I had caught him wanking to a magazine ad with bare-chested All-Blacks in their coloured Jockeys a few years back. I didn’t know what to say and Aziz was so embarrassed and scared I’d tell Mama and Baba he didn’t talk to me for almost a week. When he had finally pulled me aside, I said I didn’t care if he liked guys because it wasn’t really that much of a surprise. Aziz was surprised at that; he had always tried to do the right thing for Mama and Baba’s sake. He had asked me if he was ‘obvious.’ I didn’t want to talk about this but I could see that Aziz was even more scared that maybe without him even knowing he was acting like a girl or talking like a girl. I had to punch him in the arm for being so stupid. I told him I was the dumb one, not him. I also told him to stop being such a girly sook.
My brother didn’t have anything to worry about being seen as not a man. Not the most athletic or coordinated or too much into team sports, Aziz was still a great long-distance runner and despite fighting the water as a kid was a strong swimmer now. He liked those loner sports where he only had to worry about disappointing himself. I, on the other hand, loved getting myself into the thick of things, testing myself against others on a field. Rugby was my game. Uncle Yusuf’s favourite childhood story about me was how even before I knew Arabic properly, I was able to do the haka like the true kiwi kid I was.
‘There’s a party over at Jarrod’s cuzzie’s place tonight,’ Roddy said, looking where we all were looking: nowhere in the distance.
My brother, knowing I knew and that I accepted, though I had a hard time still understanding why and secretly hoped he was the man with Roddy, rested a hand on his boyfriend’s bare shoulder. His long scholar fingers lightly smoothed the wild red curls that stuck out from the back of Roddy’s cap. The gesture was so intimate, so matter-of-fact, that I felt a stranger to my brother. I had a peek at a world that I would never be a part of or know. Aziz walked a different road that I was only a witness to as he walked away. I looked at my jandalled feet, out of respect and a bit of sadness.
‘What do you say, bro?’ Aziz asked me, possibly to invite or to ask permission.
‘We can skip Isha,’ I said, knowing that would never happen.
Roddy turned his head and looked at us. His eyes lingered on Aziz’s face.
‘Pick us up behind the masjid after,’ my brother finally said, grinning in the ever-deepening dark.
‘Aziz, Hasan,’ Mama was calling. She opened the door and looked at the three of us sitting on the steps.
‘As-salāmu alaykum,’ Roddy said, getting to his feet quickly like he had been caught doing something wrong. My brother pulled his hand from his boyfriend’s hair. He didn’t know where to put it so his arm simply stood straight out in mid-air. I would’ve laughed if Aziz’s face didn’t look so stricken.
To Mama’s credit, she liked Roddy, thought he was a good young man. Which made it all the more difficult. Mama knew. We were her sons, after all.
‘How’s your grandfather, Roddy?’ Mama was a doctor in Egypt before she and Baba immigrated to New Zealand. Here she was an imam’s wife and supported the congregation whenever she could. Because we were such a close community and the East Coast was so tight-knit, people soon learned of Mama’s previous profession. She would sit on the back deck of the house, shelling peas or peeling potatoes or kumara, and give medical ‘suggestions’. Not advice or treatment. That would have been illegal. So Mama simply suggested. Word had travelled and now non-Muslims also came knocking on the old wire gate out back. Mama gave her ‘suggestions’ to anyone, Muslim or not. Lately, Māori and the elderly came to Mama’s garden. Roddy’s grandfather was one of them. Mama listened to everyone.
‘He’s doing much better now. The swelling in his legs have gone down, thanks to you, Mrs…Abbas.’ Roddy said, remembering to use Mama’s father’s name.
Mama nodded. She was wearing the dark blue hijab that always seemed to make her look younger to me. I often wondered what Mama was like when she was my age. When we were small, she had shown us grainy faded photos of her home in Cairo. Her Mama and Baba. Mates she had at uni. Her graduation from medical school. A young Baba, smiling in spectacles. I had asked Aziz once if he thought Mama was happy here. In New Zealand, she wasn’t able to be a doctor because of qualification differences; she quietly supported Baba in his ministry; she kept house, cleaned, cooked. I had asked him if he thought she was living a ‘too small’ life here. Aziz didn’t answer me. He only looked at me, placed his warm hand on the back of my neck and told me we should get back to the Qur’an that we were studying.
‘We need to go,’ Mama said, which was Roddy’s cue to leave. ‘Let your grandfather know he is in our thoughts.’
It was now Roddy’s turn to nod. He looked at Aziz, who looked at anything but his boyfriend. I glanced up at Mama. She was looking in the distance. At nowhere.
* * *
It seemed that Jarrod’s cuzzie’s house was on fire. I could see the glow through the branches of trees for blocks from the back seat of Roddy’s Mum’s Honda. Cars were parked crazily along the road as well as on the grass in front. Music thumped and throbbed from open windows and doors and every crack in the wood siding. A couple of guys and a girl stood on the cement stairs in a block of yellow light, beers in hand, smoking and laughing. The girl was a year below me. Her name was Rachel. She was Jarrod’s sister. She had dark hair and eyes, long legs in high cut-off shorts. Under a large flannel checked shirt, a black bikini top cupped her perfect little breasts. I wanted to run my fingers down her suntanned belly and draw circles around her deep bellybutton. She gave me a killer smile as if I wasn’t the same person she has seen before in the corridors of our school. I passed her and the two guys though I couldn’t help but look at her out of the corner of my eye. Rachel was so sweet. I had wanked off thinking of her often but never thought I’d be partying with her. The two guys stopped Roddy and my brother. They slapped palms and bumped fronts of shoulders with Roddy and Aziz. They were some of Roddy’s surf buddies. By knowing Roddy, I got palm-slapped and shoulder-bumped, too.
The music was something hard and physical. It pressed and pushed. Like ocean waves. It seemed I had to shove through the bass to get inside. My brother was all-smiles when I looked at him. Someone handed him a beer. Roddy shouted where the fuck was his. Aziz popped his Tui, took a massive swallow, which made his Adam’s apple practically vibrate then passed it to his boyfriend. Their fingers touched; they grinned wide. Aziz eased. His shoulders dropped; he slouched and began to sing along to the song crashing around us. It looked as if my brother had found some elusive peace. That’s when I lost him. He turned back once, his shirt now unbuttoned and almost off one shoulder and gave me his brotherly smile and nod-up and disappeared into the surging crowd.
Guys and girls squeezed against me. I snaked through; found a small space eventually in the kitchen to catch my breath. A couple was kissing: she sitting on the bench top not caring she was on the benchtop, legs wrapped around his skinny waist; he, his hands under her tight T-shirt, playing. She was humming as if love was full of bees and electricity and he was making wet slurping smacks on her lips as he devoured her with his juicy hunger.
I felt a hand slip into the back pocket of my trousers. I was dressed for Isha. So I looked like a Mormon missionary missing his bike. I hadn’t even unbuttoned my shirt like Aziz. I slid away thinking someone was mistaken, taking me for someone cool, someone who didn’t have an imam for a Baba. But when I looked over, it was Rachel. She scooted over to shorten the gap I had made. Her hand still lived in my pocket though I wanted her to change address and shift to my front. Looking down, my trousers couldn’t hide that I liked what she was doing with my bum.
‘Here,’ she said handing me a can of bourbon and coke. ‘It’s kinda sweet. You may not like it.’
I practically drank the whole thing.
‘It’s too loud. And hot,’ she said, her sugary breath brushing my ear. ‘Come with me.’ Rachel grabbed my hand. Her skin was warm and soft and safe and promised so much. I let her lead me away like a sheep walking dumbly to the shearers.
She took me around to the back of the house then down to an old shed against a fence badly in need of another coat of paint. ‘That’s better,’ she said, smiled and I could see she was glancing back at the house. She seemed less sure of herself now that we were alone in the dark with the music only a faint weighty remembrance. My ears still felt like they were filled up with water from a deep dive.
‘Heard you were going for the lifesaving try-outs,’ she said, now looking a year younger than me.
‘Thinking about it,’ I managed to get out. I could only look at her little breasts in the black bikini top and how her short shorts made her legs look so incredibly long. I imagined them wrapped around my waist.
She nodded, took another sip from her bourbon and coke. ‘Sorry, I finished it.’ She didn’t seem to know what to do with the can.
So I leaned in to kiss her. She jumped back, surprised, which made me feel like the biggest fuckwit in the world. She laughed and I was happy it was dark because I started to feel hot and weird and totally embarrassed. She then took my hand, said she was sorry, that it surprised her and planted a long hard one on my lips. What was going on in my boxers showed her apology was accepted.
I kissed back. Her lips were sugary sweet from the bourbon and coke. Her tongue was cool and fizzy. No one else came to mind. No one else mattered. Not Mama. Not Baba. Not Aziz. Only Rachel and my hands that tried but couldn’t touch her skin enough.
