THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN Ingrid Murphy and Katie Brute-Jones were easily measured: five inches, thirty-three pounds and 7,700 miles. Where Ingrid was too tall, too thin and standing on the other side of an open doorway from Stella Parker at this very moment, Katie was the perfect height, the perfect size and tragically on the other side of the world.
‘You must be Stella.’ Ingrid smiled. ‘Welcome to Vancouver.’
Taking a deep breath, Stella extended a hand.
Was there even a speck of Katie-ness about her, a single Katie-like harbour in the ocean of Ingrid where Stella could rest awhile in calm? She studied her new housemate in frantic hope. But where Katie’s hair was thick and dark, Ingrid’s was wispy and yellow – fractured strands of it stuck to her lips and nose. And where Katie’s complexion emitted a healthy glow, rings beneath Ingrid’s eyes glowed purple. On parts of her arms the skin was transparent, the veins running like cracks across an ice floe. She looks sick, thought Stella. Was this what all those long-distance phone calls with campus accommodation had earnt her? A semester in an infirmary?
Ingrid clasped her hand limply. Stella found a neutral patch of elbow to smile at before dropping her gaze to the soaked backpack at her feet.
‘Let me help you with that,’ Ingrid murmured.
‘I’ve got it.’ Stella grabbed the soggy handle, working hard to recover the fragile optimism that had helped her through the past forty-eight hours: the cramped flight in economy from Sydney, the disorienting stopover at Narita, the bumpy trip across the Pacific to Canada’s west coast, and the taxi ride from the airport through steady rain to Point Grey. She had endured it all with a shaky smile because it was supposed to be an adventure. She was eighteen and moving to a foreign city. Her whole life was ahead of her! In Vancouver the vast and dizzying world would finally open before her – like a sliding door, like a flower.
As Stella followed Ingrid inside, a gust of wind pummelled the Klimt poster boards against the hallway wall and the door slammed shut.
‘This is it.’ Ingrid flapped her arm, a netted fish in its final death throe, towards the interior.
Stella peered around. On the university website, the townhouse had looked so modern and roomy. In real life it resembled a kit home assembled at a factory and delivered in two halves on the back of a truck. Obediently she followed Ingrid from one small, bland room to the next. The walls were thin, the ceilings low. The bathroom had no bath.
Perhaps it would look better tomorrow, she hoped, when it was lighter, when it stopped raining.
At the Narita airport hotel the previous night she had watched a Japanese quiz show on television. Contestants answered questions while the room they were in slowly filled with water.
Stella looked out of the foggy glass and felt the same dread of imminent drowning. The rain fell on the lawns and footpaths, making puddles of potholes, creeks in the gutters, causing the huge pines that lined the university’s main road to sag like hung clothes.
It was hard to believe that twelve months ago almost to the day she and Katie had spent the afternoon on deckchairs beside a sea pool in Sydney with a white sun bearing down. She remembered how terrific Katie had looked in her two-piece swimsuit; how when she had told her this, Katie had shifted closer so that their thighs touched all along the sides; how the heat of Katie’s skin had travelled up and down Stella’s spinal cord in short, sharp bursts.
What the hell was she doing in Vancouver?
‘SO, WHAT ARE you doing in Vancouver?’ Ingrid asked later that night as they prepared food side by side in the kitchen: Stella, a bowl of pasta; Ingrid, a piece of toasted bread with melted cheese the colour of Fanta.
‘Environmental science,’ Stella answered, gazing out the small, aluminium framed window to the sodden brick courtyard, just visible in the gloom of dusk.
‘But why in BC?’
Why indeed. It had begun with the university brochure her mother, a high school teacher, had brought home months ago – one of her students was interested in applying to study at the University of British Columbia. The glossy photo on its cover showed a large tree-ringed campus surrounded by water, and in the background, infinite mountains.
Stella had cut out the photo and stuck it on the front of her planner so she could study it daily. Canada seemed so vast, so beautiful, so refreshingly unpeopled. The thought had preoccupied Stella throughout the difficult weeks that followed.
Stella did not tell Ingrid any of this. Instead she hacked an onion into ragged pellets with a blunt knife and pitched them into a pan. ‘I decided on BC because seven thousand miles is the recommended distance.’
‘The recommended distance?’
‘To keep between you and your relatives.’
Ingrid, missing the joke, was clearly awed by this piece of information. ‘Who told you that?’
‘I read it in the American Behavioural Scientist.’
This was a lie – she hadn’t read it anywhere – but the idea was inspired by something she had seen in the in-flight magazine on the way over: an article about the health benefits of occasionally spending time away from ‘loved ones’. Of course it made sense an airline would pay a journalist to write that if it promoted long-haul flights. Stella liked the article’s undercurrent though; it strayed from the sickening human togetherness usually peddled by advertorials and tapped instead into Stella’s preferred theory: the primary benefit of international travel was it enabled you to get away from your meddling family.
If not Canada then Russia, Nigeria or Iceland. The simple fact was that Katie Brute-Jones was lost to her, would be lost to her even if she stayed in Sydney, and it was entirely her parents’ fault.
TO THINK THAT twelve months ago it had only just begun. They were barely acquainted classmates in their final year of high school: Stella, a vaguely sporty, credit-average nobody; Katie, one of the smooth-skinned, lip-glossed girls who spent their lunchtimes beneath the art-room awning chatting idly about the hotness of their boyfriends. Then in November Stella was promoted to school-wide hero after unexpectedly taking out the 800-metre track ribbon at the annual IGSSA athletics carnival.
Had they even spoken before this momentous event? Stella could only remember two occasions. The first was in Year 9 when they’d been paired in science and Stella accidentally spilled a sulphurous liquid on Katie’s tartan pencil case. (‘Sorry,’ said Stella. ‘Clumsy idiot,’ said Katie.) The second was backstage during the Year 11 musical tryouts after Stella and her friend May Lin performed the Beatles’ ‘Blackbird’ a cappella. (‘Listening to you two moan out that dreary song made me want to kill myself,’ Katie had remarked.)
But after Stella’s athletics triumph, Katie Brute-Jones was suddenly all air kisses and smiles. She took to slipping her arm through Stella’s in the corridors and keenly patting the patch of grass beside her at lunchtime whenever Stella was in her line of sight.
At first Stella resisted; when Katie called out to her across the playground in a high, sweet voice, she pretended not to hear. When she left friendly notes in her locker, Stella lobbed them into the nearest bin. But Katie was unfazed by Stella’s coolness. If anything, it seemed to provoke further kindnesses. Like waves buffeting a sandbar her overtures were methodical and ceaseless: an invitation to a post-exams party, a compliment when Stella was in earshot, a wink in the corridor. In geography, their only shared period, she even nominated Stella for a class award.
Little by little, her charm began to soften Stella’s defences. Stella found herself looking for reasons to forgive Katie’s former horridness (insecurity, onset of puberty, trouble at home). Now when Katie patted the chair next to her in class, Stella no longer ignored her, choosing to politely decline with a shake of her head instead. When Katie smiled at her in the corridor, rather than grimacing she kept her expression neutral.
By the time of the Year 12 Harbour Cruise, Stella had stopped being wary of Katie’s attentions. In fact, she had secretly begun to enjoy them. So much so that when, halfway through the evening, Katie swept in from nowhere and grabbed her by the elbow, she abandoned her invited guest (the son of a distant friend of her aunt’s) to spend an hour with Katie on the dance floor bopping to ’80s disco hits. It was there – both of them giddy from Stella’s first true acquiescence amid a boatful of teens stupid on smuggled-in vodka – that they engaged in a very public party pash initiated by a dare. Justin Lynch was probably the instigator, although it could have been any of the St Benedict’s boys braying for girl-on-girl action. As lewd chanting pounded the air around them, Katie stepped towards her, grin broad. Stella, laughing giddily, closed her eyes. Their lips met and everything turned soft-edged.
Katie’s tongue found Stella’s. Blood pounded her ears. She opened her mouth wider and felt Katie press in. Had anyone ever kissed with such urgency? When they finally separated she was gasping for breath.
Over the next three weeks things quickly escalated. Behind the toilet block during half-time at Saturday netball, Stella got to know the gaps in Katie’s mouth that had been recently deprived of wisdom teeth. Pressed against Katie in her mother’s laundry cupboard the following Wednesday, she learnt the shape of Katie’s breasts and how to stifle Katie’s groans of pleasure with a rolled-up tea towel. This was all a revelation after her few lukewarm encounters with boys. But it was two Sundays later, with the cool tiles of Head Prefect Georgina Moretti’s parents’ en suite at her back and the sound of classmates in the adjacent room harmonising around a chocolate Bavarian to ‘Happy Birthday’ in her ears, when Katie reached beneath Stella’s party dress and slipped two taut fingers into her Bonds Boylegs, that her life was changed forever.
