A sea inside you
In the face of loss, how do you love?
If only everything could be this simple.
Life that is.
But what I was really thinking about was painting, which was simple and complex both.
Like now, with my eyes closed, the world was a kaleidoscope.
Light fractured, pixelating colour and it's an explosion, fireworks in my head. My eyes opened, and the world slotted in, a photograph, kind of 2D. So, what's more real? What I imagined or what I could see?
Picking up the paintbrush, I began. I painted the light spraying and prismatic, that jumbled up rainbow I just witnessed. There's a pattern, how the colours fragmented from a source, before it burst to fall across the surface.
Impatient, I used multiple brushes, mixing slight gradations to get the spectrum, allowing the white of the canvas to seep through, like drops of rain. When it's done, I grabbed a large, wide brush. Gently, I dragged it across the surface, smudging the flecks, sparks and drops, ever so slightly.
Zoned out, it took just a moment after I stepped back. It's there, in front of me, like entering another space. Like that one time I walked into this room at an art exhibition of Yayoi Kusama, and it was a room of mirrors and light and magic. I was falling into an endless space of lights, where the night sky met the water.
Reds and yellows and whites.
Falling into it as if I was a part of it.
Fireflies on the water. That's what the installation was called. Fireflies.
Fireworks. Fire falling. Fire light.
My eyes snapped away to see my mum leaning against the open sliding glass door.
“I knocked.” I hadn't heard and she smiled, knowingly.
Then, “It's time.”
And like that, reality—life—slammed in.
Some days—I didn't want them to exist. I wanted them blanked out. Completely.
This was one of those days.
It had been coming like a freight train; like a deluge. Unstoppable and devastating.
“You're wearing jeans?” Nicco whispered in disbelief. My little brother had a thing about funeral attire. Who knew? Had to admit, he looked cute in a suit and would have hated me saying it. I didn’t have the energy to say it.
“There's no rule saying I can't.”
I wasn't going to say I’d had a skirt on first then whipped it off, knowing Jem would have laughed his head off. Frey! Are you nuts?I could hear my brother as clear as glass. And it cut, every time.
Nicco was eyeing me, but my gaze was straight ahead. Not to my left where the coffin rested in the aisle near the nave of the church. A black hole. Ahead. Not up to the pulpit where Dad stood, barely holding it together. Or to my mum, who was clutching Nicco, seated to my right. Or to my left where my brother’s partner, Paul, sat rigid and unmoving.
No. And no and no and no.
If I didn't look at it, I wouldn't see it. Right? If I didn't look at it, I wouldn't see it.
It's taking everything to hold out and not look. My body was tensed up against the pull. Against the force field of that black hole.
And I was blacked out, too. Black jeans and boots. My black duffle coat. Dark grey turtleneck.
Seriously? I could tell by Jem's voice that his eyebrows were hiked, and he's trying to figure out if I was making some kind of statement. I wasn’t. The absence of colour was easier. I’d grabbed what made me feel less like disappearing, even when it could also hide me. At the time, it felt more solid. More real.
Like Paul’s hand. He'd snaked his fingers with mine and I couldn't remember when the ice of my blood had thawed at his touch. His grip was firm. I was not going to let go. Not ever.
Dad’s mouth was moving. I couldn't hear him. Didn't want to. There's movement, shuffling, sniffling, coughing. Crying. The church was packed.
I looked dead ahead.
He wasn't meant to go. To leave. To not be here anymore.
I shut my eyes so I couldn't see.
He's gone. I was here. And right now, I could barely breathe.
I was making a stunning impression of a garden gnome, perched on a stone bench next to a maple tree.
I'd even put on my grey beanie with the mouse ears and a grey and navy striped scarf to add to the effect.
Curled up against the cold, hugging my knees, avoiding the throng of people in the house. My back was turned to them. Many I didn't know. A few were too hard to be around.
The courtyard was empty. I was invisible to everyone.
“Here. It's hot chocolate and I made it.”
Except Paul. I wasn’t invisible to him. I reached for it gratefully. Greedily. I hadn't eaten all day. Except breakfast. But it didn't count if you threw it back up.
My hands were blue, aching with the sudden heat. There's red paint under my nails. I tried to ignore that it looked like dried blood. I wasn’t just invisible; I was a popsicle. My eyes shut with the first sweet sip. Perfect.
“Scrumptious as usual I see.” His forced grin enlivened his face in a way I hadn't seen for days and my eyes filled with tears.
His smile dimmed a little. He wrapped an arm behind my back to pull me closer. His heat became mine. I sipped the cup of heaven and Paul grabbed it for a quick slurp.
I jerked my head at the house. “What's happening?”
“Max’s mama made enough food to feed an army.”
“Lasagne?” My favourite food in the world. And one I’d sorely missed. Max and his family had been living next door to us since I was five. His mama's spinach, ricotta and mushroom lasagne made me melt. Specially concocted for the semi-vegetarian (I liked fish) friend of her youngest son. Who these days had avoidance down to an art. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d talked, let alone said “Hi” to each other.
“She's hidden it in the fridge. It's there when you want it.”
Translation: when I could eat. My throat was thick with words losing their way to my mouth.
Paul leaned his head to rest against mine. “No one's in a hurry to leave.”
Translation: I'll be stuck out here all night unless I sneaked back into our house.
“What do you want to do?” he whispered. Never mind his own family was inside, his parents and four of his brothers and sisters and their partners. I’d lost count. We’d both sought refuge in no-person’s land, cast adrift. Wanting to distance ourselves, but unable to escape the pain that brought us here.
I shivered, sipping until I drained the cup. It's like an intravenous chocolate drip, fuelling me, waking me up.
“Let's get out of here.”
Paul pulled out car keys from his jacket pocket, dangling them in front of my face.
I didn't even think. “The beach.”
Grey was the colour of the sea.
Muted, steely, the horizon a muddy white, rapidly darkening haze.
Paul sat on the bluestone wall that separated the beach from four lanes of traffic. He’d walked to the shoreline then backtracked, as if seeing the open water was too much. Paul, Jem and I came here only a few months ago for an impromptu picnic. Fish and chips on the beach. Just because Jem loved fish and chips. I'd never liked coming here, but it's close enough to Carlton where we live, and with night falling, it’s better than nothing.
It's the jellies, Frey. Jem hated the jellyfish here that got through the stinger nets as much I did. We never came here to swim. He was as ambivalent as I was about this stretch of beach made of reclaimed sand. Not a real beach. Maybe that’s why I hated it.
Maybe hate was too strong a word. Dislike? I shrugged.
My boots touched the frill of water.
The tide line was edging closer. I had this mad desire to walk into it.
“Freya!” Paul yelled and he's waving a chip in his hand. We’d grabbed some fish and chips on the way here, more for him than me. “I'm eating it all!”
Having escaped the crowd of people at the house, we were having our own version of a wake. Oddly, I think Jem would have approved.
My stomach gurgled. It seemed Paul could read my mind, if my mind were my stomach.
I turned away from the water, walking towards Paul. Backing away from the edge of this surging unknown I’d barely glimpsed, to the pooling lights on the boardwalk, the brighter lights of the buildings and cars.
Climbing the wall to sit, Paul held out a piece of fish he'd wrapped in a serviette for me. I hated greasy fingers.
Taking it, I swallowed the first morsel of food that might just stay down. I sucked in a lungful of mostly clean air. It's briny and biting and I found it easier to breathe.
“We’d planned going somewhere near the Prom before Christmas and the mad holiday rush. He said he needed to get away to the sea.” And here we were, not at the sea, just water of the bay that opened to Bass Strait. Cold and miserable. Like it could sense our turmoil. Paul popped chip after chip into his mouth. Bottomless like Jem. He was twenty-three, Jem a year older, and there were times I thought they must still be growing, if that were possible.
“And Sandy Bay with the family?” Paul didn’t seem to mind that I was talking as if Jem were still here.
“Yeah.” Christmas seemed ages away, nearly six months. Paul liked to forward plan. Jem was spontaneous. Yin and yang. They balanced.
“He’d have hated the gathering,” Paul murmured and I knew exactly what he meant. People he’d hardly known acting as if their loss was as great as ours. But who had a monopoly on grief? Paul was right though; Jem would have hated it.
I snorted around swallowing. Disgusting. Mum's criticism. Re: the snorting. She disliked it immensely and was vocal to the point of being repetitious. “For someone who lectures on tolerance, your comments are far from it,” I’d said after the last reproach. I loved ribbing her every chance I got. Thing was, she ribbed me back. She knew just how to rile me. “It’s not intolerance, merely an opinion,” Mum had answered almost primly. So very un-mum-like. “It just sounds like the snot is about to fly out your nose.” I’d snorted at that. She's a bag of contradictions and I never let her forget it. But then, so was I.
“He would have liked the food,” I said, grabbing a chip before they magically disappeared. Especially Max’s mama’s cooking. Jem had a talent for disappearing food. Reason enough to keep in Caterina’s good graces, as well as her husband, Ricardo, who was a professional chef. He’d even gone so far as getting a busboy job during high school at their restaurant. I think he worked for the free meals more than the paycheck.
“Would have liked this better.”
Truth. And the crowd would have made him gag. Paul had barely spoken to anyone. His own mother had kept close, and he’d been chafing. His skin was as raw as mine. Probably worse. I could barely get my head around what he must be feeling, except his usually caramel skin was pallid, dark brown eyes scored with shadows. His mouth set grim, lips tight holding back a tide of feeling.
“And he loves the sea,” I said softly, while Paul shut his eyes to the water and this place, one of too many, that will always remind him of Jem. He's still in the present tense when I speak. When I thought about him. I'm not letting go of that.
My nights. Lately.
Since that first endless and sleepless night—the night we got the news and the world cracked open—I drowsed with a book in hand. I dozed. I startled with the light still on, swimming to the surface of wakefulness and there's this disorienting, sick surging up my throat that suffocated.
Always the first thought. A door slamming shut. A tear in the heart. And I gasped to breathe.
The nights were the worst. I checked to hear if there's muffled crying coming from my parents’ room upstairs. Nothing. Nicco usually woke up at least once during the night. He’d yell, as if he's calling out. Not tonight. Could mean Mum's in his room, or he's camped on the floor with the folks. He said he's too old to sleep in our beds. He's ten. But it seemed none of us could sleep alone. As if hearing the breathing of another was a connection to life as we dove into unconsciousness, too afraid to go under on our own.
At least tonight my eyes hadn't leaked tears onto the pillow. I couldn't remember what I’d dreamt. I didn't want to. My phone buzzed.
Paul was sadly picking up my sleep patterns.
Want to talk?
I tried to think of words to dredge up just as my phone rang.
“Hey,” was all I managed.
We were silent, just hanging on to our phones and the space between us, and the sound of each other breathing. We did this almost nightly. One of the few threads we were barely holding onto.
But tonight I asked: “Are you reading?” Meaning: can you?
His breath hitched as if I’d startled him. Sometimes I could make out the evenness of the air slipping in and out, that he’d fallen asleep, as if knowing I was there had eased him to slumber when an empty bed and no Jem would only keep him awake.
“Trying to. ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’.”
“He loved that book.”
“Yeah. I gave it to him.”
It was yet another small piece of knowing Jem. It was strange how since his relationship with Paul, three years now, I’d picked up all these hidden parts of my brother from his partner, not directly from Jem. Just how different our way of knowing him was. Yet there were so many similar things as well.
“And you?” Paul asked.
I spied the text for English on my bedside table. The collected poems of Emily Dickinson. I didn’t have the energy to pick it up, let alone turn the pages. It’s taken on the weight of ages, like so much of the homework that was set for me to do in my absence from school. She was also a little too obsessed with death. I wondered if they’d just pass me for eventually going back, making an effort to return to a life that didn’t quite seem like mine anymore.
Instead I’d been re-reading Harry Potter. Nicco and I had also been watching the films again. More to fill the hours. To keep near each other.
“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’.”
“Ah, the classics.”
That made me smile. I touched my face just to feel it.
“I highly recommend it.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” He yawned and my own eyes dipped heavily.
“I should try and sleep. Work tomorrow.”
“I’ve got a deadline and I figure it will be better than being alone right now.”
He’s probably right. I didn’t want to think of Paul in his apartment. He’d been living away from home since he was at college, had just moved into his own place, which I knew Jem had been readying to share with him.
“It might be better,” I agreed, hating thinking of him in a space that would never have Jem in it.
And like each night we just let the words fade to silence.
Paul whispered the quietest “goodnight”, which I whispered back before hanging up.
As I put my phone on the bedside table I let out a yelp, sitting upright. My window was open just a fraction and the pitiful meow that came from Rufus as he scratched the glass, his paw dashing inside, eyes crazy light orbs, had me holding my breath.
I was fixated by the strangeness of Max’s cat trying to find a way in.
I got up and opened the sash window. Rufus slunk in, as if this was his domain—as he used to do—and rubbed his head hard against my stomach. I picked him up, cradling him. He was a Siamese/Burmese cross with a demented cross-eyed stare. His compact body was a warming pad against my chest. He purred like a miniature motorboat.
Max adored him. Rufus mostly tolerated everyone, but he’d always latched on to me.
“Hey buddy,” I whispered. He so rarely let me hold him I didn’t want to move. “What are you doing out this late?” Normally he stayed indoors at night. He had an alter ego, the Night Hunter, and everyone in Max’s household agreed they didn’t much fancy cleaning up his offerings left on the doorstep. The possum population was happy about it too. But he’d somehow got out, or was let out.
I wasn’t complaining. Holding him, breathing in his fur and the odd whiff of Max—of cloves and mint—was comfort. And I really needed it right now.
His claws anchored in my shoulder as I closed the window and carried him to the bed. Setting him down I crawled under the duvet while Rufus circled before curling up, and I curled around him. Petting him, hearing him purr, seeing his eyes close as if this was bliss, I let the weight of tiredness take me under.
It had been a long, unremittingly long day.
Night Jem. This was a mind whisper, thrown out into the dark. The universe.
Night Frey, he whispered back.
He purred louder and unbelievably, that smile inched back, so that I touched my lips again for proof.
Brief, but it had been there.
My hand stretched to find Rufus.
I’d let him out after he’d scratched and yowled at the window. Most likely to do his business and find food. And since I didn’t have the amenities, I obliged.
I breathed out and stretched and wondered. How did that happen? The first night in just over a week that I’d slept without dreaming. The warm body of Rufus, his heat and breathing. It had made a difference.
Over a week ago.
The thought slammed into my brain.
I managed to swallow the bile, curling up with the duvet over my head.
I had another week before I’d be going back to school. It's all I could manage since it's my final year. I shut the thought down because the sick was rising again and God, I would happily never go back because I couldn't imagine putting on that uniform, stepping through those gates ever again. Ever.
It just didn't make sense anymore.
But painting did. Still.
At least I thought it did.
A soft knock. I uncovered my head. “Yeah?” I croaked.
“Freya, can I come in?”
She's dressed in jeans and a massive jumper that must be Dad's. Hair as long and dark as mine tied up in a messy bun. Eyes glittery green and stunning. Mine always seemed like a watered down version of hers and Dad's brown. Hazel. A weird, indeterminate mix. Her feet were bare and vulnerable.
“Did you sleep?” She sounded hopeful and for once, I answered affirmatively,
From her red tinged and puffy eyes, it was obvious Mum hadn’t. She held herself so tight these days, brittle and breakable. I was almost too scared to hug her.
“Good.” She sat at the end of the bed, barely making a dent. She's slight, balletic. How a would-be-dancer ended up an academic specialising in women's studies and history—go figure.
“I'm working from home today. Dad took Nicco over to Jeremy's and he's doing some work at the office for a few hours.”
Each day, we did this. A check in so that we knew who's where and doing what. It's an orientation that tricked the mind briefly, that we're somehow on track. Somehow still moving forward. Still living. Still connected.
We're barely holding the fabric of our lives together. Swirling around the dark hole of Jem’s absence.
I nodded. I had nowhere to be but here. Not today.
Sascha and Mai, my best friends from school, came to the funeral. They could hardly speak for crying. Hanging out with either of them was not an option. They called and texted regularly, but I found myself comforting them. I didn’t have the energy.
Not. At. All.
