Yesterday, my vacuum cleaner died.
I was devastated when I found out. I'd had terrible day at work and really needed it. But when I turned it on, it gave off the most horrible rattling sound I'd ever heard. I turned it off straightaway, but it was already too late. It squealed once before it started belching black smoke. I cradled it in my arms as it gave a final wheezy whine.
It's not much to look at. It's one of those old Eastern European models: bakelite brown, chunky and with a brand name you couldn't pronounce if you tried. Friends are constantly surprised when they find out it still works. Most of them tell me I should throw it out and buy a new one. I've lost count of the number of department store gift vouchers I've received at Christmas, specifically for a new vacuum cleaner. And yes, over the years I've thought about buying one of those new, flashy models with extra suction capabilities, but I've never gone ahead with it.
Most people wouldn't understand, but I love that old vacuum cleaner. I've known it my entire life. It had belonged to my mother, who had got it from her mother, who brought it with her when she came to Australia in the 50's. It's the closest thing we've got to a family heirloom. Growing up, it's always just been Mum and me, so it's like a link to the family I've never known. But that's not that reason I love it.
When I was three, Dad walked out on us. Mum was forced to take a house-cleaning job to make ends meet. Things were tight, and because Mum couldn't afford childcare, she took me to work. My earliest memories are of following Mum to work, playing in other people's living rooms and falling asleep on their couches. You wouldn't think it, but I remember those years to be the happiest, safest years of my life. I remember running my fingers through shag carpeting as I watched Mum bopping along to the trannie radio on the coffee table, her feet moving in little dance steps as she cleaned. I remember crawling after her, putting my hands over the vacuum cleaner and feeling the vibrations purr up my arms. Most of all, I remember being lulled to sleep by the sound of the machine, and the reassuring safety of Mum's arms as she picked me up and laid me on the sofa.
It must've left a deep impression, because when I left home and moved to Melbourne, I took the vacuum cleaner with me. Over the next ten years, I carted that thing from college dorms to grungy flats and mates' sofas, and to every share house I have ever lived in. My mother thought it was strange I was so attached to a mechanical object, but she attributed it those hours of parental neglect as a toddler. I've tried to disabuse her of that notion, but I'm sure she still silently chalks it up as another of her parental failings. Even now, every time I go home for dinner, she asks me if I still have the vacuum cleaner. And when I nod, she gives a resigned little sigh, pats my head and says, "Well, at least I raised a tidy boy".
Whenever she says this, I always go bright red. The truth would have killed her.
You see, I never used it for cleaning.
I discovered love at thirteen.
As a rule, thirteen year old boys are horny and desperate. Some boys are lucky; they're pimple-free and look like Jesse McCarthy. For the rest of us, it's a different story. It's a cruel trick of nature that we're at our most sexually active when we're least likely to get laid. All those hormones, all that acne, all that boundless, frustrated energy has to be diverted somewhere. In 1992, I was stuck. I was too shy to talk to girls, I didn't have the guts to steal Playboys, and broadband internet was five years away. And so, like any adolescent boy, I improvised: cushions, mattresses, handkerchiefs, hand lotion... but the best thing was the 1952 Soviet-era vacuum cleaner in the cupboard. Mum had long since quit her cleaning job, and had bought another vacuum cleaner besides, but she loathed throwing anything away. That bakelite cleaner had been gathering dust for five years when I spied it in the cupboard.
I wiped the dust from the casing, as trickles of memory seeped up through my mind. Flashbacks from my childhood reminded me that it was as strong as a horse, warm to the touch, and the soft rubber lips felt like, well, soft rubber lips. As I took it out, an idea began to form in my mind. I loved that old vacuum cleaner as a child. As an adolescent, I would love it again.
Making love to a vacuum cleaner isn't an experience you're likely to forget. If you've ever tried it, you'll know what I mean. There are three stages of paranoia you have to overcome before you get to... well, cum.
Initially, it's embarrassment. A vacuum cleaner is very loud; so loud, in fact, that you're sure that everyone in the street can hear. Worse, you're adamant that everyone can surmise what you're planning to do. I must've turned that thing on and off ten times before I had the guts to keep it on.
After that, it's the fear of getting caught. Doubts flick across your mind as you worry that someone might enter the room — the worst thing about being caught buck naked with a vacuum cleaner nozzle attached to your dick is that there's no way you can talk your way out of it. There are reasonable explanations for just about everything in life, but not for that.
Once you've reasoned the first fear away, and you've locked the door to prevent the second fear from coming through, there's the third, and greatest fear.
I wasn't there yet. I was nude apart from my socks, sitting on the edge of the bed. I held the evil-looking rubber nozzle in my clammy, sweaty hands. I looked square into the depth of the black little hole. My dick was semi-erect with anticipation and semi-deflated with nerves. I swallowed loudly and turned it on. I yelped and turned it off. I swallowed again, turned it on and shoved my dick through the hole before I could back out again.
The third fear is that the suction could rip off your dick. The old Soviet-era vacuum cleaners can literally lift a bowling ball off the ground, and I could feel every bit of that force sucking at my prick. In desperation, I tried tugging it off, but it wouldn't go. I pulled and pulled, my mind picturing the newspaper headlines the next day. And then, the remarkable happened. I hunched over and emptied my load.
It took a full three minutes before my finger could find the power switch. In that time, I came again. Because the tube was frayed and worn, the suction was incomplete. The rubber lips would suck and release, choke and pull back erratically. It would gargle and whine as my dick pushed deeper into the tube and cut off the air. It was, in truth, the most fantastic masturbatory device I'd come across.
Once I recovered, I got on my bike and peddled over to the library. I checked and double checked the relevant anatomy books, until I was certain that it couldn't happen. Then, I looked at the clock, and realised I still had three hours before Mum got home from work. I peddled back home and plugged in the vacuum cleaner.
I never looked back. In those days, Mum took night classes as well as her job at the garment factory. On weekdays, she would be gone by the time I woke up. In the mornings, I would find my lunchbox on the kitchen table and a frozen dinner defrosting in the sink. At night, I'd be asleep by the time she got home. In the meantime, I had hours to entertain myself, and I spent most of that time with the vacuum cleaner.
In hindsight, it wasn't the healthiest of childhoods, but we've all got our little hang-ups. At least I didn't do drugs.
Childhood memories are often tinged with embarrassment. It's understandable. No one goes through life perfectly the first time around, and our preliminary efforts are often gauche, miserable failures. However, in the face of such disappointment, we should never forget the silver lining - we've learn from our mistakes and we do get better.
I'm twenty eight now, and I'm proud to say that I've gotten over my dependency on mechanical devices; mostly, at any rate. I date on and off. I get laid occasionally. I even have girlfriends once in a while, but they never seem to last. Relationships always start promisingly and things are great for a couple of weeks, but they all end up the same - either they get restless and leave, or they start smothering me. Either way, it always falls apart. But on the bright side, at least they never stay long enough for me to get attached and really miss them.
Anyway, that's the way I felt before Vanessa Winton.
Vanessa Winton's twenty-five, a brunette and one of the most beautiful women I've ever met. She's intelligent, articulate, interesting, and until about a month ago, she was my girlfriend. We managed six months together, a personal best for me, and things were going really well. But then she was offered a research position in Boston, and that was that. It was one of those career-making chances, and who was I to stand in her way?
I thought I'd be fine without her, but a month later, I still roll over in bed and expect her to be sleeping beside me.
When we were together, everything made sense. I could imagine myself growing old with her, having kids with her, building a life with her. But after Vanessa left, everything fell apart. My life derailed. I couldn't see the sense of anything anymore. I would spend my nights spinning the globe, walking my fingers around Boston. I would try to imagine what she was doing, how she was settling in, whether she'd met anyone. I tried calling her once, but hung up after the tone.
In desperation, I turned to my vacuum cleaner. It's been in such heavy use this month that, in hindsight, the breakdown was inevitable. It's over fifty years old and not really designed for that kind of debris. But it helped. I would turn it on and sit in bed, holding the warm, purring casing in my arms, waiting for that comfortingly familiar climax. I know that it's not a solution, but it took the edge off the pain, for a while.
When it broke, everything fell apart again. Last night, I couldn't sleep, couldn't eat, and couldn't even masturbate without thinking about her. It was horrible. The only thing that had offered any respite was that vacuum cleaner, and now that's gone, too. Without that familiar whine and those warm, insistent lips, I well up with painful memories and recriminating thoughts. It's the only thing that drowns her out. It's the only thing that's never left me, disappointed me, hurt me. It's the only thing I can really rely on — until now.
I've got to get it fixed.
A few weeks later, I'm going off my nut.
You'd think it'll be easy to find a repairman in a city like Melbourne. It isn't. I must've carted that vacuum cleaner to pretty much every repair store in the Yellow Pages, and they've all told me that it can't be done. Truth be told, I felt a bit self-conscious lugging that thing from store to store. Most men don't spend their weekends hauling antique vacuum cleaners around the city. And those that do are often not quite right in the head.
"Mate, I wouldn't know where to start," said a guy in Frankston as he scratched his head.
"The thing about Soviet parts is that there are no compatible replacements in the West," said a man from Carlton as he scratched his arse.
"Just buy another one, buddy," said a third from Collingwood as he scratched his balls. He eyed me suspiciously. "Are you sure you're not one of them? I'm not judging, mind you, but you seem pretty keen about this cleaning business."
In the end, I just gave up.
I went to the local department store and bought the newest cleaner straight off the rack. But when I got home, it didn't feel right. The tubing was too rough, the suction too consistent, and the whine too clinical and cold. The next day, I exchanged it for another one, but that wasn't not right either; too large to snuggle up against, and too cold and hard to have any sort of charm. I've been back to that store ten times, but it's always the same problem — it's not my old cleaner.
At a certain point, I stopped being a mere customer and entered the realm of department store folklore. I'm the type of customer they talk about at orientation. Salespeople nudge each other and stifle sniggers as I trundle through to the returns section. The manager rubs his brow and forces a smile as I walk up to him. Once, the staff room door was open and I spied a large picture of me pinned to the dartboard.
In consumer relations parlance, I'm known as a "special needs customer". The best salespeople have been assigned to me, and they've all failed. The manager's tried, and he's failed. They've even had vacuum cleaner sale-reps talk to me, and they've failed too. But it's not their fault; it's mine. I can't tell them what I want in a vacuum cleaner without revealing why I want it. But unless I tell them, they've got no idea what I'm on about. I realise I must look like an idiot, but I console myself with the thought that being thought of as a pedantic fuss-pot is the less embarrassing alternative.
I think I should move to another department store, but I've got store credit.
"Um, so what was that again about suction, Mr. Clarke?" the salesgirl chirps cheerfully. She's new; I've only seen her around for a few days, and it's obvious she's still enthusiastic about the job. She's taken the "the customer is our friend" spiel to heart, at any rate. Her grey-green eyes look inquiringly into mine, her face cocked at the attentive listener's angle.
"Well, I wanted something that has strong, but variable suction. Something that would jerk on and off if the nozzle is jammed." I blush as I realise I've said too much. "Um, I've read that an irregular air stream enables a better clean because the differential air pressure is more effective in disrupting carpet fibres."
"Um, yeah, sure..." she replies, looking sideways to her sniggering colleagues. "Well, we've got a new shipment just come in from Europe," she continues brightly. "They've just had their industry awards for 2007 over there, and we've got all the top-of-the-line machines. I'd recommend the Miele line of cleaners, myself; they're all equipped with the HEPA filtration system, they've got a wide range of suction modalities... I've got one at home, and I'm very happy with it."
As she points to the shelves behind her, her nametag flashes in the light. I look at it — Trainee.
"My name's Brooke," she smiles. "Brooke Andrews. And my eyes are up here."
I want to tell her that I was only looking at her nametag, but the words won't come out. I just stammer incoherently. My face starts to redden, but the strange thing is that the harder I blush, the wider she smiles. Finally, I clear my throat and start again.
"Well, Brooke, I'm sure you've got an excellent line of cleaners, but I don't think you've got what I'm looking for. I tried the new Miele Capricorn Luna a few weeks back, and while it was very good, it just didn't feel right."