Looking back, by far the biggest mistake Stella made was making her feelings for Katie known during a family dinner. She decided to mention it in an unguarded moment of joy between main and dessert. Her father responded by coughing loudly into a napkin; her mother carefully lowered her wine glass. In the ensuing aftermath of long talks between both sets of parents around the Parker’s mahogany kitchen table, and a number of hurriedly put together sessions with the school chaplain (‘This is a typical phase’; ‘These thoughts will wear off in time’; ‘Girls without brothers who attend ladies’ colleges are highly susceptible’; etc) Katie decided, despite previous assertions to the contrary, that she was not a lesbian after all. In fact, she told Stella in a phone call from the Brute-Jones’s vineyard west of Orange where her parents had taken her because it was inaccessible by public transport (Stella couldn’t drive), she had never been one. She was just bored between boyfriends. When Stella kissed her on the dance floor that night, Katie explained in a monotone (although it was Katie who had kissed her, Stella distinctly remembered, Katie who had finally stepped back wide-eyed and whispered the astonished words ‘Shit a brick!’ before lunging at her again), she thought she might as well find out what it was like. Now she had found out, she said, her voice a series of flat notes, and had decided it was ‘not for her’.
Who was this stranger she was speaking to? Stella wondered, holding the phone away from her ear in dismay. Where was the breathy voice full of lust and innuendo? None of what Katie said made any sense. It would have been easier if she had dusted off some of her old hostility for the occasion: a few cutting words to remind Stella of the cow she had once been. But on the line she sounded more like a recorded message than a person; like the lifeless voice on the train that announced the stations.
Next stop Heartache, thought Stella, her stomach hollowing out as the line went dead, followed by Despair, Loneliness, then all stations to Oblivion.
When Katie ended the call, she threw down the phone and bawled into her pillow.
Later, on her way to the bathroom to wash her face, she passed her mother seated at the dining table. Her mother looked up from her marking and, eyeing Stella’s tears, levelled her gaze at her.
‘Believe me, you’ll look back on this whole episode one day and cringe.’ Her tone was crisp. ‘What you need is something else to think about. We’ll find you a hobby, shall we?’ She picked up her pen again.
Stella gritted her teeth. What she needed was to get away. To escape the sinkhole of disapproval and despair that threatened to engulf her. To cover ground with her feet alone, just as she had done on the 800-metre track at IGSSA. She wanted to run across an open field, fresh air in her lungs, beneath sky. And so the idea of Canada took shape.
HI. ME AGAIN. This is my last message. Promise. Just wanted you to know I’m living in Vancouver now (!). Freezing weather, constant rain, but at least the scenery’s nice. On the plus side, you don’t have to worry anymore about running into me – win-win, right? Anyway, hope you’re doing well. I mean it. No need to message back unless you want to. X
On a Thursday evening, three weeks after her arrival in Vancouver, Stella stood in front of the mirror in the cramped bathroom of her shared townhouse, wiping away shower mist with her palm. She made a small window in the condensation, plucked a few of her flatmate’s blonde hairs off the glass, took a cylinder of lipstick from a nearby shelf and, leaning forward with her hips against the rim of the basin, applied the Fireball Red to her lips. Lipstick was not usually her thing, but it was not a usual evening. Stella was taking herself to a lesbian bar.
Doing this back in Sydney in the weeks after her break-up with Katie had been inconceivable. She didn’t want to meet anyone else, not yet. Besides, the streets were too familiar: stepping through a tinted-glass door beside an old community hall where you’d once rehearsed as part of a youth orchestra made the whole venture seem more sordid than it was. Vancouver was devoid of these hazards. The city was her clean slate, as unsullied as the fresh layers of snow she had expected to find on its streets.
It was a pity no one had mentioned the rain. In the rock-paper-scissors of the natural world, rain outplayed snow every time in this city, changing white crispness to colourless puddles and replacing restful silence with the noisy gush of running water. The only thing more unnerving than the constant precipitation was that Vancouverites hardly seemed to notice it. Instead they boasted about how mild the weather was in comparison to other parts of the country – places like Ontario or Manitoba where their friends and relatives lived in sub-zero temperatures like fools. Their failure to acknowledge the eternal damp, their cheeriness about wearing waterproof boots seven days a week, their blindness to the fashion pitfalls of Gore-Tex – all this struck Stella as a kind of weather-related Stockholm syndrome.
Patting her lips with a tissue, she wiped a stray speck of red from her left incisor and considered her reflection. In the weeks since she had arrived her summer tan had faded. She had put on weight. Her shoulder-length caramel hair had darkened to run-of-the-mill brown. Her eyes, once bright green, were now verging towards hazel. With any luck the lipstick would distract from the rest of her.
On her way out the door, Stella stopped by the kitchen to say goodbye to Ingrid, who was at the sink scrubbing a tomato with a glittery pink toothbrush. The colander rattled against aluminium. Tap water hissed. Ingrid’s sister, Dee, was stationed at the kitchen bench beside her. ‘I worry about the way you eat,’ she was saying as Stella entered.
Stella had met Dee a couple of times already. Ten years older than Ingrid, she had a mean face framed by auburn hair that curled prettily at her earlobes. She leaned towards her little sister with folded arms. ‘You’re underweight, Ing. You’re fading! There are fad diets I’ve heard about that are dangerous.’
‘I’m not on a diet,’ Ingrid squeaked.
Irritation tightened Stella’s jaw. The sound of Ingrid’s voice was like an old doorbell whose high-pitched notes carry the distinct possibility of imminent malfunction.
‘What do you think, Stella?’ Dee Murphy swivelled around. ‘This dirt obsession of Ingrid’s – it’s not normal, right?’
Of course it wasn’t normal, but Stella didn’t want to side with Dee. The way she was constantly picking on Ingrid made her uncomfortable. Every time she visited, Dee took the opportunity to cross-examine her sister on some aspect of her life. Stella had not been surprised to learn that Dee was a high-profile barrister. A specialist in condominium law, her legal battles against developers responsible for structural frame rot and water pooling on balcony surfaces regularly made the front pages of The Globe and Mail.
‘I can’t think of a single other person who uses a toothbrush on food, can you?’ said Dee. Ingrid glanced up from the tomato, tucked a strand of tangled hair behind her ear and snuck a look at Stella.
Stella looked from one Murphy to the other. Dee gave her a bullish stare, while Ingrid looked away hastily. ‘They do put a lot of bug spray on vegetables,’ Stella said.
‘Nonsense,’ Dee scoffed.
‘It’s true. We’re learning about it in one of the tutorials I’m doing. Have you heard of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson? It’s all about the harmful effects of pesticides. How humans keep trying to control nature and shouldn’t. It’s a seminal text.’
‘And I’ve read some articles,’ Ingrid stuttered, bolstered by Stella’s support, ‘about oil-based molecules in–’
‘Oil-based molecules?’ said Dee, screwing up her nose. ‘It’s one tomato, for God’s sake.’
‘I think it’s perfectly sensible to wash your food, from the point of view of hygiene,’ said Stella.
Dee huffed loudly, and Ingrid shot Stella a grateful look. Stella grabbed her keys from the hallstand.
IT WAS A fifty-minute bus trip downtown. The walk from the bus to the Indigo another ten. Stella joined the queue outside, sheltering beneath her umbrella. She eyed the other women waiting with her. Their proximity and number charged her limbs with a kind of broadcast static. Blood drummed in her ears. Then apprehension gripped her. What was she doing? If only Katie were here. Slipping into reverie, Stella imagined Katie’s arm threaded through hers, imagined her quips about their fellow queue members – their haircuts, jackets and shoes. She rubbed her freezing arms. If Katie were here they could keep each other warm.
Of course, if Katie were here in Vancouver, Stella wouldn’t be in this queue outside the Indigo at all. The thought landed heavily. If the queue ever moved, would she even manage to drag her feet forward?
The queue moved. She took a step. Over the course of half an hour she took a dozen more. She reached the front, paid the cover charge and parted, like a moth that with grappling legs parts the silken threads of its cocoon, the cool-room style flaps that hung across the entrance.
On the other side two women were checking IDs. Stella handed over her licence, cursing silently.
The woman she’d given it to met her eye and shook her head.
‘It’s an Australian licence. But it’s still my photograph.’
‘It’s your birth date that’s the problem.’
‘What’s wrong with it?’ Stella asked, attempting a look of innocence.
‘Mainly the year,’ said the woman, stone-faced.
Which was why Stella was back outside the bar less than a minute later, cursing Canada’s higher legal drinking age and the stringency with which it was monitored, breathing angrily in moist white swirls against a wall.
