Palm Springs, Parakai
The gravel carpark is surrounded by flax. On the ground small furrows filled with water glint like sequins reflecting the full moon. Inside, steam rising from the water is a warm, comforting embrace on a cold night. The sky is as sharp and clear as the taught string of a kite in a stiff breeze.
Taking off your clothes you stand on the frozen, broken-tiled floor in agony. There’s no handle on the toilet door—this place has seen better days. Though the sentinel lions next to the dying phoenix palms are new. So are the white gauze and gold ribbons draped across the changing room windows. Small clumsy branches of lavender are attached to each cubicle door.
There’s a guy next to me in the water and I can hear the steady hiss of his breath like drops of liquid spilled on a hot element. He’s young, fit and good looking; he may even have a tattoo and he’s drinking a can of beer, but he’s not looking at me; I’m not looking at him, mostly. Although I catch a glimpse of him when, from time to time, I glance casually at the moon. Scarves of mist rise from the luminous water.
I might talk to him, he might talk to me—something about the moon, that fat white disk blazing away up there in the chilled sky like a cheap, gaudy brooch on a black velvet dress.
And the water is steaming like a pot of rice when you take off the lid. It rushes up your nose in warm gusts that make you sigh and shudder with intense pleasure. Your limbs are letting go and in a moment you’ll be asleep, your elbows supporting you on the tiled steps. Your legs straight out in front like two white logs; the hairs on your legs a sparse forest harbouring the odd silvery bubble so your skin appears glazed, your feet afloat, toes just breaking the surface.
In a moment you’ll slide beneath the surface into a cauldron of dreams about the man beside you who may or may not be looking at you, his back to the moon, the potted palms, the trucks and four-wheel-drives rumbling along the road on the other side of the fence.
The pool cooks up snippets of conversation, body fluids, the sweat of a long day at the office, hours behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler. These interactions are full of potential for joy and disappointment.
At the other end of the pool some teenagers are smoking B & H and drinking Coke. God knows what they’re talking about.
The girl in the yellow bikini is a snake-hipped blonde. As she slides into the pool all eyes are on her. Every woman in that pool can remember being young and beautiful, some of them sylph-hipped like she is. Every man can imagine what it would be like to possess her, to divest her of that yellow scrap of lycra barely clinging to her breasts and belly. But the two teenage boys, her companions, don’t look at her. They bask in her presence, drinking in the reflected glory like men standing around a fire and holding out their hands to the warmth but not looking directly into the flames.
A bald skinny man arrives and strikes up a casual conversation with a stranger who drives a log truck in and out of the forest between Helensville and Muriwai Beach for Carter Holt Harvey.
‘Do you own the truck?’ asks the skinny man, leaning against the tiled edge of the pool.
‘No,’ says the man whose arms are covered in tattoos.
‘Better not to own your own truck,’ says the skinny man emphatically. ‘It costs so much to maintain them. And who wants the responsibility for a quarter-of-a-million-dollar-rig?’
‘One of the boys blew the diff the other day—twelve thousand dollars to fix it! Who needs that?’ laughs the driver.
‘Yeah, you’re better off driving for wages,’ says the skinny man.
‘The hardest thing, though, is to stay awake.’
‘What do you take? Must be something harder than coffee and Coca-Cola? The skinny man gives a knowing smile.
‘I will say I enjoy coffee. I will say I enjoy Coke. The worst thing, though, is when you see a car coming straight towards you on the wrong side of the road.’
‘True! What do you do?’ The skinny man is getting excited. ‘I have a friend who drives a truck and he says it’s much better to drive for wages.’
‘Oh I don’t know about that.’ The driver tilts his head speculatively.
‘You must have a lot of dials to keep track of,’ says the skinny man, returning to the actual business of driving, the thing that fascinates him the most.
‘King of the road!’ laughs the driver, easing himself deeper into the water.
‘Of course a car would come off much worse wouldn’t they, I mean if you hit one.’ The skinny man shudders, thinking of his little Japanese hatchback in the carpark.
‘A mate of mine pulled over onto the shoulder to let the traffic past and the whole rig rolled. Scared the shit out of him. They had to get a crane to right the thing.’
‘Have you ever worked on the wharves?’ asks the skinny man.
‘Nah. I’ve sailed paper ships.’
The skinny man does all the talking while the truck driver grunts and sighs as the water wears away the vibrations of the road, each gear change, each hill and corner, each steep grade. The searing light of oncoming cars, their headlights boring into his skull as he struggles to stay awake for the next kilometre and then the next two hundred after that. He lets the lonely, skinny man, who once worked on the wharves, prattle at his side and what might be admiration and awe transform this boring, needy attention from a stranger into something he hasn’t had time to realise he’s missing until that moment in the moonlit pool.
The skinny man inches closer, emerging from an impersonal curtain of steam and the truck driver feels the water ripple against his legs as the man moves in. He feels the man’s hungry, searching gaze. His own face is flushed, his blood pounding in his ears, the pulse suddenly so rapid in his neck he’s sure the other will see a vein kicking there. Underwater he trawls one exploring finger, but slowly, cautiously, the way you would approach the most rare and beautiful insect, barely daring to breathe in case you startled it, dislodged it from its blade of grass.
The skinny man feels a feather-light touch on his thigh that may be nothing more than ripples of water caressing his skin. He’s so close to the other he can see the drops of water clinging to damp, curled hair, the texture of skin on the truck driver’s shoulders. His breath catches in his throat and suddenly, unaccountably, he can’t think of a single thing to say about differentials or semi-trailers or what it was like working on the waterfront all those years ago.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Virginia Were is an award-winning poet, short fiction writer and journalist who lives at Muriwai, Auckland. She has written two books of poems and stories—Juliet Bravo Juliet (1989) and Jump Start (1999)—and her work has appeared in many literary journals and major anthologies of New Zealand writing. She is editor of the quarterly magazine Art News New Zealand.