Valentine's Series: The Sound Of It by Melody Nixon

In honor of Valentine’s Day, all this week on our blog we’ll be posting pieces from our January 31st reading on intercultural dating and relationships. This is the final post in the series, by Editor-At-Large Melody Nixon.

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“Did you see that piece last night about the titties? That whole TV3 show?” Wiremu keeps his voice low so’s not to get Mr. Bun’s attention. “Fuckin’ all shapes and sizes, eh bro. Fuck. Some HUGE ones.” The Maori boys always sit in a row behind me and my mostly Pakeha—white—friends in Science. The tall desks are rigid in rational rows, we can’t turn to really talk. We just listen. The Maori boys sit in a row behind us and look at the outlines of our backs. We turn around sometimes, when Mr. Bun isn’t looking, when Mr. Bun isn’t yelling. We want to check out their faces, see their eyes. Argue with them, ’cause they’re boys.

“At least have the dignity,” says Magnolia, who’s sitting next to me and is taking a moment to try out feminism, “at least have the dignity to call them breasts,” she says to Wiremu. She’s fifteen, we’re all fifteen.

“Well fuck, breasts then,” says Wiremu, and he’s stammering, but then his appreciation renews. “All these 40 year old chicks with… breasts too. Fuck.”

I try to always sit one, or two spaces max, from Wiremu. I’ve loved him since I was eleven, and he wore a Rats Tail haircut, because this is the nineties – spiky on top, long black hair shaped like a mullet and roped back into a ponytail. When I was eleven I wanted to tug it. Wanted to touch his legs, his nice, medium-sized body. Ran away from him whenever I saw him in the corridor or on the field. Fell back into side-angles of shyness.

What got me first was his spelling. At age eleven he could spell more words than anyone else in our classes, even the girls who openly studied, and talked about studying, and made a big deal of it, in the way you’re not supposed to. My parents had made me study every night since ages ago, since I was learning to read, but I didn’t talk about it. You should hide any effort you’re putting in, make it seem easy. Wiremu knew that. He also knew all the words.

“Spell obstreperous,” our teacher Mr. Gillespie would say, a bastion of the British school system. He was all leather shoes and slacks and English customs, except in a sloppy, beach-going New Zealand way that left his hair unstuck on humid days and meant sweat patches under armpits, like the colonial system just couldn’t, quite, keep the whole of him together. “Spell obstreperous,” Mr. Gillespie would say sweatily from the head of the class.

“O-b-s-t-r-e-p-e-r-o-u-s” – Wiremu would say, when he was thirteen.

“Right. And what does it mean?” – Mr. Gillespie slightly incredulous.

“That’s when something is uncontrollable.” – Wiremu.

“Right, again. Pretty much. Wiremu here knows what obstreperous means.”

There were no tests for Maori language spelling. Our school was about half-Maori, half-Pakeha, and one of the poorest in the country. Our Maori classes were mostly oral, and in our local dialect. “Ko-Melody-te-taku-ingoa.” Say your name. “Ka-pai.” Good one. “Tan-gu-hia-he-rakau.”  There were always plastic, multicolored rods as learning tools. “Nga rakau.” The rods. Those rods. We sat on the floor and passed them back and forth, naming them, describing them, acting upon them. “Nga rakau kowhai, kikorangi, kakariki.” Yellow, blue, green rods. Whaea Shaw, one of the few Maori teachers at our school, made us repeat the lines over and over. “Tan-gu-hia-nga-rakua.” It was always hot outside, the beach was always calling back and forth with its lips. We didn’t write things down. There were no Maori language spelling tests.

Whaea Shaw was one of our few Maori teachers and at age thirteen, Te Reo Maori class wasn’t compulsory anymore. We switched, the most of us, to other classes. We got to choose. Wiremu I saw in Graphic Design, in English, in Science. Smith was his surname. Smith, an English name, Blacksmith, Whitesmith. Wiremu his first name, Maori. We never asked one another what our first names meant. Wiremu I saw in Graphic Design class.

In Graphic Design we get to spend time. It’s a small class, late afternoon, and the sun angles in through the old windows of the wooden building. As we measure and draw on our sketchpads, we chat, we figure out what witty means. Wiremu and I start to argue like we’ve never used words in this way before. We’re thirteen, we brush arms and check out one another’s sketches on our desks and pretend like we’re arguing over the calculations of angles, but really we’re hearing each other’s words. The “nars” and “whatever bros,” the “get off it ehoa, that’s ridiculous.” “Whaddya call that, that’s totally irregular, that’s not an isosceles.” He has muscly arms, he has a goofy laugh. He makes fun of a mis-pairing of shapes in my logo design, of a right angle that’s split open too far like a mouth. I snort at his wonky trapezoid, at his arc that floats in air, disconnected from its cylindrical sides. We go back to our own desks, draw, and then find reasons to stop by again. “Stop talking, you two! Concentrate!” Each minute in class is like a language test, but in a way that makes sense for living.