Now that she had been shut out, everything in the street took on an ominous glow: the shimmering wet bitumen; the convenience-store workers huddled outside a brightly lit window; the empty cardboard box that a stiff breeze was propelling across concrete. Higher in the air, things were whirling: plastic bags, ticker tape, white specks that might be snow. Stella shivered. The depth of the Canadian cold, its capacity for penetration, was a novel threat to her.
It was back to the apartment then. To the Ingrid and Dee show. Stella zipped up her jacket.
As she walked towards the road, street lamps pitched their dim beam against the gloom of brick buildings, made the world seem smaller. She fingered the coins in her pocket: found tiny dimes, searched deeper for the larger, more valuable toonies and loonies, hoping she had enough cash for the bus.
A figure was slouched nearby in the shadows. Stella turned. The figure unfolded itself and began to walk towards her. At each step the sound of metal clicked against the footpath. Something creaked. The figure entered the street lamp’s diameter of light and Stella saw it was a woman who, when within a foot of Stella, stopped and rocked back and forth on her heels.
Stella nodded, taking in the sight of her. She wore heavy black eye make-up and was clad mainly in leather. Her pants were leather, as were her boots. Her wristbands were leather. She had a steel bar threaded through her right eyebrow like a medical stitch. She had very pale skin. Her hair, by contrast, was bleached a fierce tomato red. She was like someone from a futuristic thriller.
Stella heard her mother’s crisp voice. You can’t be serious. The way they dress. I mean it’s all so ridiculous.
She let the voice drift and break into pieces in the mist.
The woman dipped a hand into a pocket and pulled from it a tobacco pouch and some cigarette papers. Opening the pouch, she carefully lined up a thread of loose tobacco on the paper. ‘Been inside yet?’
‘Just, um, came out, actually.’
‘Really? I didn’t see you in there. Are you here by yourself?’
‘You like that type of music, huh?’
‘Sure,’ Stella improvised.
She heard the click of the lighter, watched the flame expand. She listened to the syrupy tick of the smoke being sucked in. The woman handed her the cigarette and rolled and lit another one for herself, blowing smoke out of her pale pink lips.
Stella swallowed thickly.
‘I’m actually a musician myself,’ the woman said.
‘Really?’ Stella held her cigarette carefully so it wouldn’t singe her glove, which there was no way she was taking off.
‘Not this kind of music though. It’s not my thing at all,’ said the woman. ‘I play metal. Industrial, mostly. Sometimes thrash. I do gigs here and there. With my band.’ She waved her arms around vaguely. ‘You should come and see us play some time.’
‘What, ah, instrument do you play?’ asked Stella, not entirely sure whether, with the kind of music the woman was talking about, there were actual instruments involved.
‘Oh, you know.’ The woman’s eyes flitted to the wall that Stella was leaning against. ‘Whatever they need me to. Depends which band members can’t make it to the gig that week. Usually it’s drums. Sometimes I sing.’ She took another drag from the cigarette and tapped it with a bent finger. Ash hit the footpath in a spray of light. ‘I’m the reserve backup vocalist. If the song requires backup, that is. Not all of them do.’ She paused. ‘My name’s Maxime, anyway,’ she said, running her eyes slowly, deliberately, up and down the length of Stella.
Stella blushed. ‘Mine’s Stella.’
‘See you later I hope, Stella.’ Maxime stubbed out her cigarette on the wall and began to amble down the lane, away from the club. Stella stubbed out hers, too, rubbed her freezing arms and watched Maxime go. A cigarette with a stranger: it was something.
Up ahead in the laneway Maxime suddenly stopped. She turned around and stood facing Stella without moving.
Tentatively, Stella waved. Maxime did not wave back. She was a statue. Except then she shifted her head to the side and jerked it back.
Thoughts of Katie swam again at Stella: Katie in her two-piece swimsuit; Katie pressed against her in her mother’s laundry cupboard; Katie straddling her on her bed, her skirt pulled to her waist. What was this stranger with a leather fetish compared to all of that?
But Katie was lost to her. And this was another world. Stella thought of Maxime’s lips blowing smoke. She breathed in deeply, and pushed herself off the wall.
The wind had stilled. It was no longer raining. Stella walked down the shimmering laneway. She had almost reached her when Maxime swivelled into motion.
Stella fell in beside her. Neither of them said a word. They passed a narrow park between two tall apartment blocks where skateboarders were kicking bottles to each other in branded sneakers. They passed a restaurant whose clientele was spilling out onto the grass, cheese and garlic scented. Stella felt calm, calmer than she thought she would. Everything was strange and she felt coddled by strangeness. Immune.
For long minutes they walked, Stella alert to Maxime’s shoe taps echoing against concrete and the creak of her leather jacket, until Maxime stopped walking and turned to her. Above them the sky had cleared. Stars leaked out from the darkness, small pins of silver. A breeze began to blow as Maxime edged her into a grocery shop wall.
As her spine hit cool brick Stella exhaled sharply, her breath suddenly a fog, a clammy mist of yearning. The metal grocer’s sign behind her head dipped in and out with a low clang. She tasted the chemical tang of Maxime’s hair bleach. Maxime slipped warm hands beneath her shirt.
A few streets away a voice yelled out, clear and sharp, before curdling.
Maxime placed her pale, moist mouth on Stella’s ear and bit down.
STELLA FOLLOWED THE crash of Maxime’s boots up four flights of narrow metal stairs. Her teeth were chattering. Her frozen gloved hand was enveloped in the warm, gloveless hand of Maxime. Maxime let it go for a moment to find her key for the enormous padlock that hung from the door bolt. She unthreaded the lock and grabbed Stella’s hand again.
‘This is it,’ she announced as she tugged her inside with a jolt that Stella felt at her shoulder socket.
The first thing that struck Stella about the high-ceilinged, large-windowed warehouse apartment was how cold it was. The second thing that struck her was that it was amazing. Cinder-block walls, steel-beamed ceilings and exposed piping provided the context for everything else: a broad factory-style table to the right of the door that bore the tooth marks of print machinery; six stripped-back elementary-school chairs tucked under it, and countless other hand-picked knick-knacks, including a medical mannequin, an ancient railway lamp, a light box.
Maxime took off her boots and placed them neatly, one after the other, in the metal confines of what Stella recognised as an old shoe measure. She took off her studded belt and threaded it through the spokes of a bicycle wheel bolted to the wall.
‘You rent this place?’
‘No, baby, I own it.’ Maxime unbuttoned her jacket and tossed it onto a four-tiered trolley that looked like it had spent its prime years in a hospital corridor. ‘My parents bought it for me. They’re loaded,’ she added casually.
‘Are they?’ Stella said just as casually.
‘But I picked out the furniture.’ She strode over to the stove. Stella watched her light the ring of gas around each hot plate. ‘Heating’s busted but that should warm things up.’ She strode back. ‘Now, where were we?’
The stainless-steel-framed mattress was surprisingly soft; when Maxime lowered her onto it, Stella sunk into its depths. Four storeys below, traffic stirred and shifted.
‘Your perfume’s killing me.’ Maxime ran her hands hard along Stella’s sides. ‘You smell so goddamn sweet.’ She buried her face in her neck.
Stella gave a low groan, something between desire and surprise. Take away the inexperience of two teenagers fumbling in a laundry cupboard. Take away the sense that someone, any minute, will walk in and disapprove. If you savoured the moment, if you slowed things down, you could reach a place properly.
It was two days before they left the apartment. After sex, they passed out on tangled sheets. After sleep, they ate bowls of Raisin Bran, which was all Maxime had in her cupboards. Because there was no heating, instead of showering they boiled water on the stove and used soap-on-a-rope and a handtowel. As Maxime steered the dripping cloth around Stella’s back, she shared with her countless erotic theories: divined from books, the internet and porn. She had, she said, a five-point plan that produced premium orgasms, a playlist of music she had certified (through what Stella could only presume was some kind of survey) made 95 per cent of people horny. On the second afternoon as the rain pipped against the windows and the cars gushed below, she performed for Stella a strip tease to the hand-picked album – arms curling above her head like charmed snakes, hips writhing, as studs popped and zips descended.
At first Stella found this performance acutely embarrassing. Her eyes flitted to the heavy door, the only available exit. But at some point she became riveted; it took control of her, leaving her weak-kneed, jelly-bodied and grappling at Maxime’s shins in an effort to pull her down, down onto the floor between bed and ex-hospital trolley, to have the pulse, the blinding white, the breath upon her, to surrender once more to the wide-mouthed wet of her kiss.
