A Short Story by Caitlin Prince
I was seventeen years old and in my charcoal stage. The side of my hand was smeared with it, leaving a dirty trail on the park table.
“You’re an artist,” he said, looking over my shoulder. He was dark, his Sri Lankan grandmother’s legacy; his hair hung long. I wanted to pull my arm over and hide the picture.
“You draw like you know it,” he said, about the winter wave I’d sketched, a surfer arcing down it. “Like you aren’t afraid.”
“Oh, I’m afraid.” I said, “That’s the fun part.” As I told him, I felt the thrill of taking off down a big wave, how it curled my toes with dread and joy.
It was easy from there. Bernard showed up at the beach most days. I waited for him, watched for him. We made out in the sand dunes and later, fucked, the sand rubbing my skin raw. It was winter still, the sand damp, the wind lifting salt into the air. As we tasted each other, we tasted the sea. He wasn’t my first lover, but he was the first that touched me to touch me, rather than to rapidly progress from arm to stomach, tits, cunt…
He was easy to fall for. A short, muscular body; an askew blend of boyish playfulness and manly protectiveness. He’d gallop about on all fours on the beach pretending to be a puppy, then launch into big surf with nothing but his board shorts. No board for him; he was practically naked to the elements. After a big session, he’d wrap me up warm in a towel in the passenger seat of his beat-up Corolla.
When we were apart, I craved him with a physical hunger that startled me. It happened so quickly. One minute he was a nobody on the beach, and then he was an extension of my body. We would sit together in the hammock on my parents’ porch, our limbs tangled, and watch storms blow in. Rain sprayed our faces and soaked the hammock; damp spread like cold dread around us.
“What do you want to be when you grow up, Maya?” Bernard asked me one day.
I shrugged and threaded my fingers through his. “I don’t know yet. Is that bad?”
“No, I don’t know yet either. I don’t really get this race to define ourselves."
“Yeah,” I said, and he pulled me tighter into him. Like conjoined twins.
“You’re what I always wanted,” our skin seemed to whisper to each other. Somehow being wanted by the other gave us permission to be on the Earth.
Something would throw Bernard off-kilter. He’d suddenly grow stonily silent. Then soon after he’d get up and go, leaving me swinging in the cold cling of the hammock alone. I’d scramble through the recent past, trying to work out what I had said or done. When had the knot of our intimacy slipped?
For days, he would be absent without explanation. I’d go alone to our spot over the cliffs where we watched the swell ride in blue and spew into foam on the rocks. I’d imagine how that wave would feel, colliding with my bones. Bernard’s departures left me raw and stinging, as though my skin was so used to his touch that now without him, I felt exposed.
One day when I was there alone, I leapt from the cliff. It was an insane thing to do. The surface of the water slammed hard into my chest, and the churning currents pulled me under. I had to fight to surface myself, had to really want it. I gulped air quickly just as the next wave rolled in and forced me to dive back down. Even deep beneath the surface, the swell buffeted me closer towards the rocks. It drove everything from my mind—Bernard, his absence, the hole inside me that he filled; that he abruptly left empty.
I swam around the point that day. Shed my clothes and set off in freestyle in my bra and undies. At least it was summer by then, and the water not as cold as it could have been. It took hours, and I had to pause on my back to rest. The sky was blue above, the sea blue all around; I was tiny and alone, out there in the blue.
When I pulled into the beach, my body was heavy and weary. I lay in the shallows, feeling the grit of the sand beneath my butt, resting a hand on my stomach, feeling the muscles quivering beneath me; my panting animal body. You did that, I told myself.
Then Bernard was back. Walking up the hill to my folks’ place, pulling out of his pocket some treasure he’d made me; an anklet of shell fragments with a silver mermaid charm. He hung his signature piece on me, traced my wrist and neck. I pressed myself against his chest, flooded with teary relief, grateful to have him again—this body, this skin.
We never spoke about where he went, just rode the wave of our reunion into each other.
I didn’t tell him of my swim. But the strength of it stayed firm beneath the soft folds of my belly.
When school finished, Bernard won a scholarship to a theatre program in the city. I was accepted into a Bachelor of Arts, but deferred to work and earn money for travel. I could have stayed living at home, but I followed Bernard to the city. We lived in a crummy two bedroom unit with two guys from Bernard’s program, one of whom slept on the couch. It was crowded and filthy and supposed to be temporary, but ten months later we were still living there.
Bernard usually came home from school wired, then dropped pretty quickly into a moody exhaustion. He holed up in our shared bedroom under headphones watching TV series on his laptop, and I felt awkward being ignored by him in that confined space. Instead, I hung out with the guys in the living room. On occasion, our laughter brought Bernard out scowling.
“I don’t know why you’re ignoring me,” he muttered to me in the kitchen.
“Ignoring you? You seemed like you wanted to be left alone.”
“I’m just tired. It’s exhausting you know, putting out all that energy on stage, day after day—tapping into that creative space.”
The last stung a bit because, on either side of the waitressing gig I’d picked up, I was getting up early and staying up late to draw and write. I tried to reassure myself that I was working to travel, that travel would make me a better artist in the long run. But it was difficult among the orders of garlic bread and caesar salad to feel like any kind of artist.
“That’s fine, Bernard, it’s why I let you rest,” I said.
He softened. “I still want to be around you,” he said. We went back to bed together and watched Game of Thrones. The violence and casual rape of women jarred my nervous system, but I buried my nose against his arm, let myself drink him in: the funk of our togetherness.
I’d stopped in a late night cafe after my shift to write, so it was almost one am by the time I got home. Bernard was curled in the corner on the floor. His eyes were pinned shut. Tears squeezed through dark lashes. He was shaking.
