You sit on the countertop, cutting your hair with the kitchen scissors. There is more of it on the bathroom tiles than on your head. You like the feel of the hair breaking apart between the blades. The window is open; the street below creeps in. There is the sound of a lawnmower. The feeling like the world is about to become warm again. You close your eyes and breathe in, and you could almost be somewhere else, with someone else, walking through a park. Cicadas conversing in the grass. The sun finding its way between the trees. You open your eyes and there are the dirty blue walls of the bathroom; there are the scissors in your hand, strands of hair clinging to the open blades. You are seventeen years old.
It’s dark by the time you leave the restaurant. You turn up the collar of your coat and she turns up hers, and you wrap your arms around each other’s waists as you walk down the street. But she’s not holding you as close as she could, and she must be at least as cold as you are. You remember her face over dinner, her gaze always slipping away.
‘Is something wrong?’
‘Come on, Ellie. What’s bothering you?’
But when you reach the end of her street her arm falls to her side and she looks at her feet as she says, ‘Actually, there is something.’
That shock of cold air on skin that’s been so warm for so long.
The long silences on the phone have become regular. Tonight you listen to static where Ellie’s voice used to rush over your ears like water over stones. You can’t remember the last time she finished a sentence. It’s always, ‘I’m sorry but I just -’ or ‘I wish you would -’, and you never know what to say. These days, whenever you to go her place you’ll lie on her bed while she lies on the floor, her hair spread out around her head, and it seems as if she’s never seen anything more fascinating than her bedroom ceiling. The minutes that pass like that. And then Ellie finally speaks with her eyes fixed on the lightbulb above her head. ‘How do you know, though? How can either of us know if we feel the same?’
You are sixteen years old, clinging to Ellie’s hand in the cold. Your shoes slap the concrete as you run with her across the school. Her hair is in a ponytail on one side of her head, bouncing against her shoulder. How strange school is, you think, with all the students gone; how empty and lonely it is. You and Ellie had both just wanted to do this, to be in school after it had stopped being school and become just a bunch of buildings huddled together, the way you’re huddled together under the shelter on the turf, looking out at all the green. And later you sit at the bus stop and it’s just the two of you surrounded by litter and graffiti. Ellie rests her forehead on your cheek; you press your nose into her hair. The hems of your skirts are loose across your knees. Your tights stretch across your legs.
You and Ellie catch the train out of the city one morning. You feel the world slide away beneath you; watch long ribbons of sky and sea and grass flick past the window, punctuated by the occasional tunnel or town. The carriages are almost empty. After an hour you get off and find yourselves in a half-asleep sea-weathered town; you blink, feeling as if you’ve stepped back fifty years in time. You buy two-scoop ice creams at the dairy and walk along the footpath beside the sea. Ellie’s coat is royal blue. Her scarf is fat and multi-coloured and trails down to her knees. Her hair is the brightest thing in the world. The wind is salty and whips your hair across your faces in gusts. The beach isn’t sandy but full of small stones that crunch under your feet as you walk down to the water. You sit not far from where the biggest waves reach, and Ellie winds her scarf around your neck. Out near the horizon you can see a boat, or at least you think it’s a boat, it’s hard to tell amongst all the grey.
‘Promise me something,’ she says.
She leans her head on your shoulder. ‘One day we’re gonna live somewhere like this.’
It’s last period and Ellie’s doodling on the back page of your maths book with a yellow Sharpie. ‘Wanna go somewhere after school?’
The park is full of browns and reds, and underfoot the leaves are damp from the weekend’s rain, but sunlight falls in pools on the grass. You walk with Ellie beside the stream. She’s tossing bits of her sandwiches to the ducks. You like the excited noises they make, the way they waddle across the grass and glide across the water and dart toward the pieces of bread. She stops to peel a leaf from the sole of her shoe. She smiles at you. You can’t remember if this is how close friends normally walk. When she reaches out and catches your fingers with her own, nothing needs to be said. You walk along and the sky is so bright, and Ellie’s hair is so so red, and you feel as if you could be in a dream.
You are fourteen years old and the walk home from school has recently become your favourite time of day. You like the way it gives you time to think, how there’s always something to look at. And you like the girl who always walks home your way, she’s in some of your classes, you’re pretty sure her name is Ellie. Her hair reminds you of the colour the sky sometimes turns just as the sun is setting at the end of summer. Sometimes she’s with friends, laughing, her teeth almost jumping out of her mouth. But sometimes she’s alone, and you keep thinking how when she is you just want to run and catch up to her and say hello.
You are nine years old, standing on a stool at the kitchen bench with your mother’s apron draped around you as you mix together the ingredients for cupcakes. She is making a home movie of you, one she will watch on her own many years later. The weight of your hair in its ponytail down your back is comforting. It’s getting longer and longer and this makes you happy, you want it to keep growing all the way to your feet and out your window like Rapunzel in the fairytale.
You are four years old, entranced by the cherry tomatoes growing in your grandmother’s garden. A few weeks ago they were green but now they are so so red. You pick one; the skin has split in the sun but you eat it anyway, your teeth breaking through the flesh, the juice and seeds bursting out onto your tongue. Your feet are soft and fat in their jelly sandals; your shorts come down almost to your knees. You run across the lawn toward the lemon tree, holding your sunhat down over your ears so it doesn’t fall off. Cicadas hum under the leaves. They’ve left their old skins on the trunk of the tree: you pick them off gently with your thumb and forefinger, careful not to crush them, and hold them in your palms. They are like afterimages burned onto your eyes long after the real picture has changed.