Lara Keys (Macquarie University, Australia)
Tanya blasts the car horn when she turns into my street, setting all the neighbours’ dogs off. She keeps it up, improvising a jaunty honk beat, until I’m halfway down the driveway.
‘So funny,’ I mouth in the direction of her car.
She delivers another long honk in reply.
I want to stick my finger up at her, but the bag and camping chair I’m carrying are threatening to slip out of my hands. It’s possible they aren’t that keen on going to the beach either.
‘Pop the boot,’ I call out.
Gary sticks his head out the front passenger window and shakes it. He shoots an exaggerated pout my way. ‘Nope, no room.’
I sigh. It’s stinking hot. There’s already sweat pooling on my top lip. ‘Nice to see you too, Gary.’
He blows a kiss. ‘Happy birthday, stranger.’
‘Happy birthday!’ Tanya chimes in, making kissy noises from the driver’s seat. ‘Now get in the back with the others, bitch tits. Shit goes on your lap.’
Even from here, I can see she has brand new lips. They aren’t huge, but they look strangely sinister, like a couple of fleshy parasitic organisms.
‘Wow, Tanya,’ I finally manage. ‘You look great.’
Jeremy is in the back seat, hugging Gary’s headrest and grinning at me, an eyebrow raised. I stick my tongue out at him and heave the camping chair I’m carrying to head height.
‘So, what should I do with this, then?’
‘Can’t you just sit on a towel like a normal person?’ Tanya rolls her eyes and exchanges a look with someone sitting next to Jeremy in the back seat.
‘Sure can,’ I say, wrangling a smile. I drop my bag and turn back to the house, the chair tucked under my arm. ‘I’ll pop this up on the porch real quick.’
I don’t even like the beach. The rules are different around open water. Flesh gets flopped out, slathered in creams and oils, pinched into scraps of fabric, rubbed up against people. It’s allowed to bounce around. There’s something unhinged about it all. Humans become intoxicated by the danger of being right at the edge of their natural habitat; that’s how I see it. The place is definitely more fraught than the cheerful towels and plastic spades would have us believe.
There’s a tiny movement at the lounge room window. Mum is watching us through a crack in the curtain. She’s hiding, making herself small. It’s tempting to head back inside, settle into a soft Xanax buzz next to her on the couch. We could watch a Miss Marple DVD, be small together. I won’t, of course. And not because I’m some amazing friend. I could probably dress up my decision to go along with the beach idea as amiability if I tried hard enough, but it actually more closely resembles cowardice. Traits like that can be hereditary. Like big bones.
The car door slams behind me.
‘Come back, Joy,’ Jeremy shouts. ‘It’s fine. I’ll make it fit in the boot.’
I grimace in Mum’s direction and then head back to the car, lugging the chair.
The stranger in the back seat is a woman. She’s more sunglasses than face, with bronze legs tucked under her. She smells like coconut and something else, something acid and too clean. I slide into the middle seat, right up beside her, and hug my bag to my chest. In the front, Tanya and Gary are flicking through Tanya’s phone, bickering about playlists.
‘Oh hey,’ the stranger says. ‘You must be the birthday girl. I’m Mika.’
Her lips are sticky on my cheek, fruity. She falls back in her seat and starts tapping on her phone. ‘So great to meet you,’ she continues. ‘Seriously, I feel so blessed to be here. I can’t wait to hit the water and just relax today, you know? Isn’t the whole entire world utterly exhausting?’ She pauses for a beat and catches her bottom lip in her teeth. Her gaze is riveted to the screen in her hands. ‘You’re twenty-one today, right? That must be weird. I’ll be there in August. I just keep waiting for the whole grown-up thing to kick in, but, you know, here I am still feeling like a kid or whatever.’
Jeremy piles in next to me and slams the door. ‘Joy, this is Mika,’ he says, grinning.
Mika drops her phone and grabs my wrist possessively. ‘Jez. You’re too late. We’re great friends already.’
Jez? I consider Jeremy properly for a second. Nope. He still looks like a solid three syllable kind of guy.
‘So, Joy,’ Mika says, her nails an acrylic vice on my arm. ‘Tanya tells me you’re an apprentice, like in beauty or hair or something? Man, what I wouldn’t give to be free of assignments and marks and stuff.’ She shifts her attention back to her phone. ‘Good on you. Uni’s not for everyone, am I right? I mean, that would—’
Dance music explodes from the car speakers, drowning out the end of her sentence.