He shook his head and turned away, his body tensing, trying to hold in whatever was leaking out. He braced a hand against the wall. But there was nowhere to run to, only these walls closing in on us.
That night he told me of some fuzzy childhood memories. A neighbour, the grey rippled asbestos fencing, the stringy eucalyptus that passed its shadow across the grass. He didn’t name precisely what happened, and I didn’t ask him to, suspicious of what lurked in the silence. I tucked my fingers into his knee, realising at last what it was he running from when he ran away from me.
We stayed like that for an hour, locked in his anguish. Then he slowly began to uncurl again, leaning into me instead of the wall.
“I’ve never told anyone,” he said.
“Do your parents know?”
“I think they suspect, but we’ve never had a conversation about it.”
I traced my fingers lightly over his back like my mother used to soothe me. “You’re safe with me,” I said, even as I thought, Is he?
In the weeks that followed his revelation, Bernard was less moody. After school, we drove down to the beach and ate fish and chips. Or he’d meet me after my shift and join me in the late night cafe, sitting beside me as I wrote, flicking through his scripts. We’d catch each other's eye, and he’d smile, half-knowing, half-surprised. That’s how it felt together—we were surprised by the inevitability of us.
When we planned our trip to Asia, we told each other the dreams we held from before we met. I had always wanted to be alone somewhere foreign, to see who I was when everything familiar was stripped away. Bernard and his mates had dreamed of surfing every break in Indonesia. We planned our journeys, buying each other out-of-date Lonely Planet Guides from secondhand bookstores. I settled on Vietnam. Bernard would fly into Bali. After a month, we’d meet up in Thailand. But a month before we were due to leave, Bernard announced his surprise: he’d cancelled on the guys and booked a luxe beach resort in Vietnam for the two of us to enjoy together.
“That’s really sweet, Bernard,” I said, swallowing. I’d researched caves and village home-stays; had imagined my weeks alone. In my dreams, Vietnam echoed with solitary space, my own voice calling out and ringing back. “But I liked our original plan.” I crept my fingers onto his thigh, felt his muscles tense up. The tension shivered through me. “You get time with the guys, I have time to myself…”
Bernard pressed his lips together. “Why? Have you got someone else lined up? Some other guy to fuck?”
I stared at him in disbelief.
I backed down too easily, too quickly, in a way that left me deflated and frustrated, but Bernard’s rage frightened me.
Our room was the cheapest kind in the resort, stacked up against twenty identical others, all populated with couples. I watched them coming and going—girls in strappy dresses and guys in board-shorts and tank-tops. In the restaurant, I scanned for anyone breaching the ubiquitous couples romantic getaway and found only one woman sitting alone, probably ten years older than me. She lugged three or more books to the restaurant every meal, reading a page or two from each and staring off out to sea. I wondered if it was lonely, to be somewhere so romantic, with nothing but books to keep her company.
“Let’s get off this island,” I said to Bernard after we’d made love on the third day. Rolled on my side like this, one eye pressed against the pillow, Bernard had blurred white edges.
“Hm…?” He lay on his back, his hands resting satisfied on his belly.
“Let’s go find real Vietnam.” Though I didn’t know what that was or why I wanted it.
“I’ve already paid upfront, Maya.”
I rolled away from him and stared at the ceiling.
He must have changed his mind though. He came and found me on the beach later. “I’ve called the airline, changed our flights,” he said, perched sideways on my banana-lounge. “We’ll see out our booking here, and then we can fly up to Hanoi.”
It would have been cheaper to take the train. In my earlier research, I’d read about it and imagined myself reading, rocked by movement of the train. But I appreciated how Bernard had listened to me and that we were aligned together again.
Out on the horizon, the sky turned purple. The ocean picked up into chop.
“Looks like rain,” I said.
“That's unlikely this time of year.”
But as we watched, the storm moved in rapidly, the sea darkening along a line where raindrops fell. For one brief moment, my feet were in rain, while my shoulders stayed dry. Then a moment later, fat drops rolled down my face. My wet skin still tingled from the heat of the sun. Everything changed so quickly.
We broke up abruptly, in a chintzy forty-dollar Hanoi hotel. The room was small, sardined with a plush two-seater couch rammed against the bed, a heavy wardrobe crowding the other corner. It was too small for the two of us.
“It’s exhausting, Bernard, being with you.” I said. My fingers clawed at the hotel’s gold bedspread. “I can barely see who I am at the moment, always so flooded…” What was I even saying? It was hard to wrap words around the feeling inside of me: a swarming darkness, a groundlessness.
Bernard shrugged, glooming at the floor. “What did you expect, Maya? Love is intense and hard. Don’t you want something real?”
Maybe not, if this was real. I sat at the end of the bed, staring silently but the silence shook Bernard up. Out loomed that other side of him, the side I hated, that frightened me. I hid in the bathroom while he thumped on the door.
“I love you, Maya, you’ll never find this with anyone else.” I drew my knees to my chest and bit my thumbnail.
“It isn’t true.” I whispered, but I didn’t believe it, and Bernard kept thumping, and only fear stopped me from opening the door, pulling the crying boy into my arms, my breasts, my cunt.
I never told anybody it happened like this. How he eventually screamed at the shut door, “This is over, Maya! Over!” and stormed out of the hotel room.
He hadn’t meant it though, and over the following weeks and months pestered me with emails. But I’d already gone by then. The moment Bernard walked out, I packed my bag and set off through Hanoi's streets, pressing through the wall of people. I took a bed in a dingy hostel, twelve dollars for my own room. It was everything the other one wasn’t: high ceilings, plain white walls, a single bed marooned in the centre of the floor. I lay awake that night, alone in a foreign country, in shock at the bare bones of it all.