My other close friend, Rob, also came to the funeral. We’d been in art classes together since year 7 at school. Rob had been stoic and very kind. He’d hugged me; had shaken Paul’s hand before going to speak to my parents. We’d talked a few times over the past week and a half. I’d appreciated how he didn’t expect much from me, and was happy to keep me up to date with school and art stuff, even if that was far from what I was interested in. There wasn’t much that I was interested in. Even thinking of hanging out with him sapped what little energy I had from getting a decent sleep.
Mum's hand reached across the duvet, I released clutching fabric for warm flesh. She wouldn't ask, even when her eyes did, because I wouldn't lie and I'm not okay.
“Caterina made cannoli.”
Now that made me smile. “For Dad?” Max's mama knew all our weaknesses. Despite the falling out with Max that felt more like being dumped without explanation—an inexplicable leaving—his parents were still close friends with mine. I was just grateful they had them for support, despite Max.
“Of course. You better get up and grab some before he gets home.”
She let go, but her gaze lingered, trying to hold onto me with her eyes. Leaning over, she kissed my forehead. Before, we rarely spoke much in the mornings. I wasn’t a morning person.
Before. And now.
My life now had a timeline.
Leaving the door ajar, I smelled coffee. The burnt toast had to be Nicco. I heard the radio. Mum listening to something insufferable with people talking.
But mostly, I heard silence.
I stared at the fireworks painting.
It's a little unreal.
Of all days, I painted this.
Why not? Jem asked. Like it didn't matter.
Like what's the big deal? Just another day.
Any other day.
Of all days I painted a canvas so vibrant, it's almost ethereal.
It's still drying since I used oils. I gingerly picked up the canvas by the edges and propped it on two bricks against the wall. I placed another blank canvas on the easel. Same large rectangle. Blank.
Discarded drawings were strewn on the trestle tables that served as workbenches. Superstitiously, the first thing I did when I set foot in this room was to grab my sketchbook and draw. Whatever came to mind. I didn't even think, I just put pencil or charcoal or pen to paper and moved my hand.
I carried a small visual diary with me everywhere. I dubbed it my brain download. But this process was akin to a dancer warming up or a writer scrawling any old crap just to begin. Except the countless blackened pieces of paper didn't look like warm ups. They looked like end-ups.
Up ended. The end.
The blank space of the canvas. The blacked out pieces of paper.
I looked between them and I was lost for what I was looking for.
I thought here, of all places, I could escape.
No. A deafening, resounding NO.
Don't stop, Jem pleaded.
I couldn’t help saying aloud, “But everything does. Eventually.”
Not yet, Frey. Hopefully, not for a very, very long time.
I stared out the sliding glass doors, out towards the small courtyard that's no-person’s land, wedged between the house and here. Here is a strange two level, concrete slab and glass structure that Dad designed, like two boxes put on top of each other, with the upstairs housing a tiny one room plus en suite apartment while down here, was the studio.
The studio we shared. Dad, Jem and I. There's a long table with two desktop Macs and a plan printer. My easel was at one end; two trestle tables were lined up along the back wall. It was built when Jem turned eighteen. He moved out of the house and into his own pad upstairs. I’d been so jealous. Not that I ever let him know that.
Six years ago.
Around the same time Dad also renovated the “big” house, our home: a single fronted Victorian on a narrow block of land, but deep. He specialised in creating eco-sustainable houses, which explained the rain tanks down one side of the house and a huge storage bladder underneath for recycling grey water. We were practically off-grid with all the solar panels. Jem's interning at his practice. That’s how he met Paul who was a landscape designer and had been interning for a firm that Dad had contracted to landscape a house he’d built.
Crazy how so many guys in my life were architects or designers of some kind. Like Max had planned to be, currently studying first year architecture at university, and I only knew that because Caterina couldn’t stop saying how proud she was of her youngest son. Which always made me gag a little. Nicco, strangely or not, had zero interest in buildings or gardens.
Good for him.
At the center of the courtyard was a simple stone table flanked by benches. Near the fence was the maple tree. It was planted when we first moved in. The gravel covering the courtyard mimicked a Japanese raked garden. In Melbourne. Australia. I didn't know whose idea that was. Dad said it was better than paving, allowed water to seep back into the ground. Whatever.
I could see Mum at the dining table with stacks of papers and her laptop. She walked a lot while she read. Never noticed that before.
Eyes ahead. The canvas. Then they darted to the left.
The black of the drawings echoed the inertia, this sludgy lethargy I fought to crawl through each day. I didn't have a name for it.
The white of the canvas blazed. It taunted.
Neither truly spoke to me, only whispered possibilities I couldn't see.
Like the sea last night, how it called to the stubborn ache lodged in my chest. Not that it could take it away or soothe it. Just this knowing, this echo that it existed.
Don't give up. Jem’s voice was fading.
How to tell him that I could feel the void upstairs pressing down; a now empty space right above me that was tied irrevocably to him?
I imagined flipping upside down and falling into it. Swallowed whole.
Too drained to speak. Too scared?
But I managed somehow.
“Not yet,” I whispered.
I could fool myself that this was normal—
The lingering smell of Caterina's lasagne, my lasagne that I reluctantly shared because hogging it to myself was pushing it, even for me.
Normal was Dad sitting at the cleared dining table after dinner, laptop open, working on a project.
It's Nicco and I watching 'Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince'. It's been a marathon. One film a night. We're both obsessed, although it’s mostly a distraction.
It's Mum reading on the adjacent sofa. It's the dishwasher running at a sloshing hum in the background. It's Max’s mama popping over for a glass of wine before heading to the restaurant to help for the rest of the night. She'd brought freshly made tiramisu and crostolli. Dad's eyes popped out and I could see his brain-cogs whirring, wondering where to hide it from all of us.
But what’s not normal—
The dark glass glaring from above the studio. Nicco crawling over to sit, then lie down with Mum, both falling asleep. The other night I found them like this, with Dad sleeping on the adjacent sofa.
The stricken look in Dad's eyes seeing Mum holding onto their son.
He's still a kid. Jem was stating the obvious. He's always called Nicco “kid”. The “kid” hated it.
What is? Yeah, of course he'd ask that.
No such thing. I was thinking this, but my gut reacted differently.
Spectrum of weirdness. Jem's tongue in cheek retort to all Mum's lectures on gender and sexuality.
Shades of grey. Fluid and amorphous. Slippery, Jem chanted.
Okay, this is heading into ick factor territory.
Prude. Classic Jem.
About now, my tongue would be sticking out. I kept it in for appearance’s sake. For my sanity’s sake.
It’s putting off going to my bedroom, which is like a minefield: the space between the bed and me. What to do between now and trying to chase sleep?
It’s getting up when the doorbell rang to find Max on the other side of the door.
“Hey,” he said as if it was only yesterday we’d spoken when I couldn’t remember the last time we had. His hands were shoved into his jeans pockets. Dark curly mop of hair ruffled, darker eyes fixed on me. When had he got so tall? He’s at least a head above me at just over six foot. His broad shoulders are hunched under his navy hoodie and I can tell he’d showered from the citrusy waft of soap and heat radiating from him, so he probably had soccer practice tonight. Maybe. I had no idea of his schedule. His life.
“Hey,” I answered, not sure what you do when someone you’d counted as one of your closest friends suddenly turns up after a two-year absence. Or was it more? I was losing all sense of time lately. I saw him at the funeral, but we didn’t speak, although he’d tried making eye contact.
“I, eh—” he cleared his throat. “I wanted to say I’m really sorry about Jem. I—” He’s at a loss for words and I didn’t know how to help him, because so was I. Nodding in minimal acknowledgement, I waited. It’s beyond awkward. It’s like two strangers living next door to each other meeting for the first time and having to try and find common ground, or something to say.
I’d probably have been more gracious if he’d been a stranger.
Instead I said, “Rufus came over last night.”
Max’s eyes widened, then he frowned, trying to make sense of the statement. “I thought I’d locked him in.”
His voice was deeper, odd that I noticed that.
“It was okay. He slept on my bed.” I wanted to take it back immediately. Not the kind of thing you talk to strangers about. Except once upon a time, Rufus used to do exactly this, as if he’d adopted me as his second home base.
“Good,” Max said, his feet shuffling.
I straightened wanting to end this. For both of us. I wondered if his mama had put him up to it. “Thanks for stopping by.”
Again, Max seemed taken aback. At my curtness, or numbness, because despite the initial shock, what was waiting for me inside was already dragging me down.
“Freya,” he said quickly. “I get you probably think I’m the biggest arsehole and I’ve got a lot of nerve turning up like this, but I mean it. I’m sorry. So, so sorry.” Once, I’d known his face so well, I used to draw it from memory. The last time was the summer our families had rented houses down at Sandy Bay, and we’d had two weeks of swimming everyday. Jem taught Max how to surf. I’d been fifteen, Max was sixteen, and that holiday changed everything.
His eyes that always reminded me of coffee—which was his favourite beverage and I was pretty sure it still was—held mine as if he could speak to me with a language we once knew, but that was now lost. Or I was deaf to hear it.
“Thanks, Max,” I said softly, before turning and closing the door.
Disturbing fact: Max rarely closed his blinds.
Luckily there's a high hedge between our houses because the window to his bedroom is almost opposite mine. Disturbing because I can’t seem to ignore it tonight with his light burning bright, and so late.
We used to keep a space clear so we could climb over the fence and into each other’s rooms. That spot was now overgrown, and I was grateful for the thick green screen. Except it wasn’t a deterrent for Rufus.
“Hey you,” I said as I saw his paw tapping the glass. His meow/growl was faint through the pane. I opened the window and he came into my arms like the night before. I held him, feeling his purrs and the tension from seeing Max, the whole day, ebbed.
“Well, if you’re staying the night, I better set you up.”
He meow/growled and I placed him on the duvet, watching as he settled, digging his claws into the downy bed, curling up, his eyes at half-mast. So content I chuckled.
I popped out to the laundry where I’d packed away a litter tray, bowls, and a bag of unopened kitty litter. In the kitchen I found canned tuna and leftover chicken. I mixed it up in one bowl and filled another with water.
“What’s up?” Mum eyed me curiously. It was close to midnight, but I wasn’t surprised. Her sleep patterns were as skewed as mine.
“Rufus is visiting.”
Smiling, she filled the kettle with water. “It’s been a while.” So careful with her words. My parents had stopped asking what had happened with Max because I couldn’t explain it, and also, it had been too painful to try.
“Yes.” I grabbed the bowls and made my way to my room.
“Unbelievable,” I muttered seeing Rufus asleep. I tore a couple of pages from a large sketchbook and placed them on the floor, near the closet door. Carefully I put the bowls down, dashing out to get the litter tray. I used to keep it under my desk if he stayed over. Putting more paper down, the litter tray on top, I stood and surveyed the room.
“Rufus friendly,” I pronounced, stroking his sleek fur, which earned me a deep rumble. I nuzzled his head with my nose.
The bed beckoned and yet, I looked through the window at Max’s light shining. Wondering if he knew where Rufus was. Just a twinge of worry, but if he’d been mine, I’d want to know.
So, I did something I’d never thought I’d voluntarily do for what seemed forever. I pulled my phone out of my hoodie pocket and sat cross-legged on the bed. Rufus protested at the disturbance. He was vocal, and I swear he could understand human-speak.
I’d erased Max’s number, but I knew it by heart. Reaching out like this, my pulse raced. A part of me didn’t care what he’d think, but there was a niggling part that had always kept my eyes averted if I knew he was in his bedroom, closing the blinds. Or I’d look away if I saw him going out on his bicycle. Like for years now I’d see him in my periphery and block the sight of him by carefully tuning him out as if not seeing him could erase him further.
There was no bridge to cross. It had been burned and the chasm between us was deep.
I typed in his number and then sent a text:
Just to let u know—Rufus is next door with me F
A shuddering breath and I pressed send, putting the phone on the bedside table. Nuzzling Rufus, I stripped off my jeans and hoodie and maneuvered my way under the duvet, not even bothering with pajamas. Everything was out of whack.
My phone beeped. I looked at it, knowing it was Max. I resisted out of instinct, not wanting to check.
“You’re dad better be okay with this.”
Rufus was blissfully unaware his very presence had upended two plus years of forced silence.
Thanks. And good.He always liked staying over. Max
I stared. The strangeness of texting Max, of saying anything, was a little mind blowing. And it also felt so normal, talking about Rufus. Normal when nothing felt normal. Especially Max.
Rufus huffed in his sleep.
I couldn’t resist. My heart ached inexplicably at seeing him so content, layered over a much deeper pain, but this felt lighter and closer to relief. To have salvaged something from the wreckage of Jem gone. Of a living, breathing presence, however small, to keep me company through the night. My eyes pricked hot and without thinking I took a photo of Rufus with my phone.
And I sent it to Max.
I held my breath, sagging with the effort. I curled around Rufus and closed my eyes. I left the small side table lamp on, unable to sink into the dark without a light to guide me. I heard the beep of a text but I didn’t check, already drifting with Rufus’s warmth, touching the silk of his fur.
There was a force field around the studio. I couldn’t get past it.
I’d got as far as the table in no-person’s land and I couldn’t take another step. The blank canvas was still on the easel. There was no evidence anyone had been in there but me. I didn’t think I’d seen my dad in the studio once since Jem left.
My butt was parked on the bench, the cold seeping through my jeans. I’d have to move soon or do the popsicle thing again, and Paul was nowhere around to revive me with hot chocolate. He’d texted me this morning:
I survived—only managed a half day x
Meaning his first day back at work. I marvelled he’d made it back into the world, when I was cocooning myself against it.
You’re brave xoxo
No just barely holding it together
And like that the breath squeezed out of my lungs. You couldn’t measure love, not when relationships were so different. I could barely imagine what Paul was going through. Yet, his words resonated. Because in our own way, we were coping the best way we knew how.
I’d slept badly. Rufus had been my anchor to fall into sleep, but at some point I woke with a jolt, choking on my own breath. I’d bent over sucking in air, saying a mantra in my head, “breathe”, over and over. Sheer will and my eyes focused on the still sleeping form of Rufus, gave me a way back from the dream that had me waking, hacking my breath to retch.
Jem lying at the bottom of those rocks, mountains spearing around him like a jagged wasteland.
Tears inevitably spilled, my body folding as I sobbed quietly. Like the sounds were too hard to make. The crying had eventually stopped from sheer exhaustion. I’d fallen back into drowsing in my curled up position. Rufus only briefly woke at my distress and had curled into me as if knowing I needed any bit of warmth he could give.
I’d hidden this from my folks. From Nicco. They had more than enough to deal with. Only Paul knew. Knew how some nights, just getting through to the next sunrise was an ordeal.
I know—hope today is okay
You too Frey—coffee soon?
Yeah soon, love you
And thinking of the night and my fractured sleep, thinking of the one small presence that had helped me through it, I sent Paul the image I’d taken of Rufus.
Meet Rufus my new bed companion 😊
Huh! He’s adorable
Yeah he is xox
My adorable companion had howled this morning to be let out again, not before chowing down all his food, using the tray, and cleaning himself for what seemed hours.
There was a text on my phone. From Max. I’d forgotten about it having fallen asleep and then with everything that came after.
I hesitated before opening it:
Whenever you need him, just come and get him. You’re the only one other than me that he seems to truly like being around. Sleep well.
I gagged reading the last bit, and nearly cried reading the rest. And strangely noted how Max hadn’t changed—still texting in complete sentences. Too many memories. Of hanging out on Max’s bed with Rufus on my lap. Of Rufus claiming both houses as his, both Max and me as his “parents”. Of the day Max brought him home, tiny and vulnerable and howling even back then. I just opened my heart and he walked and clawed his way into it. Of vet visits, and looking after him when Max and his family went to Rome for their annual holiday. Of countless cuddles and feedings and tray cleanings and playing. And it was all entangled with Max.
A flood of memories I’d beenkeeping damned up.
I’m not sure how I’d managed to do it.
Why I’d even want to forget.
How years of knowing someone could have ended up like this.
Cold streaks on my face alerted me to the tears. I was swimming in them daily. Swiping them with my hand, sniffing hard, I glared at the studio, nausea rising that the one thing that might have allowed me to lose myself today seemed impossible.
I couldn’t lose that, too.
Talk to me, Frey.
I sighed. I don’t feel like it, not right now.
I get that.