HEY THERE, JUST touching base. I didn’t hear back after my last message, which is fine. I’m still in Vancouver. Going pretty well. Would be cool to hear from you, almost as cool as the weather is here (ha ha). Anyway, I hope things are good in your world. X
It was not how Stella had planned to spend her time in Vancouver: going to university by day and spending most evenings and weekends with a woman who knew the words to a song called ‘Pleasure to Kill’ by heart. This was not the nature-filled Canada of the brochure. That particular Canada, Stella discovered, was more present in her environmental science textbooks than her daily life. When her class finished reading Silent Spring they began on one of Rachel Carson’s earlier texts, The Edge of the Sea, about the shoreline and its animals. Carson was American, not Canadian, but she often wrote about Canada’s coast. Inspired by the subject matter, Stella decided to re-establish the high school exercise routine – a daily forty-minute run before dawn – that had helped her achieve her athletics carnival triumph. She chose a route through the nearby forest to the beach.
During her morning runs in Sydney’s east she had jogged down the middle of empty streets and across beachside parks. As she jogged, the sun would rise and the corellas would wake, filling the air with noise. Those first moments of chatter, of golden light, were when she felt most connected to the world. A part of nature was how she had described it to herself, but she was wary of the phrase now. Unnatural was a word she heard in her mother’s crisp voice.
In summer in Vancouver, Point Grey’s Wreck Beach was popular with nudists, but Stella found that on those wet and freezing winter mornings she usually had the beach to herself. Jogging along the sand as a muted dawn broke she watched the double-crested cormorants pecking at barnacles. She collected shells and, as Carson instructed, thought about the lives of the creatures that had once lived inside: the storms they had survived and the ways they had found nourishment. There were lessons for her here. She peered out at the hazy line where the Strait of Georgia met sky. How long would it take to swim from here to Coogee? Invariably the thought was followed by thoughts of her parents, who she had texted a few times since arriving but not called. She thought about Katie, remembering the day they had sat on the beach until dusk, backs against the breakwall, eating gelato and watching surfers tumble off their boards. How Katie had drawn Stella’s hand across to rest upon her knee. The comfortable silence that had settled between them in the failing light. She wondered what Katie was doing now. She wondered when she would stop wondering. She gazed out at the strait, watched the tide in its endless rhythm, shaping and reshaping the rocks.
Compared to these excursions to Wreck Beach, Maxime’s apartment seemed claustrophobic, despite the way their voices echoed from the exposed beams. Maxime herself, with her loud voice and pressing flesh, made Stella feel claustrophobic – and yet she kept going back. Kept wanting to, despite wondering whether things with Maxime had gone on for too long. Sometimes, while she was riding the bus to Maxime’s place, she would change her mind and get off at the next stop. But then the thought of Ingrid with her limp hair and sad smile back at the townhouse, compared to Maxime with her edible mouth and irresistible scent (a mixture of gardenias and mercurochrome), would make her climb on again when the next bus came.
And she would arrive at Maxime’s and regret it. The way she dressed! Her Alice in Chains obsession; the disturbing fact she used a Second World War Swedish gas mask bag for a purse. Every time Maxime slotted the word ‘bitch’ or ‘slut’ or ‘whore’ into daily conversation, Stella cringed. She had come looking for experiences as broad as the country itself, not the concentrated madness of Maxime’s life.
However, just as she was on the verge of deciding that she should leave again, something would change her mind. This ice cream’s sweet as a whore, Maxime would say, or this coffee’s bitchin’, and the very sound of those harsh consonants would send thrills through Stella’s body.
Maxime was crude. She was argumentative. She didn’t care what people thought. When Maxime pulled her in to kiss her on a city street in full view of Sunday shoppers, Stella’s first impulse was to pull away. Her next impulse, quickly taking over from the first, was to press closer. And so Stella was carried along, from one lustful moment to the next. And lust unpeeled the city.
Despite Maxime’s complaints about its second-ratedness (it was small, its metal scene was pathetic, it had nothing on Seattle), she knew Vancouver intimately. She took Stella to all the tourist haunts – the aquarium, the art gallery, Stanley Park – and then led her down narrow steps behind shopping malls to unmarked rooms where the bar staff served spirits in highball glasses at midday, to cafés where they lounged side-by-side and read The Georgia Straight’s reviews on furniture that could have belonged to Stella’s grandfather: wide, brown velvet chairs, cross-hatched couches, bow-legged formica card tables.
On the days Maxime worked her casual job as a drum specialist at Tom Lee Music, Stella explored the city alone. On Broadway she discovered a bookshop where the stock was alphabetised but not categorised and the shopgirl’s hair curled to her shoulders in delicate spirals. At Delicious Pho on Robson Street she observed that the waitress who served dragon-fruit desserts had the mouth of a goddess. When Stella started looking she found beautiful girls everywhere: at bus stops, in university lectures, in hotel windows. At the library, at the markets, upon the wide, sloshing city streets she began, as she had never done before, to watch other women. The curve of their hips beneath skirts, the hair at the napes of their necks, their calf muscles flexing. She sized them up as she imagined most men did. Or as other women watched men. There was, Stella discovered, something addictively potent about laying claim, if only with your eyes, to a thing neither offered nor refused.
Slowly, Stella grew accustomed to the cold air, the incessant rain, the fog. She bought a hooded coat and learnt to walk without throwing her shoulders forward against the wind. She rode the electric buses that rolled along the main roads beneath silver-webbed cables, fell half-asleep in the cushioned seats as if before the television at midnight while the windows rattled and the drivers recited the crossroads like an incantation: Seymour, Granville, Burrard.
As winter progressed she found she didn’t mind the weather as much as she had imagined she would. She learned the city’s nooks and crannies in which to hunker down: the underground bars where Maxime and her friends played their music; the side benches of her university tutorials near the narrow, red glow of the wall heaters; the warm backrooms of the organic grocery on Fourth Avenue between buckets of produce: tofu, kidney beans, dried apricots. Days – endless days – could be spent like this, in the primitive search for warmth, each day’s pleasure derived from the satisfaction of finding it.
Nights, too, held a primitive calling. At night she would go back to Maxime’s apartment, and let her lover bite her all over, and come with great exploding shouts that echoed through the lift shaft.
HI AGAIN. VANCOUVER is even wetter and colder than when I last wrote, but I’m getting used to it. I’ve succumbed to Gore-Tex and bought a waterproof jacket, which you’d hate. This afternoon I watched rain pour off the gutters from the warmth of a city café. Then the rain stopped, the clouds dispersed and in the gap between two skyscrapers I saw mountains. Hoping Sydney’s less soggy, and that you’re well. X
April arrived, bringing more rain. The sand on Wreck Beach was scattered with debris: old timber, seaweed, stones. With her new-found knowledge of the shoreline, Stella noticed other changes too. The sandbanks at the south end were lower than they had been earlier in the season. Storm waves had moved sand offshore. The seagrass was gone. Someone had dumped a plastic bag full of rubbish in one of the rock pools. Stella dragged it out, raining water, and carried it up the beach to the public bins.
One Tuesday morning she returned from her run to find Ingrid’s boyfriend, Mark, blocking the townhouse doorway. He was leaning into the hall where Ingrid stood, his face pressed forward. Stella assumed she had interrupted an intimate moment until she heard the sharpness in his tone. She cleared her throat.
Mark turned around. His ice hockey skates, tied together by their laces around his neck, swung and clacked. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘It’s you.’
Mark was the younger brother of a friend of Dee’s, and Stella suspected Dee had engineered the romance so she could use him to spy on her sister. Mark usually visited Ingrid after his varsity hockey practice twice a week, although he rarely stayed for long. On the occasions he did, Stella would hear his grunting through the paper-thin wall between their bedrooms, like a removalist lifting heavy furniture. She would turn up her music to drown out the sound of it.
Mark turned back to Ingrid, the narrow blades glinting at his chest. ‘Just have a think about it, will you?’
Stella inched past them. Once upstairs, she took a shower. She had to bend down to clear Ingrid’s stray hairs that were clogging the drain. The night before, Ingrid’s hair had even made its way into her frying pan and she had pulled it from between her teeth while eating, like the string of a bean. She dressed and went downstairs again, where she found Ingrid slumped on the sofa. ‘Everything okay?’
‘I’m not sure I want to talk about it,’ Ingrid whispered.
Ingrid stood up and began floating aimlessly about the room. She straightened a cushion. She picked up a magazine from the coffee table and put it down again. ‘It’s just this philosophy essay I’m working on.’
Stella waited for more.
‘He doesn’t think it’s of pre-law standard.’ Ingrid pirouetted to face her.
‘No. Mark. And Dee too, actually,’ she added.
‘You show your papers to them?’
‘Sometimes.’ Ingrid emitted a sigh that was part strangled kitten, part deflating balloon.
‘Do you ever wonder if perhaps…? Actually, forget it.’
Ingrid gazed at her hard. ‘No, say it.’
‘I didn’t realise you even wanted to be a lawyer.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Stella quickly.
Ingrid shook her head. ‘It’s okay.’ She sat down again on the sofa. She looked at Stella in a wistful way. ‘I suppose you’ve always known you wanted to study environmental science.’
