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The Uselessness of Aversion, Erica Genda

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The tension in the room felt like fire. My eyes burned, and my cheeks were wet. 

It was then that Emma came home, and saw Aaron with his hands clenched in a tight fist. She stood before us and released her shopping bags uneasily to the floor. In the background, the television screen, still stagnant, shone into the dark room. At that moment, I wished I could have turned back time, or been able to force it forwards. I wished to be anywhere other than in that moment.

 

*

 

I couldn’t believe I was here. This moment made me wish to be back with my parents in Melbourne.

Emma greeted me at the door of my new home in the outskirts of North Sydney. It was here that I was to live, with two new housemates. They looked like white supremacists, with their pale and freckled skin, light blonde hair and deep blue eyes. I had friends similar to them in primary school. But the minute they saw my mum wearing a hijab they weren’t my friends anymore.
‘Yasmin,’ Emma said. ‘How’s it hangin? Happy to have a new roomie! Need some help with ya gear?’

I politely accepted and felt bad for judging her. I was such a contradiction.

Emma carried my big boxes inside, and I carried the small ones. My justification being I am petite and was already exhausted from the mess that was my life. After only a few hours, I was almost through unpacking my life’s belongings into my new ridiculously tiny bedroom. In the room next door, I could hear my new roomies yapping loudly. I wanted to join them, but I needed a breather. I lay back on my bed and grabbed my phone to Face-Time my mum.
‘Yasmin, my sweetness, you look so sad, what’s wrong?’ she asked.
‘Just moved into my new place. I have housemates Ma…it feels weird.’
‘Are they nice?’

In the background, I could hear my father yelling.
‘Why is dad yelling?’
‘We are making kebbeh, and he’s asking for my help in the kitchen. I don’t know why – he’s made it a thousand times!’
‘Did you want me to call you later?’
‘Ok Yasmin, just be nice and make friends. It is impossible not to like you. I love you,’ she said blowing me a virtual kiss. I rolled over and saw a message from her with a picture of my Dad in the kitchen with mince in his hands. I missed them so much.

‘Ey! Newbie. I mean, Yaz, come out!’ shouted Emma from the lounge room. ‘Thought I’d properly introduce ya to Az, or Aaron as he prefers, who you’ll notice sits on the lounge a lot at night. I have a TV in my room for privacy, but sometimes we enjoy watching a bit of the  Bach together. For the drinking games!’
‘Love it,’ I said.
‘By the way Az, this is Yaz, or Yasmin – which I like, might start calling you that,’ said Emma as I gave a small wave to Aaron.
‘Righto,’ said Emma, and took my hand as she guided me into the kitchen. She gave me a sheet of paper titled ‘Emma & Aarons Pet Hates’. After that list, there was a smaller list of things not to eat or to get for myself if I wanted any. There were a few other house rules on the sheet, but Emma told me to forget them because Aaron wrote them and who gives a fuck about him anyway. I thought she was joking, but couldn’t tell. She popped open a bottle of VB and offered me one, but I hated VB, so I took water instead. Emma leant on the counter, waiting for me to say something.

‘Thanks so much’ I said, ‘but I better finish unpacking.’

I was hopping off the bar stool when Emma said, ‘so what’s ya story? New to Sydney or what?’

I raised my eyebrows. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to share everything straight away, but I sat back down.
‘Oh sorry, sensitive question is it?’ Emma continued.
‘No, no! I’ve been here for a while, few years. But, um, I just split with my ex, so I had to get out of his place ASAP.’

I couldn’t look up, as I knew that if I talked about him, my eyes would start to water. How embarrassing!
Emma leant over the counter and gave me a bumpy rub on the shoulder. ‘Fuck him!’ she said.
‘Shut up Em! I’m watching the news,’ Aaron called out. There was no wall between the kitchen and the lounge area.
‘Stop being a dick,’ Emma bit back.
‘Sorry, no offence,’ Aaron said, turning to look at me. I nodded that it was okay even though it irritated me. Though I was probably just being sensitive.
‘How did you guys meet?’ I asked Emma,
‘He’s my brother’s best mate. My brother moved out with a girl, so he moved in. Helps pay the rent, so he’s not that bad – Are ya Az?’ She had a cheeky smile on her face like she thought he was great or something.
‘Please, don’t listen to her. Call me Aaron. I’m not a bogan like some!’ He joked.

