There are five or six girls, sitting on a bench in Christchurch meadow with notebooks on their laps. On the lawns behind are larger groups of students, in the city for the summer. Backpacks lie flung on the grass. I listen to each of them, talking in their native language. Every so often they will try out English phrases on each other – those they have learnt that morning perhaps. The girls on the bench are gossiping quietly, showing each other their work. At the end of the bench, a boy sits, facing the other way. He has his palms flat on his thighs. His body is rigid.
It’s as if he’s making a resolution, I think.
He will tell her tonight.
Perhaps he’s berating himself for an already missed opportunity, using the disappointment to fire himself up. He will do it. Tonight.
When I was fifteen, I got drunk with a boy I was seeing at school. We were deep in the woods on a warm afternoon, lessons over for the day. It wasn’t the first time I’d been drunk, he wasn’t my first boyfriend, but so much was new: being entirely alone with someone older, of the opposite sex – so far away from people, from interruptions – drinking, just the two of us.
After a while, I begin to need to pee.
I continue drinking from the can in my hand, unable to decide what to do. To tell him is impossible – too personal. He will imagine me, squatting down in the bushes and won’t fancy me anymore.
The urge grows and I begin to fret. I become short tempered, bite at something he says. Then I see my way out. I begin to argue with him, trying to escalate things to a level that will enable me to storm off. I try – standing up abruptly – but fail, either because he reaches for me or I falter, or both: the moment isn’t hot enough.
He suddenly says: um…sorry, do you need the loo?
I’m mortified. NO! I shout.
And then, as if this question – the impertinence – has enraged me beyond return, I run off. I do not stop – I can’t. When I’m certain he’s not following me, I crouch beside a bush. When I stand up, I sigh in utter bliss, then continue to walk slowly back to school, elated by the relief.
Shame only comes later. With sobriety, I expect.
They are meant to be in their beds by ten o’clock, but once they have been checked in many sneak out and into other rooms. Each morning, Constanza hears of who went where. She behaves as if this is a silly waste of time, but tonight she rests beneath the starched sheet, willing to hear a rustle at the door – the whisper of her name. She imagines the way she might answer. How should she arrange herself on the bed? She could pull her t shirt down and expose her tanned shoulders.
Both curtains are open and the moon has risen into view – enough to brighten the room with a silver dust. She lies on her front. Now, the door slides open, and clicks closed a moment later. She hears footsteps across the wiry carpet. Raphael comes to kneel at the side of the bed. It is difficult to keep her eyes closed – once or twice they twitch of their own accord.
On my final night in Australia on my gap year, I went to a club with my brother, with nothing in my mind, but to have a good time. We were staying in a backpackers’ and were leaving for the UK in the morning. My brother’s flight was several hours earlier than mine.
I noticed a boy dancing with me. Eventually, we began to talk. The fact that he had the same name as my brother was a great ice breaker. The three of us continued to party, heading back to the hostel once the club closed.
My brother took himself off to bed. I ventured out into the garden with the boy. We sat at one of the wooden picnic tables and started kissing. Voices came and went, doors slammed. Traffic wheezed on the road, beyond the high brick wall. The night was soft and warm. I took a break to go inside and pack my bags. When I came out again, the boy had taken off his shirt. He had extremely small nipples and strange patches of hair around his sternum. I faltered.
He left just before my brother got up. The taxi was already there, waiting to take us to the airport. My brother checked his bags and went through, and I sat in the lounge area, thinking the next few hours would pass slowly, painfully.
Perth airport is small. Having been back there recently, I can picture where I was sitting, though I wouldn’t have been able to remember from that first time I was there. I can see the glass front, which looks out onto the carpark, the electric doors.
I look up as they swish open. It’s the boy from the club.
I couldn’t go to work, he said, sitting down next to me. I called in sick.
He gave me one of his rings. I thought I would never be able to get on that plane.
At some point, I needed to go to the toilet, which was beyond the cafe area to the right. When I came out of the cubicle, I saw the boy, standing by the sinks. He came towards me, talking. His words were hot and mumbled. I simply laughed at what he was suggesting, but I realise that for him there was a greater more serious level of desire going on.
When I got back to the UK, I saw my uncle and aunt.
How was Australia, my uncle asked me.
Amazing, I told him. I’m going back as soon as I can.
My uncle smiled and said: okay, so what’s his name?
The girls are gathered on Broad Street, outside another of the famous colleges. The boys are with them. They have a few hours until they have to return to their rooms – tiny, cramped quarters with papery linen, which Constanza leaves dishevelled each morning, only to return to everything pulled tight once more. Climbing into the narrow bed, she will tug at the sheets, which seem to suck the body heat from her, hiding it for an age, before gently giving it back. Only then can she surrender to sleep, having gone over every detail of Raphael from that day. She first will pick apart every look of his, and then each word – she remembers them all – seeing if there might be something, hiding there, which might console her feelings for him. She might imagine him in the room with her – perhaps standing by the window, watching her. In a moment he will reach out and touch her shoulder.
