You reach over to steady the dozen drinks in their cardboard trays as you drive back to the editing suites in Santa Monica. You spend more from the kitty on coffee than you earn in a day, but you’re okay with that; you’ll get to see your name in the credits. You let your half-smoked joint go out in the ashtray and flip open your Motorola to greet your mum for the second time that day. She says that you’re a maneater, like the Nelly Furtado song that plays on KIIS-FM between holiday jingles. Mum asks about the surfer you met on 20th Street in Huntington Beach – and by the way, what happened to the Fabio look-a-like you met at the circus? She giggles when you tell her how the guy paddled out in head-high surf on a big-wave gun; how you lured him in with tales from faraway surf spots like T-land and Lagundri Bay, a surfer’s wet dream.
You fuck him in your shoebox rental—always at your place—because the dude still lives with his parents. You start to mistake lust for something more even though he doesn’t make you climax. Then pillow talk turns into mansplaining, and when he says, “I don’t want to sound like your father, but…” he sounds exactly that; when he says that you should have gone to university, you feel your jaw set; and when he says that you’ll amount to nothing without a degree, you know that what he means to say but doesn’t say is that you’re only good for sex.
Dropping out was never your plan, but one Saturday your dad told you that he was taking you to a church picnic and instead he delivered you to your own exorcism. It was pedestrian, really: a bunch of people standing around in a circle wearing polo shirts and penny loafers, except for the priests in their robes, speaking in tongues and shouting, Devil, get out, until you mimicked fainting so they would stop. They praised God, Hallelujah, but there was still a devil in that room and he had your nose, only bigger. You took the high school proficiency exam a few weeks later and you told your dad he was dead to you; then you worked multiple jobs, chased some waves and spread your legs for the revolving door of men who could never fill that void.
Christmas passes, same as always, like a seasons greeting e-card dipped in acid. Republicans scrawl “Eat this + die” on sticky notes above trays of homemade fudge brownies, and you sneak away to vape in your uncle’s apartment over your grandparents’ garage, to avoid their judgement. Your family is university educated, all except you, but only your mum lets you forget it. You want a fucking piece of paper? you think, and you schedule a test with Mensa. The proctor agrees to come to your apartment in Hollywood just before the New Year in order to set a new annual record: you’ll be the 300th test-taker in Greater Los Angeles. The day before the test you swap your usual three squares for cosmopolitans and Purple Urkle.
You nurse your hangover with a vanilla soy latte from the Coffee Bean on your thrift-store triple seater. The Mensa proctor asks why you don’t have a desk, and you say you do your best work on the couch; it’s what some asshole told you. When he asks why you’re testing, you say something about wanting to meet new people; you don’t confess your need for external validation. He studies your collection of screenwriting and travel guides—juxtaposed by female-authored memoirs, Anne Rice’s erotica and all of the Dune books—and tells you that you have a Mensa bookshelf.
You listen to the wind-up and the tick-tock of the egg timer as you work through two pages of complex, algebraic word problems. You’ve filled in only half the blanks when the egg screeches. Your freckles flush and you can feel the sweat beading down your calves. The next section is vocab, multiple choice, and there’s only two words you can’t logically deduce in the four minutes allotted; you breathe a little easier. The proctor tells you that he’s curious whether you know a word—he won’t say which—as he peeks at your Scantron. “I’m surprised,” he says. “You got it right.”
Then the maths test: If Johnny has fifty-nine cents made up of nine coins, which coins would they be? You’ve counted your pennies for so long, in one hand and out the other, you’ve got this. Finally, the final memory challenge. The proctor reads you a story (or else you read the story, you can’t really remember) then asks you how many actors performed. “Forty,” you say. “Easy question,” he says. “The answer is two.” You thank him for coming by, then you draw the blinds and curl up in bed.
A week later, you meet the surfer at a Starbucks inside a Barnes & Noble where Cerritos meets Hawaiian Gardens. You order an herbal tea and he gets a blended. He tells you that your surfing philosophy is all wrong: that surfing is instinct, not sport. He tells you that no one can teach you how to surf, except yourself. He tells you that you shouldn’t take surfing advice from any of your (albeit, pro surfer) friends. He doesn’t see the irony, the hypocrisy, of his unsolicited advice. You offer him a hug but he pulls away, saying, “We’re two different people,” as if it were a bad thing. He asks lamely, as he walks away: “Why do you have to be so damn attractive?” As if you’ll never be more than the sum of your physical parts.
The next day there’s a letter from Mensa in your mailbox, your test results. You realise that you feel nothing: neither happy nor sad. And yet, if there were a test that would prove that you’re worthy of love, you would take it.
Jenny Hedley studies creative writing at RMIT. Her work appears in Travel Play Live magazine and in Vanishing Act (Bowen Street Press). She lives in Melbourne with her son.