Secondary highways

The guy I think I’ve fallen for is out there, miles from here on one of a thousand impossible back roads. W.O.W. William Oliver Weston. 

His long dead parents mustn’t have thought too hard about acronyming their child. He hates it. Calls himself Willo instead; but he spells it without the second ‘w’ because he says he wouldn’t want anyone to mistake him for a tree hugger.

Willo. It’s very Aussie the way he says it, shooting the ‘o’ out one side of his mouth. He makes it sound as red and dusty as he is, as if it too had just returned from a sunburnt odyssey. It sounds chummy but it’s not. This Willo is a lone gypsy, a man fuelled by petrol and something just as black. A fossil fuel made of enigmatic remainders, of things from the geological depths.

At first I didn’t want him moving into our house. It was weird; this wiry strip of leather skin and pale tattoos wanting to share the rent with twenty-year-olds. He was older than all our dads, but he was good with money and even better with engines. He fixed my old Datsun and showed me what was what under the rusting bonnet.

Episodically, he’d disappear. We’d hear his bike gunning before dawn and find a note written in pencil on the kitchen bench. Gone riding. Back next week.

Once, I asked him why he only ever wrote in pencil, and he said it was because he didn’t want to leave any traces. I used to think he was paranoid; too many drugs at the arse end of hippiedom. He had theories about the government, about how they were controlling the population with fluoride in the drinking water and game shows on TV.

“And the internet,” he’d swear, “it’s just a way to keep track of you.”

Willo refused to even consider an email address. He preferred cash and got frantic if ever he found himself in a situation where he had to use an ATM.

He’d tell stories too, but I could never work out whether they were about him or people he knew. He’d say things like, “I had this friend” but they were never given names. It was as if he had scratched away all identifying detail, allowing him to sneak around in his own past without being waylaid.

“…If you must know they’re just anonymous holes.”

“There was this guy,” he said once, sounding like Travis from the film Paris Texas. I wondered if Willo was simply an old film buff who had somehow rusted himself onto the back of an alluring vision. I mentioned the film, but he looked genuinely blank. It was the first time I ever saw the child in him, this bright little boy who knew how to tinker and found the world amazing. That night I dreamt about the primary school Willo. The kid who got picked on, the one learning to withdraw.

When he was around, I took to sitting up late making strong coffee and mixing it with whiskey. The other girls thought I was playing with fire. “Don’t give him ideas,” they’d say. “It’s probably been ages since he had a root.”

It hadn’t. I knew that because one time he told me about his road trips. “Never take the main drag,” he said. “Take back tracks, secondary highways at most. There’s stuff out there they don’t let you see on the big road. The lonelier the highway, the better I feel.”

“What don’t they let you see?” I wondered.

“The stuff that’s broken, the things the city forgot. Or stuff that’s in its natural state, not tampered with. Real people too. And women.”

I laughed. “So, you do have a girlfriend?”

Was I ever so slightly jealous? I think I was, and it shocked me. I finished up my drink and retired, but not before he’d answered.

“Not on your life,” he said. “You know what I mean, don’t yer? Women.”

“Hookers?”

“Yeah. I still got appetites. I know it don’t seem like it, but I yearn for a bit of love as much as the next man, or woman for that matter.”

For a few weeks I stewed on that, partly unsettled but mostly intrigued. I’d never met a guy who had admitted to paying for sex before. If I expected some sign of shame from him it wasn’t there. He was matter of fact about it. It was something that just had to be.

“There are brothels in town,” I pointed out.

“Yeah I know, but it’s not the same.”

“Do you have favourites?” I asked.

“Why are you interested?” he wanted to know.

“I’m interested, that’s all.”

“You’re getting off on this, aren’t yer?”

“Maybe.”

Willo wasn’t fazed by this, not even titillated. He just seemed to register it somewhere. I’m not sure it was a hint as such, but I can see how he could have taken it that way.

I liked his lack of game play a lot. His lack of clutter, of bright flashing lights. He was a bit like those beloved back tracks of his, sparse and functional, and with a beauty that could kill you if you didn’t respect it. Lonely too, like a desert, like a horizon uninterrupted.

“I never ask their names, and I never tell them mine. If you must know they’re just anonymous holes.”

It was so blunt that my breath caught in my throat. But it wasn’t crude. In lots of ways it was sad, like the little boy was feeding the grown man’s desire without really knowing why, only that it was required.

“I disappear inside of them for however long it takes. Then I pay them and piss off. And that’s it.”

Back out onto the road, no doubt. Willo and his bike, which he loved more than anything else I could see, moving like an arrow across the broad back of the continent.

There was something savage and pristine about it, clean like the outback. Not washed with soap and detergents but disinfected by wind and sun and economic transactions. So unlike the boys I knew, who either tried too hard or not at all, and whose so-called love came with paraphernalia. Theirs was the courtship of cities, bustling and accessorised and lost inside a loop of aftershave and post coital heart-to-hearts. A love that yells its name until you go deaf.

Willo’s love had no poetry, no garlands to pretty it up, and I found myself thinking about it more often than not. I came to view it as selfless, because he had stripped it of self, of names and cloying rituals. He had taken his love off the eight-lane expressway and redirected it along roads with a lack of signs. He drove it without needing to pull in for junk food or listen to the radio to pass the time in jams. His love went in a beautiful straight line out to wherever he wanted.

I wanted.

Yes…I wanted him to visit me that way. To make his bargain and take off his jeans and ease himself inside me. To trust me with his anonymity.

I tried to follow him on one of his trips, but he evaded me. If he knew, he didn’t let on.

Rather, he moved on.

He left six weeks rent in an envelope, a brief explanatory note in HB and a PO Box number, just in case. What he didn’t do was say goodbye or offer any reason. The household simply woke to his empty room and our collected memories of the weird old buzzard we once shared a house with.

In secret, I cried, wondering what it was about me that wasn’t quite right for Willo.  I wanted him to show me his secondary highways, his idiosyncratic map of nowhere. I had hoped that the young boy inside him would come out to play with the little girl inside me. The one who got teased at school for being too this and not enough that.

They would have made friends. I’m sure of it. And they’d be playing in the dirt now. Out there somewhere.

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