She met him at the train station. She was reading the different clocks on the walls. Sydney 2:15. Platform A. Stockton 2:23. Platform B. Her suitcase was in her hand. She was looking through her pockets for change to buy a ticket.
“What’s doing?” he asked, his lighter flicking open. “Where you headed?”
“To college,” she said.
“Uni? You don’t want to go to uni. I’ve been there. It’s a mosquito farm. Don’t go there.”
“Where would I go, then?” She hadn’t meant to be coy, but there she was—coy.
“With me,” he said. “Not to uni.”
He was tall. Tan from the sun and lean. From his wrinkles she thought he was probably older.
“I need to go there,” she said. “It’s my study abroad. I’m registered. I already paid.”
“What do you study?”
He shrugged. “Well, you’ll want a ride at least. I won’t charge, either.” He flicked his spent cigarette. It skipped across the pavement with its cherry burning and the tire of a passing vehicle ran over it and then screeched to a halt. A half-station wagon, half-truck alongside the curb.
“Get in,” he said. “We’ll drop you there.”
She shook her head and looked back at the clocks. Her wallet was stuffed at the bottom of her bag because she’d heard so much about theft.
“Get in,” he said again.
“I don’t know you.” But.
“Maybe,” she said.
“Always heard American girls were decisive. No means no?”
She was tired of lugging the suitcase around. Of the heavy backpack that was making her shirt damp. She was hot and thirsty. Jetlagged. She’d been on a plane for sixteen hours. Gotten off and taken a two hour train to the town and sweated on vinyl seats. Now, she had to find the transfer route to the university.
“Say, you seen a kangaroo yet?”
“Cute little buggers. Vicious though.”
The ute was idling and she heard someone yell. “They’ll box you in the ears. Maybe you’ll cut one up in bio class,” he said. “I’m West.” He held out his hand.
“The way you went,” he said, dropping his hand at his side. “And that,” he pointed at the driver, “is my cousin Crossy, aka Weeded Up Genius, and that’s Lara.”
He didn’t ask her name, but threw her suitcase into the bed of the ute. She wasn’t sure if she had nodded, or if her silence was interpreted as a yes. She opened the side door. Crossy saluted her, his blond hair slung over his brow. She took a seat next to the girl, Lara, who only stared. Deep-set eyes. Pale like she hadn’t been in the sun in a while. And here the sky so blue. A hard blue, the kind that made her squint when they dropped her off.
The university was exactly as West had warned. A haven for mosquitoes. She got out and scratched at her legs. Pulled her suitcase from the trunk. Overhead a black and white bird cawed from a branch and then dove at her.
“Magpie,” West said out of the window as she covered her head with her backpack. “Don’t get too close to its nest.” She heard Lara laugh.
“See yous,” Crossy said.
She looked right and crossed the street as the van drove off. Before leaving home, she’d attended a presentation, hosted by the exchange program. She’d sat at the back and hadn’t recognized anyone. A good sign. You’re going to a country with the most poisonous creatures in the world, the speaker said. But you know how most Americans die? They die crossing the street. Look right first. Right. He tugged at the collar of his Hawaiian-print shirt. A bulky camera dangled from his neck. And one more thing. Don’t look like a tourist.
She looked right. She followed the curving sidewalk to the office. Evatt Hall, the sign said above the door. The guy behind the counter eating Ramen noodles read her name from a book.
“Here you are,” he said. “Flat C, room 2.”
She took the key and found it. Opened the screened door and peered inside. No one was around. A bare kitchen, a TV room. All of the doors to the bedrooms were closed and locked. She found her own room and lay down on the thin mattress. Tried to sleep and couldn’t, rare for her. Tossed and turned. Thought of West. Thought of going back home. But where was that, anyway. She blew dust off the shelves and unpacked half of her suitcase and then sat on the bed. Somewhere a clock ticked and she waited for her flatmates. For anyone.
She flicked on the TV. The Simpsons and Jerry Springer. One more channel. Law and Order.