‘Buckle up, folks,’ Tanya shouts, pumping the accelerator. ‘We’re getting the fuck out of here.’
Mika squeals and launches forward, whipping her glasses off and whacking Tanya’s shoulder with them. ‘Oh no you didn’t! This song! Oh my God. How totally amazing was that night?’
Half turning in her seat, Tanya shouts back. ‘I know, right? Amazing!’
Mika’s unadorned face is unsettling. It looks raw somehow, freshly peeled. I can’t help thinking of prawns.
‘You should have been there, Joy,’ she yells at me, her eyelids fluttering against the weight of false lashes. ‘You would have loved it. We danced forever. Jez loved it, didn’t you Jez?’
I turn to Jeremy. Still grinning, he gives Mika a thumbs up.
Tanya’s aircon struggles to reach the back seat. Half an hour into the drive, the three of us are silent, glistening and heavy lidded, pressed back into our seats by the heat, the lack of circulation, the persistent pound of EDM. On the motorway, semi-trailers roar past in groups of two and three, temporarily blocking the glare of the sun. My bare, sweaty thighs are drawing attention to themselves, encroaching blanched and pitted over the edges of my designated area.
We leave the motorway and join the stop-start traffic heading towards the city. Beside me, Jeremy’s eyes are on his phone. That face. It’s still slightly oversized in the same pleasing way it’s always been, open and steady, but the beard shadow is different, far less tentative than it used to be. Being a grown-up has coloured Jeremy in. In the front seat, Gary and Tanya are wearing themselves differently too. I didn’t notice straightaway. As the shadows of the city buildings fall over the car, I stare at my friends for so long they start to become strangers.
There’s a swarm of bodies covering the short stretch of sand and grassy parkland. We all take it in, our arms loaded with bags and eskies. It’s not too bad. When you’re far enough away from the beach and all the people, the corporeal details are blurry. It’s easy to pretend displays of anatomy are fixed, harmless elements of the landscape. The horde is almost appealing as a composition of impressionistic smudges. The ocean is benign, lapping gently. About one hundred metres beyond the water’s edge, a semicircle of tall poles strung together with shark netting stand guard. The wooden sentinels jut out of the water, forming a bounded pool with regimental precision. There’s a sense they might salute if given enough time; if I stood and watched for long enough.
Jeremy is the first one to have a dig. ‘Pity we didn’t bring our boards, hey?’ He smirks. ‘Check out those sick waves.’
We’ve always gone to Shark Beach. Gary has a phobia and refuses to go anywhere that doesn’t have shark nets. He always gets shit about it.
‘Very funny, arseholes,’ he grumbles when Tanya and Mika snigger. His thongs clap against his feet as he storms ahead. ‘You wouldn’t be laughing if one of the buggers ripped your leg off.’
‘Can we find some shade?’ I call after him. ‘Look, there’s room down near our usual spot.’
‘Not too much though, yeah?’ Mika shouts from behind me. ‘I wanna work on my colour.’
I glance down at my pasty legs.
‘Like over here!’ Mika dashes past, lifting her midriff top and kicking off her thongs.
‘We usually go further down,’ I shout after her. ‘See the big tree?’
She ignores me. ‘You comin’ in, Jez?’ She laughs, already leaping onto the sand. She shoots a glance over her shoulder and grins. It looks like a move she might have practiced in the mirror.
‘Right, well, I guess this’ll do then,’ I mumble, unfolding my chair.
Jeremy catches my eye and shrugs, throwing me a smile before his attention is drawn back to Mika squealing in the shallows.
‘Oh, my gawd!’ she shrieks. ‘It’s freezing.’
He rips off his shirt. ‘Comin’ in, Joy? Birthday swim?’
Gary snorts. ‘Yeah, right.’
Tanya pushes her sunglasses up on top of her head and makes a show of waiting for my answer. Even with the new artificial lips, it’s a familiar expression. The first time I saw it, we were fourteen and she’d just dragged me into a game of spin the bottle under a bridge with some randoms we’d met down the shops.
‘I’ll just set up first,’ I reply.
Tanya sniffs and tosses her long hair.
‘No worries,’ Jeremy says, heading off, his narrow body streaking across the sand in great loping strides.
I collapse into my chair, blow my fringe off my face, and settle in.
There are safe places to rest your eyes at the beach if you’re practiced enough. The sky, the bushy outcrop across the bay, the grass around your feet, Candy Crush. There’s also Instagram. I lean back in my chair and scroll through Tanya’s Mika-littered feed.
‘Hey, so where do you know Mika from?’