Fresh tears welled. If I stayed out here long enough I’d have ice frosting my eyes. How to explain everything took so much effort? Even texting Paul, the person I didn’t have to explain myself to or hide from. Even getting up and walking back into the house felt like climbing freaking Everest.
I’m so sorry. So sorry, Jem said.He could tell how hard it was. It helped alleviate the constant tiredness a little, to have it acknowledged.
My tongue felt thick and it was hard to swallow. Looking at the studio was too hard. Seeing Jem’s desktop and folders neatly stacked from work. Drawings on scrap pieces of paper. Plans he was working on pinned to the wall. I hadn’t stepped into Jem’s tiny apartment. No one had talked about what to do with any of his stuff. It was way too soon for that, although I’d heard my folks talking quietly about having to deal with his student loan, his bank accounts, and the loan on his car. That Paul needed to be involved. I’d blacked out the words, unable to sync that kind of pragmatism with dealing with this.
I pulled out my phone from the pocket of my hoodie. I had my grey beanie on but my face was hardening with the cold.
Another text had come through. Max.
Thanks for feeding the tuna fiend this morning. 😊
So ordinary. So momentous.
I stared at my innocuous reply. There was so much I was keeping back. But I held on to the tentative thread Max was throwing my way. I checked out the photo of the tuna fiend. And the truth hit me like a punch to an already bruised heart. How much I loved Rufus, how for years he’d been as absent as Max. My sightings of him less frequent, as well as his visits. Spitefully, I’d wondered if Max had deliberately kept him from me, but Rufus had always had a will of his own. Perhaps he’d sensed the wall between Max and me and chose not to jump it. Perhaps I locked him out and he sensed that too.
And I wondered who had denied that love?
Because knowing how easily it could just go was too much for me to bear.
He came back though. Jem had a habit of interjecting at odd times. Now and before.
Will you stop calling him that!
I was too tired to roll my eyes. They were too sore. But I did smile.
Meals in our house had become haphazard, but Friday night was still pizza night.
Dad and Nicco had left to pick them up and now, post-demolishing, they both sat watching ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1’, while Mum and I cleaned up the few dishes we’d used, mostly left from dessert.
Max had brought over a tray of lasagne and more cannoli that his mama had made. Seeing him carrying it into the kitchen after Mum had let him in was as world tipping as when I saw him on the other side of the door. He didn’t stay, but he looked at me, said hello and a smile ghosted his mouth even as I struggled to say “Hi” back. Mum surreptitiously eyed us, and thankfully said nothing after he left. Caterina seemed to have an innate understanding that we all needed the yummiest food to entice us, and high in fat to sustain us. I’d laugh if I didn’t want to cry at her thoughtfulness. Every time she saw me she pulled me into a bear hug. Despite Max’s estrangement, she’d never stopped showing me how much she cared. Caterina was about my height, with the most beautiful skin and a luscious mouth that had me staring at times. Dark hair and eyes thanks to her Italian heritage. Absolutely gorgeous in an intimidating way that I’d somehow become immune to.
I handed Mum the rinsed dishes to put in the dishwasher. The repetitive actions were soothing and ordinary.
“Did you paint?”
I shook my head and Mum didn’t push. I couldn’t speak about the force field barring me from the studio.
“I need to get some supplies for Rufus.” I was going for nonchalant and hoping for as few questions as possible.
I rinsed the last of the glasses and Mum took them.
“Sure. He’s sleeping here now?”
I turned off the tap and dried my hands on a dishtowel. The kitchen, lounge and dining area was basically one big room. I spied the dark glass of the studio and Jem’s apartment across the courtyard. We called it the Loft.
“Freya?” Mum was putting on the kettle for tea. I went to fetch the cups.
“Yeah. He’s staying in my room.”
And she went there. I kind of expected her to. “Are you and Max talking again?”
As if talking was the only problem, like we just one day lost our voices around each other.
“He came over the other night to say he was sorry about Jem. But that’s it.” Meaning I had no explanation for what had preceded him coming over. A silence that was inexplicable. A sudden, jarring absence that had stretched and then snapped. She gave me a long searching look. I always squirmed under that look.
“That was kind of him.”
“Yeah, it was.”
I left Mum in the kitchen to sit on the free sofa, escaping any further questions. I reclined. Nicco threw over a cushion and I grinned to say thanks, stuffing it behind my head. I always thought this was the filler Harry movie and had been pretty upset to find there was one more to end the series. Nicco loved the suspense of it and didn’t care. The more the better.
You’re just as bad. Jem really didn’t get what the fuss was with Harry.
Just saying. I could tell he was smirking. I felt like throwing a cushion at him.
I tried to get lost in the movie. I’d seen it too often and my eyes drooped. I kept resisting, though.
You should rest.
I wonder why.
I was a bit stunned at the sarcasm, and the anger behind it. Mum placed a cup of chamomile tea near me and bent to touch my cheek.
I was angry. A little. Maybe even a lot. I just wasn’t sure whom I was angry at: him or Max or me. And why I should be angry.
He’s an idiot.
No comments from you!
Like I said, idiot.
I’d have flipped him if it was just me in the room. I wondered if Paul was angry; just furious with Jem for insisting on hiking in the Grampians alone because he needed to get away. Paul wasn’t into camping or hiking, so I understood why he hadn’t gone. But why go alone? Why did he have to go alone? Didn’t he have any sense of personal safety?
Anger and fear and dread. A toxic mix was bubbling and its heat was better than drowning in missing and hurt.
Where was the love in feeling this? And it was weird how it echoed my thoughts of Max and Rufus, how amid the heartbreak, where had all that love gone?
Was letting go a lot like giving up?
Letting go makes it possible to keep moving forward, Frey.
Well, saying that made me angry.
I don’t want to let go of you! I almost said, “ever”.
I know. But some day, you’ll need to focus less on me, and more on you.
I had no comeback to that. I tilted my head to see Mum curled up beside Dad. Nicco was lying down with his head resting on a cushion on Dad’s lap. I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t let go.
What do you even mean by letting go?
How do you let go of someone you love? Who was so much a part of your life you couldn’t imagine it without them? It was like prying bones from your body. Organs. Essential stuff you needed to survive.
I couldn’t see how you could ever let go of what was basic to your life, and I got no response from Jem.
But I’d let go of Max.
I’d let him go and I wasn’t sure how I’d managed to do that, even now.
Leaving the house felt like uncoupling myself from life support, moving away from what felt secure and solid into this amorphous, zero gravity atmosphere. Like I could suddenly levitate and spacewalk.
I was insubstantial, unsure of the boundaries of my body. A layer of skin had peeled off somewhere, and I flinched when someone got too close. But I put one foot in front of the other, walking down Lygon Street on Saturday morning until I arrived at the University Café. Paul said he’d be inside near the window.
Neither of us wanted to meet at Brunetti where we so often used to hang out with Jem. It was their go-to place for coffee. I liked the cakes.
Entering, I stood in all my awkwardness at the table. I had opted for a bright, striped knit that was at odds with my mood. The usual skinny jeans, high top black Converses, and my navy duffle coat. I had a lot of hair like Mum, and it was scrapped back into a ponytail. I had made an effort to look presentable, but not that much. Paul got up seeing me, wiping his hands on his jeans, giving a brief tremulous smile. He extended his arms for a hug and I walked into them. We held on. I was anchored and dwarfed. Paul was as tall as Jem and Max.
Sitting, I didn’t take off my duffle despite the warmth. Paul had on a navy Henley with jeans, Nike trainers, and his coat was draped over the chair. He also wore glasses. Black framed and trendy.
“You ordered?” I asked.
“One of your favourites.”
It could be one of two things at this café. Since it wasn’t lunch—although toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches were an anytime of day thing—I went for the coffee option. “Affogato.”
His answering smile dimpled his cheeks, the caramel brown skin that was still too pale. Brown curls cropped close. A beautiful wide mouth. Slender but well proportioned nose. I had a thing about noses. I liked to draw them and I’d drawn Paul’s often enough to know the shape. Sadly, mine was nothing special.
And Paul’s eyes. A hypnotic blue.
The waiter came with our sweet coffee hit. We both stared at the delicious treats. I wondered if he was thinking the same thing: Can I get through this? Eat this?
Since we both went for our spoons as if synchronized, I think we’d decided on the affirmative. I inhaled and took a quick bite of the ice cream laced with coffee. I suppressed a groan.
“I can’t remember the last time I had a toasted sandwich here.”
I didn’t even realize I’d spoken until I looked up and caught the heavy sadness in those startling blue eyes. The slight tightening of his mouth.
“It was just Jem and you. I had to go into work and dropped you guys off.”
I put down the spoon.
Hearing the barely held back grief in Paul’s voice never got easier.
He blinked. “I’m sorry. Sometimes it just—”
And that anger that was banked yet simmering got stoked again and I wanted to lash out at Jem. If he’d been here.
Paul’s eyes held mine steadily. “Don’t Freya. You’re getting that look where you’re about to combust.”
“Flushed and pinched. You’re angry.”
“And you’re not?”
He spooned some ice cream. I took another scoop not wanting the thing to melt entirely. I loved food despite the sudden lack of appetite.
“Yeah. I am. But not necessarily at him.”
I stared and waited not sure whether the shuttered blankness in his eyes was a warning not to push. One thing I’d noticed over time was how stubborn both Jem and Paul could be. Neither would budge in an argument until one of them caved. They inevitably did. I don’t think either of them could be angry for long. At least not with each other.
“There are,” he paused as if weighing up what exactly to reveal. My skin tingled and not in a good way. “There are things that we’d been going through for a while that you and your folks weren’t aware of.”
“Like what?” I said faintly. And quickly, “Can you talk about it?”
Paul sat back, giving up on the affogato. Face gaunt. Like mine. I tried not to stare at myself in the mirror, but my cheeks had hollowed out so quickly I couldn’t believe it possible to look so different so unexpectedly.
“You know he was moving in. That he co-signed the lease?”
“Yeah. Although I wasn’t sure why he was waiting.” That had been odd. Paul had moved in a couple of months ago.
“I asked him to marry me.”
I dropped the spoon and it clattered on the wooden tabletop. “What?” It came out louder than I’d intended. Or maybe my voice echoed because the café was mostly empty.
“I asked him to marry me.”
“But that’s,” and I could feel a smile almost bursting to appear and I was about to gush “wonderful!” except there was so much wrong about Paul’s statement and where we were at, and what must have happened between the asking and Jem no longer being here. So I had to modify every instinct to ask, “What happened? Something happened didn’t it?”
Because I couldn’t imagine Jem saying no. Four years together and I’d never once doubted this was just the beginning, that there didn’t seem an end to Jem and Paul. And I’d been so, so wrong about that and for all the worst reasons.
Paul leaned forward, arms on the table. As if what he had to say was too fragile to be carried over a vast space.
“We’d talked about getting married. Having a family. I don’t think he ever thought we wouldn’t. But let’s say we were both on different timelines.”
“What do you mean?”
“In my mind I thought since we were moving in, why don’t we cement the relationship further, take the logical step. It felt right to me. And I think a part of me didn’t want us waiting years because I’d already made up my mind ages ago that Jem was it for me.”
I nodded, like a marionette, my movements strung tight. I’d never doubted that Jem returned those feelings. Which made this very strange.
Paul’s eyes shifted to a dreamy, swimming pool blue on a hot day. I’d always wanted to paint them, unsure I’d get the shade right but it was because they kept changing depending on the light.
“I’ll never forget the day I first saw him. I walked into your dad’s office expecting a straightforward meeting. I’d just started interning and was tagging along. Then I saw Jem, laughing at something a colleague had just said and he looked directly at me, still smiling and I think my mouth dropped open. God, he was beautiful.”
My hands were shaking, so I clenched them on my lap, hoping to still the shuddering that might overtake my body. And I was trying to swallow the tears, as if I could suck them down before they reached my eyes, as if they were pooled already inside of me, waiting for release.
Paul didn’t seem to notice, so lost in a memory that was achingly fresh.
“I never thought he’d think it was too soon. But he did. He was overcome and I think thrilled at first and yet there was almost a panic in how he just froze and didn’t say anything. I knew immediately something was off, because he wouldn’t hesitate otherwise.”
I was having a hard time getting my head around any of this. “But he loves you.” For the first time, Paul flinched a little at hearing what was so obvious, yet seemed too late to say.
“He just wasn’t ready, Freya. Moving in was one thing, but getting married seemed like this bigger step he’d always associated with years down the track.”
“So why didn’t you just move in together and wait?”
“Well, it became this weird tension between us, where he was worried I was somehow ahead of him. Not that it’s a competition. It’s just this perception he had and he was concerned I’d end up resenting him if he dragged it out. I mean I wouldn’t have, but it did get awkward. We tried to go on and ignore that I’d asked and he’d said he wasn’t ready. So he said he just needed to have some time to think about it. That if we had some time apart he could be clear about whether he wanted to say yes or for us to wait. And I agreed.”
“But I thought you guys were together, I mean you didn’t break up or anything, right?” There was a frantic edge to my voice, because the thought of them not being in a good place, no matter what happened, was shattering my already tenuous grip on my life.
Paul swallowed and I fixed on the movement of his throat. His eyes were sharp and glittery. “We were together, just not seeing each other for a while. I think he was worried that if we moved in after I’d proposed and he asked for us to put it off whether it would change things between us. In a negative way.”
“So he just wanted to be clear about moving in or getting married?”
I was confused and not a little overwhelmed.
“It didn’t matter to me whether he’d agree then or wanted to wait. But it seemed to matter to him.”
And then it hit, at first a dull realisation, then a sudden sharp knock.
Jem went on that hiking trip alone, but he’d been separated from Paul at the time.
“Did you know he was away?” My gut twisted. My heart raced. Paul’s hands were clasped tight enough that his knuckles whitened and his eyes were blue ice.
“He spoke to me before he went on that trip to the Grampians. He said he wanted to talk when he got back.”
I shut my eyes. I focused on breathing.
In and out. In and out.
I felt something warm cover my hand. I’d fisted it on the table. My eyes opened. Paul had covered mine with his own. I stared at our hands. I was gripping him, or he was gripping me. Entwined. That clasp, both fragile and strong. And his eyes. The sheer empathy radiating from his eyes, from him, was heartbreaking.
“I never found out what he was going to say.”
The way he said it, with such simplicity—tears slid down my cheeks. I couldn’t stop them. I should have been comforting Paul, but I could barely comfort myself.
And life wasn’t fair.
It just wasn’t.
“…and if you want to leave you can.”
I blinked. The school counsellor was silent.
She smiled and it wasn’t condescending, or pitying, just patient.
“If you need to leave during classbecause you don’t feel up to it, that’s fine. All your teachers understand. We’re here to help in any way we can.”
“Thanks.” I didn’t know what else to say. The fact I was sitting in her office, at school and it was already mid-morning, was stunning enough.
“I know you said you didn’t feel like talking, Freya, but my door is open. Anything you say is in confidence.”
Again, all I could manage: “Thanks.”
I got up and left. After my first class, my English teacher, Mr Forbes, gave me the note to come and see the counsellor. It meant skipping a class. I didn’t care.
I now had a free period before lunch. I stood in the hallway, the big picture window at the far end flooding the barren space with light. I wanted to walk through it and disappear.
My body was here, not much else.
I went to my locker, deposited a load of books from my backpack. I walked to the library, through the empty quad and its lone camellia tree. There was one spot in the library, behind the stacks where a few desks were isolated. I could sit there in peace.
That’s just sad, Freya. Jem had been trying all week to bait me. To get a response.
I was way too angry with him to answer.
Not answering, I gave him the bird. Let people think I was nuts, rude—whatever. I was beyond caring.
The hush of the library, punctuated by whispering clusters of students from different year groups, welcomed me. A few stared. I’d been getting that all morning. I didn’t acknowledge them. I’d been doing that all morning, too.
“We’re here for you. You know that, right?” That was Sascha. My silence after she’d hugged me when I arrived at school was unnerving. I simply nodded. My mouth curved. It was not a reassuring smile. Mai had also hugged me but she found it hard to speak. Her dark brown eyes were swimmy. I couldn’t bear looking at them for too long.
I found my solitary desk. It was sad.
But I was sad. So it was a perfect fit.
