Fake water, 1986

A night when the heat will not break, and sleep will not answer. Something sore in his side, organ or muscle or joint. Salt under fingernails, where you’re not supposed to lick. Meals made of things portioned out in foil pouches, slipped into pockets and eaten on 40-block walks. Peanuts with thin brown skins like the carapaces of those beetles who knock against window glass all through the Sydney summertime. Now and again these superimpositions; ripped black plastic bag snagged in branches like flying fox leather.

He walks the waterfront where the piers were so recently, now rubble and charcoal and chain link.

They say he’s missed it, the real New York. Everyone gagging to tell him so. The party done now, burnt out. He listens to people tell him what New York isn’t, anymore: the piers, the trucks, blissed abandonment of baths and backrooms. There are still the movie theatres of 42nd Street, but Times Square and The Deuce are doomed. Might as well go home.

People tell him this not knowing or not believing why he’s come, undeterred when he answers: Y’know we’ve got sex where I come from, too.

No one seems wholly convinced.


In August he’d taken the 11 to 7 shift in a seamy three-star place, empire blue carpets worn to treadless sheen in their desire lines, faded oblongs where the daylight gets in, the once-gold drapes now dusty mustard, retired lion. Time’s velvet, whatever that means – a phrase that comes to him from nowhere, blooms like film being souped in photographic chemicals, dogging him with its obliquity. Time’s velvet.


The janitors trade sordid, irresistible chronicles of working at The Chelsea. This hotel unremarkable by comparison, unstoried, anonymity being its chief appeal. That and the rates. The flower arrangements are replaced every couple of weeks, but the flowers are phoney – waxy-hooded lilies, sprays of orchids in mottled flock, full-bloom peonies that, to their maker’s credit, appear as though they might blow apart at a breath though they will never; will balance forever on the brink of collapse, without succumbing. Silicon in the vases to resemble water, though so low-tide as to make the blooms seem forgotten, left to go thirsty. Someone has thought about this, the provision of fake water, though not enough. In any case, no matter how finely crafted, he can’t help see them as morbid, tacky, the token stuff of sun-faded cemeteries. God knows he’s seen enough of their like in situ, of late, blasted colourless by southern sun.


Four nights a week he sits in the dismal concierge cage and fills postcards to Sydney; a junk store haul of faded linen scenes showing The Palisades, The Chrysler, Cleo’s Needle, and woodsy upstate hamlets he’ll never visit, won’t get north of the city save for the once, taking the Amtrak to Niagara in the new year: winter woods flanking the rail lines all a naked, brittle magenta, the Hudson frozen solid at its banks with great shards of ice heaped up in violent confection, while he swallows bad coffee and nurses his heart like a busted fist.

There does not exist a real intimacy that is repellent.” He writes that on a card to Perce, picture of a haunted-looking forest in the Catskills, sky tinted weirdly. Percy who does not often read. Who’d grown to six foot four within a house bereft of books, save manuals for God and motorsports. Though his knowledge of film and music is encyclopaedic. He prefers to watch, to listen. His face is most beautiful listening. Everything about it sharpened, inclined towards an invisible point he himself could not see, not yet. He will one day.


He tries to get down how Percy ghosts him, is always with him.

Hello Smokeshow. You know I always know what time it is there.

Resists dialling long distance on the hotel phone strictly for business. Imagines him instead: thieving an orange from the neighbour’s yard. In the Darlinghurst kitchen now, peeling rind into a half-stale pouch of Champion Ruby, to perk up the tobacco. Rolling a slim filter from the Gideons Bible he’d nicked especially from a motel in Bermagui.

Hello Smokeshow. You know I…

Things he wants to put in a letter and can’t, other names he wants to call him, and be called, but none of it comes out right on paper, or on the second floor payphone at the public library. 4pm here and he sounds sleepy there, just woken, hauled from bed by the ringing phone. I’m wearing your T-shirt, Perce murmurs. ’s too small, though. You can see it, his hipbones exposed to the chill spring morning. The desire to kneel, kiss him warm, press your face against his stomach and breathe him in while his cock stiffens against your sternum. Students passing on the stairwell, library staff, tour groups. He wants to tell Perce something dirty, or otherwise beautiful.

You’re like drugs, he’d said once, huffing an armpit. And Perce had said, That’s nature, telling us we ought to be together.


After graveyard shifts, spat out into the early mornings, almost beatified with fatigue, he drifts uptown. In the Roman room at the Met, among the ancient remnants of ideal forms, he finds echoes of Percy, though Perce thinks himself un-beautiful, un-gainly. Yet here are the integrant parts: scimitar of his shoulder, his narrow waist, swimmer’s calves. Amid the fragments of perfect bodies, looted from ruins. He watches the eyes of others, where they travel. Who here is not looking for someone, the marble resonance of a lover lost or left behind, or at least their sculpted Carrara arse.


Sometimes he glimpses forever in the city. Being old, or at least older here, with Perce. Mid-morning on Broadway, one man’s hand resting lightly on his lover’s back – V of thumb and forefinger fitting the scapular exactly through soft leather. Only a second, fleeting instant of defiance. Or they simply forgot they were in the street, or did not care. But afterward the leather shines. His own hand burns. He stays with them for the next few blocks, until they turn onto Great Jones.


The edge of this city’s hardness, glinting even in its tendernesses.

The way everybody here says, You get home safe, now, okay? instead of Goodbye.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2023 as "Fake water, 1986".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription