A Story of Now: Chapter 52

They stay out by the lake all day and graze over the food they brought. They drink champagne to toast Claire’s birthday and luxuriate in the last day of their little holiday. Faced with the prospect of their departure tomorrow, they stubbornly remain until the sun drops behind the trees, until the shadows fall across the water, and the chill begins to set in, making the most of the time they have left. Finally, when it’s too cold, they wearily carry everything up the track.

“Let’s watch a film,” Robbie suggests as they pile into the house. Since their arrival, he has been working his way through the old DVDs, mostly Cam’s, a motley collection of action and blockbusters. Robbie loves them. For someone who is so artsy, he has an incredible tolerance for crappy films.

The collective mood is tired and mellow, so they all agree to a movie. They put away their stuff, change out of swimming clothes, and slowly return to the living room. Claire grabs a blanket from the shelf and settles on one end of the big couch, relishing the comparative warmth of the house. As she pulls the blanket over her, Nina plonks down next to her, grabs half of it, and drags it over her lap. Claire fights disappointment. She’d hoped Mia would sit next to her.

Without discussing it, they’ve kept a physical distance from each other today and not put this thing between them on show for the others. Claire knows she’s definitely not ready to have her feelings out there for everyone to see. It’s too new and too half formed. She doesn’t know what it is for Mia, but there seems to be some unspoken consensus that this is how it should be. But now, she can’t help admitting to herself, she craves Mia’s nearness again.

Instead, it’s Nina huddled up next to her, hogging the blanket. Mia’s sprawled across some large cushions on the floor with Blue stretched beside her. Instead of watching the opening scenes of the film, Claire watches Mia as she lies on her side, her hand tucked between her head and the cushion, her knees curled up to her chest. She stares at the tanned sweep of Mia’s back and wishes she could run her fingers along that smooth, lightly freckled stretch between her narrow shoulder blades. She feels an urgent desire to lie down with her, to shape herself around the arc of Mia’s back, and to wrap an arm around her waist as Mia did to her this morning as they fell back into sleep. Instead Claire lets out a small sigh and returns her gaze to the screen. She has absolutely no idea how she has become so suddenly, incredibly smitten.

She tries to focus on the film, but like all action films it has the opposite effect it should on Claire. The relentless speed and sound and danger lulls her somehow, making her want to drift off. So she stares at the screen and lets her mind go elsewhere. It’s been such a great day. The best birthday she can remember. Everything from waking to now has been perfect, perfect in ways that not so long ago Claire would never have described as perfect.

And never before has Claire felt as though her birthday truly was the start of a new phase of life, a new age—even though that’s what they’re supposed to be. Most years, Claire hasn’t given her birthday much thought. Or when she has, she’s simply felt the inexorable sameness of her life, no matter what new age she becomes. Thirteen felt no different from twelve although people made such a big deal out of it. Sixteen felt like fifteen, and eighteen felt uncannily like seventeen, despite the parties.

But being with these people and waking up this morning to the newness that is her and Mia, it all feels so changed and, in so many ways, so good. Everything that has happened these last few months makes it feel as if something may have palpably shifted in her life—that twenty might somehow be distinctively different from nineteen.

A tiny snore erupts from Nina, yanking Claire from her thoughts. Both of them jump.

“Oh.” Nina gasps as she sits up rapidly and rubs her face. “I think I fell asleep.”

“You did,” Claire whispers, not wanting to disrupt everyone’s seeming infatuation with this stupid film. She smirks. “You snored.”

“Did I?” Nina reaches up into a long stretch, her skinny little arms arching back behind her. “I think I’m going to go to bed. It’s probably only, like, nine o’clock, but I’m so tired. Happy birthday, babe.” She squeezes Claire’s arm and climbs off the sofa. “Good night.”

“Night.” Claire watches Nina tiptoe carefully out of the room as if she thinks her bare feet padding along the polished wooden floors could do anything to detract from the racket of the high-speed chase that roars from the TV screen.

Just when Claire, sick of the film, is considering the thought of going to her room, Mia sits up and stretches.

“Bathroom,” she mumbles wearily.

Robbie drags his eyes from the film for a second. “You want me to pause it?”

Mia shakes her head and slowly clambers to her feet. She turns and gives Claire a sleepy smile as she passes her.