She watched for awhile and then left the room. Remembered the conversation she’d had on the plane. The fat man’s arm mounted their shared armrest. New South Wales? he asked. Why you want to go there? You ever been there? An attendant in a blue smock pushed a cart toward them. It’s like the ’60s all over again. It’s like Birmingham, Alabama, you know what I mean?
Why don’t you tell me, she said. She unwrapped the package of headphones. Their foam earpieces. To let in noise, to shut it out.
Well, take the aboriginals. Back in the ’30s they’d round them up and shoot them, run them down the valley like animals. Just line them up. Bam! Bam! Bam!
She hadn’t expected this. The man’s arm quivered.
Someone would steal the sheep and then someone’d get murdered, then the police would get involved, and you know the police back then were all criminals. It was better for the ones on the coast.
The attendant leaned over her seat.
Chicken or beef.
Beef, the fat man said.
Wine or soda?
The man grabbed red wine and a Coke and took the lid off his tray. Poked his plastic utensils out of their packaging. They’d surf, clay some fish, throw it in the dirt, fry it up, smack it open, bam! Soft in the middle. Better than what we got here.
She bit down on a dehydrated carrot shaving from the side of her plate. Ornamental, hardly for eating.
The government tried to breed them out for good, the fat man said. On the corner of his tray he had a square of apple pie. Devoured it with two plastic forkfuls.
How do you know all of this? She put the earphones on. She thought of words like indigenous and aboriginal. I am indigenous. My problems are native to myself.
Did some reading, the man said. His face became like gelatin.
She sat up on the bed. Had fallen asleep and not realized it.
Sunlight came through the window and dappled the floor. Led her to the shady sidewalks outside the flat and over the bridge to the train stop.
* * *
She rode the eastbound train from the university to the city. The bar was called The Great Northern. On the glass above the door there was a picture of a train with steam shooting from its pipes. She felt that by going in she might be resigning herself to the tracks. An outsider. A sleeping maiden, tied and waiting.
She went in. The din hit her, smoke coiled about her face. West was at a table drinking a pint. Crossy sat across from him, blonde hair curling over the nape of his neck. Skin sunburnt.
“Fuck me dead I was stoned last night,” he said. His voice was louder than everyone’s around him.
“Back from uni, aye?” West was looking at her. “Told you you wouldn’t want to go there.”
“Fed my cat Baileys and milk and he was doing backflips,” Crossy yelled. Maybe he was slightly deaf.
“How’d you get my number?”
West shrugged. “Not many of you checked into Evatt today.”
“Cops, burnouts, maggotness, what a night.” Crossy slid off the bench and stood. Nodded at her. She felt as though he only saw her as a replica of something. A dead foreign girl stitched and coated in chemicals.
“By ‘you’ he means ‘of the northern hemi,’” he said, and headed toward the bar.
West patted the seat beside him but she drew up a chair instead. “Told you you didn’t want to go to uni,” he said again. “You want to come with me. Up the coast.”
“I’m here to study wildlife. I’ve got classes.”
“All the more reason,” West said.
“We’re animals,” Crossy said. He didn’t smile. Set a mug of dark beer in front of her. Part of it spilled on the table. The liquid red-tinted as it ran across the wood.
“Mixed with raspberry, the way the girls take it,” West said. “What else do you take?”
She shrugged. Drank the beer and remembered the one before that had erased part of her memory. Made her curl in a ball in the bathroom. Made her heart race. Made her speak in riddles. Don’t ever accept drinks from strangers, the nurse had told her the next day in the hospital.
She ran a napkin across the table and the beer left a trail of beads. A damp surface for her elbows to rest upon as she drank. Perhaps she’d feel better if she didn’t consider them strangers.
* * *
She waited on the curb. At the corner of the parking lot. There was a meanness in the heat. A bright glare that yawned over the windows of the buildings around her. The same glare she saw from the plane when they were landing. The miles and miles of glistening ocean beneath. Waves lit up by the sun and the stretch of shore. Years from now she’d remember the glint. It would stay with her always—a bright pane of glass.
