She was back.
She paused at the door to her form room, blue and white checked skirt neat just above her knees (not yet rolled up). Crisp white polo, bag over one shoulder, all with her latest accesories: sweaty hands, dry mouth, heart beating up in her throat. She is 14.
Pause. Open. Smile. (Uncertainly).
The first person she sees is her ex best friend. Years of dance, sleepovers, petulant fights and secrets is discarded in her quick up-down, a glimpse of surprise quickly masked by “Oh, look, Grace is in our form room”. She says this with overly sarcastic joy, and no eye contact, loudly enough so everyone turns and stares at her.
She had to ‘re-adjust’. Every adult said this to her. She had to find her feet again (where did she leave them?). She had to settle back in (as if she had been settled before). These contradictions stayed unspoken, mostly, and she nodded, smiled and hid into herself, wishing.
Grace’s wish list: I want to go back to England to live, for good this time, not just a year. I want to be ‘the kiwi’, the foreigner in a friendly country, and stand out in a good way, as the shiny interesting person, not as the weirdo who left for a year and was now back, with a slightly different accent and stories that no one cared about. I want to be with my old friends, my wacky, loud friends with their total disregard for personal space. I want to talk about snogging, and Muse, and wear flares, and fantasise about Josh Hartnett.
These wishes started to pile up, and she was surprised at the weight of them. She fed and added to them by writing long letters to these friends, in different coloured markers, folded into intricate squares that only they knew how to open. In moments of solitude (and she found there were quite a lot, now) she would paw through the mementos her friends gave her, the ankle bracelets, the goth necklace with huge spikes, the tie-dye tshirt and rings and earrings, enjoying the feel of the different textures on her fingers as she gently remembered.
Slowly at first and then with a rush, this wishing and remembering starting hurting. It was an ache, right beneath where her ribs joined, and it was too much, it hurt too much and she would cry, in her single bed each night, arms wrapped around her middle and hunched right over, hurting and rocking and aching and crying. And wishing.
Grace’s wish list: I want to stop feeling. I want to stop experiencing my life. I want it all to go away.
These new wishes overtook the old ones. They filled her mind, every lonely, plodding day through school, through the dusty bus ride home where she would shrink and hope not to be picked on, through the cycle back to her house along the flat, gravel road, through the absent conversations and zombie chores and half hearted homework attempts. They would fill her mind until she’d be alone in her single bed again.
One night she found herself digging her nails into the skin on the inside of her wrist, tears wet on her cheeks, and unable to look away or stop herself as she slowly dragged one nail down towards her elbow. Only a centimetre or so. But it was enough for the skin to scrape back, the pricks of red blood to turn into drops and the pain the radiate up her arm, through her chest and down into that hole of hurt.
And she felt so calm.
This continued, not every night, but most. Her days would be exercises in invisibility and survival until she could retreat to her cocoon and hurt herself. After a while her fingernails weren’t enough and she searched around for something sharper, fingers landing on the goth necklace her English school-girl crush had given her, black and silver beads interspersed with centimetre long silver spikes. That night she pushed the tip of the spike into her skin, wiggling it around until the pain became too much and she sank into a dreamless, numb, sleep.
Tess saved her life. (She said this to her, once, sharing her double bed and whispering to each other: “You saved my life”. She laughed it off like she always did, but under the sheets, reached down and gave her hand a light, brief squeeze).
Their parents would say that they met through mutual friends, but they both knew this was wrong because Grace didn’t have any friends until Tess. They met one lunchtime, two thirds of the way through the school year.
It was a fluke, really. She had been drifting around the school at lunchtime, hoping that people thought she looked like she had friends and a purpose, but she was busy doing things and choosing to be on her own. (In reality, actually, no one noticed her). She drifted past a group of girls who she had been friends with in primary school. These were Nice Girls. Bitchy, but not bitchy enough to be popular. Intelligent, but not enough to be nerdy. Sporty, but not enough to be jocks. They were just nice.
On this day, perhaps they were bored or something, but they said “Hi” as she walked past their seat, and from a flow on from their conversation, asked her if she could remember who pashed who at the year eight camp. She could, actually: “Sarah Lewis pashed Joel underneath the duvet, and Steven Best got with Lucy O’Brien in front of everyone.” (Where did this come from? In the midst of her numbing, why could she remember this?) It was enough, and the Nice Girls all started talking at once, and then waving her over, and then she was sitting with them, on their long wooden bench, against a concrete wall in the weak spring sun, in their spot.
Then, Tess joined them.
Grace had seen her around school before. She was tall, with short blond hair and unlike Grace’s contrived busy-ness, Tess’ was real. She, literally, dashed.
She strode up to them, smooth muscular thighs making her skirt flip and swing, sleeves rolled up her forearms, hair wild and dripping with chlorine from swim club, determined. Hungry. Tess sat right beside her, and pulled out a packet of sandwiches bigger than her head.
They sat there, side by side, elbows bumping and thighs touching on the narrow bench, staring ahead, the conversation bubbling around them.
“You’re Grace, right?” Tess was looking right at her now, sandwich bag empty in her lap, green eyes very close to hers, no hint of shifting back.
“Cool, I heard you lived in England for a year.”
“I’ve been to the States before. We went to Disneyland. My uncle works at Stanford University and I’m planning on going there. I want to get into their swim squad.” She shares this without looking away, with an intensity that is softened by her birdnest hair, and light smile.
It works. She’s drawn. When the bell goes, Tess says: “I’m going to the movies this weekend. You should come with me. On Saturday. What’s your number? I’ll call you.”
They shop together for togs. Grace has only ever had sensible one-pieces, navy blue or black, with racing stripes and inoffensive logos on the hip. Togs designed for swim classes and child-like recreation. Tess has a tankini (a new word in Grace’s vocabulary). It’s cute and floral and blue, with shorts that ride up the half moon curve of her ass cheeks, and the singlet top that hugs her (flat) chest and finishes just above her belly button. Grace thinks Tess looks hot (another vocabulary addition). Grace wants one just like it.
She tries it on in the change room. Tess comes in with her, with an “Oh!” from the flustered woman helping them. (In Grace’s head, she’s saying “Oh!” too, but doesn’t protest. She likes how Tess invites herself into her space). She feigns nonchalance with a lack of eye contact and chatter as she strips, wigging the shorts up her legs and the singlet down over her chest. Unlike Tess, she has breasts already, high, soft b cups, unexplored by anyone apart from herself. She looks in the mirror and hears Tess laugh, softly, admiringly. She can’t quite understand her reflection. It looks like her, but not how she sees herself. Her reflection has a slim, curved waist, rounded hips, delicate ankles, slight cleavage and a lickable belly button. Her reflection is hot.
(When did her body suddenly change from child to…this?)
The only class they have together is PE. The rough boys and girls are in this class. Grace shrinks around them, wishing invisibility again. They’re loud, obnoxious and far more competent with their bodies than she will ever be: kicking, running, shooting, jumping, passing, scoring, winning. She stays out of their way, hopes no-one will pass to her and fakes her period. Tess is as good as any of these kids, better even, she’s built for netball, tall and fast and strong, with wide flat ball-catching hands. But she stays by Grace’s side, masking her incompetence from the others, protecting her.
Their favourite class is swim class. In the water, Grace is an athlete, performer, dolphin, ballet dancer, champion. She grew up with the sound of surf in her bedroom, swimming in salt and pool water. Her classmates are made of fields and meat and fertiliser, and she can hold her breath longer than all of them. When their teacher organises their once-a-term underwater hockey game, Grace is the champion. She races from one end of the pool to the other, holding her breath and pushing the puck out in front of her along the pool tiles. The opposing team tries to block her, but one by one their dusty lungs fail and they float up to the surface. She accelerates on her flippered legs and…
Tess is the second best in the class, and together they race.
Afterwards, in the change rooms, they strip out of their matching tankinis, and chat and leisurely dry themselves, carefully acting unconcerned about their public nudity. Grace would never have done this six months ago, but she wants to show Tess how fearless she is, and so she does, while the other girls fumble under awkward towels and twisted knickers.
Tess has two siblings, both younger. Her parents are separated. Her dad lives with Beth, grows marijuana in the garage of their rented house, and has Tess one weekend a month. She lives with her mum the rest of the time, in their chaotic house with their sick, geriatric dogs and Tony, her mum’s drunken, more-often-than-not partner. Tess is more independent than Grace. She has to be. She cooks, makes lunches, practises for her driving test, cleans, looks after the rotting dogs, and works an after school job. She takes initiative.
She has the best laugh Grace has ever known. It’s gurgly.