Stella paused. ‘Not really.’
‘But you like it?’
Stella’s second-hand copy of The Edge of the Sea was a green hardback with yellowing pages and old-fashioned illustrations throughout. It smelt of silverfish and dust. It was only one of the texts she was studying, but it was the one she carried around, along with another book she had found in the university library. The second book contained letters Carson had written – passionate letters between her and a woman called Dorothy Freeman. Love letters. Both books gave Stella hope: both suggested the possibility of finding a different way of seeing, and of being seen. Of feeling a part of the Grand Scheme, rather than apart from it. It was why every morning she chose to stand on the shoreline at Wreck Beach – the margin of land that Carson had unlocked for her; and why every morning as the sea crashed forth, her heart opened.
Stella said to Ingrid, ‘Sure I like it.’ She paused. ‘Look. I really am sorry about what I said before. I’ve had experience with interfering family members, that’s all. I’m probably projecting.’
‘What kind of experience?’ Ingrid watched her keenly.
Stella flattened her bottom lip with her teeth. Sharing her recent heartbreak with her flatmate was probably a bad idea. ‘There was this…person…
I was seeing in Sydney. Our parents disapproved of the whole thing and broke us up.’
Ingrid’s face fell in sympathy. ‘This happened just before you came to Canada?’
‘Have you been in touch with him since you moved here?’
Stella ignored the pronoun. ‘I’ve sent a few messages…’
‘But not heard back?’
Stella thought again of Rachel and Dorothy. She was horrified to realise her eyes had filled with tears. She felt Ingrid’s tentative hand on her shoulder. ‘He doesn’t deserve you.’
Stella gave her flatmate a shaky smile. ‘That’s kind of you.’
‘I mean it,’ Ingrid said, her cheeks blooming red. ‘That’s cruel behaviour. How much effort does it take to send a lousy reply?’
She was right, of course. Katie was a mean girl from way back, if also the mean girl she had fallen in love with.
Ingrid squeezed Stella’s shoulder, and drew her hand away. She picked up her magazine again and began to flip through it idly. ‘I thought you must be seeing someone here, you’re away so often.’
‘Oh, right. I’ve got a friend who lives downtown. I stay with her sometimes when it’s convenient. When I have something on downtown.’ Stella cleared her throat. ‘You know. Downtown stuff,’ she added.
IT RAINED ALL night. Maxime’s heating was still on the blink. Stella crawled beneath the blankets and propped up her iPad on her quilt-
‘I don’t believe it!’ she called in outrage to Maxime, who was standing at the stove on the other side of the room, making instant mashed potato, pretending to listen. ‘It says here: Dee Murphy vows to save the Great Basin pocket mouse.’
Maxime made her instant mashed potato in an enormous second-hand wok designed for an industrial kitchen, a weighty grease-stained thing that she kept on one of ten butcher hooks that hung above her bench top. Regarding the necessity of woks for the purposes of instant mashed potato preparation, there had already been a conversation.
‘Isn’t the idea that you just add water? Can’t you do it in a bowl?’
And Maxime had said, ‘What would you know about it? Are you a Canadian now? Are you an expert in the national cuisine?’
Her point being that instant mashed potato was a Canadian invention. Her point being that Stella knew this. Canadian-versus-Australian inventions was a game they played regularly as part of the great entanglement of their breath and bodies; a low, passion-blurred recitation as their mouths pressed against each other’s flesh.
‘Washing machine,’ Maxime would mumble for Canada, rolling slick and sweat-lipped to mark the imaginary tally board on Stella’s thigh with a single clip-nailed finger.
‘Penicillin,’ Stella would reply for Australia, limb-locked and urgent.
‘Clothes zipper. Dental mirror.’
‘Two-stroke lawnmower. Black-box flight recorder.’
‘Trivial Pursuit.’ Heaving.
‘Anti – aah – gravity suit.’
Stella didn’t understand why they had to eat terrible food at Maxime’s apartment all the time. Surely those rich parents of hers helped her out with pocket money. She had suggested they go to the okay-looking Italian place a block away, but Maxime had refused.
Now she heard a rhythmic banging from the kitchen; Maxime was beating the potato mixture with a fork. ‘What’s wrong with Dee Murphy wanting to save houses?’ Maxime said.
‘Not houses: mouses,’ said Stella. ‘They’ve got nothing to do with her. She’s a barrister.’
‘She’s a personality,’ said Maxime, studying with satisfaction the stiff white peaks that rose up from the wok. ‘And I think you’ll find it’s mice.’
Maxime spooned the stiff white peaks out of her second-hand wok and onto plates. She threw the wok into the sink. She added salt to the potato and defended Dee Murphy. ‘She’s all right.’ She turned on the tap. ‘I don’t see why you complain about her so much. She’s also, well, you know.’
‘Pretty hot for an older woman.’
Stella shut down her iPad. ‘Believe me, if you’d met her, you wouldn’t feel that way. Vitamins, Ingrid!’
‘Maybe I should meet her and her sister,’ said Maxime. ‘Who you won’t shut up about,’ she added pointedly.
‘Who I won’t stop complaining about, you mean.’
‘I could come round to your place some time when she’s there. If you’d let me.’
This was Maxime moaning again that Stella never invited her around. That whenever they hung out it was at Maxime’s place, not hers. Stella had explained to Maxime that the townhouse was a shoebox, that the ceilings were low and the walls paper-thin, that her flatmate was quite possibly unstable.
‘Why would we want to go to my place when we’ve got your place to ourselves?’
‘I’m sick of it here,’ Maxime whined. ‘It’s too cold.’
‘Can’t you get your heating fixed? Surely your parents…’
‘That’s not the point,’ Maxime interrupted. ‘I want to see your place, your stuff. I want to know where you go when you’re not with me.’
What was it that bothered Stella so much about the idea of having Maxime visit the townhouse? She wasn’t ashamed of it, or of Ingrid, despite its smallness and Ingrid’s weirdness. She’d have to tell Ingrid the true nature of her and Maxime’s relationship, but that wasn’t the main problem. It was more to do with the fact that Stella liked having somewhere to go where Maxime wasn’t – somewhere that didn’t have clashing drums on the stereo or red-dye stains in the basin. Somewhere that was quiet and warm. Somewhere, even, where there was no chance of being dragged by her bra strap onto a bed, a bench or a floor. A place where she could think and do exactly as she pleased without having to consider anybody else. Well, except for Ingrid. Inviting Maxime around to her apartment would be opening a door that might prove difficult to close.
‘Fuck it. I’m out of turmeric,’ said Maxime, coming around the bench. ‘Hold that thought.’
While Maxime was across the road at the store, Stella boiled the kettle for a hot water bottle. The water ran over and she went in search of a tea towel. In the bottom drawer beneath a pile of zip-lock bags she found instead a stack of mail held together with a rubber band.
She lifted it out. On each of the envelopes the address was Maxime’s, but the name was someone else’s. Lillian Chong. She was probably a previous owner, Stella guessed. That made the most sense. Although why was her name on a recent electricity bill, barely a month old?
The key in the lock turned. Stella shoved the letters back into the drawer, but not fast enough.
Maxime strode across the room and snatched up the pile. ‘What the fuck, Stella? You won’t even let me see where you live but it’s okay for you to rifle through my drawers?’
‘I was looking for a tea towel–’
Maxime waved the letters above her head. ‘Do these look like tea towels to you?’ she shouted.
In spite of herself, Stella laughed.
Maxime’s expression turned bashful. She reached down to the third drawer, slid it open, and plucked out an actual tea towel. She tossed it at Stella, but not with any force. She sighed. ‘I get it. I know why you don’t want me over at your place.’
‘You do?’ Stella asked tentatively.
Maxime nodded. ‘You like having your own space.’
Stella breathed out. Could Maxime be more in tune with her than she realised? ‘That’s okay, isn’t it?’ she asked, keeping her voice light.
‘Sure.’ Maxime looked thoughtful. ‘Tell you what. Wait here.’ She disappeared into the bathroom.
A minute later she returned gripping the metal-framed ’60s schoolroom chart that a moment ago had hung above the toilet. ‘If you need your own space so desperately, you can have mine.’ Maxime thrust the diagram at her and smirked.
Against a black backdrop, the nine planets sat on curved lines, orbiting the sun. Our Solar System was in bold font in the top left corner. Maxime was grinning at her, thrilled by her pun. ‘Ha, ha,’ said Stella. She handed it back.
‘No really, keep it!’
‘But it’s yours.’
‘I want you to have it,’ said Maxime. The joke had vastly improved her mood. ‘Take it home. Maybe if you ever let me visit that apartment of yours I can help you mount it. And after I’ve mounted the picture…’ She slid her arms around Stella’s waist.
Stella suddenly felt extremely tired. ‘Okay, okay, you can come over.’