I laughed, even contemplating the VB for a moment. It seemed to me that I had walked into a wacky, yet playful friendship and I felt like I was being invited to join in the fun. That was the nicest way to think about this situation.
‘So what did this guy do to you?’ asked Aaron, not paying attention.

I didn’t exactly want to get into the details with someone who wasn’t even listening.
‘Did he cheat on ya?’ Emma prodded.
‘Um, yeah,’ was all I could say before I lost it. I began sobbing into my chest as quietly as I could. I must have seemed like a complete lunatic.
‘Oh shit! I’m sorry babe. It’s okay, Yasmin. Don’t worry. A week from now you won’t even be thinking about this fucking idiot.’

Emma’s tone was suddenly not so loud anymore. She came around to my side of the counter to hold me. That was the moment we became friends.
Emma spent a lot of time with me after that night. She took me out often. Not to clubs, but to dinner and bars where we could enjoy each other’s company. I had become stressed about being on my own. And I felt anxious about being around people who I didn’t like or didn’t like me! But now we were drinking VB every Friday night. The taste was dismal, but the company was nice.  It was comforting to have someone like Emma. We spoke about the important things in life just as easy as the not so important things. I loved that. Aaron joined us on most Fridays too, but he was hooked on the news. It was tiresome. Terrorist bombings and sieges were always being pushed onto viewers, like some kind of fear mongering. No one wants to hear about that on a Friday night. Plus, I found it funny, in a not so funny way that they never spoke about the effects these things had in Middle-Eastern countries. Like Lebanon, where my parents were from, or Syria, where people were likely to die if they stayed or if they fled. I hated seeing all this hate coming from faux Muslims, making the world hell for the good ones. At first, it just broke my heart. Then, I grew furious. Emma would tell Aaron to ‘shut that shit off’, as she could see it visibly upset me. But he never listened.
‘Don’t you find it depressing to watch the news constantly?’ I’d ask him, interrupting a small pecking session between him and Emma.
‘Nah, my dad homeschooled me, and we did a lot of news watching. He always said that it’s good to be informed. There’s a lot of crazies out here.’

He motioned to the lone gunman on the screen who had just been caught. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, just agreed that the man was crazy. But I guess Aaron and I had a different view of what led to crazy.
I became sidetracked with a message from my mum. Another photo, it read, ‘My Turkish friend from work made me this Kanafeh. You would love it! Wish you were here! Miss you!’ Her missing me was nothing new. Ever since I moved to Sydney, our emotions ran high, and we found it hard to be apart. I knew she would have felt it more because I had less of a need to call her as I was finally settling in.  Our catch-ups became less frequent, but we always had a way of letting each other know we were still there. I sent a message back saying, ‘ I love you Ma, tell Dad I say hi and I miss you both. Will call soon.’

I think she knew that I had to make a life for myself, and I was beginning to.
‘So are you two official yet or what?’ I asked sitting on the lounge as Emma and Aaron nestled up to one another.
‘Oh stuff off,’ Emma cringed slightly but looked happy.
‘Well, why not I guess,’ Aaron said smiling. They kissed, and it wasn’t even gross, but I still threw a pillow at them.

 

*

 

It had been about two months since Emma and Aaron had hooked up exclusively. I was sitting on my laptop at the kitchen bench as Aaron watched TV. There was a brief mention of a protest happening in Melton on the news, which is close to where my parents live in Melbourne.
‘What is that?’ I asked,
‘Anti-Muslim protest, they approved a Mosque in Melton,’ Aaron scoffed.

