I (Conor) wrote this story in 2015. It was the eighth instalment in a short story collection revolving around a group of friends coming of age. The collection has aged poorly, but I've always had a soft spot for this story.
Whilst the romanticism at the close is a bit twee, it definitely fares better in the overall collection - there's never another indication of romantic attraction, which I feel makes the platonic love all the more special.
It was a public pool, recently renovated. It sat on a block behind the cinema, right next to the shopping strip’s main car park. He’d been drunk, to put it modestly. A clandestine pub-crawl amongst friends was two-thirds done. The fence was tall and tough to climb, but a well-earned athletic figure helped him scale it with little worry. Moments after setting his feet on the poolside tiles he’d slipped, tumbling head first into the ground and rolling into the pool. One of his friends had stumbled along fifty meters behind – he was the only witness. By the time he made it to the fence it was too late, and his best attempts to climb it were useless.
Adam died on a Tuesday night.
Marcus didn’t know until he walked in on his Mum crying. Even then, he didn’t quite guess what’d happened – she’d been on the phone, but that could mean anything. She sat him down, which was the first bad sign. Adam had died, she said. He drowned in the early hours of the morning. Marcus knew Adam, and the pool, well. Adam lived in the same neighbourhood, a cousin so close one could mistake him for a brother. They hadn’t seen each other in a month when he passed, the kind of break they seldom allowed. The pool was also in the same neighbourhood, no more than ten minutes walk from Marcus’ front door.
Corn Flakes for breakfast – the meal of choice for those who just can’t be bothered. Marcus ate alone. Mum had left just after she got the news, heading a small way down the road to see her brother. He doubted she’d be back. The train ride into Uni was spacious and uneventful – even the station was mostly empty. The usual crowd of business types and eager students had headed in on the earlier service, and what was once crowded and pushy was now abandoned entirely. Quiet city streets made for quiet city trams. Earphones in, Marcus let himself drift from stop to stop. He drifted off the tram and through campus, a dissociated drone. The hardcopy essay was to be submitted at the history office. It took a while to find, not being his usual faculty and all. From there he headed to class; a boring, silent affair. The tutor indulged his PHD knowledge and the barely conscious students let him do it. It seemed to Marcus that everyone was having a bad day. The class wrapped up, nothing gained but nothing lost.
Every level of the library was bursting at the seams with indifference. There wasn’t a single spare seat in the whole place – even the usually quiet basement was filled. Marcus sat on a small stool between some narrow bookshelves, ate a hashbrown he’d grabbed for a dollar and tried to get some study done.
The trip home was busier. Business-types returned home, cramming trains at city stations and vacating again at well-to-do stops along the line. By the time Marcus got off he had enough room to claim personal space. The sun was more or less set as he stepped onto the platform and past the Myki readers, starting the short walk from the station to his front porch.
Mum wasn’t home yet, which wasn’t unexpected. She hadn’t called all day. She’d likely forgotten about everything else – again, not unexpected. Toast for dinner. Facebook was nothing but videos and lounge chair activism. A shower did nothing to help him feel better. He ran the towel through his short hair, almost instantly drying it. He scrubbed elsewhere, scrutinizing himself in the mirror – he bent left to right, watching as the muscles under his arms tensed and moved with every twist. As he worked away on his legs, a distinctive buzz cut through the room. Marcus scrambled for his phone as it vibrated on the wooden desk against the far wall. Swipe right to answer. “Hello?”
“Marcus?” The voice was clear and soft. No background noises, no interference.
“How’s it going?”
A lingering pause. “I’m alright.”
Rei heard the lie in his voice – whether she’d imposed that on it herself, she couldn’t tell. She stumbled a moment, unsure of where to go next. “Doing anything later?
Marcus considered. “Don’t think so.”
“Want to hang out?”
It took Rei forty-five minutes to make her own way over. Marcus indulged the Facebook activism and scrolled through the meaningless videos, each one more useless and less funny than the last. From the moment he opened the door Marcus knew she knew. Somehow she’d found out about Adam, he was sure – her manner was slightly put on, as if she was trying to reinforce how normal the whole situation was. Her movements were as fluid as ever, but her words came out more considered, more mechanical. She quickly skirted around words that could come off as harsh, only to double back and say them anyway in an attempt to normalize things. It worked well enough. Marcus made Rei some toast and offered her a beer, which she wasn’t keen on. Rei put the vegemite on her toast herself, a delicate affair. She carefully spread as Marcus lent against the mock-marble kitchen bench.
“How was your day?”
“Not great.” He didn’t elaborate. Metal scraped along slightly burnt bread.
“I heard about Adam.” Rei looked across from her cutting board – Marcus slowly nodded. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“I can go if you’d like.”
She didn’t mean to be standoffish, but that’s how it must have sounded. Marcus wasn’t in the place to get offended – the meaning of the words washed over him, leaving only the bare bones of conversations behind.
“Have you ever seen it?” He was calm, almost normal.
Rei shook her head. This wasn’t her part of town.
“Do you want to?”
They took the pickup, even though it was a three-minute drive. Rei grabbed some drinks from the fridge, pressuring Marcus into finding some ice. They pulled into a service station on the way to get some. The engine finally stopped with a deft turn of the keys. There it was – a few meters in front of the windscreen stood a large black fence. Steel bars stretched upward at fifteen-centimeter intervals, continuing all the way down the small garden bed before turning a corner and disappearing from view.
Rei watched Marcus as he watched the fence. Nothing.
“Yeah. It’s just a fence.”
The plants in the garden swayed slightly as the breeze ran across the hood of the car.
“I guess it is.”
“It’s only new, isn’t it?” The whole time he kept his eyes on it, transfixed. The only reason Rei knew he was talking to her was the absence of anybody else.
