'Things I Wish I Could Change' by James Hannan
I am sitting quietly alone in my room, not hurting anyone, when my flatmate turns his music on. Loud, too, so there’s no mistaking it, and no missing out on any of the lyrics.
It’s obvious what he’s trying to do.
I’ve lived with Chris in his long, cramped terrace, that his parents bought him, for two months now and I’m trapped. Every time I leave my room to get to any other part of the house, he busts into the hallway because he wants to ‘talk’.
I used to like Belle and Sebastian—what Chris is playing. My last Tinder date said they were twee, which I totally get but that’s just how they sing. If you listen to the lyrics, it’s obvious there’s much more to their music.
Brandon liked Belle and Sebastian. One of the few happy memories I have of him is listening to their music together. Him shimmying in his seat, his right hand clicking, trying to stand up and get his left side moving in time with the music. He liked one song in particular, There’s too much love, because of one line, which he screamed. Something about causing offence by the way he looked.
When I interviewed to live in Chris’s house, one of the first things he announced was him liking Belle and Sebastian. I blurted out I did too. It was a nervous on-the-spot reaction. I should have been more reticent, but after looking around Chris’s amazing inner-city Sydney terrace, and noticing Chris as well—young, fit, good looking, with long straight brown hair—I wanted to impress.
I mean, I corrected myself, telling him I liked Radiohead too, and was a huge fan, and went on to say I was into Wilco, PJ Harvey, even the White Stripes, but I guess he’s forgotten about them.
I don’t mind Chris. And it doesn’t bother me, him liking me either, or walking around the house in his underwear, or leaving his door open when he’s in bed and asking me to come in to chat, or him getting very drunk and wanting to know about my sexual fantasies. I could ignore all of that, I might even get into it if only he didn’t ask me about my past relationships.
Brandon never asked questions like this. He was disabled, but you can’t say that. You have to say, living with a disability. Brandon never called himself disabled, living with a disability, or anything like that, except from time to time saying he was spastic. I’d tell him to stop, but he didn’t care, ‘I’m a fucking spastic, a complete and utter retard. Deal with it, numpty!’ he’d say.
You never know why you’ll like someone, but I liked Brandon. Seeing him not give a fuck how he appeared, how people thought of him, I fell in love. When people looked down their noses as he struggled to hold things in both hands, he’d dial it up, dropping whatever he had a precarious grasp on, playing up his left hand not functioning. When people talked in a slow condescending manner, he’d return serve, slurring his words out the left side of his mouth, even going so far as to dribble.
I remember the time this made me giggle, which made him piss himself with laughter, and then we stood back looking at his interrogator, as Brandon liked to call them—the last guy fat and ugly, with a massive red nose, which only got redder the more we laughed—who reeled in bemusement.
I knew most things Brandon did were a performance. My mistake, I guess, was wanting to know more, asking him about it until he’d give me that look, like can you fuck off already.
To study Chris’s face, it’s obvious he feels too much. For someone who looks like him, and has everything going for him, with his super-rich doctor parents, it’s fucked up how much things affect him, leading to his getting wasted, sliding up next to me, a mess, on the couch.
‘It’s about my father,’ he’ll say. ‘But it’s about my mother really. I was happy, but that was like ages ago, before my counsellor, you know. She so opened my eyes about how my mild anxiety was because my too-invested-in-their-careers-to-care parents never really gave a shit. Not through my childhood, not when I was coming out, you know, like one of the most important days of my life, and not now. They just think if they throw enough money at me and my “issues” everything will be fine.
‘But get this, the most fucked up thing was the counsellor trying to normalise all this. She actually said none of this was in any way special. Apparently, this sort of thing happens all the time, you know, like to lots of people. Can you fucking believe that?’
Two weeks ago Chris asked me into his bedroom. He had a massive spliff which he lit as I came out of my room, blowing smoke out his door and into my face. It tasted good, and even though I knew what he was up to, I couldn’t resist. About half an hour or so into it, when we were very high, he started giggling, jumping around the room in his short cut-off jeans and bright yellow top he got from a thrift shop (he could buy any clothes he wants but insists on buying everything second-hand).
He got into bed and said, ‘Guess what piece of clothing I’m going to remove?’ squirming under the covers.
‘Don’t,’ I said, ‘I can’t handle it.’
‘No, come on, come on, guess!’
‘Chris, don’t, I’m way too stoned and way too old for this.’
‘Okay, I’ll give you a hint,’ he said, giggling wildly, wriggling his bottom half.
‘Okay, I’m leaving now.’
‘Hold on,’ he said, disappearing under his doona, only his straight long brown hair still visible, suddenly appearing again with the jeans in his left hand. ‘Okay, now you have to guess what I’m going to remove.’
This went on until he took off his other two articles of clothing. And then somehow, convinced me I should join him under the covers to disrobe too.
So, I fucked him. Big deal.
Brandon misread my reaction after we fucked. He thought I felt embarrassed for him, but it was more disappointment in myself because of how quickly I came. I then had to leave the room to piss, which only made everything worse. Brandon thought it a ploy to escape and get away from him.