I couldn’t figure out his tone. I took my laptop to the bedroom and Skyped my parents.  My dad answered, and I could see my mum in the background crying with her head down. My dad was whispering like he didn’t want my mum to hear. He told me about a man who threw a beer can at his car as he drove past. The man then yelled, ‘What’re you hiding under there?’ to my mum in the passenger seat, referring to her hijab.

‘It’s horrible Yasmin. Just horrible! I don’t know why these people hate us. We don’t do anything. We keep to ourselves! These people, they come and even eat at our shop! It’s like they have lost their minds.’
I found it hard not to cry, but I didn’t want to show my dad how much it hurt me too. He needed to see that I was okay.
‘Your mother and I are worried for you. What is it like for you there? Is it multicultural? Are you okay?’

He looked desperately sad. I couldn’t help but shed a tear.
‘It’s okay dad, tell mum I’m fine. I have friends, and it’s not the kind of place where that stuff happens. I’m safe.’

 

*

 

Following the Melton protests, I had a sick feeling in my stomach that wouldn’t budge. But I never voiced my concern. I called or messaged my parents every day. They weren’t distressed anymore, but I couldn’t shake the anxiety. It was time for dinner, but I didn’t know if I could stomach a full meal, so prepared a coffee and was going to sit with Aaron and watch some TV. As I was about to sit down, he yelled, ‘Fucking Muslims!’

My heart began beating fast and hard; I could feel it against my rib cage. I tried to sip my coffee but my hands were shaky, and I ended up spilling some.  I tried listening to the news, but Aaron just shouted over the top of it.
‘What a twisted, fucked up race! Shoot them all!’

At that moment, I realised that Aaron had no idea that I was Muslim. I clenched the paper towels I had used to clean up the coffee. Aaron kept going and going like he was having a conversation with the television.

‘Can you shut up!’ I snapped.
He paused the TV. There was silence between us.
‘You know you’re being completely racist right?’

‘What’s it to you?’ he said. ‘I can see you’re brown, but I didn’t think you were some Arab.’
‘I’m Lebanese. My parents are Muslim. They’re good people, and it’s disgusting to hear this shit in my living space,’ I replied. My voice shook, but I stood strong.
‘Well let’s get one thing straight then, yeah – this is my place, and I’ll say what I want – you can get the fuck out for all I care.’

Aaron pointed towards the door, and I knew he meant it.
‘I don’t get it. You can’t seriously watch one crazy person on TV, who just happens to be Arabic and think we’re all murderers?’
‘It’s not just one crazy person. There are heaps of you.’
‘That’s not us. That guy stalked that girl; he didn’t kill her with some extremism motive, that’s just the news spinning shit… Or, you, you’re spinning shit!’
‘I’m telling you, Muslims are violent and fucked up. You can see it with your own two eyes.’

He gestured towards the TV.
‘You are completely fucked up Aaron! I hope you know that.’
The tension in the room felt like fire. My eyes burned, and my cheeks were wet. It was then that Emma came home, and saw Aaron with his hands clenched in a tight fist. She stood before us and released her shopping bags uneasily to the floor. In the background, the television screen, still stagnant, shone into the dark room.

‘Turn it off,’ Emma said, her voice trembling. ‘Turn it off now, Aaron!’
‘Are you seriously going to do this?’ He threatened.
‘Do what?’ She said ‘Stand up for my friend?’

I never spoke about my background with Emma, but she wasn’t an idiot. I think she had noticed the photos in my room of me with my parents. She knew I wasn’t like them.

‘To be honest Em, I don’t think I can live here anymore,’ I said and turned away towards my room. I had to get my car keys so that I could get out. I didn’t know what I expected from Em, and I didn’t want to get in between her and Aaron, even if he was a racist asshole.

‘Don’t go,’ she said. As I walked to leave she grabbed my arm,‘it’s just stupid talk. It doesn’t mean anything. He didn’t mean it.’ I felt sad for her defending him like that.

‘I bloody do mean it!’ he said. ‘Next thing you know, she’ll be wearing a fucking burka and yelling Allahu Akbar at me!’
I exhaled a shocked kind of sigh. I had to leave. Emma rushed behind me, but I couldn’t stop. I didn’t have any more words.