Sheer willpower had got me up and out the door this morning. The tie of my uniform felt like it was choking me. I loosened it. White and black striped maroon and ugly. Grey skirt and a maroon jumper. Grey tights and my black Doc Martens. The blazer I’d chucked in my locker. My footwear was the only comfortable part of the ensemble.
I grabbed the first book out of my backpack. Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’.
“For fuck’s sake,” I muttered. Trust me to pick this of all things.
Slim as it was, there was no way I was delving into this text. I was on my own dark heart’s journey. Into this never before inhabited jungle of sorrow, choked with the roots of my fears. Enough said.
I folded my arms on the desk and rested my head.
I wanted to sleep. To forget.
Forget how Paul had hugged me as we said goodbye. What seemed forever but was just over a week ago. I’d hugged him back. It went on for so long I’d been scared he wouldn’t let go. But I’d held on as well.
I wanted to forget the simmering rage that bubbled as I walked home. I’d had a mad craving for something sweet so I stopped off at Brunetti for a stracciatella ice cream. Sugar to sweeten my mood. It helped. A little.
I couldn’t remember walking back home, except two blocks from the house I saw it. Red looping script on a wall:
All you need is love…love…love is all you need…and an iPhone
I stopped and stared. A shot of laughter left my mouth. I grabbed my phone from my coat pocket—irony yes, an iPhone—angled it and took a photo. I took another.
All you need is love…
I walked to the wall, touched the paint. I’d seen these words on a different wall and hadn’t looked twice. But this…
Or maybe, this now.
Now when life was twisting to become unrecognizable. Where up felt down and inside felt outside and I was wrestling with a ghost because my anger kept flaring, like now, having just left Paul, and how could Jem leave it like that?
How could he leave Paul hanging? What could have waited after his trip that was more important than those simple words: I love you.
Enough to reassure Paul during Jem’s absence, that no matter the words said later, it was the fact that right nowthat’s how he felt no matter what they decided to do.
And if that’s all we needed wasn’t that what truly mattered? Wasn’t that all Jem should have been saying to Paul given what they had? Wasn’t he committed enough? What was going on with him that something that probably shouldn’t have shocked him ended up creating a weird rift that left Paul wondering?
“Aaaargh!” I yelled and then slumped with my back against the wall and slid down, hunched, my arms around my knees.
And that’s how Max found me.
He whizzed past on his bike and I didn’t even register the blur until the bike skidded to a stop and Max tossed it on the pavement and ran to me.
“Freya! Are you okay? Freya?”
Panicked his eyes scanned me, looking for some source of hurt. But the hurt was inside, not out.
My inside out, upside down life.
“I’m fine,” I murmured, lying because I’d got so good at it lately. I was hooked into his voice and eyes, and if I’d felt raw before seeing Paul, I felt worse now and it undid all the self-conscious years of keeping Max at bay. Like time didn’t exist and this weird chasm that was of both our making had disappeared. For now.
Max wasn’t reassured, so he sat beside me and his heat was immediate through his shoulder pressed against mine. I’d been shivering. And the longer the contact, the less I shook. Max said nothing as I leached his warmth, propped against him.
Staring ahead but hyperaware of him, my voice sounded as thin as the streaked clouds above. “Do you ever wonder if it’s worth being in love with someone when it can just end?”
And God, I don’t know why I said that, or where I was going asking such a question, but this—sitting with Max and just talking about anything; this had been us, once.
“Do you mean with someone like in a romantic way?”
I swallowed hard. “Yeah.”
“I’m thinking of Paul and Jem.” Not that I was spilling their secrets. It felt more like I needed to vent this stream of thoughts and Max was just there. As he used to be. As I’d wished so often over these years, he could be still.
He sighed and moved just a little closer, and I leaned in not caring whether this was appropriate or not. “I don’t know about romantic love, but I know with family, even friends, a lot of what you feel is unconscious. You know? I mean you’ve known them, like forever, well that is if you’re born into the family you have. I can’t say what it would be like if you were adopted or anything, but what I feel for my brother and sister, my folks, it’s like years and layers of feeling. And it’s love. And it’s messy, because it’s not like I’m consciously thinking all the time that I love them. It kind of just is. It’s so much a part of me that I can’t pull it apart. And I wouldn’t want to undo it.” He paused, then added, “I guess if being in love had all those layers, had that kind of entanglement and time that Paul had with Jem, had that sense of family and rightness about it. I think it would be more than worth it. Even to have it for a little while.”
My heart squeezed up to my throat. Lodged there in a lump. It was an unexpected answer and I wondered fleetingly if he was just being guarded, protecting any more personal experiences from me. Which I got, although I also resented it. But I’d seen Max’s family together so I knew what he meant. Knew what it meant for me. Because it felt similar. Those ties that couldn’t be undone, except Jem was gone and I didn’t know how to unravel him from my life just because he wasn’t physically here. I didn’t think I could. And I was beginning to wonder maybe that wasn’t the point. And maybe that was how it was for Paul.
A sharp, unexpected pain lanced my chest as if a cold edge had scored my skin. Had Max been in love? Had he lost someone he’d loved? I didn’t know why amid the swirling chaos of my feelings that it should matter, but the fact I had no idea jabbed at the rawness and the unknowing that had wedged between us.
“All I know Freya is that endings happen. I just don’t think we’re ever truly ready for them when they do. But I wouldn’t not want to have love in my life because I’m afraid of the pain that comes from losing the person.”
His head swiveled to me and my eyes dragged to look at him by the weight of his stare. “Words and platitudes don’t help. And I can’t imagine what you’re going through. Or Paul. But I don’t believe you ever stop loving someone. Not if it’s real. No matter the relationship. But when they’re no longer here, it changes everything.”
It changes the world.
I lost a world the other day…
Words from an Emily Dickinson poem I’d read yesterday, rifling through a book of her collected works for English Lit, and which I immediately slammed shut, as if I could forget what I’d read or how it had shot straight to my heart.
Just a line.
But I couldn’t forget because it was a mirror of my life.
All the while I was looking into Max’s dark, dark eyes. Like Paul’s, they altered continuously. I’d tried once to get the range of them using watercolours: espresso, tiger eye gems, mink fur, dark chocolate. I could never quite capture them. I tore my eyes away. Max’s empathy shone as bright as Paul’s.
Unbearable to behold.
“Come, I’ll walk you home,” he said gently.
Max stood and the heat was ripped from my side. He offered his hand and I gripped it as he pulled me up. I could hear bones popping, my limbs rickety from holding them so tight. He didn’t let my hand go as he lifted his bike and somehow maneuvered it so he could wheel it on the pavement while we walked.
What pride I had didn’t factor into not letting go and walking beside Max, taking what he had to offer. Any tit-for-tat childish impulse to lay the blame on him and demand to know why he’d pulled away from me, it got kicked to the curb. And the question—the simple “why?” I’d asked so many times without an answer because he wasn’t there, I didn’t voice it. None of it mattered in that moment, as if the barriers erected had been false and flimsy to begin with. It was a letting go, however brief, that was utterly complete. I didn’t let myself outthink all the reasons I should oppose him, instead I just accepted what he had to give.
We didn’t speak for two blocks. He held my hand the entire distance.
I raised my head from my arms resting on the desk. My phone beeped with a text:
How is it? xox
It was Mum. Checking in. I’d been avoiding her because there was too much I wanted to say. And couldn’t because it was Paul’s story, not mine. And Max…I didn’t have a clue what to say about him.
Fine. People staring and saying well meaning things. Or avoiding me.
Do you want to leave early?
Hell yes! Except for the pile of work I had to make up. And art class.
I’ll stick around. Counsellor says I can get out of here if I need to.
Sounded like a free pass out of prison. Felt like it, too.
Good. Let me know. I’ll be home around 4. Love you xox
I stared. Breathed. I was still getting used to how she said it more often now. Like it might be the last time.
Love you too x
Funny how I’d never really said it much to my parents and Nicco—to Jem. Before. It had never been verbalized much between us. What is it about family that made it so hard? Or maybe it was just that in our family it made its presence felt more through the absence of saying it? I had no idea.
I checked out the photos from last Saturday after seeing Paul. I’d cropped one of them so all it said was: All you need is love…
It seemed I wanted the love without the pain. Wanted out of the torture that swallowed time, appetite, sleep. Remembering Max’s words, his belief, I knew that he spoke truth and that I’d agree with him if I wasn’t having to navigate the flipside, the absence, the thousand small everyday cuts that reminded me Jem was gone and he wasn’t coming back.
I was sinking, treading water and trying to breathe all at once.
It wasn’t even lunch and I was exhausted.
I put my head down, shut my eyes and drifted to sleep where it was so much easier to forget and just be.
“If I hadn’t found you, you’d still be in the library.”
Rob was grinning his head off. His pale blue eyes alight with glee. Rob’s were a clear blue sky, nothing like Paul’s changeable sea-eyes. His foppish blonde hair was cut long, always falling in his face. A face that was so symmetrical, his bones so lovely and perfect, Rob was good looking in a way that I barely noticed.
I wasn’t smiling. I was fuzzy headed and trying to concentrate on yet another blank piece of paper. Life drawing. It was like being on autopilot. I didn’t have to summon up what I wanted to create, facing the deadening nothingness that had taken root. The model was a favourite, a petite redhead with lovely curves that were exquisite to draw.
“How did you know?” I kept my voice low. Becca, our art teacher, didn’t mind us talking, but everyone was concentrating, so noise was minimal.
“One of the few places you can be alone.”
Trust him to know. I’d found him in that exact spot sketching, sometimes reading. Like me, he had a tendency towards lonerdom and was absolutely okay with it.
“You missed lunch which sent Mai and Sascha into a spin. So we were on the look out trying to find you.”
It was like suicide watch or something. Not to be disrespectful to people who actually needed that. I was very much committed to being here. Earth here. Not school here.
And I didn’t want to think about that; just how easy it was not to be here.
We both retreated into our headspaces. It was one of the many things I liked about Rob, he knew when I was focused and respected that. He was already onto his second sketch. This was a longer ten-minute pose. The model was reclining. It was affirming to look at her. She made me believe curves were definitely cool. The rake thin models were never good to draw, not unless you had a ruler handy.
Becca came behind me and placed a hand on my shoulder. Her dreadlocks were tied back today, dyed a vibrant grass green that accentuated her cloud-grey eyes. She’d given me a hug when I came in. She said nothing else, having said what she needed to at the funeral. She’d also personally delivered my assignments while I was away. I’d been unable to leave my room, but she’d sat with Mum. I don’t know what they’d talked about. It was enough to know she cared.
The pile of notes Becca had left included a drawing, one of her tattoo designs, something she did outside of class. A beautiful, intricate design of the infinity symbol, multiplied within a circle. Without words she’d expressed the complex and interwoven nature of life, of the immortality of a soul, that there was more beyond this realm.
Life, a soul, eternal.
That we live on.
I pinned it on the wall in my bedroom where anything that inspired me found a home.
My hand moved and it lulled my wayward thoughts.
That’s beautiful. Jem had always complimented my work. He’d even confessed he was envious of my abilities. That it was more than just talent.
“Meaning?” I’d once asked, unsure what he was seeing.
“Meaning you have a way of creating something that wasn’t there before. It’s not simply interpretation. It’s exciting and weird and wonderful.” He was looking intently at the painting I’d just finished. A deep sea. An infinite space. A world unseen, beneath the water. The swaying kelp beds amid cavernous rock formations, the multitude of flashing fish in prismatic colours. Light shafting to the depths of the water to be swallowed by pockets of deepening blues and greens. The circumstances that inspired the painting, were far from magical—had been close to deadly—but the impression of being underwater and seeing another world, it had persisted. So I’d painted it.
“You mean I make stuff up?” Eloquent. That’s me.
Jem grinned, ruffling my hair. I hated when he did that. “That’s one way to put it.”
I mean it, Freya. Flattery wasn’t getting him anywhere. Not today. Maybe not for a long time.
Freya? Talk to me.
And because I couldn’t hold it in, I did.
You’re a prick, James Gareth Walsh.
For Paul. For loose ends. For not being more careful. For going alone. For making me feel angry when I shouldn’t be feeling angry at all.
For this hole in the world.
I could almost sense him flinching. He hated his middle name, Dad’s father’s name. I hated mine, Rosemary. Like a dead herb that garnished dead meat. That made us even. My first name I didn’t mind. Mum had been into Norse mythology while pregnant with me. With Nicco, it had been the Renaissance. She’d been reading Niccolò Machievelli’s ‘The Prince’ around the time of his birth.
James was simply James.
Then, almost too quiet for me to hear:
I was stuck in no-person’s land, between the house and the studio.
Staring at the disused space. The ever-dark glass of the Loft.
“I can’t go in there, either.” Nicco had slunk out the house to sit beside me. He had a glass of chocolate milk. It was his go-to drink after school. I’d got out of school early and thought, crazily, that I might find refuge here. Well, there in the studio where my canvas beckoned.
“How was school?” I didn’t want to talk about the force field. It was solidifying, I was sure of it.
Nicco shrugged. He had a milk moustache. I tried not to smile.
“Same here,” I said. A week had passed. It had felt endless. Catching up on work I’d missed. Extra free periods because I couldn’t face class and feeling hemmed in by bodies that seemed too close, too dense, too everything. That extra layer of skin hadn’t grown back and I needed it. Desperately.
And every night, Rufus came over and I’d slept a little easier because of it. Max and I hadn’t seen or spoken to each other since that Saturday. I wondered if he’d simply disappear like he’d done before. And I had to admit I didn’t want him to. He’d let go of my hand that day as we came to our respective houses. He’d smiled, although it was strained with so much held back, as if my rawness had rubbed off. I’d said the faintest, “Thank you”, which he heard. I’d had a horrid urge to reach for him, hug him, simply to feel his heat and the anchor of his body as mine felt as insubstantial as a dry and desiccating leaf. He’d waved going inside his house.
So natural. So strange.
Story of my life right now.
“I tried going into the Loft.”
That was news. I hadn’t. I waited while Nicco took his time. He was thoughtful, didn’t say a lot but made it count when he did. I had no idea where he’d got that skill from. I sure wasn’t like that.
“Mum was in there.” His eyes said so much more when I looked. Same hazel, except brighter. Maybe it was his glasses that accentuated them. But Nicco’s eyes had greater intensity. Perhaps because he was always observing.
“She was crying.”
Shit. I slid closer and put my arm around his shoulders. Felt the reediness of him. He was going to be tall like Jem and Dad. He was edging towards that gangly phase and he was a bottomless pit, having consumed about three peanut butter sandwiches when he got home.
We sat there, Nicco allowing my arm to hold him. He rarely reached out for hugs, and he gave them sporadically. Lately he’d been willing to be held by Mum and Dad, probably needing it as much as they did.
He slurped the chocolate dregs in the glass and got up to go back inside without saying anything else. Most likely for more chocolate milk. My arm slipped away. I felt his absence keenly.
From the back I had a glimpse of Jem when he was younger. They had the same wavy brown hair cut a little long. Same slight build. Nicco would fill out. But they were so different temperamentally. We all were.
Following an insane urge, I whipped my phone out and took a photo of his retreating skinny-boy-back.
As if I could still time.
Capture an echo of what was already gone.
Because it hit me. One day, Nicco and I would surpass Jem’s age now. If we were lucky. And by luck I meant survival. I didn’t take for granted that time was a given. Even when I’d just had a week where time felt like wading through muck and for swathes of time I didn’t think about my mortality. About life being so fragile. Only that I had to get this essay done, or study for this test. It felt mechanical, while the weeks before going back to school, time had been slippery, evasive, pressing, and organic.
I glared at the studio.
I was over trying to make sense of not being able to walk past a barrier of my own making.
It’s still your space. Jem had been respecting my space of late. Just as well because I was still pissed.
It’s still yours, too. My words sounded leaden, even to me.
Perhaps it can become more your space than mine.
I gave a parting glare, then walked inside to get my own chocolate milk.
The dream came, as it did most nights. Not of Jem, broken and alone at the bottom of the mountain but another, more insidious.
A fine mist, the substance of a cloud.
That’s what lay before me.
I couldn’t see anything. It was an impenetrable wall that felt like nothing.
I walked into it. Without thought. Without fear. I walked until it enveloped me and I was standing in what seemed a room of white light, but tinged to become grey.