She frowns. "Look, I'll be honest with you. I'm still in university and it's really hard to make ends meet. This is the only job I've found that pays enough for me to afford to go to classes, but I'm still on probation here. I've got to make a good impression. Don't jerk me around, okay? Just tell me what you want, and I'll try to find it for you. Otherwise, I've got to find someone who will actually buy something."
There's something in her manner that resonates with me. She's serious. She's trustworthy. I confess.
"I had an old Soviet-era vacuum cleaner," I mumble. "It's been in the family for years; I kind of grew up with it. I use to fall asleep to it when my mum worked as a maid and took me along. I've had it ever since I moved out of home. It broke down about two months ago, and I wanted a replacement. No repairman can fix it, so I've got to find something similar."
I'm expecting a patronising smirk or polite befuddlement. It's the standard response when confronted with the obviously deranged. To my surprise, Brooke does neither. She looks puzzled for a few seconds, but then her whole face lights up.
"I'm taking psyche. You've got some strange form of transference, right? You've instilled your notions of security and sense of belonging into that vacuum cleaner, and you're lost now that it's broken. I read about cases like yours a few weeks ago; really interesting stuff. Look, I'll do you a favour — if you know the make and model, and the country of origin, I'll try to find it for you. There are a few trading shops around the city that might have old Soviet stuff."
"Thank you," I say, as I give her the details. "I really appreciate all the time you're giving me, considering how much you need a sale right now."
She gives me a guilty little look.
"Actually, I'm not being completely truthful with you. You're something of a problem for the manager. They'll keep me on regardless, as long as you deal exclusively with me and you don't bother them. Look, I'll have to make a few phone calls, but it shouldn't take too long. Drop by in a week's time, and we should be right."
Three months later, and Brooke's had no luck in finding the vacuum cleaner. She's called just about every department store in Melbourne. She's tapped every op-shop and second hand store in a thirty kilometer radius. She's trawled the internet and put out feelers on eBay, but to no avail. It can't be found.
I thought I would've gone crazy without it, but I'm okay. Vanessa's starting to fade from memory. Things stop reminding me of her, and I no longer run my fingers over the globe and drool about her. I don't even dream of her, much. She emailed me the other week and told me how wonderful it was over in the States. Surprisingly, I didn't go to pieces when I read it. It hurt, but it was a numb, reminiscing kind of pain. The wound's started to heal, I suppose, and pretty soon she'll just be another bit of scar tissue.
I still miss my vacuum cleaner, though.
About three times a week, I walk over to the department store to check on Brooke's progress. She's so diligent that there are always new contacts to call and new approaches to try every time I visit. I can tell she's really into the hunt; her face lights up every time I see her, and we sometimes lose track of time discussing possible leads.
Sometimes, I wonder why Brooke's still so keen. She's long past the probationary stage of her training. She's good; so good that she's already worked her way up to assistant manager. She's clearly the best salesperson in her department, and doesn't need to spend so much time devoted to me. But when I tell her that she's spending too much time on me, she just laughs and tells me I'm being silly.
About a month ago, I accidentally asked her out for lunch. I was there during my lunch break, and happened to mention a new addition to the food court. She must've thought I was asking her out to lunch, because the next thing I knew, she accepted. I didn't mind, though. It was amazing how well we got along. We talked for an hour, and she was twenty minutes past her lunch break before we realised what the time was. From then on, lunch in the food court became a weekly occurrence.
I feel I can tell her anything. She loves teasing me, and she's got the most adorable laugh. Some days, I even play dumb just to hear her giggle. But as we keep seeing more of each other, I begin to sense another agenda behind our conversations. I know she's dying to know why I'm so attached to this vacuum cleaner. The transference theory has lost its legs, and she's mighty curious. It's understandable. If I was devoting so much time to a mysterious goal, I'd want to know about it too. Her questioning is sometimes subtle, sometimes blunt, but always unpredictable.
Sometimes, I can see her frustration creeping around the edges. She likes puzzles and mysteries, but not ones like this. It can't be good; keep a secret for long enough, and it can poison a friendship. At times, I'm tempted to tell her everything, to have it all out in the open. But when I open my mouth, I hesitate. I already know how she'll react, and it's not pleasant. And so, there's nothing I can do. She can never know.
