Man up

Category B: Highly Commended (2021) Monash Short Story Writing Competition

Author:  Ellie Bellsmith

Title: Man up

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The football thumps into my chest, with enough power to momentarily knock the breath out of me. I stumble, but quickly right myself, clutching the ball gingerly as I force myself to meet my dad’s mocking eyes.

‘Almost bowled you over, didn’t it mate?’ he jeers, and I can feel his eyes boring into me, almost smell his hot, stale breath. “You catch like a girl.”

I can’t stand to look at him for another second, and my eyes drop down to the ball in my hands. It is a battered thing, caked with grime embedded into every crack and crevice, and covered with the signatures of famous footy players - ‘the greats’, dad calls them. 

‘Are you going to bloody throw it or not!!’ my dad barks, and I jump, startled out of my dreaming. 

‘Always got your head in the bloody clouds haven’t you mate? You’d better not do that at the game tonight huh! Are you listening son?! Do you hear me?!’

In response, I simply hurl it back to him, putting as much force behind it as my scrawny arms can muster, and stare a challenge at him, trying to mimic his contemptuous glower. He catches the ball easily and without comment, but I see a flash of respect in his eyes as he tosses it back to me, and I feel a small glow of pride in my chest. The warmth of it fills me, melting away most of the lingering unpleasantness. These small moments of happiness have sustained me for all of my 14 years, and most of my life seems to be spent trying desperately to be what he wants me to be, do what he wants me to do, all to earn his admiration.

I tap my pencil restlessly against the pages of my notebook, which is filled with aimless doodles. I am relieved to have escaped dad’s burning stare, uncomfortably reminding me of the ways I am stupid, weak, pathetic. The bin beside my desk is filled with crumpled and discarded sketches, and I remind myself to take them to the outside bin in case dad finds them. It’s a long-practiced habit, seeing as when I was younger dad would always throw out my drawings and replace the pencil in my hand with his beloved football. I learnt that my love of art was a shameful secret, something to be hidden away and supressed, not shown off or celebrated. I can still picture his sneer, and smell the tang of beer on his breath as he delivered a tirade on what his son should and shouldn’t be.

What, you want to be an artist?! You think you’ve got talent, huh? Well, you’ve got another thing coming mate. You know art is for girls! Now get outside and kick the bloody footy instead of wasting your time on this!

These thoughts make me shiver, goosebumps rising on my arms as I struggle to dispel the final echoes of his voice from my brain. Even by the time the bell rings I can still hear him, feel his presence in the back of my mind like a weight pushing down on me, inexorably crushing me into a mould that I don’t quite fit into. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to become the person the world wants me to be. I wonder if I’ll ever man up.

In my last class of the day, I find myself unable to pay attention to my teacher as she drones on, gesturing vaguely at a PowerPoint that looks like it was made before I was born. It has become a habit of mine to scrutinise others in this class, taking advantage of the stupor everyone enters to examine their behaviours and compare them to my own. I always pay especially close attention to Macca and Chooka, the two biggest and bulkiest boys in our class who only care about sports and chicks. They’ve been my mates since before I can remember, but I can never quite bring myself to relax around them, always conscious of the ways I will never be like them, never be like my father. Sometimes I wonder if I even want to be like them at all.  

I idly watch as my mate Macca’s mouth hangs open, a drop of drool escaping it as he sleeps on, oblivious. Beside him, Chooka stares hungrily at a girl in our class, looking her up and down like she is a prize on display, a possession that can be won with nothing more than his own perceived charisma. The girl’s name is Monica, and I’ve liked her for years. I am drawn in by her quiet self-assurance, her dry humour and the way that when she smiles, it seems like the whole room lights up with the brilliance of it. 

What’s that sappy shit about? Aww you think she’s got a nice smile? Who cares?! It’s not like you’re ever going to get her when you’re acting like a wuss. Show her you’re strong! She wants a real man not a stupid little kid!

Then I realise that I’m staring, and that Monica’s striking grey eyes are boring into mine, unusually flinty. What would dad do? What would Chooka do? Inspiration strikes and I drop my eyes to her chest and raise my eyebrows in what I hope is a suggestive way. Her cheeks flame and her eyes drop to the desk, arms crossed over her chest and I grin, sure that I’ve charmed her. I know she’s just playing hard to get, and one day I’ll make her mine.

 

That’s the ticket son. A few more moves like that and she’ll be falling over herself to go out with you. Keep it up.

 

So, I do.

 

 

 

 

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Last updated: 02 September 2021