I came straight back but in those minutes between getting out of bed and returning he’d convinced himself I left because of him, and his shriveled left side.
‘If you hate my body so much, you should just fucking say. I mean, it’s not like I haven’t heard stuff like this before,’ he said, winding himself into a rage.
Strange thing was, his left side is what I most loved about him.
Chris has switched over to Radiohead. He’s started playing all their hopeful songs.
Until I met Brandon, I didn’t think anyone could hate their body more than me. In my late forties, my tummy has become pudgy hanging down like an old hessian sack over my belt. The lower half of my legs are starting to look like an old man’s, with sunspots and the skin toughening. I’ve also begun to sprout hairs everywhere, but on my back, neck, and ears it’s like a meadow in fucking spring.
I think I liked Brandon’s body so much because he could never hide it. On display all the time its twisted abnormalities, its lack of movement, and his shame in doing even the most basic task.
And then there’s Chris, the smooth-skinned, tall, shapely Adonis, with all that beautiful brown hair and a pile of money he can call on. He knows he’s gorgeous. He knows he can do whatever he wants. He’d be a god if only he could ignore everything going on in his head.
He actually thinks we’re falling in love. He really does.
Last week he bought me a Ramones t-shirt like all the cool kids wear. From the moment he said, ‘I’ve got you something,’ I started to cringe, thinking, how do I get out of this? And then when I saw what it was, I had to physically control myself from wincing.
I never liked the Ramones, they’re all ugly energy, short, stumpy, and in your face. I’ve never been anything like that. I’m more the sort that can only get his words out after the fact, alone and in my head.
Chris has also been cooking me dinner. ‘You’re getting older now and need someone to take care of you,’ he’ll often explain. Three days ago, I got a steak sandwich, complete with an egg, onions, fries, and greens on the side, and, ‘I know just how you like it.’ Two days ago, as I came in the door from my grimy government job filled with awful office outfits and half-conscious afternoon meetings, he yelled out, ‘Hello sweetie, we’re having bangers and mash tonight. My specialty.’ He was wearing an apron over his cut-off jeans and a moth-eaten t-shirt. Last night, he cooked chicken stir-fry, saying ‘Why don’t you wear your new Ramones shirt. You look so cute in it.’
When I said I wouldn’t put it on, he started to tear up, so I gave in and changed. As it didn’t cover my stomach properly, I spent the night constantly re-arranging myself, trying to find a spot I felt comfortable.
Chris has had Stagger Lee on repeat for the last two hours. The few times I’ve had to walk past his bedroom, he’s had his door open, strutting around like Nick Cave, with nothing on but his undies. With feet together, hips moving in time to the music, head thrown back and hair hanging almost down to his waist, he seems to be saying, this is what you’re missing out on old man.
I preferred him curled up next to me on the couch, hardly coherent, asking if I thought him worthy of love. When I first met him, I’ll admit I was attracted to him, and his youth, money, and freedom. I should have paid more attention to the sideways looks he gave me, the way at first he was hesitant to approach but then treated me like an old friend in a matter of days.
If only Brandon had believed being in love solved everything. Just once I wished he would have forced me to come to him, or draped himself over me, saying I had to see him, touch him, adore him.
In spite of everything I tried to give him, Brandon couldn’t face living. I thought he was kidding when he suggested suicide.
‘It’s not that bad, is it?’ I said.
‘Tell me one thing that’s good, about any of this?’
‘Me and you, we’re, umm, good, aren’t we?’
Chris blames me for his pain. Of course, he does. He slammed his door shut the last time I went past, turning the music up, which he’s started singing along to. I yelled I was bringing my ex, bringing Brandon over. I don’t know why I said that. Even if Brandon were still here, he never would have allowed me to be pulled down by him, with his limp, dead left hand, and mangled left foot dragging behind us.
It was another reason he was fond of saying, ‘You’ll never get what it’s like to be me.’ His favourite line. He would bring it up again and again how he’d once been full-bodied and with everything to live for, only to have it snuffed out one night after stumbling drunk into the path of an oncoming taxi.
Once, and only once, did I point out he could try not looking ahead seeing only endless, painful years ahead of him. ‘You could see them as finite and to be treasured,’ I said.
‘Really?!’ Brandon answered, ‘You’re going to make this all about you? You’re such an arsehole.’
Chris is crooning in his room in a soothing female voice. I really want to know what he looks like. I’m sure he’s put a face on and his hair up and dressed in something slinky. There’s something about him like that, when he turns into someone else.
It reminds me of the last thing I said to Brandon: could he try to imagine himself a different person? I even threw in, could he do it for me?
He screwed up his face, ‘Fuck you, fuck you all to hell.’
Copyright. James Hannan.
James Hannan is an Australian-based writer of fiction and non-fiction. His work has appeared in Styluslit, Literally Stories, Prole, Fiction Pool, Litro, Bourbon and Blood, Last Surviving Story anthology, the Wild Goose, Brain Drip, the Big Issue, and New Maltida.