 
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Dignity Estranged, Christopher Norris

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A Molotov cocktail cut through the summer air. Glass smashed, petrol burned. A swarm of people danced around the flames, desperate to escape the inferno.

‘Fucking hell!’ screamed Leighton, as he pushed a stocky man named Jason away from the flames. He stumbled as his shoe got tangled in the human wall, his ankle twisted as he staggered backwards.

The petrol, no longer contained, swam towards the protestors. It licked at their heels. A circle of about twenty metres opened up as the bodies attempted to evade the searing heat, the fire consumed all of the oxygen in the dense pit, with dozens raising t-shirts to their faces as the vapour dried their throats.

The Pride Parade was an annual event held in Sydney’s CBD. An extremist group who called themselves The Reclaimers had crashed their event. The narrow footpaths were fenced off on both sides, forming a steel funnel. Police were ready to push fence jumpers back into the mix. Fifty metres separated the two groups. The supporters of the Pride Parade were dressed in a variety of colours. In the confined space they looked like a giant hundreds-and-thousands cookie; a sea of pink mixed with flecks of red, white, and blue. Some had brought guitars and the crowd had sung tunes like The Beatles’ ‘All You Need is Love.’

Onlookers flanked each side of the barricade. Anticipating trouble, a boy got out his phone and began filming. His mother pulled at his shirt, dragging him away. A dog barked as a firework was thrown in between the groups. A policeman touched his radio and mopped his brow.

Leighton dodged a rock, the projectile flashed past his right eye. A drummer from the other side started banging, The Reclaimers marched, waving banners that cut through the smog. They bore slogans such as ‘men are men, women are women!’ and ‘X does not equal Y!’

Jason, the leader of the Pride Parade, had seen this before. He had been bashed in the 2005 Gay Pride Parade, his nose broken by a hateful fist. He had organised the rally to protest the fascist regime of The Reclaimers. Jason’s Twitter hashtag #Sydneypride had taken off, and thousands had bombarded their activist account with messages of support.

Jason turned away from Leighton and shot silly string into the air. He laughed as the synthetic goo covered a few onlookers. He draped a rainbow coloured flag around his shoulders, and mocked the protestors by clapping to their drum-beat. He raised his hands and shook them. Leighton laughed at his eclectic dancing. Plastic bottles bounced around them; The Reclaimers used anything they could grab as make-shift projectiles.

Police had underestimated the event and, with an annual bike ride through the city taking place on the day, they were outnumbered by the swarm of people. Those at the back of the Pride Parade had decided to flee; banners were ditched and slogan-covered tops were removed. Some went without their shirts to protect themselves.

Sirens blared in the distance as The Reclaimers marched closer. The gap was reduced to twenty-five metres.  Jason grabbed his megaphone, ready to plead with both parties. He pushed his fringe back from his forehead, the dried petrol making his skin prickle. His left hand gripped the megaphone, his right stayed clamped by his side, the fingers played with the cotton of his shirt.

Leighton noticed a protestor, a blonde haired girl in her early 20s, hiding behind a group of older, sign-brandishing men. She hid like a child does when they are meeting new people for the first time. Her eyes darted, refusing to make eye contact with the Pride Parade supporters. She wore black Converse shoes, a knee length dress and her face was plain, unmade. A silver chain hung around her neck. A cross no bigger than a postage stamp weighed it down. Her hands played with the chain, the cross turned around her neck as she spun the metal around. She flicked the cross behind her as if to protect it from the proceedings.

Twenty metres apart, they locked eyes. Someone handed her a flag to fly. She dropped it, pretended to swipe for it, and then, when she was sure she had not been noticed, stepped over the fallen symbol. Leighton smiled. He wondered why she had dropped the flag, why she wasn’t protesting with fist raised like many of the others. Her face wasn’t twisted in unnatural hate and flecks of spit did not stick to the corners of her mouth.

‘Watch it, mate,’ said Jason as Leighton stood on his shoe. His ill-timed steps made the row behind him stop momentarily. Two arms stretched out to guide him back into position.

