A Story of Now: Chapter 16


At three o’clock, Claire finds Mia exactly where she said she’d be, under the tree on the west side of the lawn. She’s sprawled on her stomach, arms draped over her bag, holding a paperback in front of her face.

Claire sits down on the grass next to her.

“What? No homework? No textbooks? Might that be actual leisure reading?”

Mia looks up, smiles, and pulls off her glasses. “I should be studying,” she says with a sigh. “But sometimes you just have to rest your brain, you know?”

“I rest my brain with trashy TV, not—” Claire reaches over and pushes the book toward Mia’s face so she can get a look at the cover. She lets the book go, grimacing. “Early twentieth-century literature.”

Mia raises an eyebrow. “How do you know that?”

“Because I’m a genius.” Claire opens her water bottle and takes a nonchalant sip.

“It does seem that way.” Mia dog-ears the page and closes the book.

“We might have studied it last year. Pretty depressing first feminist novel.” Claire hangs air quotes around “first.” “Lady marries dude. Lady falls in love with another dude. Lady feels too guilty to be with other dude. Lady kills herself. Totally depressing.”

Mia sighs and tosses the book on the grass in front of her. “Way to spoil it, Claire.”

Claire slaps a hand to her mouth and giggles. “Oops, sorry!”

Mia shakes her head and laughs.

“You know,” Claire tells her apologetically. “It’s short. You would have found that out in, like, thirty pages. Besides, you deserve to be spoiled. You dog-ear the pages. That’s, like, book vandalism.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Mia grumbles. But she’s smiling so Claire is ninety-nine percent certain she’s not actually mad. “How was your day? Ruin anyone else’s yet?”

“Probably. And if not, I’ve still got time.” Claire lies on her back in the grass. “It was okay. I had lunch with a friend, which was weird.”

“Lunch is weird? What do you usually do when you hang out with your friends?”

“That’s not what I meant.” Claire flicks a blade of grass at her.

Mia brushes it off her arm. Claire stares across the lawn and thinks about her lunch with Michelle. She chews her lip and wonders if she and Michelle will see much of each other from now on.

Lunch was as awkward as she thought it would be. But at least by the end, they’d come to some sort of peace. Weirdly, the worst part was trying to fill in the silence after they sort of kind of talked it out. Particularly considering they were avoiding all Brendan-related territory. It was exhausting. But it’s been exhausting for ages, having to work so hard to seek out common ground all the time. Claire could not wait to leave that horribly clunky, silence-punctuated meal. Walking away felt like freedom after a jail sentence.

“Are you going to tell me why your lunch was weird?” Mia asks. “Or should I just sit here and watch you pout?”

Claire thinks about Michelle and about Kerry and Kate. “Girls are weird, you know, Mia? In fact, girls are stupid.”

“I’m a girl, in case you hadn’t noticed. On behalf of the rest of us, I’d like to say thank you so very much.”

“You’re nothing like these girls. In a good way.”

“And do you want to be more specific about why girls are weird? Or are we working in sweeping generalisations today?”

Claire smiles. She debates brushing it off, changing the subject, but when she looks over and sees Mia looking at her, seemingly receptive and ready to listen, she tells her about the lunch. And, of course, why the lunch happened. Then, the story of Claire and Michelle becomes the story of Claire and Brendan. How could it not? And the next thing Claire knows, she has told the whole stupid, sorry little tale while Mia lies there on the grass and listens. She doesn’t say a word until Claire’s done.

“How did you know?” Mia asks when Claire finally finishes.

“I don’t know how I knew, exactly.” It feels incredibly weird to talk about this. She hasn’t confided in anyone in any real way—a little with Cam, maybe, when it first happened. Even before she knew Michelle is hanging out with the new girlfriend, she couldn’t bring herself to discuss it with her. It was too close, and thus, too raw. Besides, she couldn’t risk letting Michelle know just how bad she felt because Michelle would tell Jack, and Jack would tell Brendan. Claire’s pride wouldn’t allow it.