Soon an old van pulled up. Volkswagen make and rusted. Piping exhaust and a ratty mattress in the back that she eyed through the meager attempt at curtains. Surfboards were hitched to the top.
“Oi,” West said.
She opened the door. West was driving and Crossy was in the passenger seat beside him. It was unclear whom Lara, head leaning against the opposite window, was with. If she was with anyone. Lara’s narrowed eyes made it very clear, though, that she was intruding as she climbed in the van.
Crossy turned, holding a video camera.
“Say something with your accent,” he said. “Come on.”
“Hi,” she said. “Let’s go.” She didn’t want the guy from the dorm office to see her. She didn’t know if it was the kind of place that would call her home. Or the exchange program at her university.
“Let’s go,” she said again.
“A woman of many words,” Crossy said. “Just like Lara.”
Lara didn’t say anything, silent even when Crossy squeezed her knee so hard his knuckles bulged. He released his grip when the van roared to life and soon the roof of the dormitories was lost to the tall white trees.
West pulled a hat on his head and appointed himself tour guide. “Our attractions here include our rainforests. The reef. The outback. The aboriginals.”
“In that order,” Crossy said.
“See those trees?” West asked. “Called stringybark. See how the lighter parts on the trunks look like letters?”
“We used to light a pipe and read them,” Crossy said.
“No,” West said, “he’s taking the piss on you.”
Lara picked at her nails. “It’s from a worm,” she said, and yawned. Then she looked out the window.
* * *
“Come on, little precious,” West said as they climbed a hill. The van sputtering. Choking on its own fumes. Working so hard to move forward that she suddenly felt a kinship with the machine and wanted to cry.
“Come on, girl,” West said. He patted the dashboard. Pointed at the green canopy. The drop-off beyond the edge of the road. “Volcanoes formed that,” he said. The road weaved and curved and he went faster.
“That’s why the soil’s so fertile. Good for avocados and macadamias.”
The land was a rich red. The color of a gash. She was reminded of the exchange program’s presentation. The students were divided into two groups. Industrialized and third world. Embrace the culture, they said and handed her a mug of tea. Notice every detail, they said. Try to acquire it as your own.
“Plenty of hot nuts for sale around here,” Crossy said, scratching himself. “It’s time for a feed. Anybody hungry for Maccas?”
“No,” she said.
“The Americans are infiltrating our economy,” Lara said.
“You don’t have economy,” Crossy said. “You’re always broke.”
“In the outback,” West said, “the post office still pays for dingo hides.”
His pointing finger was long and directive. Soon they reached the inlet at the bottom of the hill and parked. West and Crossy strode through the sand, surfboards at their sides until they plunged into the ocean.
She watched them from a towel. Got up and read the signs stuck into the sand. Ran her hands over the shark pictures etched into the metal like Braille, so even the blind were warned. Whale shark, basking shark. Oceanic white-tip shark. Dusky, leopard, hammer, great white. The sign listed their prey. They sometimes bite swimmers? she’d asked earlier. They’d just take a nibble, then move on, West said.
Lara lay on a towel a few yards from hers. A radio at her side.
“You want to go in the water for a little?”
“Say,” she said. “You want to go in?”
“No,” Lara said. “I can’t be bothered. But if you want to get wet, go get wet.”
Their towels were beside a sand dune. Trees in the distance. She remembered West’s shtick. Spiders the size of dinner plates in the woods. Their bites would make your urine turn brown. It was the passing of your muscles through your kidneys. Everything dissolved. That’s why it’s called taking a piss, Crossy’d said. She could never tell when he was joking.
She stood and brushed the sand off her legs. Walked until the sand underfoot turned soggy. Until her toes sank. West and Crossy were out past the sandbar. Yards upon yards out. Watching the swell. Straddling their boards and rising over waves that ran their course before crashing white on the sand.