The two groups descended into chaos. A guitar bearing man used his instrument as an impromptu bat, the varnished wood cut into the side of a Reclaimer. The guitar splintered, showering the crowd with polished chunks. Only the neck of the instrument remained. Leighton kept his eyes on the girl. A gray-haired man locked eyes with Leighton as placed his hand on the small of her back, pushing her forward. The man shook his head in Leighton’s direction and spat at his feet. The sheer volume of the crowd meant she was unable to sidestep his hand, shoulders boxed her in. The Reclaimers were out in force after the showing of a film in schools promoting gay parenthood; they had stormed Sydney’s local schools, cafes, and train stations, plastering walls and handing out leaflets. Leighton remembered seeing one at Redfern station, stuck to a wall of the staircase. He yanked it off the wall, scrunched it up and dropped it to the ground.

A placard struck Leighton in the head, it left a jutted incision. Leighton, who did not see his assailant, yelped and fell to the ground. Jason’s flying shoulder battered through two Reclaimers. A third grabbed him by the waist, and slammed him down to the ground. A crevice had opened up in the human wall. Leighton touched the back of his head and brought his index and middle fingers back to his face; blood trickled down his fingers and smacked the sweaty pavement. He drew his hands towards his hips and rose up like a surfer catching a morning wave. He teetered as he attempted to regain his composure, pushing both friend and foe in an attempt to make it into the relative safety of the middle of the crowd.

A NSW Public Order and Riot Squad van had arrived. The jet black van was covered in cameras, its sirens blared; Leighton felt the tiny bones inside his ear pulsate. Twelve well-armed men began marching, riot shields out, towards the ruckus. They used their batons to drum on their shields, plastic sounds echoed off the surrounding houses.

Unabated, the front two rows of the Pride Parade and The Reclaimers pushed, shoved, and spat on each other. A man in a suit and tie attempted to swat at one of the girls in the Pride Parade from outside the metal confines of the barriers. His arm reached over a bunch of protestors, he clawed at air like he was trying to swat a dog on the nose with a rolled up newspaper.

A tear gas canister hit the ground in the middle of the riot; it belched white smoke. Leighton pushed to the left, forcing his way through, pushing some of his own people with reckless abandon. Gagging on the chemicals, he doubled-over onto the fence. After retching, he grabbed the barrier and hauled himself up. A body bumped into his feet, sending him sprawling on the concrete, head first. Leighton felt a searing pain in his right shoulder.

A hand reached out, urging him to take it. It was the girl. Sweat rained down her face, a trickle of sick stuck to her chin, trailed down to the top of her dress. She put her hand over her face in vain, hoping to dispel some of the toxic fumes that permeated through the chaos.

‘C’mon, let’s go. They’re going to fuck you up.’ The girl barked into his ear and she yanked him, by his right shoulder.

‘Fuck, my shoulder; I think it’s dislocated,’ Leighton yelled out, and cradled his arm; the limb dangled like that of a ragdoll.

‘Leighton!’ Leighton turned at the sound of Jason’s voice, but he could not see him. The police continued in a line. Their shields made an impregnable wall as the make-shift drums got louder. Anyone caught in the line, injured or not, was bundled over, hauled to the ground and arrested. Leighton saw a flailing pair of legs, a torso pinned under black boots, knees in backs and discarded placards.

He staggered to his feet. The pair dashed away, ducking down a side-street. They found a crevice between two old semis that were marked for demolition, they ignored the construction sign and entered the passage. They leaned against a peeling wall, unable to sit in the slit-like passage.

‘What’s your name?’ Leighton squared up to the wall and rammed his shoulder against it. He let out a wail. His left arm spun outwards and he shook his hand. It looked like he was trying to start a lawn mower.

‘Bessie,’ she mumbled as she wiped the back of her hand across her face, yellow sick smeared across her cheek, touching her left ear. Bessie tucked the silver chain underneath her dress; she grimaced as a few stray strands of hair were yanked out.

