A.R. Henderson (University of Canberra, Australia)
We’re more than halfway to the beach when Moon asks me, ‘What do you do in the sea?’
I’m focused on the view out the passenger seat window—on the fields that unroll towards the coast like a lush green carpet—so it takes me a moment to register the question. I turn to look at Moon, who’s diligently watching the road as they drive. ‘What do you do?’ I echo.
I keep my voice low. We turned off the music about fifteen minutes ago, when we realised both Evan and Cass had fallen asleep in the back seat. Now it’s just us and the gentle, hot hum of the highway.
I wonder, suddenly, if Moon has just thought of this question, or if they were waiting until we were alone to voice it. Something about that makes my chest bubble.
Moon shrugs. ‘Yeah. What do you, like …?’ They lift one hand from the steering wheel for a second to gesture vaguely, trailing off as if the words have slipped between their fingers and flitted out the driver’s side window.
‘Well … you swim.’
Cumulous clouds are scattered across the horizon—massive fluffy things that look like someone’s pulled the stuffing out of the sky. They cast lazy shadows across the paddocks and the road. Deep puddles of quiet darkness make their way over Moon’s face, pooling in the little crease that’s formed between their eyebrows. ‘Like, laps?’
One night in winter, when the four of us were sipping cider, tucked under the same woollen blanket on Cass and Evan’s couch, Moon had off-handedly mentioned winning a bunch of swimming medals as a kid. Not bragged, not reminisced, just tossed the factoid into the conversation as though skipping a stone. I wonder if that’s their main frame of reference for all things water. I picture a young Moon cutting through a chlorine-crispy pool in perfect backstroke, goggles and a swimming cap squeezing their brain. Around them are the sounds of shrieking whistles, ticking clocks, the sinking-stone splash of bodies diving into the water. Parents, warm and dry on the tiles, chat and nod sagely about their babies’ Olympic potential.
I’ve never met Moon’s parents—they’re far away in some other town, some other life. Moon doesn’t talk about them much. But something about Moon’s little frown makes that mental image solidify. ‘You can swim laps if you want,’ I say.
I adjust my position in the car seat, shifting around to face Moon a little more and offering a shrug. ‘But that gets a little difficult if there are waves.’
‘So you surf if there are waves,’ they muse. ‘But we don’t have surfboards.’
‘You can bodysurf, I guess. I usually just … float.’
It feels a bit like floating, sitting in this car that’s rattling down the coast road. We all piled in hours ago, cramming our stuff in the boot and between Cass and Evan: beaten-up backpacks and suitcases with squeaky wheels, overflowing piles of hats and towels. Moon stopped to get petrol just before we left the city, and Evan and I went feral in the service station, filling our arms with bags of Starbursts and bottles of Sprite like we were nine years old.
Evan told us, once, about a book he got from the uni library: in it, an academic waxed poetic about how queer and trans people don’t grow up, they grow sideways. The world sets out nice, neat parameters, Evan explained, like a trellis for tomatoes, urging that we grow towards the right goals and the right life narrative. But if you don’t fit that … well. You grow lopsided; you fall off the vine, but you find a new path down in the garden bed.
I suppose that’s where the four of us found each other. And I suppose that’s why we can justify singing old showtunes in the car, shrieking along to ancient memes and in-jokes, chewing candy like little kids. We’re zig-zagging through our belated youths, crooning to our own chorus, because now, only now, have we figured out the words.
I hear a little snort from the back seat, and twist around to check on my friends. Cass is asleep with her big straw sunhat flopped across the skirt of her frilly white sundress. She packed an honest-to-goodness parasol, like she’ll be stepping onto the beach straight out of Little Women. Evan is in board shorts and a button-down covered in hibiscus and pineapples. He is slumbering, pristine as a marble statue. She is drooling all over her own cheek.
‘I float,’ I whisper, turning back to Moon. ‘I wade in deeper and deeper, and I bob around and float, just … taking in the view and that feeling of being weightless, until I start getting cold or wrinkly.’
Moon laughs through their nose—amused but not quite getting it.
‘It’s kind of meditative,’ I try to explain. ‘It’s just you and the sea, and that gentle movement of … I don’t know … something bigger than you, cool against your skin, carrying you without carrying you away.’
Moon cracks a smile, like a crack of sunlight sneaking in through a curtained window. ‘I’ve never just floated in water. Then again, I’ve never done much swimming outside of training.’
‘Oh.’ I tuck my sandal-clad feet up onto the seat. ‘Your family didn’t do beach holidays?’
‘Nope. We always went to resorts, where there were golf courses and kids’ clubs and tennis courts.’ Moon runs a hand through their short hair, fluffing up the red-dyed shocks, as if they can feel the ghost of a hat pressing down on their skull.
It’s meant to be a cliché that queer people are starchy with hair dye and covered in tattoos. But it always just made sense to me, especially after becoming friends with the people in this car. It’s about intentionality: making a mark on your body because it’s your canvas, no one else’s. It’s about saying, silently, in a single glance, this is who I am and it’s on purpose.