Mist and nothing.
I was light and heavy, corporeal and not, unfeeling and hypersensitive, warm in blood, skin ice cold.
I was everything and nothing.
The silence was loud. I tried to speak and couldn’t hear my voice.
There was nowhere to go here.
And instinctively I knew, the longer I stayed, I would simply vanish.
* * *
Jolting awake, my heart was thumping too loud in the dark. It was a miracle that ribs and muscle and skin could contain it.
My breath was harsh, and my eyes went straight to Rufus. He slept, uncaring of my abrupt waking
I curled around him, listening to his steady breathing, tried to match my own to his. To calm my heart and the sense of disappearing into that veil of mist, that undefined space that felt ominous and serene. And the nagging thought: that somewhere, whether it was through the veil or behind it, there was something more.
Call it a presence. Call it a sixth sense.
All I wanted was to close my eyes and wake, not remembering anything.
It frightened me. It beckoned me.
I was right at the edge of the force field. The glass sliding doors of the studio.
As if the previous day’s failure was a dare, and that I couldn’t give in to defeat.
Holding a paper envelope with photos in it, I needed to get inside to use the colour photocopier. Necessity had brought me here.
Necessity was giving me momentum to step across the barrier.
I touched the glass. Maybe I imagined it was elastic, fluid. My brain was playing tricks and I was shaking.
What are you scared of? It was so obvious to Jem. The shaking made it obvious to me.
I don’t know.
Think, Freya. You can do this. How often had he encouraged me like this?
My thoughts were scattershot. How could I think clearly when it was taking everything to open the door?
So I opened it.
I didn’t think.
I stepped into the studio. Cold air filtered in to mix with the inert, stale air faintly tinged with oil paint. The fireworks painting was still propped against the wall. The blacked out drawings were stacked on the table. I moved mechanically, my head airy light. I turned the copier on at the wall. I waited for it to power up.
The blank canvas on the easel appeared blurry, or it was my eyes. I was so intent on just moving, my eyes were lagging behind to take in my surroundings.
Mist and grey.
That’s what I saw. Like it was a hovering veil.
Mist and grey.
Like the dream last night.
The green light was on and the copier hummed. I emptied the envelope. One by one I placed the photographic prints onto the glass, then pushed COPY.
I only fleetingly looked at the images. Selecting them had been an act of will. I’d taken the photo albums into my room last night. I turned each page, quick at first, then more slowly. Dad called Mum the family archivist. I guess it fit with her being a historian. Not content with photos in files on a computer or her phone, she’d printed copies on archival paper, placing them in albums as if they were telling an ongoing story. Some images I just stared at, turning pages hastily when drops splattered onto the paper, blotting the wetness.
I’d arranged to see Paul for lunch at the Tea House the next day in the city, near his office in China Town. Dumplings. One of my favourite food groups. I was taking a study leave day. I wasn’t sure I’d get much studying done. The November final exams seemed like an eon away. It was early August. It couldn’t come fast enough because I wanted out. My friends wanted more time, not believing they’d ever be prepared. But would we? Would we truly be ready for it all to end?
I was never ready for endings. Sometimes they just came, whether you wanted them or not.
I copied the last image, stuffing the originals into the envelope and the copies in a separate folder. Paul had requested them. Images of him and Jem. Of all of us together.
I held one longer than the others. My eyes fixed on it. I’d taken this photograph with my phone. The last holiday the family spent with Jem and Paul at Sandy Bay. I’d walked along the beach one evening and they were standing at the shoreline, the sky brilliant, vibrantly streaked with the sun gold and dipping into the sea. They were holding each other, maybe they’d been kissing, but at that moment, their faces were a breath apart and they were gazing at each other with such intensity I was transfixed, as if sucked into this vortex of feeling.
Maybe it was wrong to have intruded, to take an image of a moment that was only about the two of them, but it was exactly because of that, because of what was so palpable that I couldn’t drag my eyes away. I wanted to suspend that moment, as if I could stretch the feeling out to eternity. Evidence that such a feeling existed in the world.
So much love in just one look.
I wasn’t sure how Paul could bear to see this. Why he’d asked for it, only that he had.
He needs them. Jem’s voice was almost lost in the quiet. The dead air in this space. I could never imagine a time where I would dread coming in here.
Are you sure? I don’t want to make it harder than it is.
That was about the most I’d said to him in ages.
What felt like ages.
It’s not about making it easier. It’s just what he needs right now.
It made me wonder what I needed.
Nothing came to mind despite a horrid yearning blooming in my battered chest.
I turned the copier off and marched to the doors. Stepping over the threshold, I shut the glass door with a resounding click as the lock latched.
I’d done it. I’d got through the barrier.
It didn’t feel like a victory.
Seven weeks. Nearly two months.
Nearly two months since Jem fell on that mountain.
“Fell” sounded less like an end. You could survive a fall.
He’d gone hiking and rock climbing alone. In winter, because he was always up for a challenge. He was experienced. No one questioned whether he’d be safe despite the risks. No one questioned whether he’d come home.
The day was like any other day. My folks went to work. Nicco went to school. So did I. As if we could ignore time being marked as the increasing distance from tragedy and just incremental moments that moved us further away from what had marked our lives forever.
“So what are we doing for your birthday? It’s next week!” Sascha was bouncing. I was a little surprised. She’d never made much of a fuss about birthdays.
“Sascha,” Mai said quietly.
“What? I mean you brought it up, too.”
“Just to remind you.” Mai was blushing. The colour accentuated her high cheekbones, her lovely heart shaped face that was revealed further by her blue-black hair pulled back in a ponytail. She owed much to her Vietnamese mother, but her father was a wonderful mix of Irish Australian.
“I’m not doing much. If anything,” I said, curious at what had been said about me.
“What? Are you kidding? It’s your 18th! We’ve always planned on going out.” There was a belligerent edge to her voice. I’d been tuning out so much at school, it hit me how Sascha had been almost sullen when I was around. How boisterous she’d get to mask my silences. As if they unnerved her.
“Sascha, maybe this isn’t the time—” Mai had always been the peacemaker, the conciliatory one of our group. She hated discord. I think Sascha thrived on it. Or maybe she was just used to it because her parents divorced ages ago but whenever they came into contact it ended in a screaming match. Her younger sister was currently ignoring her. They didn’t get on.
“I guess you’re doing something with your family?” Where did the snark come from?
“Maybe.” My head was spinning.
Sascha rolled her eyes. “Typical.” And she walked off.
Just like that.
I was dazed. “What just happened?”
Mai sighed and resumed eating her sandwich. We were sitting outside in the quad for lunch. The sun was weak, but it warmed my face. Suddenly it felt like storm clouds had descended and it was about to bucket down.
“What? Of me?”
Mai nodded. “Of your family.” A little hesitantly. “Jem.” And then so soft I strained to hear, “Max.”
I did not see this coming. “What do you mean?”
“Since we became friends. I used to notice her trying to flirt with Jem. And Max.”
“He’s gay!” I totally sidestepped the Max reference. That was just too much to deal with. Because I had noticed and I’d hated thinking he might like her back.
“I think she hoped he was bi.”
I was in a dream. I hadn’t woken up yet. Sascha with her confidence and swagger. All that gorgeous blonde hair I’d secretly envied. Big blue eyes, a little buggy and not as amazing as Paul’s in colour, but still. Whip smart. She was heading to get one of the top ATAR scores at our school, probably ranked in the top ten. Was hell bent on doing Law at Melbourne University, which seemed an impossible goal to me. Not to her.
“I don’t get it.” My intelligence was astounding. My perception of people was equally stellar. Not.
“Probably because you’re so different. It’s more than Jem. It’s your art. She’s always had a thing about that. And also your family. You seem so close. And you know what she’s like with guys, they never last, and you and Jem were tight.” This time she didn’t avoid being direct. “Same with Max.”
“She knows that Max and I aren’t friends.” Anymore.
Mai’s sympathy was difficult to stomach. “Doesn’t matter. When you were friends, it was hard not to notice how much you cared about each other.”
I still couldn’t go there. Avoidance was my strategy for pretty much everything—my life—at present.
“She has so much going for her. She’s brilliant!”
“Yeah, but she’s never been happy. Not in my view anyhow.”
I stared at Mai, at the serene way she just dissected four years of friendship. Sascha transferred to our school in year 8. Mai and I had known each other longer. She lived a street away and we’d even gone to the same kindergarten.
“Am I really that clueless?”
Mai grinned. “Yep.”
She laughed. I felt like crying. Mai sensed the mood shift and reached for my hand. “She doesn’t understand what you’re going through.”
“She was distraught at the funeral.”
“It was shock. And she does care about you. She also thrives on drama. Sascha doesn’t get that this is ongoing for you. That you’re living with losing Jem every day.”
“She lost her dad. Well, the divorce.”
“Not the same and there’s so much tension there, it’s not exactly a loss she’s grieving about. I think she’s really angry underneath and channels it into school. She’s a classic overachiever.”
I snorted. “Wow. Check out the psychologist.”
“I intend to major in it.”
Of course. I squeezed her hand and was thankful. Grateful. I really was clueless, living in my own bubble. But it wasn’t just this past month; it had been going on for longer if Mai was right.
“I had no idea.” I was on repeat.
“You’re pretty self-contained, Freya. I mean you’re often in your own world and it seems like you don’t seem to care what other people think. I know that’s not always the case, but I think other people see you that way, even Sascha. And you seem to know what you love. That’s rare. I think that’s what gets to her the most.”
“Seriously?” I didn’t see myself like that at all. Especially lately.
Especially about love.
“Yeah. It’s great being around that energy. Although when you vague-out it’s kind of weird.” Her face scrunched up, and I had to smile. “But I’m used to it I guess. But when we were little I remember you had this warmth and brightness about you and it felt really good to be near you.”
“That’s weird. That’s how I felt about you.” Mai giggled. No joke, I did feel that. Not that I’d ever said that out loud because it sounded strange. I mean I didn’t have to verbalize it since I’d just accepted that’s how it was with Mai.
“You were really shy. And gentle. Still are,” I said, kind of on a roll with this sharing thing. “Grounding.” Mai pulled a face. “Not boring! I’ve never doubted you as a friend.” Which was kind of amazing, come to think of it. “Never thought you’d bitch behind my back like so many people. I never thought we’d fall out, just that we’d keep going.”
Like Max. And look how that turned out. Saying it, I wondered if I was jinxing yet another friendship. But I trusted Mai, implicitly. Trusted her enough that if I pissed her off she’d tell me. Because she’d done that before. Which made me doubt Max all over again, because I’d thought I’d trusted him to be honest with me as well.
I also knew I could tell her anything and she’d guard it. I’d told her about what Paul was going through. About Rufus turning up. And Max. Interesting how I hadn’t told Sascha about any of this. Mai had been a peaceful and reassuring presence these past weeks. Sitting with me, eating with me, studying, going for walks, and hanging at my place. She never asked for anything. Never pushed. While Sascha had grown impatient, as if she was waiting for things to turn back to how they’d been.
How I’d been before.
“What will happen?” My voice sounded small.
“I don’t know. Just let her be. She gets over things pretty quickly. She’ll either figure out she’s being an insensitive jerk, or she’ll keep acting as if nothing’s changed.”
“But it has.”
I’d become wired to expect shit to happen.
Or just weirdness. Life being off-kilter and all that.
All that I couldn’t explain or that I ever expected to happen.
But it still freaked me out seeing Max unexpectedly.
Like when the doorbell rang, and I was the only one in the house Saturday morning and I answered, expecting…
Well, not Max holding Rufus. And I immediately jumped to a horrid conclusion:
“Is he okay?” And there’s panic in my voice that had Max’s eyes widening.
“No! I mean, absolutely yes! He’s fine.” He passed Rufus over to me, and I was surprised how easily Rufus curled into my arms. Normally if Max was around, there was a definite hierarchy of whom Rufus preferred. Having equal status was totally new.
“Actually, I wanted to ask for a favour.”
The purring seemed to match my racing heart. “Yeah?”
“I’m away tonight. A field trip thing for uni. And mum and dad took a couple of days off from the restaurant to go to Daylesford for the weekend. So, I know Rufus has been hanging here, but would you be okay looking after him until tomorrow night?”
Rufus dug his claws in as if daring me to say no. Which I wouldn’t.
“Sure. That’s fine.”
Max’s grin was a hit of adrenaline to my unsteady system. Anything could spike it these days. “Great! Um, I’ll just get some of his stuff and bring it over if that’s okay? I guess you’ve got a tray and bowls?”
“Yeah.” Small evidence I hadn’t thrown everything that reminded me of Max away. Not that he’d think about that. But I did.
“Cool.” It’s awkward, how he smiled before turning away, looking back as he walked next door. It’s awkward how we had barely said anything since my meltdown. Except now instead of avoiding him when I saw him outside the house, I gave a stunted wave and he’d wave back. Max also seemed to be the delivery boy for all of Caterina’s culinary delights, while Rufus was sleeping in my room practically every night.
Max had slowly eased into my life without the stumbling efforts of trying to bridge the gap of time or bringing to light why it all went to shit.
I’d been too grateful for the smallest kindness and the presence of Rufus to demand anything more. I’m not sure what I wanted from Max, if anything.
Leaving the front door open, I took Rufus inside and he jumped onto the sofa as if he owned the place. My laptop and textbooks were strewn on the dining table. Half-drunk cups of tea were dotted around the room. A throw rug I’d wrapped myself in last night was where Rufus nested himself, just as Max walked in, arms laden with cat food and kitty litter.
“That’s enough for a week!” I couldn’t help grinning at the ludicrous over preparation that was Max. And always had been.
He dumped it on the cleared end of the dining table.
“This is for all the times he’s here. I’ve been meaning to bring supplies over because I know you’re feeding him.”
We’d shared this once. Splitting bills for his food and stuff. My life was a constant see-saw between a past I’d tried forgetting and a present that’s inextricably tied to the past.
Max spied Rufus and knew better than to disturb his sleep. We were standing at opposite ends of the table. It’s no bridge.
“So, where are you going?”
“Just down to Portsea. Checking out costal developments.”
“Bet you’ll love that.” I knew he’d hate it.
Max grimaced. “Yep. But it’s course related.”
I had a sudden hankering to hold a warm cup of anything in my hands. “Do you want tea? Coffee?”
I’d definitely caught him off-guard. I kind of wanted to take it back. Having Max in my space felt like conceding territory in a silent war. A war I wasn’t even sure why it started, and that felt ridiculous when he’s here and familiarity kicks in.
I dashed into the kitchen. I put the kettle on and prepped the coffee pot to put on the stove. Getting out cups I knew exactly that he’d want his coffee black with one sugar. I didn’t even bother asking if his preferences had changed. If it had, he’d just have to tell me.
I was so tired of trying to second-guess people.
Whether it was Sascha who was avoiding me, or Max who’d been avoiding me longer.
Or Jem trying to talk to me when logic said I shouldn’t be hearing him at all.
Huh. And of course he chose that moment to snort.
Not now, dork.
Wow, haven’t heard that in forever.
Well, get used to it. It’s my new default name for you.
He’s a dick, why are you making him coffee!
Of course Jem had noticed what had happened with Max, had noticed my ever-increasing hurt. And he’d confronted me when I had no way of explaining what was going on. He’d wanted to get in Max’s face for me, either to punch him for hurting me, or wrangle a confession out of him.
Obviously, I’d discouraged all of it. But knowing he had my back meant everything.
Shut up. And I’m being polite.
Silence. Then: Be careful, Frey. Just be careful.
I had nothing to say to that.
Protecting an already mangled heart wasn’t easy.
Beverages prepared, I carried them into the lounge where Max was sitting on the sofa with Rufus.
“Thanks,” he said taking the proffered cup. I sat safely on the adjacent sofa, cross-legged. He’s trying not to look at me while looking at me. I was wearing tartan pajama bottoms with a navy hoodie and Ugg boots. My hair was a mess.
Too much had happened for it to be easy, or for us to slip into anything comfortable conversation wise. I could barely operate around the people in my life, let alone people who’d made it their mission not to be.
“How are you?” Max’s stare didn’t waver when he asked. Neither did mine.
“Coping,” I said, sipping tea and grateful for the cup at my mouth as if it could stop me blurting out a torrent. “Barely.”
