We used to fuck with the light on, back before the lights went out. We walked down George Street, heat rising off the concrete, red wine in the cracks of your lips, Levis rolled above your ankles and hanging low on your boyish hips. A dragonfly hovered in front of us, riding the updrafts of heat from the baked-all-day bitumen and you laughed, delighted, said I haven’t seen one of those for ages. The ceiling of your bedroom slanted down like an attic roof, a maidenhair fern crisped by the window. You licked all the way down the seam of my body, opening me up like a zipper undone. I didn’t need to tell you softer or like this. You knelt between the altar of my crooked knees, your dark hair spread across my pale skin.
‘Don’t close your eyes.’
Your body above mine, that birthmark on your ribcage, a plum coloured stain across your delicate bones. The patch of sky out your window orange and burning, ash on the wind.
The night we said we loved each other we were just two kids stretched out on a thin mattress on the floor. We rented an Airbnb in a small seaside town on the Eastern Victoria coastline. There were people rustling in the room next door, your friends from the protests who I didn’t know well. Rob talked incessantly about the mine, the sharp, vinegary smell of his sweat clawing at me in the small kitchen. At dinner he said to me Hanna, it’s worse than you think, I promise. Like I didn’t get it, or didn’t care enough. Which maybe in the end I didn’t.
Later, after the reef died properly, a long thin scar puckering the coast, bleached like old bones, I wanted to call you. But at the time, it was hard to believe things would go that far. The brownouts were bad that year—the power was off more often than on—the humid heat and candle light making the beads of sweat on your skin glow. You’d changed your major by then, abandoned your poetry for a kind of rage I couldn’t begin to understand. You were on fire with it in the warm-dark closeness of the unfamiliar bedroom. Your hands were moving in the air, crescents to demonstrate falling, shapes to show the movement of ice breaking from glaciers, how everything was shifting and moving and expanding. I was listening to your voice, but the words didn’t matter, not compared to the fizz that was sizzling in me. I told you and you looked at me with your black eyes tarry and endless. Pressed your thumb against my lips. Said it. Said it again in English. My want sheared off into your mouth like those icebergs calving into the sea.
It was afternoon, the hours when the light slants in between the magnolia branches, glinting off the kitchen sink, the cluttered share-house dishes no one will claim. Your back was to the door and I didn’t realise you were crying until I turned from flicking on the kettle.
‘Want a cup of… what’s wrong?’
Your face swollen, your eyes lost. You’d been crying for a long time. I came around behind you and looked down at your laptop screen. It was that video of the starving bear. I closed your laptop with a gentle click.
‘I read that maybe it was injured and it starved ’cause it couldn’t hunt.’
You said something in Vietnamese, too fast and low for me to decipher.
Put my hand against your back. You inhaled a shuddering breath, the bones of your shoulders sliding under my fingers. The kettle whistled, steam fogging the window.
‘How are you just coping with this?’
Your voice accusatory, angry. I thought of holding your head against my chest at night, your intense despair. I thought of the news out of Cape Town, the river delta, Bangladesh. I thought am I coping?
‘Maybe you should take a break. Go for a walk or something.’
You shrugged yourself away from my touch. Opened the computer.
‘The least I can do is watch.’
The bear dragged itself across bare ice-less earth, a fur-covered skeleton.
The park was nearly empty, the darkening sky promising water. A large golden dog romped around, its owner strolling by the pond. The water lay flat, a beaten disc reflecting a dull gun-coloured sky. I could see you chewing the inside of your lip, where you’d gnawed so much there was a sore, a patch of hurt that you couldn’t let alone. The night before, I’d watched you spitting salt water into the sink and thought I don’t know if I love you anymore. And then I thought I love you so much I think I could die.
‘I’m going up north.’
Voice distant, final. I shut my eyes against it. It seemed impossible to undo our own damage.
‘They’re picking me up on Wednesday.’
You looked so small, walking there by the water, your sandals squishing on the wet grass, neon green from the sprinklers. I wanted to ask things: are you scared of getting arrested, have you told your dad, what about how bad it is, what about uni, what about me?
‘Can you believe they’re still watering the grass?’
The look you gave me—I’d always known it, but right then you knew, too: I’m a coward. A crowd of big black birds hopped on the grass, jabbing their thick beaks at the damp earth. The closest bird jerked its head one way and then the other, to look at us out of each dark deadly eye.
That first summer, we lay on the bleachers at the Fitzroy pool. Your skinny limbs laid out on the hot concrete, the knobbly bone of your hip above the line of your bikini, while below us the pool burned in chlorine glory. The fires to the north of the city were burning out of control and the air smelled like smoke. It was so hot that every breath burned, but you fished in your bag for the tobacco.
‘How can you smoke in this heat?’
You shrugged, sweeping your mountains of shiny black hair up into a ridiculous topknot. Behind your giant sunglasses your eyes were invisible. We kissed on your dad’s couch, the fake leather slippery with our slick bodies. My dress fell away in clouds of cloth; you peeled me open like an onion. The orchids in the vase watched like monsters. Dipped my fingertip in the sweat collecting in the hollow of your clavicle, while the rattan blades of the fan stirred the thick air above us. You told me In Vietnamese the word for water is the same for country. I watched your lips, your crooked teeth, over and over. Apologised for my mouth, which couldn’t make the right shapes for the sound. The fabric of your shirt was limp with sweat, sleeves rolled back over your thin wrists, a cigarette propped between your bitten fingers. I had to give them up, too impossibly expensive now, like most things, but also they just reminded me of you. Your dark eyes burned in the honey light pooling beneath the window. You cupped your free hand behind my neck and pushed my head down, opening your legs like wings. I tasted salt in the folds of you. Your back arched, a shape outside language.
Out across the grey-blue water the mega-freighters crawled along the horizon line, their enormity reduced to a fingertip. The gulls flung themselves into the wind.
‘They won’t be able to come here soon.’
I could hardly hear you over the noise of the construction, the gusts skirling over the sand. Down by the mouth of the river the cranes speared into the sky, bent bones hefting steel and stone. The twin curves of the Yarra Barrier reminded me of a cervix, clenching closed against the storm surge, opening out to bleed the river into the sea, to let the gigantic ships slide into the docks.
‘The boats. When the sea levels rises they won’t fit under the bridge.’
I looked back at you sitting on the beach. It wasn’t even that cold—it never is anymore—but you were wearing a coat, hunching your back into it, drilling your heels into the sand. I hadn’t realised how thin you’d gotten the past few months. Your cigarette was out and you kept flicking the lighter, but one hand cupped was not enough to stop the wind.
You snatched yourself back from my offered hand, your voice snarling out from gritted teeth.
‘I can do it.’
The wind was inside my clothes. I turned away from you and opened my mouth into it, feeling it push the words back down inside me. Across the water the walls were going up and I wondered if it was too little too late.