“I just felt like that connection between us wasn’t as strong. At first, I thought it was the not being able to see each other. I had to stay in Melbourne more and more for stuff on the weekends. He started making all these new friends. And then when I did go and see him, I could feel it, like…like an absence, you know? I don’t know. I could just tell his attention was elsewhere, if you know what I mean.”

Mia nods. “What did you do?”

“Well,” Claire says wearily. “I avoided dealing with it. Because apparently that’s what I do best. Then, after about a month or two of quietly freaking out, wondering if maybe he’d met someone, but too gutless to ask, I thought I could…I don’t know…just go and spend some real time him and remind him why we were so good. So I drove up there one weekend to stay. I changed my shifts, got out of a family dinner, and ignored a French test. But when I got there it was like he barely registered my presence.” She bites her lip. “It was too late.”

“He cheated?”

“No, he never cheated. He wouldn’t do that.” She gently plucks at a single blade of grass and tries to ease it up out of the ground without breaking it. “But it didn’t matter. He didn’t cheat, but he was already completely into this girl. He just didn’t have the balls to tell me. Until finally I asked outright.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.” Claire rolls over onto her stomach so Mia can’t see her face, because she can feel the vague choke of impending tears in her throat. And crying would be completely humiliating right now. “That’s right, oh.” She blinks hard. This is why she doesn’t talk about it. The hurt and the embarrassment come back. In this case, there’s also possible double humiliation of crying in front of a potential new friend who doesn’t need to know how pathetic she actually feels about all this.

But Mia doesn’t say anything. Nothing at all. She just rolls over onto her stomach too and nudges Claire’s foot with her own, a small but reassuring gesture of sympathy.

“The worst part is,” Claire continues, “I was almost angrier at Michelle about this than I was at him. I am over it…well, maybe I’m not completely. But I am over being angry and upset. It’s over and I don’t have the energy for anger and sadness. But her…” She frowns. “I thought she was my friend.”

“What did she say about it today?”

“She just said that she’s really, really sorry and that she didn’t mean it to happen, but circumstances made it hard to avoid hanging out with her, blah, blah. I don’t know. It’s like, I get it. I do. It would have been awkward for her. But I’d never, ever do that, not without telling her first at least.” She stares across the tract of grass. “And now, I really don’t know if I can be friends with her anymore, not like before, anyway.”

Even as she says the words, a small, guilty part of Claire wonders if it’s really her lack of desire to maintain their dwindling friendship that’s the issue and not Michelle’s supposed betrayal.

Mia suddenly sits up. “That seems so unfair, having that happen with your best friend and your boyfriend like that.”

“Yeah, but you know, I don’t even know if Michelle and I were that close, or if it was just because Brendan and her boyfriend, Jack, were best friends. But still, I expected more loyalty from her, you know?”

And again, Mia is silent. For a minute, Claire wonders if she’s gone on too long, overshared. Mia’s probably bored. It is only the third time they’ve hung out, and she probably doesn’t want—or need—to hear all Claire’s problems. She’s trying to think of a way to change the subject when Mia leans forward.

“I think every friendship has its limits,” Mia says. “And sometimes a friendship runs its natural course too. I don’t know. I’m not friends with half the people I was close with in high school. We just don’t have anything left in common, or we don’t have enough time for each other. You just can’t hold on to everyone. Maybe it’s a part of moving on with the next stage of life.”

Claire nods, contemplating what Mia is saying, grateful for some perspective and for insight that explains the difficult—painful, even—lunch and its probable outcome.

“I mean, the people who count, the ones who I really care about, they’re still around. That’s how you know they’re the keepers, right?” Mia tips her head to one side, staring past her.

Claire nods again, even though she doesn’t really know. The way she’s going, she won’t have any friends left from high school. Besides, Claire hasn’t had a friend like that—a keeper—since Beth, her best friend who moved away at the start of year ten and left Claire adrift in the social world of high school. And that feels as though it was decades ago now.