‘What were you doing with those bigoted assholes?’ Leighton pushed the rage out; he spat on the pavement, looked her up and down, and shook his head.

‘Calm down. Those idiots are my family; I’m forced to be here.’

Leighton raised his left hand and clicked his fingers upwards like he was tossing a coin, dismissing her excuse. He noted the early stages of bruising and swelling as he explored the pink prickled flesh with his left hand. The bruises had small spots of blue that were beginning to join the larger areas of pink. Those bastards, he thought. He felt the anger rise up inside him. He imagined his father, at home watching the cricket or having a beer. He imagined families enjoying the spoils of brunch; full bellies and smiles. He wondered why, out of the thousands who pledged to be there, only a few hundred had shown up.

‘Look at what they have done to me!’ Leighton pointed to the back of his head. He felt crusted blood as he rotated his shoulder upwards.

A shout echoed down the crevice, shaking off the grogginess of the afternoon. The sound preceded the owner; it travelled down the passage way, eating up the air in the stuffy alleyway. Leighton could only guess that it belonged to one of the extremists. He imagined they had seen the pair leaving the riot, desperate to retrieve her, and injure him.

‘Shit! We have to go, Leighton.’ Bessie tried to grab Leighton by the arm, but he brushed her off. The adrenaline from the riot started to leave him, a wave of sickness crashed through him, the nausea coursed up from his stomach. Thick yellow sick dribbled out of his mouth, the taste of tear gas and petrol collided against his tongue.

Bessie side-stepped the puddle and forced Leighton upright, she yanked his hand and they began to run. As they left the shelter of the crevice, a bottle hit the entrance way, dregs of beer dripped down the wall.

The city streets were narrow and event parking meant there were next to no cars to hide behind. Leighton realised that they had to make it into the heart of the city, or on to a train, anywhere. He wondered if Jason had gotten out. The riot squad were not known to be gentle; many of their supporters had been roughed up when being taken in for questioning, sometimes their stories even made the papers.

He began to tire as they hurtled down the city street, ducking as the occasional projectile flew passed them. He thought back to the countless hours he had put into campaigning, fund-raising. He had helped many people be themselves, feel less vulnerable. He remembered helping a transgender girl, who called herself Kate. He had stayed up all night, talking to her on Facebook. She was a studious young woman, bright, bubbly, friendly, confused.

Leighton felt angry as he realised how easily his own supporters gave in to violence. His shoulder ached with every step, as the pounding of his feet forced the vibrations into his arms, reminding him of the earlier fall.

The NSW Police had shut down the streets, issuing a lockdown in Sydney’s CBD. Bessie and Leighton made their way to Darling Harbour. Leighton sat down against a pole on one of the wharfs. Dirty water lapped up against the side of the pier, seagulls swarmed on rubbish and people ignored each other in dignity estranged. The teenagers looked like party-goers. Leighton smelled the stale air, cigarette-butts lined the wharf; rubbish hid in between wooden slats.

‘What’s going to happen to you?’ Leighton turned to Bessie, his lips pulled tight and his eyes squinted.

‘They’ll kill me.’ Bessie turned away from Leighton. She remembered Catholic school; the firm stance, the iron-clad scripture and Sunday school with Sister Callaghan.  The way the sisters spouted the same passages and ignored her questions frustrated her to no end.

‘God has an answer for everything,’ chirped Sister Callaghan in lyric baritone; the sugar syrup seeped from her mouth, Bessie felt sick.

Leighton and Bessie talked late into the afternoon. The faint sounds of sirens drifted through them as the sun started to dip. Leighton’s heart raced, his mind flashed to those in the riot. Signs, flags, symbols and colours had been turned into weapons. He wondered if Jason had survived, if he’d been arrested or even killed. Leighton sighed and forced himself up.

Leighton exchanged numbers with Bessie, thanked her for saving his life and headed towards Town Hall station.

Bessie watched him stagger until he disappeared into the distance. Bessie felt the wind pick up. The chain brushed up against her breast. She took the chain from her neck and threw it into the ocean.

 

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