Tanya’s on her back on a large towel next to my chair, reading some textbook. Gary is stretched out beside her, fiddling with his phone. They’ve both already stripped down to their swimsuits. They are lolling. It’s the only word for it. They are determinedly skimpy and completely on board with the farce of the place. I resist the urge to throw a towel over them.
‘Mika. How do you guys know her?’
‘Oh, she’s so great, right? She’s in a couple of my classes. She’s doing a double with law, I think,’ she says shading her eyes. ‘Just like you got into. Weird, right?’
The hard ridge around her newly inflated mouth is slick with gloss. It looks sharp, definitely capable of lacerating.
‘Right. Yeah, coincidence,’ I say.
Nearby, a toddler screams in protest and makes a dash for the sand, his stout body spring loaded in its full-cover swimsuit. A harried looking young woman gives chase, a towel hanging from her hands—a net ready for capturing.
‘Before I forget,’ Tanya says. ‘I got those pink doughnuts you like with the sprinkles. For your birthday.’
‘Oh right, cool. Thanks. You didn’t have to.’
Tanya half smiles and returns to her book.
The sun is already biting. I rummage through my bag for sunscreen and start smearing it on my face.
‘She’s quite something, right?’ I ask, rubbing at my ears. ‘I mean, she’s energetic, isn’t she? Peppy?’
‘Oh, I guess.’
Tanya lifts her book away from her face and looks at me. ‘Right? She’s totally gorgeous. I think she was going to be, like, a dancer or something at one point.’
She sits up, holding a hand against the front of her bikini top to keep it in place. Fake tan has gathered in warm stains around her knuckles. ‘Jeremy seems to think so, too.’
We watch Jeremy and Mika splash in the shallows.
‘I’m happy for him,’ Tanya says, flopping back onto her towel. She rolls onto her stomach. ‘He totally deserves it.’
Seagulls start squabbling at the edge of the sand. One scruffy bird with a missing leg flaps in amongst the others, dispersing the crowd. The flagrant belligerence makes me smile.
Tanya’s voice is muffled. ‘Oh, and I brought some bubbles too. In the esky there. Help yourself.’
Mika and Jeremy circle each other among the floating bodies—the bobbing, thrashing, gliding bodies that are so determined not to stay still. Most of the flesh is submerged, but it’s all there. Glimpses of wet body parts roll in and out of view.
I down a glass of sparkling wine in rapid sips and start counting the number of times Mika mock-punches Jeremy’s shoulder. I have to keep restarting; it’s impossible to keep track. Jeremy is laughing. I can tell by the way he reaches back and ruffles the curly hair at his nape.
No one around us seems to notice when I light a joint. The air here is tainted by dank marine smells—by vinegar and sunscreen and damp towels. Noses are otherwise occupied. Or maybe nobody cares.
Beyond the swimmers, two boats with tall, white sails drift into view as I smoke. They move impossibly slowly. They look like a couple gliding onto a dance floor, all straight spines and full skirts. They’re beautiful. It doesn’t even matter that they just keep on going, that they seem to have forgotten the steps.
It’s the sounds around me that slow down first. The birds, the shouts, the squeals, the waves and rustling leaves merge and ease into a single blended murmuring. Then the biting glare softens. There are only the shimmering basking objects and the unseen depths to contend with. The down, down where the sharks live. Those fish that must be thinking about flesh, sensing the pumping blood. Who could blame them for throwing themselves against the flimsy nets? Who would blame them with all that waterborne bait? All those mums with Pilates bodies sitting in the shallows breastfeeding their fat-legged babies and keeping an eye on spinning toddlers, nude except for swim vests and arm floaties. All those young people too, rubbing up against each other, exposing skin, wrapping limbs together down where they think it’s safe, sending out animal scents. The carnality of their activity is just as bemusing to me here as anywhere else, but for the moment, I don’t care. The submerged shadows suggest shapes and movement in the sea that could be something to worry about, but I’m not worried. It’s only a problem for those stupid enough to get in.
‘Joy,’ Gary says, his mouth full of corn chips. ‘Oh my God, Joy. That lady over there looks just like you.’
My eyes are heavy, but I see her. I know immediately who he means. She is a few metres away, standing with her back to us, her hands on her broad hips, hair braided into a long rope. She’s upright in a way that makes it look like she knows someone is watching.
‘Her. That one,’ Gary insists, pointing now. ‘Don’t you reckon? Hang on. She’ll turn around in a sec.’
‘Jesus, shout a little louder, will you,’ Tanya hisses.
