Laura is the editor of Aotearotica. Her writing has been previously published in Sport, takahē, Catalyst, bravado and The Press.
“I write in the crevices of time I have between all my other projects. I’d suggest this isn’t the optimal way to do it.”
The bus rockets down Riddiford Street, and they sit, barely touching in the seats near the back. Alice can feel Joseph’s tee-shirt graze the skin of her arm, the slight warmth that radiates off his skin, as well as the tangible sense of his inability to relax. They’re both holding towels, and she squirms and twists her head to shift the knot of her swimsuit straps, tied at the base of her neck. Swimming had become their default position – they’d swum at every beach they could… at night in the shallows of Sumner, on a frigid afternoon in a sand-fly-infested Port Levy, in the deep and rolling Days Bay, off the rock-scattered shore of Makara, where they saw rays flapping in the low tide. But they were running out of beaches, and of patience with each other.
The first time Alice and Joseph had swum together, it had been at Oriental Parade in mid-summer. They’d walked down together, hands held loosely in each other’s, from the apartment Joseph had borrowed from his parents. It was new and filled with leftover furnishings from other houses, disparate and desperately claustrophobic. They’d walked out the door, the electronic locks clicking in place after them, the locks with the codes he was careful to hide from her, despite the intimacy that had sprung up between them.
Outside, the evening air had washed warmly about them. Alice’s hair sprung small curls at her temples and there were damp patches under Joseph’s arms where the fabric bunched about the bulk of his chest and arms. They’d stripped off on the beach, despite the homeless men sleeping under the concrete barricade at the edge. Alice had unzipped the dress she’d carefully chosen, one with a zip that ran the length of its front, so she could dress and undress discreetly. Her things formed a puddle of fabric that she ran from, diving into the water. She had watched, peddling to keep herself upright, as he dawdled at the edge, pretending to be cold, making a show of being scared, his body thick with muscles, dense and heavy like an anchor. Later, once his pretence was gone, they swam to one of the pontoons bobbing in Wellington harbour. The salt night air swirled over and around them, drying their skin and, when Joseph leaned over to kiss her, the platform rocked under their bodies, heaving them together.
Now they’re heaving apart, the air feels heavy between them, and they’ve left it too late in the day for the swim. The sun has gone, the rare brilliance of warm Wellington weather is ended and by the time their bus arrives in Courtenay Place, summer is over and it’s cold.
When Alice strips off on the beach this time, she’s being appraised and she knows it. Joseph doesn’t bother to hide it. His eyes slide down her body, as she stands shivering in her swimsuit. Ever since they first met, his conversation has been peppered with references to her weight, her clothing, her background. He’d like it if she were slimmer, if she’d exercise more rather than her current regime of lying around reading, if she cared more about the environment. He’s made it clear that he sees her as tasteful and articulate, but he’s also clear that it isn’t enough and he wishes she were better. Really, she thinks, he wishes she were better than he is, so that she could take on the hard work of improving him, so that he wouldn’t have to. He doesn’t want her acceptance. He wants someone to take charge.
“Let’s go,” Joseph says. “Around that pontoon, then the other.”
Alice looks out at the harbour. The sky is overcast and on the verge of rain, and the choppy water is grey with its reflection. The pontoons are close enough to the shore, but far enough apart from each other to make it a very long swim.
“No, but I’ll go round one,” she says.
“Go on. Both. It’s good for you.”
She laughs. “One. Only one.”
He shrugs. It’s a test, she knows that, and she’s failed already, but she’s past caring. She thinks it’s better to fail the test than to fail to make it around the pontoons. And it’s better than being part of some pissing contest she doesn’t see the point of.
They set off, Joseph’s games about getting in the water gone, but he still waits, watching, until she has slipped in, her bravery mostly bluff. They have to swim parallel to the shore to head to the first pontoon, and the water comes at them sideways, filling her mouth with salt water and forcing her to push up and exert herself to stay above each wave. The wind has picked up and it sweeps across the harbour, gathering the choppy little waves, pushing them into larger swells.
Holding her head clear, Alice manages to kick in a version of side stroke and doggy paddle, keeping the vision of the city and its cluster of hills ahead of her. If she turns over to lie like an otter on the surface, she can see him just behind her. Joseph has set his jaw to the water, and now it juts out like the prow of a ship. She rounds the first pontoon, the one closer to the city, the boats still towering in the port in the distance. She can see him, as she swims up a swell, as he grimly makes for the second pontoon. She can’t see the platform, just his slightly bald head nestled in the white-capped waves.
She hugs the shoreline more closely. Her limbs are tired and her legs flail at cross purposes in the cold water. Alice thinks about cramp. Although she is worried about being knocked against the rocky shore, the feeling of something solid would be very reassuring. Every once in a while, when she takes her attention off the sideways waves on one side and the rocks on the other, she can see his head in the distance.
She’s close enough to the beach now that the rocks have turned to sand and if she were to stretch down a leg, she’d find the ground. She swims on as long as she can. Now that she doesn’t have to focus on the waves, she can see him better, but her arms are leaden and when she is shallow enough to no longer comfortably swim, Alice just lolls in the water, watching. Joseph is close to the next pontoon, but she can see how slowly he is moving through the water. The waves are growing.
She stands up, her body exposed out of the water, the wind raising goose bumps along her arms. She thinks that he may have pushed himself too far. She wonders what would happen if he got into trouble out there just beyond reach of the pontoon. There’s no one close to him, and she couldn’t go in after him … she’s exhausted; she’d never reach him in time. And what use would she be once she got there? The huge frame, the rounded neck muscles, the arms with their grotesque biceps, would wrap around her, pull her down, drag her to the bottom of the harbour, fix them both to the cold sandy ground like an anchor.
But now, he’s inching his way back towards her. Joseph crawls through the water, his arms too tired to break the surface. Alice is relieved that she doesn’t have to think about what the appropriate actions are anymore, but, also, there’s a feeling of disappointment. What’s the point of an anchor if it doesn’t sink?
First published takahe 88