“I don’t know, I live ages away.”
“It is. It’s really new; they only finish the renovations a few months back. Before that it was this really old, low brick fence that was covered in gray concrete-y stuff.”
It was an odd conversation, but Rei nodded, vigilantly watching Marcus like a cute puppy or a drugged friend. It was either self-imposed torture or well-needed cathartic release. The silence overwhelmed, slowly morphing to dread which in turn brought more sadness. She broke it the only way she knew how:
Rei swung her door open and jumped onto the asphalt, gone before he could even think to reply. He watched her through the side mirror as she hoisted herself onto the tray and made for the Esky. She stuck her hand through a layer of ice and fished out two small green cans. The drivers door unlatched and Marcus swung his feet out of the cabin, standing.
“Want one?” She already knew the answer.
Rei threw a can his way, and he struggled to catch it. It was all the convincing he needed. He popped the cap and knocked it back.
“Well that was easy.”
Foam trailed down his chin as he spoke – “have you ever seen me say no to beer?” Rei laughed, trying to lift spirits a little. Marcus let on a small smile, which made for a victory. He stepped onto the tray and hoisted himself onto the back of the pickup. Rei sat back on the cabin, one hand keeping her balance, the other swirling beer. The carpark that stretched out before them was mostly empty – Wednesday nights weren’t busy for anyone. Tuesday and Thursday were the cheap student nights, Friday and Saturday were everybody’s game, but Wednesday? Wednesday was for studying, or Netflix, or drinking at home.
“You know this is illegal, right?”
“Yeah – but when’s that ever stopped us?” Rei paused for a second, thinking. “No, seriously, you guys do a lot of illegal shit.”
“I’m no druggie.”
Marcus let a small smile out as he regarded his beer. “We all used to say that.” He took a sip from the tin before continuing: “it all started with beer, like it always does. That was illegal then – fifteen, sixteen. I had my first good vom when I was sixteen – someone dared me to drink a whole one of those small plastic flasks of vodka. You know the ones?”
“That’s three-seventy-five mills.”
“Did the whole thing, plus a six-pack of beer. Won the bet, got a case. The girl left and I vomited everywhere. She still thinks I won.” Rei laughed, feeling like she was allowed to. “That’s where it starts. Then you go to Uni, and you go out to a café, and your friend pulls out a deck. You say, ‘what the fuck, you smoke?’ and they say ‘yeah, it’s all good though, I don’t do it often.’ You don’t believe them, and they go ahead and smoke, and eventually you’re smoking with them at the same table like, three months later. That’s how they got into it, and that’s how you got into it, and it’s how your friends got the idea.”
“Someone tells you they have a pill that makes clubbing fun, and you take it, and it makes clubbing the most fucking fun thing you’ve ever done, you know? It really does. You don’t mind when people mosh you to shit on the dance floor. You get down to deep house like it was always your jam. If you can feel it through the floor, it’s your favourite song for four hours every few Saturday nights.” He pauses, taking another sip of the beginning. Reimena hangs onto his words, reading into every one as deep as she can, but Marcus barely notices her. It’s a soliloquy of sorts.
“Weed? Who even knows? Weed starts when somebody rocks up and says ‘hey guys, wanna smoke some weed?’ and you all go ‘yeah’. Where’s the harm in that? Seth Rogen’s been drowning you in weed jokes since you started watching his shit in year nine and he’s still going strong.” He looks out over the barren asphalt like a comedic Macbeth. “It did do some weird shit to James Franco though.”
He smiled a sly smile as Rei laughed a little more, feeding off her reactions. Nothing left to say, he lent back on the cabin and listened as her chuckles died down to suburban ambience.
“Got any more?”
“I think I’m done.”
“Well, it was good.”
They sat back and finished off their beers, sometimes talking, but mostly silent. The mood fell back down again, Marcus’ exorcism incomplete. Something still lingered about underneath, untouched and unaddressed in his little speech.
The pair walked down to the oval next to the leisure centre and sat on the small hill behind the goalposts. Lights from the car park crept over the hill and shone into the sky above them as they lay on their backs. It was a Nicholas Sparks moment, ripe for exploitation, but neither of them had given romance any thought at all. Their minds were elsewhere entirely. Rei stared upward and imagined losing her own cousin, or brother, or parent. It wasn’t something she could just conjure in her mind. She knew that she’d be broken if anything happened to her family, but her thoughts were so vague and inconsequential that the most she could elicit was a grimace for a particularly gruesome imaginary death. Still, sometimes, when she saw a particularly cute dog in the street, she’d feel like she was about to cry. The mind – what a fucking weird thing. A small patch of slightly worn grass away, Marcus tried to pick out stars in the city sky. It was no use – there were only five or six that you could really see, even on the best of nights. His mind wandered from stars to streets, harking back to times well spent with Adam. Countless trips to McDonalds in the midst of the night, gliding down the main road in neutral, letting gravity do the work. Smoking weed in the back seat, the hotboxed car crowded by his other friends. Drinking double-strength coffee out on the back deck when the house was just new. He even helped stick up the posters when Marcus was still settling into his new bedroom.
Silently, and under the cover of darkness, Marcus cried. Tears rolled down his cheeks and dripped past his ears, hitting the grass so softly you could hardly hear it. His face contorted and he bucked a little as he held in his sobs. Rei’s hand brushed up against Marcus’, and he curled his fingers between hers, squeezing tight. Marcus was content with silence, and Rei was content with Marcus. If he wanted to talk, then they’d talk. All in good time. Until then, she was happy to lie with him until sunrise if need be – when it actually came to that, Rei didn’t show any sign of changing her mind.