Mia straightens her legs, reaches into her bag, and pulls out a sandwich. She slowly unwraps it, then offers half to Claire. Even though Claire isn’t hungry, she takes it, appreciative of the gesture. She sits up on the grass, inspects the insides of the sandwich, and takes a bite.

“What about you and Robbie?” she asks, between chews. “He’s a keeper, right?”

“Yeah, of course. But even we have our limits.”

“Like what?” Claire asks, curious. She figured he and Mia are in friend love.

“I love Robbie, but it’s hard with him sometimes because he just disappears.”

“What do you mean?”

Mia chews slowly, a thoughtful look on her face. “I mean that he just…there have been times when I’ve needed him, and he’s not around, you know? I would get hurt in the past, but now I’m getting used to it. And I’ve learned not to depend on him to always be there.” She stares at her sandwich. “And you know, I don’t think that he doesn’t want to be there, or that he wouldn’t if I asked. Or that he doesn’t care. He’s just flighty. He’ll be everywhere for a while, and then he’ll just kind of be gone.”

“Where does he go?”

Mia breaks off a piece of crust and tosses it to a sparrow that has been edging closer to them since the appearance of food. “New guy, new photo project, new friends. Any or all of the above. Also, sometimes, I think he just goes into hiding. Like he puts himself out there so much that sometimes he has to retreat so he can focus or rest or something.”

“Oh.” Claire watches the bird dart forward and pull the crust backward across the grass with its beak, unable to pick it up. It covetously pecks at the bread, moving quickly, as if wary another bird will discover the treasure before it can finish. “That would be hard.”

“I don’t mean to make him sound like a bad friend. He’s awesome and beautiful. I just had to learn to not always depend on him being there exactly when I need him to be. I mean, when he’s there, he’s there, you know. But sometimes he’s just…gone.” She shrugs.

Frowning, Claire tosses the last crust of her sandwich to the handful of birds that are gathered hopefully on the grass near them. “Is he your best friend?”

“He’s definitely become one of them. My friend Kristen is my oldest and closest friend. She’s in Sydney, though, studying.”

“How long have you known each other?”

“Since forever. She and her brother grew up a street away from me. I miss her. We talk all the time, and she’s here some holidays, but it’s not the same.”

Claire nods. She tries not to feel envious. And she’s not sure what she’s more envious of, Mia having two really close friends, or Mia’s close friends themselves. Claire misses feeling important to someone aside from her brother. He’s the only person she can think of who wants her around enough that he actually misses her when she isn’t there. Maybe Michelle would have in the past, but now she doesn’t know what Michelle thinks of her.

As though she can read her mind, Mia reaches over and plucks at Claire’s sleeve. “Anyway, maybe it’s not so bad then, that you have some space from Michelle? Not that I’m saying you should just cut her out, or that it’s not worth it. Only you know whether you should do that, but maybe you just need some time…some space.”

“Maybe. I feel like my whole social world just came apart, you know? One day I knew exactly how everything worked and who my people were. And the next day, not a single freaking clue.”

“You have Nina. And you have us.”

And before Claire—both embarrassed and warmed by this sudden, confident declaration of friendship—has to say anything in response, Mia checks her watch and sits up. “Damn, I’ve got to go. Class in ten.”

Claire reaches out and grabs her wrist and looks at the time. “Me too. I have to meet my brother.”

They scramble to their feet. Mia groans as she hauls her heavy bag to her shoulders. When it’s on her back, she thrusts her hands in her pockets and looks at Claire. Claire smiles at her, feeling weird and shy and slightly embarrassed from all this sharing.

And Mia returns the smile. But hers, of course, is open and easy and tells her she doesn’t have to worry about what Mia thinks of her.

They stroll slowly across the campus together, mutually reluctant to leave the peaceful cocoon of the university lawn for the thrum and impatience of the real world.

“You know, on paper, you don’t sound like you actually are,” Claire tells her.