I didn’t blame Max for his silence. Not then. What could he say? I was glad he didn’t try to fill the space with empty words.
And maybe it was because I was already so undone and raw. That my insides were scraped out daily by reminders of Jem and his absence. That I was holding on to pieces of my life as if they could keep me afloat, knowing I was barely hanging in there. That drowning was a very real possibility.
Maybe it was all of it or just the fact Max was sitting near me and his very presence no longer fit into my life, that I asked, finally:
“Why’d you start avoiding me? Why’d you shut me out?”
Max’s eyes closed and my stomach plunged.
This was wrong, so wrong to bring up. Maybe it was something we were never meant to bring up. Maybe all this time he’d just been trying to do what he thought was the right thing, help someone going through a nightmare, even if that someone wasn’t really a part of his life anymore because he’d chosen for them not to be.
Because sometimes we choose to walk away from people. Sometimes endings aren’t the kind you never see coming, but a deliberate step away.
Then another and another.
And that old hurt and even hate reared up, that Max could make me feel so vulnerable when I was so exposed already; that all the insecurities he’d unleashed by his turning away reared up, things about myself I’d never believed I was capable of feeling. Like what was wrong with me that he wouldn’t want me to still be his friend? What had I ever done that made him leave? How could I have trusted Max as easily as I breathed, only to have been completely wrong about him?
I’d thought we were solid. That he had my back and I his. That we’d got under each other’s skin enough to never want to be apart.
God, how wrong could I have been?
I put the cup down before I spilled it. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.” I sounded robotic and felt just as bad.
“Freya. Look at me.”
So I did.
He’d placed his own cup down and was leaning forward. “Don’t say sorry. Ever. I always knew one day we’d have to talk about it. I just never had the guts to bring it up. I should have though. Way before now.” He swallowed hard and he’d gone so pale I could see it from a distance. “And don’t hate me any more for saying this, I do owe you an explanation, but I also have to go on this trip, Someone is picking me up.”
As if to punctuate the point a car horn blasted outside.
I could tell he didn’t want to go. And the worst thought came to mind—seeing Paul seated across from me telling me he never got to hear what Jem had to say.
Sometimes you never got to know the reasons why things happened; what someone else was truly thinking and going through.
“You better go,” I said before I made a huge fool of myself and broke down because fear was my constant companion.
“When I come home, we’ll talk. I promise. I’m not rushing this, so please, believe me I will talk when I get back.”
I nodded, mutely. It wasn’t encouraging and Max stood, unsure. He petted Rufus. He looked at me.
“Go,” I said.
And he did.
Looking at the space where Max had been, my stomach clenched at his absence. For so long he'd been gone that now I tried to trick myself that he was never here in this room. But there's the coffee cup; Rufus snug and asleep; there's the lingering smell of citrus and the sea.
The shape of his absence was as real as his presence.
And I wondered again, too easily it came to mind—how much more did I have to lose?
And the answer, always: more.
Usually, I could pull myself out of most moods by drawing. Sitting on my bed with a sketchpad and my favourite 6B pencil, I barely made a dent on the paper.
Like the blank canvas sitting in the studio, the whiteness repelled me.
It was late Sunday, past midnight.
Max’s light had come on and I’d studiously tried to ignore it.
I’d retreated here after woodenly sitting beside Nicco, not watching his movie choice that night, ‘Star Wars: Return of the Jedi’, but wanting his company. He ate most of my pizza margherita after sharing a seafood pizza with Mum and Dad. Pizza night seemed to be on the increase with my folks valiantly trying to keep to a schedule, but failing. Like routine would anchor us when we were all navigating the black hole in our lives. Trying not to get sucked in. But neither of them seemed to have the energy by the end of the day to cook, and Nicco and I weren’t much better.
My phone beeped. Instinctively, I knew it was Paul.
Move went ok 😊
Paul had finally made the decision that living on his own in a place that was also meant for Jem wasn’t good for him. One of his brothers was looking for a place, so the two of them agreed to move somewhere together. I was relieved when he told me, hating imagining him living in an apartment that would always be a reminder of what he’d lost.
So glad. I could have helped!
Nah—it was pretty easy & Santi would have been too distracted with you there
I balked at that. No way would I have thought Santi—short for Santiago—was interested in me, like ever. A few years older and following in Paul’s footsteps work-wise, I’d always liked hanging out with him, mostly when Paul was around—and he was as distractingly good looking as Paul—but I’d never got that kind of vibe he was interested. Or, I was clueless, which Mai constantly reminded me I most definitely was.
Thought you’d be surprised. But if you’re ever interested…
Yeah right 😊 Still, just so you know, can’t hurt to think about it
Like my love life was something I needed to worry about on top of everything else.
I’m going now—this is way too disturbing
Huh! Remember next Saturday I’m taking you out for a birthday lunch
Noted & can’t wait to see you
Same. Sleep well gorgeous xox
Love you xox
I know ❤️
For a brief interlude I was smiling, and a little distracted that Santi liked me like that, until my eyes fixated on the blank page.
As if the blankness was a cipher for all that was absent from my life.
Thinking too much about Jem. Thinking too much about Max.
Like they were two sides of the same coin. Both leaving. Gone. The grief I’d felt at losing Max had been like a death. Except he was alive, a constant reminder of what I’d lost.
Some days, I was so furious at him I imagined confronting him, lashing out. But the leaving had been so gradual, that when I truly noticed he was gone, it was like grasping at smoke.
Max wasn’t the only one who felt gutless. Worse, the longer I’d let it slide, the harder it was to ever go back and try and rectify it.
If he’d mattered so much, surely I should have tried harder? Yet, the countless times I had, assuming we were still okay, and the subtle and then not so subtle rebuffs, it was more like attrition, a chipping away at my resolve and belief in our friendship. A clean break, however dramatic, might have been easier to make sense of, or get over. Trying just got too hard. And confronting seemed momentous, a blow I’d never recover from to hear him say in truth: I don’t want us to be friends anymore.
But worse: I don’t like you anymore. You’re not someone I want to know anymore. And deeper: I don’t love you anymore.
Not that we’d ever said anything like that openly. Sometimes just being with someone wasn’t about labels or being able to say what they meant to you.
It wasn’t something you questioned until it was gone.
It also wasn’t romantic. Although the summer I was fifteen before it all went to shit, something shifted between us, imperceptible, but evident.
At least for me.
That summer my family and Max’s went on a beach holiday down the coast, renting two houses next door to each other. Both had beach access. We didn’t think Jem would come, but he loved the sea and he loved surfing, so a chance to indulge in both was too good to pass up. And Paul came to stay later, so he was happy.
Most days I’d swim and hang with Max, but I’d eventually find a spot to draw and take photographs to begin the groundwork for a painting. I’d watch Jem surf. He spent a lot of time sitting on his board in the water with a few other surfers. One of them was Max. That summer, Jem had taken up the challenge to teach Max to surf. Being naturally athletic, Max took to it like a duck to water.
That wasn’t the only thing they shared. Hanging out with Jem and his friends, Max suddenly became a target for the girls who regularly hung out at the beach to swim and sunbathe. Only a couple of them surfed. They all flirted. And Max flirted back. It made me clench my teeth, feigning indifference, but beneath it was a seething thing that had taken residence in my gut.
I think it’s why I never wanted to acknowledge Sascha flirting with him. Because it would have meant asking myself why it bothered me in the first place.
But the love I’d felt; what Max had said about love and family, about knowing and layers and entanglement. Of not knowing how to unravel your life from people who had become as much apart of you, as you were to them.
That’s what Max had been for me.
Losing Jem seemed to have amplified all I’d lost with Max.
I shoved the sketchbook away.
I’d read about trauma rewiring your brain. I was beginning to worry that my anxiety would do its damage permanently.
I was getting way too used to living with it.
There was a tap at my window.
I’d fallen asleep; drool lining my right cheek, and my sketchbook had ended up being used as a pillow. I remembered thinking if I could rest for a bit, I could find the energy to get ready for bed. Quickly checking my phone, that was about forty minutes ago.
Now, the ghost of Max was standing outside my window.
I stared, not believing what I was seeing.
“Freya?” His voice was swimmy through the glass.
I got up, Rufus waking at hearing Max, yawned, as if Max at my window was the usual deal.
I opened the sash window.
“What are you doing here?” I didn’t whisper despite the hour.
“I said I’d come and see you.”
I had no reply. He had. And now he was here.
Max’s lanky leg snaked over the sill, then the other as he maneuvered inside.
I backed up to the bed and sat cross-legged against the wall. Max closed the window and then he was standing in my room taking up way too much space. He was bigger, more heft in his body, he’d obviously been working out for soccer.
I began to shiver. I wrapped my arms around my stomach so I wouldn’t come apart.
Tentatively, Max sat on the desk chair, wheeling it close to the bed.
“How was Portsea?”
“Not a fan.”
He’s not looking at me. He’s staring at the painting of the underwater world that Jem had loved, and that Paul had once offered to buy. I hadn’t been able to part with it and had given them another painting, all deepening blues of a huddle of surfers out at the break at Sandy Bay.
“I still have nightmares about that day. I didn’t have to ask what he was referring to. “Why did you paint that?”
Sometimes I’d wondered if Max could see right into my brain. The fact he could look at the painting and know it was from that day when we’d dived deep underwater and played a game that had started with a challenge as kids. How long could we hold our breath underwater? Who would be the first to break the surface? The stakes changed as we got older, until swimming into the deep, usually at this spot, had become a ritual that didn’t need rewarding: a test of skills, a shared event; an acknowledgement of experiencing the beauty we’d discovered beneath the waves, an alternative universe.
Except this day, nothing went right.
So mesmerised with the light and colour and feeling, I’d pushed myself to stay longer, just that bit more, and whether it was lack of oxygen, the colours just got brighter, the light mistier, the sensation so intense and magical—I was floating in it, wanting to be in it. Time meant nothing. Even breathing.
Most of my paintings had stories behind them. I’d called this one, ‘A sea inside you’, because for a while, I’d felt like there was nothing separating me from what was around me.
And I didn’t want there to be.
I hadn’t noticed Max had already swum to the surface. I was lost and dreaming so that when the edges of the world blackened, I gulped water for air, and began to drown.
Max was waiting for my answer and the words stuck in my throat. He’d pulled me out, seeing me floating, unconscious. He’d got me to the beach, giving me CPR. He’d pulled me back to life and never left my side when I was taken to the nearby hospital.
And the sorrow and fear and panic I’d seen when I finally woke in a sterile room with my family stricken and hovering, words were lost then as well.
His and mine.
“It was magic. I was so lost in it that day. It was like I forgot where I actually was. Like I belonged there. No—” and I reached through memory to the feeling. “Like I wanted to belong there, that I wished I could actually stay.”
Max shut his eyes and I wondered if the words could even make sense to him.
“I will never forget, never forget thinking you were dying Freya.”
And there it was when his eyes opened: guilt.
Guilt and grief and pain.
In all my dazed recollection of what happened and then after, having to appease my folks who raged at me for being so careless. At the horror of Max’s family at what could have ended in tragedy. Of Jem, both angry and just so goddamned pleased I was okay. In that blended mix of emotion I forgot Max’s eerie silence. I’d thanked him, over and over for fishing me out and saving me. Literally breathing life back into me.
But Max had been mostly silent.
“I wasn’t your fault Max.” Hadn’t I said that often enough? I’d intuited the guilt. But it had struck so deep, even I couldn’t dig it out.
“I know,” he said quietly and simply. “But that wasn’t the point, Freya.”
“Are you saying you pulled away because I nearly drowned?”
“Technically you weren’t breathing.”
“What are you saying Max?” I was done with circling the truth.
“I nearly lost you, Frey! That’s what I’m saying. I nearly lost you that day and it changed me. It changed something so fundamental I didn’t know how to go back.”
He pushed the chair back and started pacing. Head thrown back. Hands clenched. Even Rufus was disturbed and meowed almost pitifully at his dad’s distress. Max patted him, then paced. I was staring, aghast.
“Go back to what?”
“To,” his hands splayed as if he didn’t know how to grasp for the words, “just being friends. To just being you and me as if I hadn’t had to bring you back to life. Like I had your life in my hands and I don’t even know how I did what I did that day. I don’t know how I got you out and started CPR. I don’t remember it clearly at all except I had to bring you back. I just had to.”
Those moments that change the course of who you are or might be, you don’t necessarily ask for them or wish for them or even hope for them, especially the ones that edge so close to death. They happen.
I knew what he was saying, even if he wasn’t saying everything.
Tears escaped, staining my face, too ready to fall. I wanted to grab at him, bridge all we couldn’t say or the time gone, grab him and shake him and hold him, because I knew he’d brought me back that day. I knew I owed him something so big it was incomprehensible, and I’d barely been able to communicate that to him after it happened.
I’d never understood what it meant for him.
If that had been me trying to bring Max back from nearly dying, I’d have been devastated beyond understanding.
Clinging to someone’s life like it was your own. And if they stopped existing, you might too.
A part of me had known that. But Max’s silence, that eerie calm that had settled over him, it had been the beginning of the wall that eventually separated us, so I’d never truly felt what he was going through.
Because he didn’t want me to know.
Fury, inexplicable and sudden, hit me hard and I was up on my feet before I could think, pounding my fists against that invisible wall except it was Max’s chest.
And Max just let me.
“Why?” I yelled. “Why didn’t you say something? Anything!”
“I didn’t know how.”
My fists opened to grab onto him just as he grabbed onto me, pulling me in tight against him so that I couldn’t tell who was holding on for dear life, because we both seemed to be.
Perhaps you just know, as if knowledge becomes entwined with your very cells; you just know that when the axis of your world shifts, there’s no going back. Yet going forward is a minefield, pocked with fear and doubt and just terror at what you could lose or what you might gain.
His voice, soft and rough. “I loved you, Freya. Back then. And I never stopped loving you. I think that’s all I’ve wanted to say since then. But I didn’t know how. And I was terrified.”
Of what he could have lost. Of what he had to lose.
And if losing someone was terrifying, so was loving them.
It was awful and heartening how much I knew that was true.
I woke suddenly.
Light streaming in the window. The side table lamp still on.
Max and I were entangled on the bed, clothed. We’d fallen asleep like that. We’d barely moved, with Rufus curled at my back.
I hadn’t dreamt the entire night.
Wrung dry of feeling, I couldn’t remember if I’d asked him to stay or it was an unspoken agreement that being apart felt wrong.
Cocooned in his warmth, his breath fanning my face, his features limned with exhaustion, as mine must be. I didn’t know where we’d go from here.
It was all so sudden and jagged and intense.
The world upended, again.
My fingers twitched to trace his face, to draw his skin.
Instead I clenched them, and breathed in as he exhaled.
The very breath that gave me life.
He loved me. All this time. I should have been surprised, shocked even. But I wasn’t. Too much of my own feelings were bound by the very words he’d spoken, a mirror I couldn’t turn away from.
Maybe all that mattered was we’d come to this point, and the rest would follow.
Turning eighteen felt like…
Actually, I was more worried about the English Lit essay due that morning. I’d left it to the last minute to do.
School sucked. I didn’t want to think how much it sucked right now. And this was one of my favourite subjects. Next week I had back-to-back assessment. I wasn’t sure when I was actually going to sleep.
Two months until November and final exams.
Whatever that meant. Well, free from school, which I sadly equated with incarceration.
A tentative knock at the door.
“Honey?” It was Mum.
“Can I come in?”
She popped her head around the door before entering. I’m not sure who she thought might be hanging in here with me, other than Rufus who I’d let out already. Max hadn’t stayed over again since Sunday night. We’d barely seen each other, still too self-conscious about what had been exposed. Too unsure how to take the next step. If anyone heard us that night, no one was saying.
“Hey, Happy Birthday, darling!” She kissed my cheek then sat at the edge of the bed. She looked like she’d at least slept.
“You sound tired. You okay?”
Treading carefully. I appreciated it. “Up late doing an English essay.”
She gently stroked the hair from my eyes. My very bleary eyes.
“Breakfast is ready. Your favourite.”
I gave a sleepy smile. “I’ll come out.”
Giving my hand a reassuring squeeze she left. No fuss, which I also appreciated. I’d agreed to a family dinner early next week with Paul, as well as Mai and Rob. No party.