‘Rache,’ someone called from the house.
She broke away slowly, her lips grinning against mine.
‘We’re going to the beach. You coming?’ The person shouted.
‘You coming?’ She whispered to me.
Nothing could have kept me away.
* * *
The whole party seemed to have shifted to the beach. There was a group of us. It was star-dark but the waves drummed. White lines of breakers seemed to glow on their own and chalkmark the blackness. Someone was strumming a guitar. A fire was being built from driftwood.
I saw Aziz, his arm over Roddy’s shoulders. They were stripped to their undies. Aziz’s black Jockeys, Roddy’s orange-striped bikini briefs.
‘Hey, little bro,’ Aziz said, raising an eyebrow and trying not to grin because Rachel was sitting next to me on the sand, her hand in mine in her lap. My lips felt swollen from kissing her so much, but I managed a smile. Seeing Aziz free with Roddy and having Rachel’s body braced against mine, everything was right. Allah was happy. How could it be otherwise? Rachel rested her head on my shoulder. Aziz nodded his head like he and I had learned the most guarded secret of the universe. Roddy leaned in and nibbled my brother’s ear and said he was going for a swim. I watched as my brother’s boyfriend pulled him into the night and towards the roaring of the unseen sea.
I forgot my brother. All that was, was Rachel. I turned and saw her round face, her pointy-tipped black eyes, her thick lower lip, her sideways smile and kissed her again. She hummed like the girl on the bench top, like she was full of electric bees. Her hand touched me; her fingers popped the button and unzipped. She reached in, discovered I was shaved down there and smiled. I pulled her closer and was harder than ever because no one but me had ever touched me down there. I pulled on her bikini top to free a perfect breast.
‘Hey, bro,’ I heard through the buzz that was Rachel. I expected Aziz back from his swim. I was wrong. It was Jarrod. Rachel’s big brother.
If the sand was ice, I didn’t think I could slide quicker from Rachel. I stumbled to my feet. My lips were bruised from pashing. My hands smelled like Rachel’s skin. My trousers were undone. I was dead.
Jarrod—tall-powerful-larger-than-life Jarrod—eyed his sister, not pleased. He then turned to me and said, ‘Gotta keep it on the lowdown, bro, if you’re serious about trying out tomorrow. No sense working yourself up. Stay chill. Sweet. Get what I mean? It’s like being an athlete, an All Black.’ He glared at me, then his sister with a look that made my hard-on go limp. ‘You gotta remain focused. If you want it.’ He moved closer to me and I thought: This is it. I’m done for. But instead, Jarrod said, ‘I’ve seen you. You’d be good with us.’ He then fixed his no-nonsense stare on his sister. ‘Time to go, Rache.’
Jarrod walked away as if there was no doubt that we’d obey.
‘You’re going to do well tomorrow,’ Rachel gave me a quick peck on the lips as she stood. She followed her brother, straightening her bikini top and short shorts as she scrunched across the sand.
I watched her as the dark took her. I pretended that I could still see her because we had that kind of connection. It was more than just a drunken grope and grab. Rachel was like the sea. We were meant to be together. I imagined winning the spot with the lifesavers tomorrow and Rachel would be there. Cheering. Wishing me well. Pushing me on. She’d worry as I swam against the mounting waves, the strong pull of the tide. I’d test myself and I’d succeed. On leaving the water, she’d be there. She’d come to me. Stand so close her skin would heat me and dry me of the sea. I’d place my hand on the back of her neck; I’d pull her head towards me; I’d kiss her and win her.
The yell was simply loud at first. Then it became edgy. Frantic.
It was Roddy. Somewhere in the dark. Amongst the roaring sea.
I didn’t hear my brother call back.
I ran into the dark. Towards Roddy’s voice. Towards the sea.
Roddy was still in his orange-striped undies. They were wet now. They sagged down his skinny bum and looked like he’d done something in them. He paced back and forth where the water just touched the sand. He was breathing hard and shivering. He searched the sea, the loud black waves. He yelled my brother’s name again and again.
Without knowing for sure but knowing too well, I pulled my shirt off and pushed my trousers down, grateful they were already unbuttoned and unzipped. My shoes and socks were somewhere where only a few moments ago it was only Rachel and I and waves that sounded like heartbeats. I high-stepped into the sea.