“What?” Mia screws up her face. “What do you mean?”

“Well, if you said to me, sporty science geek, wears glasses, into old books, I wouldn’t imagine you.”

“Um, what makes you think I’m sporty?”

“Actually, I don’t know.” Claire appraises her as they walk. “Maybe your long legs?”

“Believe me, I’m not sporty.” Mia laughs.

“You look sporty.”

“Well, you make no sense, either. At work you’re completely hostile, but outside you’re actually nice. You give everyone hell, but you’re completely sensitive yourself. You act like you don’t care about stuff, but I can tell you do.” She gives Claire a look. “All kinds of conflicting information there too, so I don’t know if you should judge.”

“But I always judge, Mia. That’s what I do.”

“Besides, what you really meant is that I sound like a giant geek on paper, while you’re probably used to hanging out with all the shiny party kids.” Mia shrugs. “You’re surprised that you like to hang out with me.” She gives her an I-know-you-grin.

“Maybe.” Claire laughs.

Mia is silent for a moment as they walk. “You know, I don’t really care what I sound like on paper. If being a geek is doing what I am doing, then I don’t care. I’m pretty happy with who I am most of the time.”

Claire fleetingly wonders when it is that Mia isn’t happy with who she is. Claire could say she’s happy with herself about half the time on a good day. She can’t imagine Mia feeling less than satisfied with who she is, though. How could someone so smart and funny and friendly and liked be unhappy?

Claire shakes her head. “I’m telling you now, I don’t know if I can hang out with someone so well adjusted.”

Mia grins. “It doesn’t matter. You have no say in it. We’re friends. Even if I didn’t want to—and I do—it wouldn’t matter because Robbie loves you.”

“What?” Claire nearly stops in her tracks at that revelation. “He doesn’t act like it.”

“That’s just how he is with you. If he didn’t like you, trust me, he’d just ignore you. Besides, do you think you’re particularly friendly? Remember that night at the bar when we met?”

Claire blushes a little against her will. “I thought you weren’t paying any attention.” She was pretty feisty that night, even by her own standards.

“No, I was just letting you guys fight it out. I knew you would either destroy each other or become friends. And either way, it would be entertaining for me.”

Claire doesn’t quite know what to say to that. “Whatever, Mia.”

“Like I said, you two are cut from the same cloth. Two thoroughly charming jerks.”

Claire blinks. She was not expecting Mia to pass judgement so swiftly and so damningly on them both. “Jerks, huh?” She shakes her head and laughs.

Mia just grins and changes the subject. “What are you doing with your brother today?”

“I’m meeting him at Robbie’s gallery. I told him about the photo, and now he wants to see it.” Claire shakes her head. “I don’t know why. He knows what I look like.”

“Oh, you know why.” Mia smiles. “What’s your brother like?”

“He’s…I don’t know. He likes beer and sports and shooting stuff—real stuff because he’s a cop. He’s good at figuring out problems and making others laugh, and he makes terrible decisions about people with pretty faces and boobs. I guess he’s a regular guy.”

Mia laughs.

“And people with pretty faces and boobs seem to like him even though he’s an idiot.”

“Wow.” Mia stops at the end of the long path leading out of campus. “I feel like I know him already.”

Claire pulls out her phone and looks for his last message to see how far away he said he was. Before she can check, though, Mia has taken her phone out of her hand and is tapping away.

“What are you doing?”

“Messaging me.” Then she passes it back to Claire. “Now you have my number. Call me or something if you want to meet up.” She checks her watch. “See you soon,” she says as if it’s the most natural, inevitable thing in the world. Then she turns around and hurries away, the set of her shoulders tells Claire her mind has already turned to the next thing on her list.

Simultaneous bursts of both admiration and envy for Mia’s effortless vitality and her social ease run through Claire. It is something Mia simply has, but Claire always feels she is trying so desperately to muster.

Maybe if she spends enough time around it, she can learn something from her.

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