‘But not this week.’
‘Why not this week?’
‘I’ve got to study.’
‘You never study.’
‘Which is why I’ve got to start this week.’
‘This is just another one of your excuses. After everything I do for you,’ Maxime sulked.
When Stella reached the bus stop she discovered she had missed by five minutes the only bus for an hour. She set off walking back to campus, moving swiftly through the dark. Her breath froze in the air and dissolved. This was better. Just her breath and an empty street. The weighty planetary chart beneath her arm hissed against her jacket.
Maxime was right: space was exactly what Stella wanted. More of it than her lover could give her. Stella didn’t want to feel obligated anymore. She should have had the nerve to tell her weeks ago. She would let Maxime know and then go away for a while. The end-of-term holidays were on the horizon. Apart from Vancouver, she had seen nothing of North America. Maybe it was time to explore another part of the continent.
Since reading Carson, she had been thinking about visiting New England in particular. Carson wrote a lot about its rocky seacoast. Stella liked the idea of watching the waves roll in from the open Atlantic. She would visit Cape Ann, eat clam chowder, and look for moon snails and paper nautilus on the shore. She would bend down at the waves’ edge to find young mole crabs, washed up in the freezing currents – creatures that, like her, had journeyed far from parental sands to make new homes.
Stella reached her campus street. She turned her key in the lock and waded into the townhouse’s artificial heat. She ran a hand up the wall for the switch. Turning on the light seemed to illuminate a noise, sad and muffled, as well as the shadowy angles of the hallway.
Upstairs she tapped lightly on Ingrid’s door. ‘Are you okay in there?’ As she waited for a reply, she scuffed stray strands of Ingrid’s hair into a heap with her shoes.
Ingrid finally emerged in pink flannelette pyjamas, an embroidered cushion clasped to her chest. Her face was blotchy with tears.
It took some persistent coaxing and the offer of a skim hot chocolate to learn the story. Ingrid explained she had been out with Mark earlier that evening. ‘We went to see a movie. It was quite good, I thought, but Mark said it was slow. So we left halfway through and went to Gastown, and waited to get into a bar. The Revel Room. Have you been there?’
‘Well, anyway,’ said Ingrid. ‘I had a glass of wine and Mark had a few beers and we sat for a while and listened to the music. Bluesy stuff. Mark had a few more beers and started to heckle them a bit, you know. Shouting out the names of songs he wanted them to play.’
Here we go, Stella thought.
‘Well. Some of the other guys at the bar started shouting back at Mark, and it all got a bit out of hand, and to cut a long story short, he glassed a guy.’ Ingrid blew her nose vigorously on a Minnie Mouse handkerchief. She pulled it away from her face and a tangle of hair strands came with it, which she bundled up expertly in her palm and flicked onto the floor. ‘It’s not really his fault, in a way. He was having a bad night. He lost his hockey finals this week.’
‘I hate to say it but I think you need to break up with this guy,’ said Stella gently.
Ingrid’s eyes widened. ‘It’s not as easy as that.’
‘Why not? Because of your sister?’
‘Dee has nothing to do with it!’
‘Are you sure? Because the way they both lectured you about that essay…’
‘They care about me, that’s all…’
Stella said carefully, ‘If you weren’t aiming to study law, what would you do instead?’
A slow smile started on Ingrid’s face. ‘If I could do anything at all?’
‘I’d write for the movies.’
Stella grinned. ‘That’s great.’
‘I have this idea for a script, actually,’ Ingrid said, a sly smile emerging. ‘It’s about a tough guy, really into sport, who is paralysed from the neck down during a match, and comes to realise that people don’t respect him anymore now that he can’t play the game.’
‘What kind of sport?’
‘Football. Or maybe, ah, hockey?’
‘What happens to him in the end?’
‘He’s scalped by a gang of whacked-out junkies who raid the hospital for morphine.’
‘You so need to get out of this relationship.’
‘And I need to get out of this city,’ Stella murmured, half to herself.
‘You’re thinking of leaving?’ Ingrid looked upset.
‘Just for a holiday. During term break.’
‘Where will you go?’
Stella shrugged. ‘Maybe New England.’
HER SENSE OF resolve was still intact when she rang Maxime the next morning. She had just finished hanging the solar-system chart up on her bedroom wall. The hook sat loose in the plasterboard, something she would have to fix, although as she dialled Maxime’s number, it occurred to her that under the circumstances she should probably offer to give the chart back.
‘Babe. I’ve just spoken to my parents and I’ve got some great news,’ Maxime said before Stella had uttered a single word into the mouthpiece. ‘How would you like to go to Europe this summer?’
Without even meaning to, Stella found herself picturing a scene in Venice: sitting in the bow of a gondola, oars in hand. Drinking coffee in Amsterdam. She had always wanted to go to Europe. Katie was Hungarian on her mother’s side. They had talked about it.
‘You there, babe?’ Maxime asked, and her voice sounded sweet and full of concern. ‘Did you hear what I said?’
Maybe she had overreacted last night. She enjoyed being with Maxime, just not all the time. Now that she had broached the subject, and Maxime had shown signs of understanding, surely they could work it out.
‘Go on,’ said Stella. ‘I’m listening.’
IN THE LAST week of June, Stella sat her exams. She finished on a Thursday, and that afternoon met Maxime at a waterfront bar in Kitsilano to celebrate.
Flung-back timber louvres framed a vista of pine trees, dirty sand, rippling wavelets, blue mountain haze. It was not the kind of place they usually hung out, but the rain had finally eased, the temperature was above freezing, and Stella had had enough of Maxime’s concrete-bunkered, blackened-windowed haunts.
The bar was rowdy with after-work patrons. Shucked heels littered the parquet floor. Abandoned neckties hung limp over chair backs. They sat thigh to thigh at the open window.
‘To you and me, babe,’ said Maxime dreamily.
‘To the Eiffel Tower,’ Stella said, raising her beer glass.
Maxime gulped at her beer and looked out the window at the people walking past in sandals and open-necked shirts. ‘It’s so bitchin’ hot. It must feel just like being back home.’
Stella grinned, telling herself it felt better than home. The weather was warm. And in a few more weeks they would be Europe-bound. ‘I need to get our exact travel dates from you,’ Stella said. ‘I need to let Ingrid know.’
‘I don’t know the dates yet.’ Maxime’s tone was curt. ‘And why does Ingrid need to know anyway?’
‘She’s my flatmate. It’s common courtesy. When do you think you will know the dates?’
‘My parents will be in town next week. I’ll get the details off of them when I meet them for dinner.’
‘Perhaps I could come too,’ ventured Stella.
Maxime shook her head. ‘You don’t want to deal with my family, believe me. Not until you absolutely have to.’
‘I know what families are like.’
‘Sure you do. It’s just that…’ Maxime’s voice trailed off.
‘I’m going to have to meet them eventually,’ Stella said. ‘We’ll be travelling together, after all. Don’t you think it would be better if we got to know each other before sharing a hotel room?’
Maxime drank her beer. She ran a rambling finger along Stella’s leg. She took it away. ‘Okay, sure. Anyways, I’m thinking of asking Peter as well.’
Peter Korrin was a friend of Maxime’s from her brief university days, before she had discontinued her psychology degree – a dark-haired boy whose parents owned the Telroid chain stores, which sold electronic goods. He always had a knowing smirk and Stella secretly hated him. Why on earth was Maxime inviting Peter?
After two more rounds of drinks Stella was able to coax Maxime onto the dance floor. Watching her shimmying in her leather pants and Metallica T-shirt to ‘Mamma Mia’, Stella felt a tug of desire, and was glad she hadn’t called things off. She pulled her in by her snake-and-sword belt buckle and kissed her on the mouth.
Just before midnight, when a man in chinos started filling the jukebox playlist with Beyoncé singles, they hailed a cab back to Maxime’s apartment.
‘Paint roller,’ Maxime murmured, unbuttoning Stella’s shirt as they stumbled across the polished concrete floor. She prodded her onto the bed and whipped her jeans off her ankles, then ran her fingers over Stella’s bare stomach.
‘Permaculture,’ Stella breathed against Maxime’s clenched jaw.
Beyond the window the lights of Grouse Mountain glittered like a constellation; bathed in their pallid glow it seemed possible that Maxime was the sexiest woman in the world. Stella pressed her face into Maxime’s neck, encircled her legs with her own and squeezed them urgently. ‘Stump-jump plough,’ she said, gripping her tight.
‘Spray-on – oh God – skin.’
THE MCLINTOFFS HAD driven for five hours, with bathroom stops on top of that. Two bathroom stops, a coffee break and a beef-and-bacon burger at a drive-through. They had checked into their hotel at two because that was when the cleaning lady was finished and you were allowed into your room. You went in at two and the soaps were laid out in the middle of your towel that was folded on the pillow; the drinking glasses sat overturned on doilies on the kitchenette tray.