I wondered if I should invite Max and his family.
My brain couldn’t cope with complications right now.
I threw on a hoodie over my t-shirt and slipped off my boxer shorts exchanging them for jeans. I found some thick socks and swept my hair up into the messiest bun imaginable. I looked glorious. And I didn’t care. This was what they got for insisting on breakfast before showering.
Dad and Nicco were actually seated at the dining table. Mum was plating something in the kitchen. I took a deep breath and sighed. French toast. Another of my special food groups alongside dumplings.
“Happy Birthday!” Dad was amazingly chipper and stood to hug me. I felt dwarfed, but warmed by it.
Nicco smiled. “Hey. Happy birthing day.”
“That’s a new one.” I sat at the head of the table, noting the small stack of wrapped parcels.
“I try.” He went back to his own impressive mountain of pancakes. Mum went all out this morning. Dad was eating muesli. He was a health nut, except when it came to Max’s parent’s cooking.
Mum placed the breakfast of deliciousness in front of me. I went to grab the fork except they were all seated now and watching me.
I picked up the one on the top. It had a handmade card. Nicco.
“You guys gave me money,” I said opening it.
“Not the same as an actual gift.” Mum always insisted on something physical. I’m not sure Dad cared either way.
Two boxes. One was filled with my preferred 6B lead pencils. The other had 24 Faber Castell coloured pencils. I got up and gave Nicco a hug and a kiss. He squirmed.
“Thanks so much,” I murmured. He grunted.
The other gifts were just as thoughtful. A leather-bound sketchbook, the cover soft with leather straps to wrap around the book to close it. The paper was textured. Handmade. My fingers touched it. I’d never had a sketchbook like this.
“Where did you find it?”
Dad looked smug. “One of my interns makes them. Stefan.”
“Tell him it’s amazing.”
“I will. He’ll be happy you like it.”
“I love it!”
The other two parcels were books. They always gave me books and I ripped into them eagerly. I couldn’t afford to buy much for myself, so this was more than welcome. Two gorgeous art books. One of Anselm Kiefer and the other, Cy Twombly.
My eyes smarted. I hadn’t asked for any of it. Wasn’t sure how they knew.
I noticed them waiting for a response as if I could make or break their day. I got up and hugged them both, hard.
“They’re wonderful. Thank you so much.”
By the smiles lighting their faces, they were pleased. There was nothing forced about this. I was truly touched. I never liked being the centre of attention. I didn’t like extravagance. But this, this was great.
Hoeing into my breakfast, I let their voices wash over me.
Until it hit.
A punch to the chest that nearly had me hyperventilating.
There was someone missing. Someone who always made a fuss to my acute embarrassment. Who’d always give me something stupid and outrageous. Last year it was an inflatable penguin holding a surfboard. It was huge and sitting in my bedroom.
I almost choked on my food.
I kept my eyes lowered, focused on chewing.
When I looked up, no one seemed to notice my almost gagging.
All I saw were the empty chairs. Any one of them he could have sat on. Filled. Been present. Here. With me. Us.
I breathed. I ate quickly, carefully forcing the food down. When I finished, I gave everyone a kiss. I took my presents and went into my bedroom.
I waited. My head was lowered between my knees. I breathed.
I heard Dad leave with Nicco, then the sound of Mum’s footsteps going upstairs.
I walked to the bathroom. Black dots blurred my vision.
Shutting the door, I staggered to the toilet and threw up.
Mai, oddly, was the only one who asked me tentatively how I was feeling. Meaning how I was coping with Jem not being here of all days.
I told her how badly my breakfast had ended. She hugged me and gave me a beautifully wrapped box. It was filled with these small, multicoloured origami cranes that she’d made. She was brilliant at origami. I picked up one that fit perfectly in my palm.
The tears I hadn’t allowed to come this morning paid a visit. They slipped silently. Mai gave me a tissue.
“You can string them up and hang them. I can help.”
I nodded mutely. They were so delicate. So beautiful. Words didn’t seem adequate considering the hours she’d taken to make them. Finally, as we were about to go to first period, my voice emerged. “I’d love that. You’re the best.” I hugged her so tight I was sure her bones crunched. She didn’t complain.
“Are you sure about dinner tomorrow night?” Mai had organized a night out with Rob and Sascha. Sascha had noticeably declined. Mai, I realized, had just been polite. We’d parted ways without any fuss it seemed, but the effect was explosive.
So many endings.
Mai didn’t need anything else from me, and my answer was no lie.
At art class, Rob had positioned his gift on my chair. And by the size and shape of it I could tell it was one of his drawings that he’d had framed. He hugged me, whispering, “Happy birthday Frey.”
Surreptitiously, I unwrapped the gift so no one else could see.
I covered it just as quick.
Then looked again, because I couldn’t stop myself. It’s like Rob had held a mirror to my deepest desire and grief that day: a portrait of Jem.
“I didn’t know if it was right to give it to you.”
His consternation was plain, but his kindness and care for me was greater. I kissed his already ruddy cheek.
“No, it’s perfect. But also hard to take in. You know I love your portraits.”
We’d exchanged artwork over the years, had given them as gifts to each other. None had quite the resonance and power as this gift.
Perhaps it was because I’d emptied myself of all expectations of what I wanted for the day, not desiring any celebration, while also acknowledging other people’s desire to do just that; perhaps it was because I’d braced myself against any reminder of what I was missing, that I was continually surprised by what came my way.
Arriving home, on the doorstep, placed with care, I discovered a bunch of the deepest pink peonies and roses. I gaped at the wonder of seeing such a splash of colour, at the inexplicable bounty. And beside it, a book-shaped gift, wrapped plainly, but the card had a geometric design of a heart, one of Max’s drawings.
I scooped up the gifts, fumbled for my keys and then stumbled inside, making a beeline for my room.
The flowers distracted me. Stunningly vibrant in a room that had been too somber of late. I opened the parcel first, carefully. A hardback edition of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. He knew it was one of my special books. A tattered paperback copy on my shelf was testament to that fact. It was more that he’d remembered that pierced me.
That was gift enough.
And the card, he’d written in his blocky print I knew so well, but had never thought I’d see again:
BECAUSE EACH DAY—ESPECIALLY TODAY—IS THE BEGINNING OF SOMETHING NEW. I HOPE YOU CAN BE HAPPY. I KNOW IT WON’T BE EASY. LOVE M xox
I sat holding his words for a long time.
I got up and walked next door.
I knocked and Max answered. I knew he would.
He’d been so careful with me since that night. As if he knew any pressure would break what was still a fragile yet living thing between us.
I reached for his cheek, fingers slipping to his neck to draw him closer, and not saying a word I kissed him.
Max welcomed me, enveloped me—my body, my senses—as if he’d been waiting for me all this time.
As if I was the one who first had to step over an invisible threshold to initiate what was yet to come.
I could feel his smile with my lips. My chest ached with so much raw feeling wanting to escape.
I was discovering quick that giving in to this newfound desire to be with Max was a lot like surrender, of letting go of all I’d been holding onto. That I thought I knew.
It felt a lot like drowning.
I was early.
Or Paul was late.
I checked my phone. Nope. Early.
Brunetti was packed. Saturday lunch and it was ridiculous. I should have suggested the University Café, but Paul insisted.
I found a table inside and nursed my latte. Some of that rawness was back. Thin skinned. Or just hyper aware. And the noise. Too many voices, crap musak, and that busyness that made people feel a part of something in public. A buzz, vibe. It set my teeth on edge.
“Hey, sorry if I’m late.” Paul was suddenly just there. Or I’d been travelling in La La Land.
Probably the latter.
“Nope, you’re on time. I’m early for once.”
Paul had impeccable dress sense. Even in jeans, trainers and a long sleeve t-shirt. Perhaps it was the puffa jacket that gave it all an edge. Or his glasses. But he stood out in that crowd of fashionistas. I most certainly did not, wearing my trusty jeans, a chunky black knit, and Converses. And my duffle coat. And my mouse ear beanie and striped scarf. I probably looked like a kid.
“Love the hat.” Paul smiled, not sarcastically. I tugged it off.
“I get cold easily.”
“Want another one.” He nodded at my latte.
“Hot chocolate, thanks.” Too much coffee and I’d feel sick
Paul kissed my cheek, and got up to order. He was eyeing the cakes. He came back with a number for the table.
“So, had a good day?”
Paul had called on my birthday. Jem had been the elephant in our phone conversation. Hearing Paul always edged me towards melancholy, but my love for him overrode its tidal pull.
Paul rolled his eyes. “Elaborate! Presents?”
“It’s like pulling blood from a stone with you!”
I described each present in detail, omitting Max’s. I wasn’t sure how to bring up Max. Paul insisted on seeing the photo I had of Rob’s portrait. He held my phone, holding his breath.
Our drinks came with a selection of biscotti and two slices of chocolate torte. My mouth watered.
“I took the liberty to order a version of birthday cake for us.”
“Perfect for the chocoholic.”
“That’s chocoholics missy.”
We both hoed into the chocolate yumminess. I was seriously going to have to detox after this weekend. Mai was talking pizza for dinner tonight and then a film. I was up for all of it.
“Oh, and this is for you.”
A parcel, book-shaped, was placed before me. It seemed my love of books was winning out this birthday. Wrapped simply in coloured striped paper like my scarf. I leaned over to hug him.
“Thank you,” I muffled into his shoulder.
“Open it before you thank me.”
“It will be wonderful. All your gifts are.”
Paul grinned as I let go. “I do have a talent for it.”
“And so humble.”
I loved hearing him laugh. No hesitation. Clumsily, I unwrapped it and couldn’t quite make out what it was until my eyes focused. A book on Monet’s garden in Giverny. The one he endlessly painted. I touched it, amazed.
Paul squeezed my leg under the table.
My power of speech was MIA. I opened it, reverently. I gazed at the images, didn’t read the words, simply drank it in.
When I finally looked at Paul he had his hands clasped under his chin, elbows on the table, watching me.
I hugged him again, kissing his cheek. “Thank you,” I whispered.
“I saw this and couldn’t help thinking of that painting you did of that underwater world. I remember telling you how incredible it was.”
“I know you liked it.”
“Loved it, Frey. Although the one of the surfers was special.”
I gave him a questioning look. That painting had been more for Jem, but by some silent agreement, we left that unsaid.
If only Paul knew what the underwater painting had truly meant to me. The story behind it. Max’s reaction seeing it.
For so long he’d been out of reach, now he was everywhere.
I still said nothing; too scared to voice what troubled me when Paul was struggling with having lost the one person he’d have gladly spent his life with.
How do you move on from that?
How do you begin to live with the hope of loving someone else after such a loss?
How do you feel sparks of happiness, even joy, amid a grief that had you breathless with pain?
I was walking a tightrope, and the abyss beneath appeared endless.
Any talk of change felt like courting disaster. As if we hadn’t had enough change already, and not the good kind.
I held back from giving the questions a voice.
But mostly, I wasn’t sure Paul could answer them anymore than I could.
“We visited Monet’s garden when we went to France,” Paul said, the memory a bright one from the smile. Jem and Paul had spent three months travelling Europe. “You must go one day. And the water lilies paintings in the l’Orangerie in Paris. They’re spectacular. I sat for ages looking at them.”
“They’re gorgeous. I definitely want to see them for real.”
There was so much I wanted to see.
Flipping through the pages I was lost in an artist’s world. Monet’s love for his garden and its incredible transformation on canvas. I wondered if I’d ever create something that would be remembered, cherished like this.
I closed the book, hugged it to me. Paul grinned seeing the gesture. Suddenly, with a shift in perception, like a blurring of vision, next to him, I saw Jem.
Sitting beside Paul. At this table. In this café.
I could see him smiling. His hand was on Paul’s arm. He was listening, leaning into him and then he laughed. That full belly laugh I loved.
I could see him.
Full of life. Energy.
We were all here because meeting for a coffee before we went about the rest of our day was something we usually did.
Someone else’s laugh startled me.
It wasn’t Jem’s.
I held the image in my mind. I so much wanted it to be real, but there was just the two of us. Never three.
My eyes drifted through the crowd. So many lives. Here. Outside. So many people I’d never know or meet. It spun my head as I noticed faces, wondering: Are you missing someone? Are you in love? Is there someone you’ve lost? Someone you would like to know but you’re not sure they want to know you? Are you angry? Lonely? Or are you sad?
That thin-skinned rawness was back. A temporary flaying.
All these lives I’d never know. Could never know.
But I knew Paul. He reeled me back to myself, to our table and this small, small world.
I’d known Jem. My version of him anyway.
Paul, his incredible eyes that missed nothing, met mine. They were that blue of a deepening sea. Ultramarine.
I saw wistfulness. A flicker of joy. A shaft of pain.
I was grateful and gutted all at once.
When I turned eighteen, I’d promised myself change. That when this birthday came around, things in my life would shift.
Not in the obvious ways like getting my driver’s licence or being legal to get into clubs, or buy booze. Or vote.
That stuff seemed almost a byproduct, not the main goal.
What I wanted was for my world to get bigger.
I never bargained on just how much of my life would alter.
To honour my commitment to wanting more from my life, I asked my art teacher, Becca, to give me a tattoo. I did my research, being paranoid about anything involving needles, and asked for vegan ink. I wanted this to be special, not toxic. Being an actualvegan, Becca was already onboard.
I asked Becca to design it along the lines of the drawing she’d given me.
A knot reminiscent of the infinity symbol.
A sign of beginnings and endings; of the ongoing momentum of life, and how it seeks balance; of optimism and hope, and how life twists and turns unexpectedly. Of endlessness and cycles and connection, and perhaps somewhere in all of that, a place for me to find purpose, a sense of who I was in the flow of life.
Becca inked it on my back, close to my heart.
It didn’t feel like the mark of a new beginning, just a step forward into a future that I was increasingly seeing as unknowable—unpredictable—but desired.
The light was on in the Loft.
I got home from Becca’s and made a beeline for the kitchen to feed myself and take my mind off the discomfort of my newly minted tattoo.
Max had insisted I send him an image once Becca had finished. His answering text had been immediate: I need to see that for real.
It sent shivers riding my already sensitive skin.
A note on the fridge: Dad and Nicco went to see a film.
Interesting. It hadn’t escaped me how much time Dad had been spending with Nicco. They seemed to need each other in a way that was new and unspoken.
I retrieved a bowl of homemade macaroni cheese from the fridge. Comfort food. Caterina’s recipe. Pig that I was, I didn’t even bother heating it up, I just ate it cold. Since no one was around to be disgusted, I groaned at the hit of carbs and protein. I’d been so tense getting the tattoo it was like I’d run a marathon. Not that I’d ever done that, but still. Now it was time to replenish.
The lights of the Loft mesmerized. How often I’d stood here and casually noted if they were on. That Jem was home.
Mum was in there. It had to be her.
The darkness of the studio repulsed, but that light above was inviting. I’d often gone up there to hang out with Jem. Watch TV. Listen to music. Talk. We hadn’t done any of that in a long time. He’d stayed over at Paul’s increasingly the past year.
I’d resented it a little.
I had to admit that.
I almost expected Jem to interject, something about him not minding, because of course I’d miss him.
If he had, I’d have scoffed.
He’d been unusually silent for a while and if I my mind went there, I’d be too scared at the reason why.
I put the remaining mac and cheese in the fridge. Took a clean cup out of the dishwasher and popped an Earl Grey tea bag into it. Switched the kettle on. Each small movement distracted me from the pull to go and see what my mum was doing.
I wanted to. I didn’t want to.
Like picking petals off a daisy.
Tea made, I went into the lounge and sprawled on the couch. It was so rare to have the Big House to myself. But the longer I sat, the more it grated being alone.
I took my tea and made my way across the courtyard, up the external staircase and stood for a moment before knocking on the door.
No answer, but there was movement. I could hear banging. Shit. Maybe I’d got it completely wrong. I felt my stomach plummet, then—
light flooded from the open door and Mum stood before me.
We stared at each other. My eyes darted to the room. It was a mess. Clothes and stuff strewn on the floor, the bed and couch. Drawers and cupboards open, the en suite door ajar with toiletries spilling onto the floor.
Mum’s eyes, a little manic.
“What’s going on?” I asked, my voice echoing loudly.
She stepped back into the room. I woodenly walked inside and closed the door. There didn’t seem enough space for both of us in the chaos.