Moon’s coming with me when I get my first tattoo in a couple of months. It’s going to be a little black cat wandering across the bottom of my ribcage. No one’s going to see it, not all the time, but I’ll know it’s there. That, said Moon, is the most important thing.
Moon also said they’d hold my hand if it hurt, and I blushed almost as red as their hair.
I swing my thoughts back to the present conversation, to the uncanny image of Moon in a hotel play-place. It’s almost as uncanny as the thought of Moon swimming parallel with the lanes of an Olympic pool. ‘It’s hard to imagine you sticking to that much structure,’ I admit. ‘Or having the patience to play golf.’ I lean back against the headrest and watch them as they watch the road, guiding the car down the long, dry highway.
Moon lets out one of those little musical, bittersweet laughs that makes it so easy to love them, and says, ‘Oh, golf sucked. But I was pretty good at tennis. I even played against Mum and Dad a few times. Though the point of the kids’ club was that parents didn’t have to see us while they were on holiday.’
‘That’s so weird to me. Holiday trips were like a novelty for my family—the only time of year we were in the same space for more than a couple of hours.’ I think of sandy toes, prickly buffalo grass, greasy takeaway, Dad’s music playing on tinny portable speakers, siblings smooshed together for mandated family photos, cringing but laughing.
I know, of course, that everyone’s experiences are different—that I can’t apply my idea of normal to everyone else. But something about the idea of little Moon fenced into club activities while their parents drank champagne at a polished hotel bar rubs me the wrong way.
‘Being together was the whole point,’ I whisper.
Moon smiles, softly. A little wryly. I want to say there’s a sadness in their silence, but more likely it’s resignation. An invisible shrug.
Moon asks, ‘How’s your Dad, by the way?’
I’m studying their face when they turn, catch my gaze, hook us both into unexpected eye contact. It makes warmth leap to the tips of my ears, heating them until they’re warmer even than the sun-baked highway underneath us.
I clear my throat, compose myself. ‘He’s good.’ I make a mental note among my sandy childhood memories to text him and update him on our journey. He worries about me. This, I have learned after becoming friends with the people in this car, is also a novelty.
‘He said you should come round for dinner again sometime,’ I tell Moon. I might be imagining it, but I swear a little drop of colour appears on their cheeks. ‘He can make more ravioli.’
Something shifts, softens, in their expression. I feel my blush deepening, spreading, like I’ve offered them something far more intimate than pasta in supermarket-brand sauce. I suppose it’s the gentle, understated intimacy of being welcomed somewhere. The affection inherent in pop round for dinner whenever you want; we’ll chuck something together. No schedules, no swimming caps, no trellis. Just you, taken as you are.
But instead of dwelling on this, Moon stage-whispers, ‘Oh, fuck yeah, ravioli. ’ I burst out laughing, a laugh that comes straight from my heart and explodes out my nose. The ugly sound makes Moon laugh, too, and soon we’re caught in an endless cycle of stupid giggles, trying not to wake Cass and Evan.
The landscape dips, falling open, and suddenly we can see a fuzzy blue line of ocean on the horizon. Moon takes the chance to stare at it, and I take the chance to stare at Moon: at the interplay of red hair and dark regrowth, the gentle curve of their jaw, and the sea-deep darkness of their eyes, fixed inquisitively on the faraway suggestion of water.
There’s an uncertainty in those eyes that breaks my heart a little. Moon is shaped like freedom to me, a walking canvas with a quick smile. But Moon does not know how to just float. The hard edges of their childhood have left the ocean open and terrifying in front of them.
‘You don’t even have to swim,’ I tell them. Moon blinks at me, disarmed. ‘Um, when we get there, I mean. You can just walk along the beach, or look in rock pools if the tide is low. You can draw in the sand or sit on a towel and read a book. Or just sit and watch the waves and do nothing.’
Moon focuses on the road again, a little smile curving at their lips. ‘That sounds nice,’ they say softly. ‘But you know what, I think I want to try floating.’
‘Yeah. You said it was meditative. I can always use some of that.’
‘I can show you how,’ I offer. Voice low, so as not to wake our friends. Voice low, almost hiding under the rumble of the engine and the gentle roar of the road. ‘I can hold your hand.’
There it is again—the blush—out in broad daylight this time. You can’t miss it. Even if some part of me wants to duck my head and pretend I didn’t see it, pretend I never said anything, shrink into the passenger seat.
‘I’d like that,’ says Moon. And I can’t help but smile too.
So we drive down the coast road, past cows and old water towers and cherry trucks, out from the shady veil of the clouds, towards the hazy blue horizon.
Alex Henderson is a PhD candidate at the University of Canberra, finalising a creative thesis about queer fiction and teenaged trickster gods. As well as teaching writing and literary studies, they also work as a freelance editor, reviewer, and essayist. You can find links to their writing (and ramblings about books) @TheAfictionado