The water was at her ankles. Cold. Then her knees. They waved for her to come deeper. “Oi! Oi, Alabama!”
They’d never asked her name, only where she was from.
A wave crashing on shore made her close her eyes. Salt in her mouth, in her nose. She thought of all the things that could kill her in the water. Take the male platypus. The pair of short spurs attached to his venom gland. If struck, the pain was strong enough to induce vomiting. Or take, for instance, the blue-ringed octopus. Lethal. No antivenom available. And the box jellyfish? West had said that one sting from its tentacle caused cardiac arrest.
She was submerged halfway. Water lapped at her belly button. Then she was swimming out to them. Was diving under waves that felt as though they’d sweep her legs away. Break her in two. She swallowed water. Choked. Swallowed more water but kept going. Her muscles burned, but she was glad for it. Before she left, her psychologist made promises. Your perception will change. A novel memory will be sharper than an ordinary one. Her breaths sharp now. She finally made it to the boards.
“Thought you were going to spew,” Crossy said. “Hurl like a baby.”
West slid off his board. “You want a go at it?”
“She’ll break your board, mate,” Crossy said. “Crack it on the sand.”
“She won’t break it,” West said. “You won’t break it, aye?” He helped her slide on the board and its rough surface scraped her skin. Years later she’d remember trying to balance. The board beneath her, and beneath the board, the waves. She’d remember scanning the horizon and watching the swell under the clouds. The blue rising to a crest. More threatening than the Gulf at home. She watched and waited for something bigger than herself to take her toward shore.
“It’s all in the timing,” West told her.
Then she felt his hands on her back. He pushed the board, sent her paddling. The force of the water behind her. The rush underneath. Timing.
“Now jump up!” West yelled.
“Fuck all, jump!”
Or maybe it was Crossy yelling. Either way she was swinging her feet up, swinging and almost but not quite there, not enough board for her feet. She teetered, clung to it, rode the wave for half a breath until the board tipped at the peak and then nose-dived. She felt the suck of the water as the wave crashed down. She crashed down with it and was forced under. A riptide. Her eyes were closed and it was like being in a funnel. Her body pulled in myriad directions. Sandy jet streams under her and over her and her mouth and nose and ears filling with water. The human body is 70 percent water. Here and elsewhere. Her lungs burned. Burning, as she tumbled again and again until she cracked her head against coral and went limp. Swept out with the tide.
* * *
When she woke she coughed. Spat sand. A mouth of grit.
It was dark out and she heard music coming from a tent nearby. Saw the flicker of a bonfire across the sand. She stood and swooned and then sat again. Lines on her skin from the fold-out chair.
She rubbed her temples and a shadow was at her feet.
“What fucking poor luck,” Crossy said. The camera was a black circle pointed at her face. “Watching you drown was gold.” He laughed and pulled at the bra around his chest. Restuffed his balloons as West walked up.
“You had a concussion,” he said. He wore pink bloomers and a wig. His long legs like sticks.
“West revived ya,” Crossy said. “Mouth-to-mouth. Any comments?” He was still pointing the camera at her.
“What are you wearing?” she asked, although she wanted to ask a different question. What? she wanted to ask. What happened? What more had passed during the hours from light to dark?
“It’s a drag comp,” Crossy said. “A wicked party.”
She allowed herself to be led to the tent. What else? she thought again. What else could she do? It was habit. She’d been sleeping too much at home. Hypersomnia. Depression. She needs to go some place on her own, the doctor told her parents. A change of scenery, he said. She needs to interact more with her environment. Marine biology was a thought. Australia tossed around. Africa would be too hard, her mother insisted. Mexico too dangerous. All this sleeping, the doctor said. Isn’t letting her engage with life. Also, she should eat more protein.And then she was on a plane. Passing through white clouds.
As white as the tent she was under. A huge iron bowl of sangria in the corner. A sound system on a plastic table. An extension cord. People danced to techno music and Billy Joel. Costumed people with painted faces that looked at her own and then away.