Mum abruptly sat on the bed, head falling into her hands. Like she was hiding. Like she was exhausted and giving up.
I kicked some clothes aside and sat cross-legged on the floor, trying to tamp down the internal panic. Mum was a neat freak. She liked order. She ranted at us to pick up clothes and crap off the floor. She craved space and was more of a minimalist than my architect father.
This was her alter ego. Maybe she’d flipped?
She lifted her head and the anguish was horrible.
Shaking her head she got up and began pacing. There wasn’t exactly a lot of room to pace.
“I shouldn’t have. I know I shouldn’t have.”
“What do you mean? You’re not making sense.”
She sat back down and gripped her hair. It tumbled around her, giving her a dishevelled and slightly offbeat appearance.
I swallowed. “Mum?”
“I needed to go through some files on Jem’s laptop. I’ve been putting it off, but there were financial statements and stuff that he kept there.”
Her gaze hit me, the wildness of it. “I shouldn’t have opened it, but it was on his desktop and it was marked ‘Paul’. I always respected his privacy. But I didn’t even think.”
The hair at my nape prickled. I had a slight inkling where this was heading.
“It was a letter. Not long. More like a draft. Did you know? Did he tell you Paul asked him to marry him?”
There. And there.
“Paul told me recently.”
“And that they’d separated?”
I nodded. What could I say?
“And that Jem was coming home to tell him yes?”
“What?” The word shot form my mouth.
“Yes. He was coming home to tell Paul yes. He wanted to marry him.”
A guttural cry came from her. A wracking sob. Her face in her hands and I was paralysed. I should move. Crawl over there and hold her, comfort her.
Instead, there was this ice freezing my limbs.
“Oh my God. Paul! What am I going to say? How can he find out about this now?” Her voice was too loud. I winced as it struck my ears.
And I almost added: now that it was too late.
I was mute. I had nothing to say.
“I don’t have the words, Freya. I’ve relied so much on words my whole life. I don’t have them. Not for this. Nothing, nothing can express what I’m feeling! I’ve always stopped myself from thinking about losing any of you—even when it’s one of my worst fears. It’s like the fear is there, but I never allow it to be conscious. Now,” she spat out the word. “Now, I’m so scared all the time. I’m scared when I wake up and I don’t hear either you or Nicco in the house. I’m scared when I see you both walk out the door to go to school!”
Tears coursed her cheeks. Skin tight against her too thin face. She’d always been petite, but now she looked gaunt and it was painful to see.
How did I not see?
Because she wouldn’t let me.
“I’m so sorry, Freya. I never wanted to dump this on you. I just miss him so much. Every day. And I don’t know how to face Paul with this. Because I know how wrecked he is and it all just feels so wrong.”
“We’re all feeling horrible, Mum. And Paul has to know.” As if that was any comfort.
Mum’s eyes were glazed. I took in the trashed room. “So you’ve been taking out your feelings on Jem’s stuff?”
Unfortunately, there was no lightening her mood.
“I started to clean some things out, his clothes. I thought there might be things here that Paul might want. He never asked. I don’t think he could. Then I checked Jem’s laptop and read the letter. That’s when the frustration, this rage hit.”
Been there. I didn’t say that, though.
It was exhausting being in here with Mum. I couldn’t process all she was bottling up, hiding from me. How it was spilling out and threatening to smother me, but I couldn’t turn away and abandon her to it alone. She’d try and be there for me. Yet how many nights had I woken up crying? That I’d been hiding so much from her.
All my life she’d been this co-ordinate, fixed and solid that I relied on. But all that was changing.
“I need to be alone, Freya. To clean this up and—”
“I get it. I’ll be in the house. Have you eaten?”
She shook her head. Deflated. As if all the fight had drained from her.
“I’ll put something together.”
I could barely stand, hesitating to touch her. I wanted to, but I didn’t. She seemed locked in her own private torment.
How I walked out of there—no I was aware I was walking, like a zombie, barely conscious. My brain had turned to mush.
I collapsed on the concrete bench in no-persons’ land. It froze my arse and I didn’t care. Curled up, legs tucked into my chest, arms banded tight, I knocked my forehead onto my knees repeatedly.
“I hate this. I hate this. I fucking hate this!”
I said this over and over to no one and to anyone who’d hear.
Eyes to the sky. Did I truly believe? Was there a higher being that would answer me? Look out for me? That cared?
“When is this going to end?” I cried out miserably. My heart was cracking along fault-lines I was sure might never truly heal.
The silence smothered, blanketing my pathetic self.
In endless darkness, it felt like it never would.
* * *
Later that night I called instead of texting Paul.
“Frey, what’s up?” Like me, from the tightness in his voice, he expected something bad. I wasn’t sure what I had to say was either good or bad.
“Paul,” I spoke shakily. “There’s something Mum found on Jem’s laptop. It’s a letter. To you.”
It was close to midnight when I opened my bedroom window and ducked outside.
I’d waited until the house was sleep-quiet.
I’d left a note to let Mum know where I was going even if she wouldn’t know why.
I felt unhinged. A jangle of nerves.
Max’s light was a beacon. I scrabbled through the hedge and climbed the fence. I tapped on the window. His startled eyes registered me. Now I was a ghost haunting him.
Opening the window, he grabbed for my arm. “Hey, you okay?”
I shook my head and climbed in. It took all my energy to do it. Nearly tumbled onto the floor head first. How dignified.
“Can I stay here tonight?” No preamble. Nothing, Just a deep need that for one night, I didn’t want to be alone.
“Sure.” His eyes asked even if he didn’t: Was there more?
There was always more.
I couldn’t have told him, the words jumbled, the impressions chaotic. Couldn’t explain that I didn’t want to think. That the pressing ache in my chest was about to explode outward.
And I didn’t want to deal with it on my own.
I fell onto the bed. Curled on my side around Rufus. Max closed his laptop and turned off the desk light. The bedside table light was the solitary bulb softening the room.
He lay beside me against the wall, the reassuring bulk of his body sinking the mattress as he spooned me, arms pulling me to him. He’d got a bigger bed since I’d last been in his room. It was a stupid thought. I reached to entwine my fingers with his.
Breathed him in. Let the day exhale.
I was so, so tired.
My eyes closed knowing I had an anchor to hold onto as I fell asleep.
“Sleep, bella. Just sleep.”
His lips pressed to my hair.
I didn’t remember saying goodnight.
“Can’t go in, huh?”
“What?” I startled hearing Nicco.
He nodded at the studio.
I was in no-person’s land, on the bench. Of course Nicco noticed. He sat beside me.
“Nothing escapes you.”
He shrugged. “I see things because I’m watching.”
My little brother who sees everything like an impartial observer. A non-judgmental, nothing-phases-me observer. Like a freaking little Buddha.
“He’s scary,” Max once said about Nicco.
“He never looks like he’s paying attention, but he’s taking in everything.Like a spy.”
My eyes had bugged. “That’s a really weird thing to say Max.”
I thought about it. He was right. “Maybe that’s what he’ll do. He’s really into cryptography and stuff.”
“Awesome. Not many people can say they’re related to someone working for ASIO. Although it would be better if he could work for MI6. Much more impressive. Does he have duel citizenship by any chance?”
“Are you for real?” I scoffed.
Max had looked mock offended. “Totally! I’m as real as it gets!”
I’d rolled my eyes so hard they nearly popped out of their sockets.
“Why?” I asked Nicco.
“Don’t you? You’re the artist.”
“I guess I don’t notice as much as you.”
“Nope. I think you just notice different things, that’s all.”
Another good point.
Nicco was staring at the Loft. I’d catch him doing that when he thought no one was looking. I wondered what he saw. I could barely glance at it for its emptiness and the echoing hollowness in my chest.
I stared at the studio and there was that inexplicable pull to go in there that defied the force field. Like it was calling to me somehow. Like I had something I really needed to do.
“Is it true, that Paul asked Jem to marry him?”
“How do you know that?”
“Overheard Mum and Dad.”
“Yeah, he did.”
“So what’s the big deal?”
“What do you mean?”
“Mum was upset. Crying.”
I’d been trying to block out how distraught she’d been.
“Jem initially said he didn’t know if he was ready. Then they decided to have a break. That’s when Jem went to the Grampians.”
Nicco had that look, almost blank, where the cogs of that enormous brain of his were whirring.
“They still loved each other,” I assured him, not wanting him to think the worst.
“So why was Mum so upset. Because they weren’t together when he died?”
So direct. He didn’t even hesitate over that last word. “Possibly. It was also because she found a letter Jem wrote saying he was ready to marry Paul. It was—” Just thinking about what Jem had said, the love so searing I could barely finish reading it. “Very personal. Not meant for anyone but Paul to see. But Paul didn’t know about the letter. Jem was going to talk to him when he got back.”
Those last words hung ominously, like a guillotine. Because the fall had been lethal and there was no coming back.
Nicco kept silent. I wondered if he understood why the separation had happened, or the difficulty of Jem’s indecision. I was about to ask—
That’s it. Okay. A small word signifying this huge acceptance. As if he could embrace all the turmoil, uncertainty, isolation, and tragedy of Jem’s death and what we now knew he’d been struggling with.
I had no idea how he did that, or whether it truly was okay.
“Yeah. It was just Jem figuring stuff out. When he’d figured it out, he would have told Paul. When I’d ask him something about school, like a math problem or something, he’d never sit down with me and work through it, he’d take it away and then come back when he was ready and explain it. Kind of like that but bigger.”
Okay. It was kind of exactly like that in its most reduced form. I felt like an idiot for not seeing the parallels. But like Nicco said, we noticed different stuff.
I wrapped an arm around Nicco’s shoulders and squeezed. He tolerated the hug for my sake then shrugged out of it. He grinned before going back inside as stealthily as he’d come.
He really would make a great spy.
I got up stiffly, my legs aching with the cold. It was officially spring and I was yet to see any signs of it. The studio was almost the same temperature as outside. I went to the thermostat and cranked up the heat. The first time since Jem left.
I knew I’d be in here for a while.
The canvas glared but instead of glaring back, I threw on an old paint encrusted shirt, rolled up the sleeves and squirted paint onto a large sheet of glass. I rolled the cart with my paints and brushes and parked it by my easel.
My hands shook as I picked up a brush. I mixed a smidge of lamp black into a glob of titanium white. I chose acrylics for the quicker drying time. On the easel, I marked a figure in lead pencil, its back facing me. He could be walking away, or standing still. I thinned out the mixed paint and began dripping it onto the canvas. The effect was a wash of the mistiest grey-white. Like sludgy snow.
It formed a veil, a curtain.
I breathed paint fumes (non-toxic acrylics, thankfully) and it settled me. It was familiar and as enticing as my favourite perfume. Mum loved to tell the story of how when I was three, Dad was painting one of the rooms in the Big House and I literally fell into a can of paint. Both hands, arms diving in when I spied this tantalizing sky blue. I can’t remember if I thought it was water or whether it was the smell, but I dove in and lathered myself in the stuff. I then proceeded to paint with my hands on any surface I could get to. In a way, I hadn’t stopped. Could live in a can or jar or tube of paint.
The first layer finished, I walked away, then picked up my sketchbook and pencil, sat cross-legged on the floor and drew. I waited for the paint to dry a bit then did the dripping and washed out smeared effect again. Over and over. In between I drew and lost all track of time.
I must have turned the lights on at some point. The heating kicked in. I’d taken a bottle of water from the small fridge and found a packet of nuts and chocolate that Jem kept lying about for snacks. I vaguely registered the light fading outside. The lights going on in the kitchen. But not much else.
When I was in this headspace, not a lot penetrated. It was a place I felt most myself, and kind of lost to the outside world all at once.
Disconnected and complete.
There came a point where the figure was barely there; at the point of vanishing in this foggy mist I’d painted. I was looking into a cloud. I wanted to step right into that space, try and reach him. I knew I couldn’t.
That’s when I’d wake up from the dream, the ache boring a hole in my chest. I wanted so much to hold on, while knowing I had to let go or lose myself in that space forever.
I thought Jem would speak to me then. Now that it was done. I had that buzzing sensation in my head when my surroundings—reality—came back into focus. When I was in and outside my own skin.
But there was only silence.
Yet I didn’t feel alone.
A New Year
We swam deep enough out to sea that I almost had to tread water, my toes touching the sandy bottom. We formed a loose half moon, facing towards the horizon.
Dad and Nicco and Mum and Paul and I.
The sun was high, the January heat mild, the sky a cerulean blue so clear it was a bubble to be pierced and the sea, the tide was going out.
We’d timed it that way.
The water was chilly at first, but I’d swum to find a pocket of warmth, and now I bobbed and swirled my arms and legs to keep my circulation going. When Paul began to speak, I stood as still as I could. We all did.
Paul reached for my hand and I took it.
“I thought a lot about what I was going to say and I ended up having these conversations in my head with Jem. All I could think about was all the conversations we could have had. That I’d hoped we would have, on into our future.”
I gripped Paul fiercely. He gripped back and then let go. I was struggling not to cry. Nicco looked calm. Dad’s face was grim and Mum just lost it. Tears fell and she didn’t stop them.
“I kept coming back to a few lines, because I knew nothing I’d say today could truly encompass all I’d ever want to.” He paused, his hands cradling the box with Jem’s ashes.
I couldn’t look. Not for long. Couldn’t associate that small box with everything Jem was. Is. To me.
“My mum encouraged me to read the Bible. She was Catholic. I’m not. But she said there might be stories in it I might like. I’m glad she never pushed, because I probably wouldn’t have read it.” He smiled. “I found these words in the ‘Song of Solomon’. These words spoke to me. I remembered them as if I was hoping one day I’d understand.”
He looked out across the sea. He steadied himself, buffeted by the waves.
And he spoke, “Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death.”
I held my breath. I could taste salt on my lips. Tears.
Paul’s voice wavered, was soft. “I get it. I understand now.” Louder, his voice was caught by the force of water and wind, “Be free, Jem. I love you.”
His hands shook as he offered the box to Mum. She hugged him tight. Then they both held it as Paul opened it.
As the water rolled back in its ceaseless journey seaward, Jem’s ashes streamed into the outgoing tide.
We each had on white floral leis Paul had made that we took off, and threw them onto the water.
My feet gave way. I was adrift and floating.
Paul and Mum separated, treading water in a synchronized movement, parting as the waves undulated, the ashes spreading across the surface.
Nicco was freaking out a little. “I don’t want it to touch me.” A tremor in his voice. He was staring at the dust pooled and spreading.
Dad sluiced water on his face. He cleared his throat. “Buddy, let’s swim out this way.” He began stroking away with Nicco, away from Mum and Paul who were lost in their vigil. Like two abiding angels. It was mesmerising.
They looked at peace.
I was trembling. I dove under the water. I dolphin kicked deeper. Could see the light refracting on the surface, the legs of Paul and Mum swirling. I could see the cloud of dust dispersing.
I turned away, swimming and feeling the pull of the current, then surfaced, breathing deep.
I searched the horizon. Could see a huddle of surfers far out near the break. I wondered if any of them had known Jem.
And I listened. For Jem’s voice. For any sense of him being here. With us. All I heard was the rush of the water, the gulls circling overhead, the stir of the wind and my heart, soughing a pulse in my ears.
I tread water and waited.
The last time we’d spoken I’d been so excited, jubilant. I’d been accepted to art school. He’d been exultant. And smug, like he’d always known
“Freya!” I startled. Max was waving. Calling me to him from the beach where Dad and Nicco were now towelling themselves. Where Max’s family were setting up blankets and baskets for a meal. A feast, Max’s mama had said, wanting this to be a celebration.
And it was. This beach where we’d all come together for holidays. Where Max and I had spent countless hours in the water. Where Jem loved to surf and where he’d brought Paul the summer they’d fallen in love.
I looked out to the sea once more. At Mum and Paul swimming and circling, keeping close. The thought teased that I might be ready to tell someone else about Jem, about how I’d been talking to him—maybe Mai, or maybe even Max. How Jem had been there for me all along. That he always would be if I believed enough.
I wanted to believe.
“Love you,” I whispered to the wind.
I hoped he heard me. Wherever he was.
Max called my name again.
I turned from the open sea, to Max and our families, and I swam towards the shore.
© Angela Jooste 2019