Plump and pale and wearing a skin-coloured bra-top and full brief bottoms that look like underwear, it’s as if the woman has just wandered onto the beach as an afterthought and stripped her clothes off in the spirit of joining in. She’s pivoting at the torso, first facing the ocean, appearing to scan the flat water and the stew of swimmers, and then twisting, shifting her weight and sweeping her eyes over the grassy area behind her—over the three of us watching her.
‘Do you think so?’ I murmur through numb lips.
I’m confused. The woman has an energy, a lightness; she looks as if she might take off at any moment, fly away. Surely I’m more an anchor, a hewn, hefty stone thing.
Gary nods. ‘Definitely. It’s totally weird.’
Tanya slaps his arm. ‘You’re an arsehole, Gary.’
‘What? What did I say? You don’t think she just sort of looks the same?’
I sense the two of them exchange gestures.
‘She’s old,’ Tanya snaps.
There’s a shriek from the water and we all turn toward it. Mika is perched on Jeremy’s shoulders, her thighs pressing into his ears and her fingers in his hair. The touching has moved from the accidental to the possessive. It suddenly occurs to me that she’s aware I’m watching, and she thinks that’s what I care about. It’s a funny idea, but I can’t quite remember how to laugh.
Tanya is waving her hand in my face. ‘Hello, you awake? Anybody in there?’ she says. ‘Do you wanna come in with us?’
‘What? You mean in there?’ I look out at the water and shake my heavy head. ‘Maybe in a bit. I might have another smoke first.’
‘Jesus, Joy. Are you going to just sit there all afternoon?’
Her hands are on her hips. Her spray-tanned belly button hovers in front of my face like a pursed mouth. ‘We drove all this way for your birthday and all you want to do is get stoned,’ she says, tossing her sunglasses onto her towel. Without waiting for an answer, she grabs Gary’s hand and stomps away, kicking up sand. I search around in my drowsy brain for anger or something like it I can rouse to match her huffy exit, but there’s nothing. When they reach the water, I watch them take a few high steps over the tiny waves and slip into the crowd of splashing bodies. And for the next little while, I track them through the water through half-closed eyes.
The woman who looks like me appears, ambling onto the footpath, crossing my line of sight at a slow but measured pace. She’s heading in the direction of the toilet blocks, walking alone. She glides from the chest. A little like the white-sailed boats, she’s solid, upright, graceful. Her bare feet pick their way confidently along the sandy path. I wait for a sign that she’s aware of the beef of her mid-section or the dimpling of her thighs, some signal of apology, like a crossing of the arms. Instead, all her parts play a beat for her as she moves, her arms swinging rhythmically by her sides.
As she enters the toilets, it suddenly dawns on me that I’m ravenous. I lean over, grab around for Tanya’s bag and drag it towards me, an inch at a time, until it’s resting against my feet. The Krusty Kreme box is nestled under some sandwiches. I lift a pink doughnut to my mouth and seek out my friends in the water again. The light cake disappears in three steady bites as I watch them swim. It’s not enough, so I start on another, biting and chewing until that one is all gone too. The pace of it is familiar, soothing and easy to maintain. My hand grips, lifts and lowers with practiced efficiency. It’s only after the fifth doughnut that I pause, breathless and covered in crumbs and rainbow sprinkles.
After that, it doesn’t take long for the sugar to start vibrating under my skin. I try to moor myself as it comes on, pressing the balls of my feet into the grass and searching above, hooking onto the path of a seaplane as it crosses the massive blue sky. The winged thing is moving so slowly it looks at risk of coming unstuck and plummeting down on us. My gaze holds it steady until the tiny white carcass wavers. I leap to my feet, determined to be somewhere else. Doughnuts tumble onto the grass around me.
‘I’m going for a swim,’ I declare loudly, startling a couple nearby. ‘I’m going to do that right now. You should just watch out for that plane, okay? Just keep an eye on it,’ I instruct them, pointing to the sky.
Bodies are strewn untidily across the sand—face down, face up, all sides roasting like rotisserie meat. I keep my eyes on my feet, on my toes. People on the ground shout as I clomp past. I assure them everything’s fine. ‘I’m just going for a swim,’ I say. ‘Those people are watching the sky for us.’
The water is a shock. It washes up to my ankles and instantly shifts the buzz from behind my eyes to my toes, leaving me light-headed.
My friends, all three of them plus one, are bobbing together out where the water must get deep, where the teenagers start clinging to boogie boards and where the swim cap wearers start their laps in earnest. I splash forward until the cold-water licks at my kneecaps, and then I remember: I never go further.