“You, woman,” West said. “Drink up.” He held up a glass and a spoon. Orange peels floated on the surface of the wine. One bloated body of a mosquito.
“I’m keen as fuck,” Crossy said. He took the glass and batted fake eyelashes.
“I need some air,” she said.
She felt tightness in her lungs. Like she was still underwater, fighting for her breath. For the first time, fighting. She’s so privileged, her mother had told the doctor. Everything’s been handed to her. Her place inherited at birth. Her whole generation, the doctor had said. Knows nothing of world war, of depression …
“I need some air,” she said again. The white tent like a cloud, a coffin liner.
“Then get it already,” West said.
Outside fire twirlers were spinning their batons. Flame tongues licking the air. She saw Lara in the shadows. Her mouth open, maybe in a laugh.
“Hey,” Crossy yelled at a group of people near their cars. “If you see me walking around stoned with the video camera, brake and accelerate at the same time to get my attention.” He lacked grace as a woman.
“Clap for me later,” West said. His mouth was close to her ear. “Winner gets a tank of free petrol.”
“Well,” she said. “Nothing’s for free.”
His arms were around her and she heard the waves lapping against the sand. Saw the blackness of the ocean that could swallow her like sleep.
* * *
Days blended into nights. She started forgetting things. Perhaps she was falling in and out of sleep again. A casino. A cup full of coins. It was her money they were spending. The money her parents had given her for books, for sightseeing with friends. Then a carnival. The entrance the wide mouth of a clown. Red lipstick, yellow spikes for hair, and blue eyes that matched the sky. A roomful of mirrors and she could not stand to look at herself. She remembered home on the other side of the world where everything was upside down. When you return, the doctor had said, you’ll realize how good you have it. Buy Dramamine for the flight. Try Wal-Mart. Then she was at a crocodile park. Hundreds of baby lizards sunning on cement as she had sunned over sand. Behind a chain-link fence, a fat man straddled a large crocodile. A cowboy hat for a crown. The adult croc can outrun a horse. West’s unceasing lessons. West and Crossy unceasing. A terrible sense of smell they got, West said. So if they can’t see, they can’t get ya. Long snout, Crossy said, grabbing her nose and twisting it. Everything he did was forceful. The way he ate meat off a stick. Or meat pies wrapped in a croissant, bought at a stand along the beach. Me, I like lamb, he’d say. Biting down, always biting down. Cooked to come apart in your mouth. He’d laughed at her salads. At her falafel. Take a predator out of the chain and the whole ecosystem crashes, West said. Maybe, she’d shrugged. You should know that, Miss Bio, he said. She didn’t know anything.
Nights they always managed to find caravans. Sometimes a party, sometimes not. Still, they’d park bumper to bumper with other wagons, vans. Travelers roaming the coast. Sometimes Australians, sometimes Europeans. Asians. South Americans. We’ve been here for six months about, they’d say in English. Accents that she desired for her own. We work on the farms. Picking fruit most of the time. Then we head out again. We plan to do the coast in 12 months. Melbourn to Cairns.
West would pitch a tent or they’d all sleep on the mattress together. In the van or pulling the mattress onto the sand when there wasn’t a chance of rain. During the night Crossy would disappear. Sometimes West. Lara. In the mornings they woke up salted and scratching.
Skin stung by sea lice.
* * *
She rubbed her eyes one day and they were on the far northern coast. The outskirts of a city—Cairns.
Dry, bleached air. Red sand. A giant prawn with glowing eyes at a roundabout. A small brown pony being led by an aboriginal along the highway. The man barely visible in the twilight. She stared at him, a ghost. And this was their homeland first. Perhaps they should’ve thought of home like Crossy and West and her doctor did. In terms of possession.
West slowed as the van passed a large wooden sign with a color spectrum, each level indicating an increase in fire potential. The needle was pointing to the far right. Dead center in the red zone.
