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September 16, 2019 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Dear Nathaniel

Before the storm, the voice in his head owned him in quiet times. Weak. The same way D would fold when offers for “just a jug” were made. Or when D chose to skip class and fuck around at home instead. Temptation. Temptation, temptation. Alluring and flirtatious, like the snake who tricked Eve. “Come thru!” What he found in the first stages of failure was the comfort of his favourite hoodie. Warm, yes, but it was important that these early stages were easy to adapt, too. It was familiar. The ease of a light switch flicking off. The same convenience as ordering and receiving UberEats. Wake up, naturally, without the need for an alarm. No clothes picked out or lunch already packed. Preparation for tutorials were scrambled, readings were Googled for a brief Sparknotes summary, and all the while, his motivation tank sat on E while he told his dad, his brothers, his best mates the same thing: He knew what he was doing. 

The truth was, he didn’t know shit. Nathaniel had folded and given into failure. The territory of bare minimum was new for a time, but soon settled and became habitual. 

The pursuit of success and essentially being ‘the best’ began in Year 4, when he held the money bag for the Daffodil Day fundraiser. He felt so grown-up. That morning, he had seen the notes and coins collected by his teacher. He waited eagerly, his back straighter than a ruler, arms folded intensely tight, ready to take on responsibility as Money Bag Holder. He spent many years seeking approval and recognition from any and every authoritative figure. Growing up, he was cool and smart, unlike the other kids. PE monitor, Class Captain, Assembly MC—in every role, the example of a model student. He carried the title of—not teacher’s pet—but the People’s Favourite.                                       

Being the People’s Favourite meant he had to remain composed—control like Dominic Toretto; the king, even when life was fast and furious. Nathaniel was perfection, because he only accepted the good stuff about himself, things people didn’t mind fuelling because he was what they were not—as close to perfection as one could get. Crashing? Failure? Foreign concepts that, for so long, had no place in his world. 

With the first failure arrived shame. 

The pair came as warnings before the storm hit. Opposites: Where failure was comfortable, shame threatened to expose. To reveal to the world the failure he truly was. A fraud. Shame saw Nathaniel measure his breathing, carefully, constantly; it was a requirement to at least appear to be in tune with his environment. His heart would beat, challenging the speed limits, and in response the room around him would close in. In moments like these, the air seemed to evaporate, the palms of his hands and the nape of his neck grew moisture. Shame brought self-torture. Daily analysis that involved highlighting everything that proved he was at fault. Questions always started with ‘why’. Comparison robbed him again and again. Far from control, far from Dominic Toretto, swerving and dodging the bad guys—far from the People’s Favourite.

For a while, Nathaniel greeted failure every morning and walked beside it like a friend. 

Now, when he doesn’t have to think about it, it’s a good day. He gets scared, the cloud comes and he thinks—fuck! No one cares. What’s the point? Nothing. Empty. For a while, the cloud does everything it shouldn’t. Like all those times the weatherman lies—rain, hail, or even snow. For a while, Nathaniel’s life is drenched in failure. 




Like his pathetic Android phone’s battery when he needs it most. What a loser. Cuffing season right? It wasn’t even 1 a.m. on Saturday before his phone died and he had to tell himself he wasn’t even trying for Mia’s number anyways. It was his first Saturday off in forever and he blew it. She was it. Her cheeky grin was the best thing he had seen all week. Chat was beyond average. She could dance, too. They talked for what seemed like the whole night and just as he was ready to offer her a ride home, he pulled out a dead device. No better than his dad’s brick. Pathetic.


Like his bank account. Never the one to shout the Ola. Or the third round of tequila shots. “Yeah nah oi I’m gonna have to skip tonight’s feed aye.” D drops an easy 50 and he drops them often. When he’s with D, he’s calculating his balance, the prices on the menu, the bus fare home, potentially the bus fare to work tomorrow if the weather’s shit, the 20 he owes Dad… smokes? His mind works faster and harder than it ever did in Level 3 Calculus. D and him came from different worlds: One where D’s mother had real, fresh-out-of-the-oven baking ready for when guests like him came over. Where the lights and TV were always on and where things like platters and candle holders had a purpose. In comparison, his own father thought Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane was the only type of decoration their unit needed. Stark and cold or simplistic and humble? It doesn’t matter how hard he tries, he knows ‘paycheck to paycheck’ is in his DNA. And it feels like shit. 


Like the bins after 6 a.m. First shift starts at 4 p.m.—and if he’s lucky and that slow motherfucker Greg isn’t rostered on, too, he’s out by 5:30 a.m. Unfortunately, boss seems to think having Greg around appeals to the demographic of racist, six figure-earning men who come to the bar to play up on their wives. Too smiley for his own good. Lickass has been working with him for six months and he still doesn’t know how to do the dishes, how to mop, or how to transfer the kegs. It’s like every second week, he has to clean up the spilled kegs on top of everything else for closing. At least during closing he can blast whatever he wants, drowning out Greg’s pointless babble. At least the bar is empty. 


Failing feels like being robbed of your dignity and everything you’ve worked hard to maintain. Nathaniel drifts between scrambling for cover and sinking into it. The worst times have been when the storm begins inside his head and somehow claims his soul. 


The storm? Actually perfection in disguise. 


With the storm comes peace. New territory. Clarity, and a kind state of mind. And then he remembers. 


Each fact surfaces slowly, but it arrives nonetheless. His true nature refuses to settle. He has the capacity to be tough and tender. He doesn’t actually like being toxic or engaging in the same empty search for validation. For approval. He thinks about how he was the People’s Favourite, and thinks about what he likes about himself that isn’t shaped by the input of others. He thinks about the word ‘value’. The word ‘control’. He thinks about how long he thought he was drowning in his mistakes. Now they are natural, saying ‘no’ is natural, taking time out is all good, and… so is he. 


For Nathaniel, a failure.



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