The view from here: Stephen Pham
Stories from Western Sydney
‘I LOOK KOREAN to you?’ Van asks, squinting up at the deck of Marlboro Ice Blasts I’m holding out. I shrug and move to drop the deck into my bag. Van doesn’t have the cherubic cheeks, poreless skin, and laser-cut eyes of a Korean. Instead, he’s got a vaguely reptilian look, with jutting cheekbones, acne scars and broad lips. He’s sitting cross-legged on the floorboards of Tuyet’s living room, knees to his bare chest, arms wrapped around his knees.
When I first met Van, he was just some guy who climbed in through Tuyet’s back window after midnight to smoke ice. Tuyet and I were on her porch getting stoned. She was showing me the pic she’d just snapped of dawn breaking over Endeavour Park – peach bleeding upwards into blue-grey, silhouettes of light poles and netball hoops scattered in the foreground – when the flyscreen door burst open with a cough. Van stumbled out. The stench of cat piss caught up with him after he turned to me. His eyes were small and dark and piercing. ‘Do you want to watch a movie?’ he asked in a central Viet accent. Now he’s Tuyet’s brother-in-law and I can’t tell if he likes me or just tolerates me.
In the living room, Van’s hand shoots out at me, silver band on a bony ring finger reflecting the hellish red light from the shrine behind me as he says, ‘Pass us.’ I give Van a cigarette and he lights it up. Smoke drifts out the open window behind him.
Tuyet and I were supposed to go drink in the city tonight. Two hours ago, I rocked up to her place and messaged her telling her I was outside. Her reply came almost instantly. Today 7:06 pm: Hey stephen sorry!! I got distracted by hot Lankans on TV. U should chill in here while I get ready??
Now I’m inside her house sitting with Van, who may or may not be on the shard, watching Unsafe Sex in the City, which is about a bunch of young English people who go to a sexual health clinic. I can’t tell what’s going on because the volume’s all the way down. Instead I hear the house’s pipes rasping and water slapping the shower tiles occasionally. A vein on my temple throbs as I think about how awkward this Van sitch is, and how Tuyet’s dragging it out by taking her sweet-ass time in the bathroom, and how we’re gonna be late.
It’s half past nine and all the bottle-os will be closed by the time we get to the city. We’ll have to catch up on drinking at Mr B’s. I hate Mr B’s. It’s a combination bar and Thai restaurant across from World Square. It stinks like Beer Lao and fish sauce, plus there are the lard-ass, buzz-cut azn-bro MCs who bellow the first lines of verses like, ‘I! Got a fetish for fuckin’ you with your skirt on!’ out of time with the music, and the crowd’s full of two-out-of-ten Asians with no facial structure and smiles like grimaces, as if they’ve got invisible braces on. Then Tuyet and I will have to spend more money catching a cab to the Star, paying the thirty-five-dollar cover for OPM, buying more drinks and paying for caps. Knowing all the money I’m about to waste, when people from high school are nuking my Facebook feed with pics of their first, even second, houses makes me want to get wasted.
VAN POPS THE menthol ball in the cigarette butt and turns the volume up on the TV. The young man on the screen, a patient on Unsafe Sex, looks like the strongest peasant in the village. His name is Terrence. He’s sitting in a plastic chair at the doctor’s office, the camera cropped close around his thick frame. He turns his hands on his lap while he talks, revealing broad nails chewed to the quick. Each hair on his head is cut the same length and he has a slightly gawking expression. Terrence says, ‘I fink I wonna take the next step wiv her, do ya know wot I mean…’
Van narrows his eyes in the dissipating smoke and says, ‘Looks like my mate from Eagle Vale.’
If I reply, Van will think we’re real friends, then he’ll get comfortable, then he’ll open up to me, then he’ll tell me about the ways the world fucked him over and how I’ve got to learn from him, and he’ll say something like, ‘Trust the only person who will never turn their back on you – yourself,’ and I’ll be uncomfortable the entire time because I never considered him my friend but will be too scared to say it. So I don’t reply.
On the screen, Terrence is chewing his nails and nodding. He closes his eyes, nods again, then gives a thumbs-up to the camera. In the next shot his fingers, pink under his crooked white nails, dig into mounds of silky pale flesh, a reddish ridge between them. There’s blue medical paper around the edge of the frame, and in the centre of the cat’s eye of coarse brown skin is his anus, a shiny rim of purple-pink. It puckers.
‘Shit!’ I shout.
Van leaps up, standing with fists out at his sides. A blue phoenix tattoo is etched on his chest, head curved like a trigger screaming up at his throat, wings spread across his shoulders, feathers like scales. Tuyet walks in, hair in a towel, chinky eyes bouncing between me, Van, and the asshole on the screen.
Stephen Pham is a Vietnamese-Australian writer from Cabramatta. He is an original member of Sweatshop, and his work has been published in Sydney Review of Books, Overland, The Lifted Brow and Seizure. He has also performed for Sydney Festival, Sydney Writers’ Festival and Emerging Writers’ Festival. In 2017, Stephen was selected for the Writing NSW Early Career Writer Grant to begin work on his collection of experimental non-fiction, Vietnamatta.
Photography by Bethany Pal.