This is what Mrs McClintoff explained to Stella in her quiet, Albertan twang. They were gracious, smiling, dressed for a city visit. They seemed to sparkle and billow: Maxime’s father in polished loafers and a chequered shirt that he had carefully tucked into tailored pants then pulled out slightly, so that it puffed a little at the waist; her mother’s lipstick gloss and nest of salon hair that glistened vitally. She would be a hundred and five, the hair appeared to say, and still playing eighteen holes at Valley Heights
They were not what Stella had imagined. Not at all. So this was what wide plains and tall mountains did to a person. It made you nice. Unhurried. Unfussed. A delicate buoyancy filled Stella’s body. If these simple country folk could come to terms with her and Maxime’s relationship, maybe there was hope for her mother.
They took their seats around the table. Outside the neon sign flickered: Padma’s Indi n Fusion.
‘The menu here looks super,’ said Maxime’s father, whose name was Dan. ‘Listen to this: Indian spinach enchiladas; lamb ragout with cheddar risotto; Darjeeling tea-smoked Cornish hen with Kashmiri pulao. Pulao! I don’t even know what that is but the word is delicious!’
Hindi pop music filtered through the warm air. Candlelight wavered back and forth between the mirror-specked cushions and silver-threaded wall-hangings. Stella watched Maxime’s parents fussing with their napkins and menus. How decent they seemed. Marie, Maxime’s mother, had a quiet voice that brought quiet, wholesome things to mind: church prayers, evening strolls, biscuits baking on low heat. And Dan had a mouth just like Maxime’s, although his friendly, unironic smile bore no resemblance to hers. For the first time Stella wondered how they’d made their fortune. Looking at them now she ruled out a media monopoly and the stock market. Farm machinery was a possibility. Winning the National Lottery was another. They seemed untouched by their wealth.
Maxime, Stella noticed, had considerably toned down her appearance for the occasion. Instead of her usual leather ensemble she wore a black-buttoned shirt, a denim skirt and new white sneakers. Her red hair was tied demurely into a knot at the nape of her neck. She looked especially odd sitting next to the shiny-faced, straight-teethed Peter Korrin who had, conversely, toned up: he was wearing a suit jacket.
‘You do look a picture, Peter,’ said Maxime’s mother, beaming at him over the top of her menu.
‘You’re too kind, Marie!’ Peter flashed his teeth.
‘Stella, Maxime tells me you’re from Sydney,’ said Dan.
‘Yes.’ Stella smiled.
‘What a brave young lady to have come all that way! You must feel so far from home, especially in the winter months.’
Stella kept her smile fixed. What could she say? There were so many ways to measure distance. The temperature difference was just one of them.
‘How’s the engineering study coming along, Peter?’ asked Maxime’s mother.
Stella stared across the table at him. She had no idea Peter was study-ing engineering.
‘Fine thanks,’ he said, with a laugh that rang a little too high. ‘I’m plugging away at it, as usual.’
‘Mustn’t be long till your graduation.’
‘No, no, any day now.’
There was an awkward pause into which Maxime’s mother bent forward and smiled expectantly. ‘You’ve been studying for, what? Seven years now?’
‘About that. Do you think they have lassis here?’ said Peter airily, twisting his napkin into a tight spiral as he concentrated his gaze on an assembly of South Asian ornaments at the farthest corner of the room.
Dan skimmed the menu good-naturedly. ‘I hope so. I love the salty ones best.’
‘Oh Dan, you can’t be serious,’ scoffed Maxime’s mother.
‘Come on, a bit of cultural tolerance, Marie!’ said Dan high-spiritedly. ‘Excuse me, garçon? Yes. Over here. Hello! We’ll have five of the salt-flavoured lassi shakes, please.’ He winked wickedly at his wife.
IN THE BACK laneway a bloated dumpster overflowed with food scraps: chicken bones, limp lettuce, crumbling spiced potatoes. ‘Dan and Marie are so bitchin’ painful,’ Maxime muttered, digging in her pocket for her cigarettes.
‘They seem all right to me,’ said Stella.
‘What do they do again? You know, for a living?’
‘Do I have to pull out that engineering shit every time I see your ’rents?’ interrupted Peter. He plucked a cigarette out of Maxime’s packet and balanced it between his lips for her to light.
‘Yes, you do.’ Maxime struck a match. ‘And I wish you’d quit the sissy stuff for once, too,’ she muttered soft enough so that Stella had to strain to hear. ‘Straight boys only kiss on one cheek, remember.’
‘Not if they’re European, honey.’ The tobacco caught, twitching black and orange as Peter sucked it in.
‘Like you could ever pass for European.’
‘Oh believe me darling, I have, on more than one occasion.’ He let out a stiff giggle and handed the cigarette to Maxime.
‘I doubt they’d care,’ Stella said. ‘They seem pretty cool about Maxime.’
Peter guffawed. Maxime whacked him and gave him a look. Ignoring her, Peter took Stella’s hand and met her gaze with an expression of mock seriousness. ‘Honey, I am the reason they’re cool about Maxime. What parent wouldn’t be cool if they thought their daughter was dating an engineer whose parents own Telroids, who also happens to be a super sweet guy, not to mention incredibly good looking?’
‘Peter,’ said Maxime without breath.
Stella’s ears rang tunelessly. She looked to Maxime for confirmation. ‘Is he serious? You’re not out to your parents?’
Maxime shuffled on her feet.
‘You’re not out to your parents and yet you invited me away with them?’
Maxime kicked at loose gravel with her shoe.
‘They do know I’m coming, right?’ Stella asked.
‘Where are the McClintoffs going this year?’ asked Peter smugly. ‘Is it the CN Tower again or somewhere more exotic, like Niagara Falls?’
Stripped of her studs, her buckles and piercings it struck Stella how much smaller Maxime looked, how much tamer. ‘What does Peter mean?’ Stella asked her. ‘Is the whole Europe thing…if I went in there now…’ She took a step towards the restaurant. Maxime caught her arm.
The jolt shifted more than just muscle. Stella’s mouth turned dry. ‘There’s no trip to Europe, is there?’
‘Now hang on a minute–’ said Maxime.
‘Is there?’ Stella repeated.
‘Look, babe. You’re overreacting…’
Distance was the gap between the words spoken and the meaning of the words.
‘The apartment’s not yours, is it?’ whispered Stella.
‘Tell me one thing: does Lillian Chong, whoever she is, even know that you’re living there?’
Peter, who stood behind his friend, pointed to Maxime’s back with a pantomime finger and mouthed her ex.
Stella backed away from them both.
‘Babe.’ Maxime stretched out her arms. ‘Come on.’ The tip of her fingers scraped the shoulder of Stella’s jacket.
Stella shook it off, swivelled on her toes. She could cover 800 metres in under three minutes. She had a ribbon to prove it.
NEON SIGNS, TRAFFIC lights, blinking cars. Stella turned off the main arterial and onto the backstreets. Who knew that hurt lived so close to nonchalance? She thought she had kept herself clear of all of this. The closeness to Maxime that her body had performed was meant to be just that: a performance.
Forty minutes later, breathless and damp with sweat, Stella reached the townhouse. She went upstairs and slammed her bedroom door as hard as she could; it rattled pitifully in the frame.
Anger lived in a tight, round space inside the throat. You held a pillow against your mouth and your spit tasted of it. Anger was made of hair clumps and flimsy plasterboard and it was bottomless. You could scream anger into the soft, pillowy folds until your voice was hoarse and still there’d be anger left.
This was how it felt, Stella realised: to travel thousands of miles only to reach the place you thought you had left.
STELLA WOKE TO the sound of hammering. She opened her eyes. It was grey outside and raining again. Sheets of water poured off the guttering. She heard the rattle of the front door chain being unhooked, the murmur of voices. She heard Ingrid in the entrance hall utter a shriek of protest. The stairs began to pound with footsteps.
Maxime lurched in.
‘Stella,’ she said, managing to slur even that word.
She was still in her skirt and her collared, buttoned shirt, her peculiarly ordinary shirt – a shirt, perhaps, from a sale rack at Zara – but her hair was undone from its silly tie and it clung together in thick, rained-on strands. Without her leather jacket and her mascara she looked miniature and strange. She looked like a person Stella had never met. Stella felt numb with exhaustion and a little bit apart from the room and wondered if she had ever really looked properly at Maxime before.
Maxime fell onto the bed. She slid her hand beneath the sheet and found Stella’s hand. ‘You’re not still mad, are you?’ She grinned crookedly then leant towards her and pressed a palm against her cheek. She kissed her neck, then her forehead, then her mouth, and for a moment the proximity of Maxime warmed Stella in the usual way, with its brief hot flutter. But there was bourbon on her breath and the stench of it made Stella’s stomach roll. She pushed her away.