So, I stand with the water at my knees, with the glossy-skinned swimmers only metres away, with the kids running in to fill their buckets, with the dads dragging their sons through the water by their arms until their laughs vanish below, surfacing again to demand more. I stand—the down, down where the sharks live only a few steps away. I stand and wait for my friends to notice me. They’re laughing at something. Arms are draped around each other’s necks. I know what will happen next. I do. Gary will see me at any moment and wave me in. No—it’ll be Jeremy. Of course it will. He’ll call out. ‘Hey Joy!’ He’ll reach me in a few slapping strokes and try to coax me over to join them. He’ll tell me that he’ll hold onto me; he won’t let me go. Tanya will call me a wuss and dare me to swim out to the net with them. She’ll be clapping excitedly. I’ll beg off, but I’ll laugh, thrilled at the attention, all their eyes on me. They’ll try harder. We’ll laugh for a little while, and then someone, probably Gary, will push me a little, just in fun, just enough that I stumble. My thighs will get wet. I’ll get upset, because the surface of the water looks like it will take an enormous bite and swallow my face. And that’s when Mika will step in, telling them to leave me be. She’ll say that if a person wants to come all the way to the beach and just sit on the grass, that’s up to them. It doesn’t have to ruin anyone else’s fun, does it?
It will take a few seconds for me to realise what’s happened—for me to notice I’ve been severed, hacked off. Just like that. Jeremy will look from me to Mika a few times, and his forehead will furrow. I’ll feel bad for him, even as I’m gushing blood, becoming too empty to stay whole, to keep my shape. I’ll smile and tell them not to worry because Mika’s right: I’m totally happy watching from up there. I’ll even point back to my chair on the grass, laying on its side.
They’ll all return to the deep water. Tanya and Jeremy will look back at me standing in the reddening shallows. I’ll smile and wave each time they do until they are bobbing together again, my friends plus one, laughing about how Joy is always like that, always not doing things, always quitting. She’ll be fine, someone will say. She prefers it that way. I’ll stand with the blood water at my knees, with the kids, the swimmers, the dads. I’ll stand near the down, down where the sharks are, no longer attached to anything at all.
They don’t notice me. They can’t see me. The four of them are drifting out of sight, having been picked up by a gentle current. The tide is coming in, advancing in a steady back and forth, with the clear blue water tickling the warm skin above my knees. And it’s ok. I could shuffle back, but my feet have been standing in this place for so long the wet sand has sucked me in. My soles and toes are anchored. And it’s ok. To test the strength of the vacuum, I squat, dropping my butt into the water. The Pacific encourages first my toes to lift and then my heels, and neither want to give just yet. From this position, my eyes are almost at water level. The surface is a tangle of heads and arms, impossible to see through. I relax into the buoyancy and follow the rhythmic drag on my shorts.
‘It feels fantastic, doesn’t it?’
It’s me. The other me. She’s standing with her legs wide and steady. Her hands are planted on her hips. Her skin is flushed. Sand clings to her whole body, giving the impression she’s rolled across the beach.
‘Even this mess of people can’t ruin it,’ she continues.
I stand up and take her measure. We are two peas.
‘Wonder what’s happening over there?’ she says, wading into the water.
I’m not sure how I haven’t heard the shrieking. Somewhere out among the swimmers, someone is crying out.
‘That’s Mika,’ I say, surprised to find that it is.
A few metres from me, swimmers clear a path and Jeremy emerges from the ocean cradling her. He’s flanked by Gary and Tanya. They are all tight lipped and white faced. They are strangers. Mika’s thigh is pink with blood, and the colour is washing over Jeremy’s hand and down his leg. He stumbles onto the sand.
‘You coming in?’
I turn and see the woman bobbing chest deep. Her breasts are impossibly buoyant, spilling over the edges of her top.
‘Mika’s been attacked,’ I tell her.
She laughs. ‘No, no, it’s okay. There’s nothing that can bite you out here.’
‘But she’s bleeding.’
‘She probably went too close to the rocks. It happens.’
My friends disappear behind a gathering crowd, all the people craning as one to get a better look.
‘Yep,’ she says, turning her body over and kicking off lightly.
I wade forward and follow the froth in her wake.
Lara Keys is a Sydney based writer currently completing a Master of Creative Writing at Macquarie University. She writes fiction in an effort to understand the ways in which the little things and the quiet moments reveal who we are and what matters.