She falls asleep then, dreaming of him. He grabs her hand as they are arguing in a wood, where the trees grow endlessly up.
Why do you hate me! she cries at him.
Hate you, he shouts. I don’t hate you.
And then he yanks her towards him, so that she flies at his chest, and suddenly they are kissing.
In the morning, at breakfast, she feels as though the air between them is burning. If he were to touch the tip of his finger against her wrist she would collapse onto the floor. But then she catches a glimpse of him, shovelling eggs into his mouth. A tiny creamy yellow blob lands on his chin. She has to look away and shake herself, for suddenly he seems quite repulsive.
Now, she flicks her hair over one eye. The boys are in a group close to the gates of the college. They shout across to the girls, pointing at the people, sitting outside the cafes. They dare someone to go and dance in front of them. She wonders what Raphael is thinking about. He hasn’t spoken for some time, but he has pressed himself close to the other boys and seems interested in this challenge.
Okay, Constanza says.
You have to ask for money too! one of the boys shouts.
She wants to look at Raphael, but doesn’t dare.
Everyone is giggling as she walks across the road and chooses two women, sitting at the front of a group of tables. The sun is low and they still have their sunglasses on. A pair of white cups have been pushed aside, both with pink lipstick half moons on the rim.
Constanza begins to hum. Nerves have made her voice shaky, but she lifts her arms in the air. She stares at the ground, though she can sense something from these two women – more than the fact that they have stopped talking. She moves from one foot to the other. One of the women clears her throat and Constanza feels her face twitch with embarrassment. She begins to turn her wrists, clicking her thumbs.
After another moment, she cups her hands and dips her knees slightly, glancing very quickly at each woman in turn.
What are you doing? one of them asks. She thinks they must be American.
She shrugs and makes an incoherent sound, looking at them dumbly, gesturing with her cupped hands again, but they are now looking over their shoulders and have crossed their arms tightly over their bosoms.
She giggles and skips away – though this is not how she feels at all. Shame has made her itch all over so that she has to leap, to run, to get away. She goes the entire length of the street and only then looks for the others. They have dispersed – some of them are hiding behind parked cars. Raphael is standing up against the wall near the bookshop. His body is rigid. Constanza pretends she has not noticed him, walking as if her attention has been caught by something in the sky, thinking to entice him that way. She walks, feeling a grief, creeping towards her the longer she waits for him, until her girlfriends fly out of various doorways, screaming, surrounding her. Though relief comes quickly, conquering everything uneasy, there is a sense of regret too, because he will certainly not approach now.
A friend came sailing with my family in Greece the summer I was due to turn sixteen. Towards the end of the holiday, she went off with a local man that we’d met in a bar one evening.
My father went into a discrete panic when we got back to the boat and he saw she wasn’t with us. Apparently, he spent the night searching for her. When she finally returned, he told her: anything else like that and he’d send her home.
I hadn’t known any of this at the time. It came up in a conversation years later. At last, my father was able to express his fury. He seemed surprised – as if I should have known how insane it was: how serious it would have been if he’d had to inform her parents that she’d, say, been raped.
That same holiday, I was involved in a new experience. I was having long wonderful conversations with someone several years older than me. He was a man not a boy. Both of us were in relationships. I was still seeing the guy I’d got drunk with – the one I’d had to argue with in order to get a pee break. The man was seeing a woman who I imagined as slender and willowy, with that very delicate pink skin that reddens at the touch; pale copper hair, like wheat beneath the setting sun.
Both the man and I had been unfaithful to these partners. We both regretted it deeply and spoke about that regret often. Sometimes, I thought we were trying to persuade each other that it would be okay, that it would be worth it – perhaps we would start something with each other; we wouldn’t have to go back to these other relationships and confess. At other times, I think we were trying to explain to each other why it couldn’t happen.
Everyone else on the holiday noticed. We would sit together wherever we could and immediately be thrown into some unravelling discussion, our two heads growing together, like a sculpture.
Sometimes I felt pained by it all. This was on days where I couldn’t decide if I would risk it all, or if I would deny myself. I would thump between these two extremes in a rising and sinking of elation.
Maybe, I felt as though it were up to me – that he would, if I would only give him a sign. And then there was a moment when I felt I would give in, but I saw something in his eyes. It was a fear almost. I pulled myself back; lay in bed that night, unable to sleep.
I thought I’d carry the experience of this for a long time, but it faded very quickly – almost at the airport as we all said goodbye. I think it was the meaningful way he looked into my eyes. It was suddenly all too soppy – now that we were no longer surrounded by the ocean, sitting in restaurants on the waterfront, candlelight about us. In the harsh strip lighting of the airport, he looked rather too English and feeble.