‘Go home, Maxime. Sleep it off.’
Maxime ignored her. Instead she lay back on the pillows and looked around the room. ‘So this is it. Your secret townhouse.’
‘I mean it,’ Stella said.
‘I know I lied. It was a cuntish thing to do. But I know you don’t care about the money. Or the holiday. Or the apartment for that matter. You’re a genuine person. And I love you, babe,’ Maxime whimpered. ‘I love you, for fuck’s sake.’
Stella walked over to the door and opened it as wide as it would go.
‘I’ll tell them, I promise,’ Maxime said. ‘And then we’ll have the best holiday. It might not be Europe but hey, Yellowstone is pretty nice this time of year. Come on.’ She patted the pillow. ‘I’ll make it up to you. The way you like it.’
That was when Stella heard someone snigger; she looked up. Mark and Ingrid were standing against the stair rail watching them. Mark was wearing nothing but a pair of racing-striped tracksuit pants and had his arms crossed against his bare, hairless chest. His mouth was curled into an awful grin. Ingrid hovered beside him in a pair of aquamarine pyjamas across which goggle-eyed fish were swimming in rows.
Leisurely Mark looked Stella up and down, before peering over to Maxime on the bed and leering menacingly. He turned to Ingrid. ‘Why didn’t you tell me your flatmate was a les?’
A fierce red was blossoming from the collar of Ingrid’s pyjamas. Her matchstick arms fluttered. ‘Because I – I didn’t know,’ she squeaked.
‘What utter crap,’ said a bitter, wounded voice.
Stella turned. Maxime stood by the bed and was holding her hand high in the air like a puppeteer, with two fingers pinched. It took a while for Stella to understand what she was doing; the long yellow thread hanging between them was barely visible against the grey wall. ‘Now I know why you never ask me over, lover,’ Maxime said to her coldly. ‘You didn’t want me to find out that Goldilocks,’ she waved the strand of hair slowly back and forth, ‘has been sleeping in your bed.’
Stella stifled a shocked laugh. ‘Maxime–’
Maxime flicked Ingrid’s hair off her fingers and turned to glare at its source. She reached over to the sheets and plucked another strand from it, then another. ‘Don’t bother explaining,’ she interrupted, gathering an incriminating pile between her fingers as her eyes, to Stella’s shock, began to well with tears. ‘Everything,’ exhaling the word like a held note, a long moan, ‘is beginning to fall into place.’
Maxime pulled more hair off the bed, all the while glaring pointedly at Ingrid, who had begun to display symptoms of trauma – a frozen look of horror, white lips, trembling knees.
Stella watched the implications of Maxime’s accusation dawning on Mark’s features like a slow-rising sun.
For five whole seconds everyone was speechless. Then the precarious symmetry of the moment was broken. ‘Fucking dyke,’ spat Mark, and bolted forward.
By the time Ingrid had recovered enough to scream, ‘It’s not true!’ it was far too late. He was already well into his advance – arms lashing, his fleshy freewheeling missile of a body rollicking forward. Within seconds Stella was backed against a wall with his chest in her face.
How her head ached as Mark bore down, the stale smell of him close enough to turn her stomach. She eyed the sweat in the clefts of his collar bones, the muscle tone of his forearms, and her heart began to race.
Mark paused, as if considering a difficult problem. ‘Normally I don’t hit women,’ he said with a reasonableness that for a moment calmed the room. ‘But I reckon you’re butch enough to take it.’
It was then that the hook holding the metal-framed planetary chart above Stella’s head came out of the wall. She heard the map scrape plasterboard as it made its descent. She felt the shock of the impact at the back of her skull as if Mark had punched her after all.
As her vision faded from the edges, the whole room became a shrinking circle, a miniature bubble. She floated up and around with it until everything, like the hands of an eager clock, was spinning. Pain was a whorl of light, a firework, a glass bottle that had burst suddenly in the heat. The whole world seemed to be rolling like a marble across bitumen in a flash of sea and ice and land. Mars lurched by, followed by Jupiter. Her eyes closed and Stella was flung, arms wide, into the gravitational spin of space.
SHE WAS BARELY aware of the hour that followed, although flashes would return to her in the coming days: the sound of sobbing, of harsh whispers interspersed with silence, the familiar smell of her bed sheets, the bright light of a medical torch.
Finally, Stella slept, curled beneath her blanket, the smell of damp in her nostrils, in her thoughts: she dreamt of wet sand, the drag of the tide, tiny crabs tossing in ocean breaks. When she woke up, the room was dark. Her head was pounding and foggy. There was someone sitting on the edge of the mattress.
‘Here. Take these.’
Obediently Stella took the little white pills and the glass of water.
‘Put this on.’
Stella threaded her arms through the offered jacket, and allowed herself to be led downstairs. She felt the shock of cold air as the front door opened, before another door opened and closed and she was enveloped again in warmth.
When she woke a second time it was to the sound of an engine droning. Her face was hot. Stella opened her eyes. She was sitting in the front passenger seat of a car. Ingrid was at the wheel. Hearing her stir, Ingrid looked over. ‘How are you feeling?’
Stella sat up and squinted. Sunshine poured into the car. She ran a hand through her tangled hair. ‘My head’s sore.’
‘I put your painkillers in the glove.’
Through the windscreen the straight, wide road went on forever. On either side: farmland sprawl, flat and sparse, broken by the occasional water tank or barn. ‘Where are we?’
‘Just past Marysville.’ Ingrid glanced at her. ‘About forty minutes outside Seattle.’
‘We’ve crossed the border?’
‘About two hours ago.’ Ingrid grinned, and it changed her face. Stella couldn’t remember seeing her grin before. ‘You were right,’ Ingrid said. ‘It’s time I left Mark in my tailwind.’
‘I suppose I should ask where we’re going.’
Ingrid looked at her craftily. ‘New England.’
‘We’re driving there?’
‘Why not? It’s only three thousand miles.’
Stella laughed. She knew this was not the answer, but as she opened the glove box, found the pills and washed them down with water, she let her eye wander ahead to the place that shimmered and flickered between road and sky, that familiar mirage. She settled into her seat.
IT TOOK THEM six days – via the grunge music stores and coffee shops of Seattle, the mountain ranges of Missoula County, the Clark Fork River, Billings, West Fargo, Minneapolis, Chicago (which felt too large after miles of road and empty space), Buffalo and its lake, Boston’s tramlines and freedom trail – to finally reach Cape Ann. Ingrid drove until the pain in Stella’s head was no longer a steady drumbeat, and then handed over the wheel to Stella for a few hundred miles. After Chicago, Ingrid drove again – Ingrid whose skin was darkening and who was eating more every day. From Boston they followed the coast road north, stopping for taffy and clam chowder before taking the turnoff to Flat Point.
Ingrid pulled into a deserted car park beside a small hill covered in long grass flattened by the wind. Beyond it, sand made whirligigs above the beach. The sky was misty. Miles of rocky coastline jutted into the Atlantic. Ingrid turned off the engine, let the keys on her key ring jangle in the ignition. They sat and listened to the tick of the dying motor.
Stella looked at Ingrid. ‘Thank you.’
‘You’re welcome,’ Ingrid said.
Stella got out of the car. Her hair danced in the wind as she walked across the car park. At the sand line she took off her shoes and left them beside a wooden post, the first in a trail of posts that led to the beach. She made a beeline for the water, stood with the tide lapping her toes, the vast ocean at her shoulder. She felt a surge of happiness, the first in a long time. She looked south along the beach. Nothing but sea and sky and a faraway headland, above which bird specks circled. She looked north, to the nearer cliff face and the pile of rocks beneath it. A woman was clambering among them.
Stella rubbed the sand out of her eyes and looked again. The woman was dressed strangely for the seaside, in a long skirt and boots. She was familiar, thought Stella. She started jogging towards her. Sand squeaked beneath her feet.
Stella drew closer to where the woman was and studied her again. Surely not. She must be going crazy. Or had gone crazy long ago. She kept on towards the rocks. She reached them and clambered up a steep ascent, finding steps for her toes, careful to avoid the barnacles whose conical shape deflected the force of the waves, whose natural cement stopped them giving way to the brunt of the sea. In the crevices the ocean hissed, and Stella felt freed by its hugeness, by her relative smallness. She felt encompassed and embraced. Let the ocean churn, she thought. Who knew what tomorrow’s tide would bring? The tide would come and go. And the water would carve ridges in the rocks.
The woman was bending over a rock pool, so close now that Stella could have reached out and touched her shoulder.
The woman turned.
Ingrid, who had been trailing Stella along the beach, reached the rocks. She pulled herself onto the precipice. ‘Stella!’ she called into the wind, but Stella didn’t answer. She was miles away.