Where did Elise get her confidence? There she was making her way up the sandstone path through the overgrown garden with an absolute surety. It was the way she moved, balanced so, her small body quick through the light and shadow. Her life just fell into place around her, Sasha decided. How could anyone be so sure? Elise was the one who had decided they would move to the old house. She had quit her job in the city, leaving Sasha uneasy. She just shed one existence and was moving through a new one in less than a week. Sasha wished she could do these things so easily.
She turned away from the small waving figure and back to her car. Already, the cicadas in the spotted gums around the house were making her ear drums buzz and she’d only just pulled in.
Elise looked as if she belonged here. She fitted onto the path, the fibro beach shack that had been in her family since the early 50s seemed to embrace her. Her hair was wet, probably from a swim. The way she dived into the water off the jetty was too much for Sasha. Her teeth went on edge, like they always did when the boys would scratch their nails down the blackboard at school. How could Elise throw off her clothes and toss herself into the water? How did she know no-one would be looking? How did she know that Sasha wouldn’t look at the way her skin continued from her neck down to her breasts and out onto her belly like one skein of fabric? How did she know nothing would come up out of the murky deep of the water where the sunlight couldn’t get to, and grab her, bite her, pull her down? What was it that buoyed her to the surface so readily? And why did the African irises and asparagus ferns that infested the slope of garden right down to the water’s edge brush against Elise’s bare legs, where they always seemed to scratch Sasha.
Well, maybe confidence came with ownership. Elise was about to inherit the house, or at least part of it. Even now, as she pulled her last few belongings out of the Barina, Sasha wondered if she could live up to her friend’s dreams for her. As she took out her bedding, putting it reluctantly on the dirty sand, the sense of freedom, the sense that anything was possible, that the two of them would make things happen, left her. And in its stead the wretched hollow opened in her again.
‘How was the drive?’ Elise asked, reaching out an embrace.
‘Fine, fine.’ Sasha tried to be breezy, a deep breath of the salty air. Elise smelt of ocean, she smelt like the hot leaves in the scorch of the sun. Her hug was brief, mechnical. Sasha found herself wanting to hold her by the waist, like Eddy did when he was walking with her. Sasha wanted to lay her head on her friend’s shoulder and cry. But she struggled against it, like she had been against falling asleep next to Elise these last few nights, and turned away.
‘The piano made it.’ Elise smiled. Sasha breathed in sharply and looked back at her friend. How had she forgotten the piano? In her dreams Sasha had seen it float out into Pittwater, wreaked and gutted, it was sunk too deep in the green water to dive for. Sasha helpless on the shore couldn’t get a boat, couldn’t get anyone to see how she needed the piano, or her concert would be cancelled, her career in ruin. In her dream she had a career in music. She was the centre of something. Everyone needed her to perform. The removalists just laughed at her. Sasha, woke grieving from her sleep to find herself on the far side of Elise’s futon, the sun lapping at the curtains. There was a sense, in her dream, that Elise was somehow responsible. And this worried Sasha, so she would lie absolutely still and just listen to Elise in the kitchen, boiling the kettle, the gurgle of her stovetop espresso, the pad of her bare feet out onto the verandah. And sometimes Sasha felt that it might just be possible – as she had that first morning they met – for Elise, her thin wrists, the spring in her step, the way she turned her head to listen and would talk about anything, things that other people spent so much energy avoiding – for her to fill that gap Sasha heard in herself.
‘I thought you’d want to know. Hey let me take that.’ And Elise brushed Sasha’s arm as she reached for the pile of sheet music and the bag of groceries. ‘They were nice guys, the piano guys, they stayed for a coffee. They said you might need to tune it soon though, because of the salty air, humidity.’
‘They stayed for a coffee?
‘Yeah, I think they thought it was an interesting old house.’
‘And you were interesting too.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, they are just removalists. I paid them half my salary to move that piano, you don’t have to be all that nice to them.’
‘Don’t worry, they had to work hard to get it down the path.’
‘Uh.’ And Sasha felt stupid, as if her friend had just seen right through her and was laughing at her.
The drive from the city, through the old suburbs, along the winding ribbon of the Monavale Road and out onto the peninsular was enough to send the breath right up into your chest. Through the trees you got glimpses of the sea, bluer than you’d think it could be against the sky. The drive took long enough for Sasha to practice her arias, her scales and sing along with the Best of Crowded House CD. She’d calculated the route, counting the traffic lights, comparing the bridge with the detour and now, having done the drive five times, she knew which lanes to get in, where she could overtake. She enjoyed the driving, enjoyed doing the two things at once: singing and accelerating. When you pulled in to Avalon, the sea air speckled the windscreen with salt. Sasha would obediently slow to a crawl with the traffic, turn the fans down and lean over to open the passenger window. The whole drive had a sense of history to it, the old houses, the big trees, the roads following the contours of the hills, not cutting through and across them. Sasha found it frustrating and yet, somehow it also made sense to some part of her. She liked the leers of the surfers as she sped past them, her mane of wavy hair catching in the draught. She liked, too the looks she got from the older men, the balding ones in suits driving their smart cars, who would peer over their sunglasses at her, approvingly. If only my dad could see me now, she’d think. Or Elise.
Elise was having coffee with Eddy and some of his friends, when Sasha approached them. She was a friend of a friend, and she sat down next to Elise. Had she been at David’s party, yeah that one with the wings theme? Elise felt she knew her from somewhere, the familiarity of her hands, the shape of her eyes, the way she laughed with abandon?
‘Were you at the fireman’s ball about two months ago?’
‘Ah, yes I was. I was the one in the canary yellow.’
‘Well, that must be how I know you then.’
‘That would explain it.’ And they laughed together at the quickness of the exchange, how they were both on their toes. Talking the same chat lines, the same stupid conversations that others took so seriously. The warmth, like flirting, but doing it safely because there was Eddy sitting just there, and this woman was only waiting for a takeaway coffee.
Sasha smiled at Elise, the kind of smile that had that warmth, and recognised the warmth was returned, and that there was a seam of it to mine.
They found that they were both working on creative projects without support. They were frustrated with the city. They were tired of trying to earn enough money to pay the rent. Flatmates were difficult. So much that seemed so enticing about earning money just left you no time to write or sing, and how could you ever make it writing or singing if you had to meet these societal expectations placed on you by your family and friends who didn’t understand why you needed to be creative? Why was it that you needed to do what everyone expected anyway?
The quick easy way that Sasha talked, so fluent in the problems that were only just becoming problems for Elise, impressed her. Sasha brushed her hair over her shoulder and spoke with vigour and conviction. She splayed her hands to emphasise her point. She seemed to have endless empathy for how Elise was feeling. And as they talked the banter of the group spilt around them. Sasha nodded and laughed and stayed to drink her takeaway, perched on the arm of someone’s chair. Elise watched Sasha’s hands, the olive skin against the bright silver rings.
‘I live across the road. Why don’t you come over and hear this song I’m telling you about?’
‘Love to.’ And Elise just got up, and brushing Eddy’s shoulder to let him know she was going, she left the café with Sasha.