"So anyway, this guy was totally hitting on me. He kept asking these suggestive questions about the vacuum cleaners; the strength of the "suction", the length of his hose... you know, those "so-bad-they're-funny" pick up lines. Urgh! Why do guys always do that? It's not like I haven't heard that stuff a hundred times before. And the way his eyes were going over my body..."
Brooke shudders and pauses to sip at her milkshake. She rolls her eyes.
"Yeah, I know what you're thinking — what a sleaze, right? It's a pity because he's actually okay looking; I would've been interested if he wasn't such a pig. But that's the way it goes, right? The good ones are never interested and the rest are sleazebags and losers. Hey, you're a guy, Aaron. Tell me, why are guys so lame?"
"Well, um..." I started, lamely.
"I'm just kidding!" she says, breaking out into a fit of giggles. "Sorry Aaron, but I can't help it. You're so fun to tease. You look so cute when you're flustered."
"So, um, yeah... how's the day really been?"
"Yeah, the rest of it's been fine; pretty slack, actually. I've got my finals coming up, so a slow day's good for me. It gives me time to study, and since I've taken up your commission, the store leaves me alone to do my own thing. Thanks for that, by the way; you've no idea how much I need that job."
"So how's the search going?"
"Oh yeah, that Little Russia store in Brunswick was a dud, but the owner had a good idea; she's friends with a lot of old migrants in the Latrobe Valley. Your Grandma was Serbian, right? A lot of those Snowy Mountain Dam workers moved there after the construction was finished, and they're all pretty isolated. She said that there's a fair chance some of them would've kept something like a vacuum cleaner for years and years. It's unlikely we'd find something that works, but we could always strip it down for spare parts."
"Well, she'll help us track it down, so it's only fair she gets part of the commission. Plus, she knows a few mechanics who specialize in antique restorations, so it'll be better to get it fix through her. I hope that it'll be okay?"
"That's fine, Brooke. Look, I'm sorry for all the trouble I've put you through. If I'd realised it'll take so much time and effort, I wouldn't have involved you in this. But there's something I've been meaning to tell you. I should've told you a long time ago, but I couldn't find the right time. The thing is that I..."
I stop as Brooke's finger pushes gently against my lips. She's wearing a wry little half-smile as she leans forwards and kisses me. I can feel the nervous quiver in her lower lip as it brushes against my lips, and the twitch in her tongue as it slips chastely once into my mouth. I can taste the creamy, berrylicious milkshake on my tongue, and it's enough to make my hands start to shake. And when she breaks off our kiss, there's a tiny twinkle dancing in her eyes.
"Was that what you wanted to say?" she asks. "Well, the answer's yes."
I lick my lips. I can still taste the sweet, sticky milkshake, mixed with the tang of her saliva. It tastes so nice that I lean forward and kiss her back in kind.
Everyone loves a happy ending.
The second oldest story in the world goes like this: boy meets girl, girl hates boy, they contrive to fall in love and discover that animal magnetism and multiple orgasms are enough to paper over the fundamental incompatibilities between their personalities. It's a story as old as the campfire itself. It's the original chick-lit, created by prehistoric women who were sick of manly stories about the hunt and the "one that got away". And it's survived so long because deep down, we want it happen. We're all closet romantics, willing to swallow any implausibility on the off chance that that could be us, one day.
If this was just a story, it would sound something like this: a self-absorbed guy with a fetish for mechanical objects stumbles across an easy-going, gorgeous girl. It's stretching credulity when she makes her move, but it happens. It's bordering upon delusional that the attraction will last long enough to get the guy laid, but again, it happens. And suppose that guy happens to be spectacular in bed? Please indulge my little fantasy, folks, but yes... it's all true. And if you can take the above as fact, it's not too big a leap to believe in the happily ever after.
But of course, life's not like that. It never is. Life's filled with loose ends that trip you at the worst possible times. It's full of skeletons in the cupboard that are just itching to be found. Or, at least, my life's like that. I'm so full of neurotic hang-ups that I don't know which one will scare her off first. We've spent weeks together, and I'm still walking on eggshells. She's smart and pretty and she teases me in such an adorable manner that it makes me like her even more. I feel like a fraud. For the life of me, I can't see what she sees in me. Night after night, I wonder how long I've got before she realises she was mistaken.