One day I’m off sick and a friend with dubious intentions asks Wiremu out for me. She’s seen us bantering, she’s seen us looking at one another. I’ve miscalculated and told her I’m lying in bed at night falling into rainstorms of dreaming about him. That I have been feeling the straight lines of my sides, my flat chest, wondering its purpose. The friend has dubious intentions ’cause she likes Wiremu too, and duh of course she does, he’s cute as. She wants to know if he’s available. So she’s setting up Bunsen burners in Science next to him and she’s asking him if he’ll go out with me. But that’s the thing. I would never have asked him, I tell her afterwards. ‘Cause Maoris and Pakehas don’t really go out at my school, that’s kind of what you’re supposed to know, eh? Maori guys don’t really go out with Pakeha girls. Especially not if you’re not one of the cool Pakeha girls. Sometimes, sometimes, they get the Maori guys. But otherwise, nar, no way. Not happening. Not if you don’t pluck your eyebrows and draw them back on again with a pencil. Not if you don’t pull your hair back and up into tight, tight ponytails, and wear hoop earrings. Not if you don’t have a big brother driving a Subaru to pick you up after school, not if you don’t talk in all the slang-right-way, and use the right language. Not if you’re careful with words, not if you do well in tests. Not if you.

“Do you wanna go out with Melody?” as they turn the gas handles, flick on the flames. “Oh!” he says. “Oh… Oh.”

In Graphic Design he and I stop talking and even though I know why, I can’t figure out why.

I break into thirteen pieces and cry on my frilly bedspread. I don’t talk to him if he won’t talk to me, and so it’s quiet. I grow on. He grows on. I find out that my chest is moving, my sides have curves. I drink, I start driving around in my girlfriends’ cars, we drive. We Pakeha girls drink, we start smoking. We listen to Boyz II Men, we listen to Spice Girls, we listen to Cypress Hill. There are new boys, who’ve come up from Auckland. We light bonfires on the beach with them. They’re mixed, Pakeha and Maori, but out-of-towners, somehow it’s less complicated. I go back home and I study in the evenings, I study at the weekend. I start to look at maps of other places. I start to memorize the atlas.

In Science we’re fifteen and all that stuff has already happened by now. Wiremu and I are both pretty much grown ups. I still sit near by him, and he me, but I’m not sure who he is. There’s a gap between us that gets filled with us arguing, and his occasional insults. I can tell Wiremu’s not doing his work anymore, at the back of class. Sometimes him and the others, like Jose and Duane, they all look wasted. Sometimes they talk about the weed and how to grow it, and pay extra special attention in horticulture. But not in physics, chemistry, bio.

Mr. Bun gets exasperated with us every day. “Listen up!” he says, his face flushed and angry. “Listen Up!” he says, to the girls in the second to last row, to the boys in the back row. “LISTEN UP.” It’s hot out, we’re tired, but it’s so much more than that – inside all of us is a burning that can’t be named. LISTEN UP. We’re fifteen and we’ve been sitting in the same classrooms since we were five, and we’ve grown farther and farther apart. LISTEN!! There are unwritten dictionaries of words we can’t use. In this school, in this classroom, in the space between our rows of desks, we want to fill up all of this space with communication, but there are no words that work.

So we throw balls of paper and rulers at one another, snap back angrily. “STOP it bro.”

“Fuck you.”

“Fuck YOU.”

“You have no discipline!” says our Science teacher. “When are you going to grow up?” he shouts. He doesn’t shout it at me, he shouts it at everyone around me. And that’s my thing. I always do the exercises, I get top marks in the tests. I didn’t always, but now, now I do. Wiremu’s not even there in English a lot of the time. In Science he’s stoned.

“What are you going to do with your lives, if you can’t pass Fifth Form Science? You’re idiots!” says Mr. Bun. The paper ball-throwing stops for a minute. Quiet. That annoying job question that we’re supposed to know the answer to by now. It keeps getting larger. “Who here’s going to be making money, when you all leave school?!!!” Silence.

And then not silence, ’cause Wiremu says something. From the seat behind me, he says my name. “Melody Nixon is going to be doing fine,” he says, “when we leave school,” and then he sniggers. And then all the boys on the row behind snort. Even Mr. Bun laughs, because I am his teacher’s pet, and he must have some strange, mixed emotion of pride. I cannot figure out what to feel, but I don’t turn around to look at Wiremu, not until the last bell rings and then I turn to watch as he leaves the classroom, and then he catches my eye, and when our eyes meet what I expect to see is the taunting, but instead what I see is a lot more. Suspicion, indifference, regret.

Wiremu Smith didn’t come back to school the next year, didn’t finish. I left for high school in Auckland, finished that, and decided to travel overseas instead of going to university like I was supposed to do. The language for science, and the language for my own experience, wasn’t there. I ran away from New Zealand, ran away from the words that people were using to shape one another, to bend one another, to break one another.

Five years later I came back, returned to the Far North of New Zealand full of another world’s noises, all the world’s noises, all the things people were saying out there, and felt the strangeness of the shapes of Maori language in my mouth. Realized it felt strange ’cause I’d never been all the way inside of Maori culture, not fully. I heard Wiremu had some kids, a live-in girlfriend, a house somewhere up on a hill. I never saw him out in the community, I never heard him again. Sometimes I wonder what his 31-year-old face must look like now. He’s the same age as me. I see this young boy with wrinkles and the same Rat’s Tail, and I hear the way he said my name, Melody Nixon, and I let in what it didn’t mean, and what it meant.

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