It was cold but I didn’t care. The shock was sudden but I dove under. I knew there were some powerful rips along this stretch of beach. Aziz knew it, too. Baba had moved us to the sea when he thought we knew enough from our lessons in the pool at the swim centre. He told us how to handle rips, to relax, to swim perpendicular to them. It would take you farther down the beach but eventually you’d clear it. So I started swimming parallel to the beach, scanning the wider sea as I did, hoping and praying he wasn’t out there. Farther from shore. Farther from me. I would give myself forty, fifty good strokes then turn around and try in the other direction. I tried not to think about anything but finding Aziz. Alive. There was no other option.
That’s when I found Baba talking in my ear. It wasn’t stern Baba when I messed up or fell short. And it wasn’t disappointed Baba when I didn’t live up to his hopes and expectations. It was Baba the imam; it was Baba the leader of our community. Though my mind frequently wandered during the Friday sermon, it was never because of Baba giving the khutba. He was always impressive. Sometimes he was searing fire before us; sometimes he was quenching water. He was always calm wisdom, this now stoop-shouldered man with round spectacles and beard with just as much grey as black. It was that Baba that talked to me as I pushed away the cold and kept swimming, kept searching for my brother.
Saving something for the other direction, I gave a few more strokes to make sure then turned around. The sea was black as oil. The moon behind clouds gave no meaningful light. I kept the beach steady in my view beside me. Though the water was cold, I seemed to burn. I knew I wouldn’t leave without finding Aziz. One way or the other. That worm of doubt nearly broke my stride. So I shoved it away, but I was getting tired and the waves just kept coming and coming, hitting alongside of me over and over. It would be easy to let them simply have their way and roll me under, but no. I kept saying no. No, no, no, no, no with each stroke. Like a prayer. Like the simple quiet voice of Baba.
I heard my name then. From the beach up ahead. Over the loud waves, I heard someone calling. I didn’t want to stop though. I didn’t think I could. But someone was shouting my name over and over.
It was Rachel.
She was in the water. The waves up to her knees. Her hands were around her mouth, calling. For me. When she finally saw me in the dark sea, she walked further in. Towards me. She was saying something. But I was shivering all over now and it was hard to make out what she was saying clearly. But I thought she said he was found. As the water rose, she took to swimming and cut in front of me. I remembered saying my brother’s name over and over through clenched teeth to keep them from chattering. She grabbed me. Though I was slick from the sea and swimming, she still caught me. Stopped me. Told me he was found. Aziz was found. And he was okay. I thought I heard her say something about her brother and going in the other direction from mine and finding Aziz, tired but still struggling, still swimming to loosen the rip’s hold. But maybe I just heard nothing. Maybe it was simply Rachel’s fear and relief that told me all was right. Allah, be praised.
I let her help me out of the sea. She ran ahead to collect the large flannel checked shirt she had ditched on the beach. Hanging it over my shoulders, it smelled of her. It still held her warmth.
There was a group, huddled in a circle. A head taller than most, Jarrod stood out. He was looking down then he must have seen Rachel and I moving because he looked up then over at us. His hair was dripping; his face was flushed. He had a hoodie on that was obviously someone else’s who was way shorter than him. Jarrod gave me a single nod and a tired grin before looking back down at the centre of the cluster of people.
My brother was sitting up, his chin on his knees. Roddy was beside him. A beach blanket was around them. Aziz was shivering. Roddy sat there, adding his warmth. I found my way in. People around us stepped back a bit. Someone must have said something because in no time it was just the five of us. Jarrod stood in his too-short hoodie for a while longer than left. Before going, we looked at each other. He told me he’d see me tomorrow. I nodded a few times because it was true. I’d be there.
Rachel sat next to me while I sat on the other side of my brother. Roddy was holding his hand. Aziz had his eyes closed, trying to breathe deep to stop the shivering. His head rested on Roddy’s shoulder.
‘Dumb…huh?’ My brother managed to get out in staggered puffs past chattering teeth.
I punched him lightly on the arm. Before placing my forehead on his blanketed shoulder. Closing my eyes, I thanked Allah, who seemed to look like Baba, Jarrod and the sea.
Patrick Pink grew up in Chicago, Illinois and has lived in Michigan, Texas and Germany. Currently he calls New Zealand home. Patrick has been published in Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction. His work can also be found in Chelsea Station, Jonathan, and in the Halloween Edition of Glitterwolf. His latest piece of short fiction will be published and illustrated in Sixpenny Magazine.