“Air’s ripe for a fire,” Lara said.
Even as she said it they could smell the trees burning. They saw it when the van rounded a curve. A glassy, carbon-coated lake. The land around it bright with flames. She felt singed.
“Ignition comes from a flash of lightning,” Lara said.
“Or a tossed cigarette,” said West.
“I know,” she said, as Crossy flicked his out of the window and grinned. She stared outside. Past her reflection in the window to the flames beyond. The smoldering ash. The smoke, heavy above the tree line. Her nose tingled. Her lungs, tight. Perhaps as the land burned, every place she’d lived before was burning from her body. And then she’d be on her own. Not packaged in cellophane to be traded by her university. My American for your Australian. Your Chinese. Your German.
That night they parked near a railroad station. They smelled of fire. Of cigarette smoke. Crossy and West disappeared and brought back a box of Chardonnay. A box of Cab. Two boxes of Merlot.
“Bloody hell,” Crossy yelled. “That steal was off the chain!”
West ran back and forth across the tracks. Grass was growing through the rusted rails. They’d drink until they passed out dreaming. Perhaps she’d still be in one piece in the morning.
She was. Lara was standing over her.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Lara asked.
She was still half asleep. “I was wondering the same about you.” She hadn’t meant to be honest. But.
“I meant on the mattress,” Lara said. “What the hell are you doing on my side of the mattress.”
It was the most they had talked.
She sat up and saw Crossy was gone. She stared at West sleeping on the other side. His eyelashes had crust on them. She stood and her shadow fell upon him. His bare chest, a charted territory. His slow-rising lungs during sleep. It occurred to her that he might never wake. Not if someone were to come along and crush his windpipe. Smother him with a palm over his mouth.
“He didn’t do anything, you know,” Lara said.
“When you were gone. Unconscious. Crossy wanted to take pictures. Sell them.”
“But nothing happened?” She was whispering now. Didn’t want West to hear. Wasn’t ready to face him.
“Nothing. Could’ve, though.”
“But it didn’t.”
“Out of guilt?”
“Does a snake feel guilty about swallowing a rat?” Lara pulled a flattened box of wine out from under the mattress and squeezed a drink. “It’s survival.”
“And?” Her heart was fast in her chest.
“And I told them not to. I told them there’d be easier ways to get what they wanted. I was right.”
She looked at West again. He was lying on his side. His legs stuck out from under the end of the sheet.
“Are you telling me I should leave?”
“Jesus. I’m not telling you anything. Go wash your teeth.”
In the van’s rearview mirror—her teeth stained red from wine. Carnivore teeth. She grabbed her bag and nudged West awake. Told him and Lara she was taking the bus home, wherever that was. Neither protested. Not really.
* * *
The bus ticket back down the coast cost more than just loose change. The bus was for tourists, for passers-by. She emptied her wallet and boarded. There were plenty of open seats and after she chose one a fat girl crowded next to her. Perhaps she was so thin she was hardly noticed.
On the way the driver yelled trivia over the loudspeaker. He mentioned the indigenous problem. His words. He led a vote for what they would watch on TV . A documentary of kangaroos or a documentary on the interior. The home of the aboriginals.
On the screen, kangaroos jumped over houses.
Later there were competitions to pass the time. People stuffed Weetbix cereal down their throats and then puked out the windows. Then it was raw hotdogs. Someone chugged a gallon of milk. A British boy went up to the front of the bus and fucked an apple pie. Wide blue eyes and young.
Engaged with life, her doctor would say.
Her bag was tucked away on the shelf overhead. Her arms folded across her chest. A bitter taste in her mouth. She ran her tongue over her unwashed teeth. Unwashed. Lara’s words, not hers.
Their home, not hers.
Everyone clapped when the boy held up the apple pie.
Classes were ending soon. She’d missed them all. She shut her eyes. Tried to sleep but couldn’t.
This issue of First Proof is sponsored in part by the Bertha and Isaac Lieberman Foundation