While Mia is gone, Pete appears from somewhere. Yawning, he flops down in Mia’s spot on the floor. Claire smiles. Thank you, Pete. Without even realising it, he’s delivered on that birthday present he promised.

And when she finally returns, Mia sees Pete in her spot and sits down on the sofa next to Claire. She drapes half the blanket over her, pulls her knees up to her chest, and sits back against the couch. She turns her head toward Claire slightly. “I hate this movie,” she whispers into the air between them.

Claire nods. She slowly, timidly reaches out under the blanket and wraps a surreptitious hand around Mia’s narrow ankle. And it is mere seconds before Mia’s hand joins hers. Her fingers slide over Claire’s hand and then her arm, where her fingers stroke the skin of her inner wrist.

Claire bites down on her lip, trying to contain her pleasure at how just that small touch creates a rush of feelings. She squeezes Mia’s ankle and refocuses on the film, not wanting to draw any attention to them. But now the night feels complete.

* * *

Claire wonders where the hell Mia is.

She gave up before the end of the movie and, feigning tiredness, she took herself to bed, hoping Mia would know to follow soon after. She hasn’t yet.

She rests her head against the pillow and tries to take in the way things have abruptly shifted today. This thing with Mia, she knows, isn’t fleeting or small or in the slightest bit insignificant. Not for her, anyway. But it’s also new and tender and half formed. And maybe that’s partly why she doesn’t want the others to know. Because they will make jokes and tease and do the very thing Claire would do if she were witness to a new and highly unexpected pairing. And Claire doesn’t want to spoil it with any of that. Let it be precious for a minute. She hopes Mia feels the same.

But now that she’s lying in her bed alone, she wants Mia with her now. And it will happen even if Claire has to go and get her. She doesn’t have to, though, because as she lies there in the darkness and enjoys being cold enough to be under the blankets and cosy, she hears the vibration of her phone. A message. She picks it up and smiles. Are you awake?

Her smile grows as she taps her response. Yes. I’m waiting for you to come here.

She tucks away her phone, rolls onto her side, and waits. And it’s only a minute or two before she hears the quiet squeak of the front screen door, followed by soft footfalls coming toward the room. She smiles into the half darkness. Then there is a tap on the door.

“Don’t knock!” Claire whispers loudly. “Just come in.”

Mia edges in the door. Claire can make out her bashful grin in the moonlight.

“What are you doing?” she asks, one arm clutching the doorpost. Blue pads inside and immediately flops down on the rug as if he already considers it his room.

“I told you. Waiting for you. Come here.”

Mia finally, it seems, needs no further invitation. She tiptoes over to the bed, climbs onto the mattress, and sits next to Claire cross-legged. She smiles down at her. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Claire feels strangely shy now she has Mia right where she wants her.

“They’re all watching another movie. So, did you have a good birthday?”

Claire nods. “Yes,” she says quietly, still surprised by this fact. “I really, really did.”

Then they just look at each other.

And because Mia doesn’t seem as if she is going to do anything but return her gaze, Claire shyly pulls her hand out from under the covers and slides it onto Mia’s knee. At that, Mia immediately reaches out and takes the hand in her own and holds it gently between both of hers.

“It was a great day, actually.”

“Good.” Mia strokes the back of her hand with her thumb. Then she looks down at the blankets between them. That small tense furrow makes an appearance between her eyebrows

“Did you have a good day?” Claire asks, slightly unnerved by her tense expression.

Mia nods, and a small smile escapes. Then, as she looks down to their hands entwined on her knee, her face turns straight back to uncertainty. She looks like someone who has been reminded of something she was finally able to forget for a minute.

Claire wants to ask her what it is that makes her look like that, but she also doesn’t want to in case it’s something that could snap this tender, tentative connection they have made in the last twenty-four hours. But finally she has to ask her something because she feels as though, if she lets her, Mia will sit there and stare at her lap and chew at her lip all night. She squeezes her hand. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I am.” Mia nods and gives her another more decisive smile as if she has committed to being okay right at this very moment.

Claire has no idea how to respond. But what she does know is that she wants to be nearer to her, that certainty might return if they return to where they were last night. “Lie down with me.” She pulls her hand free and lifts the blanket, inviting Mia in with her outstretched arm.

Mia leans back a little, and her eyes narrow slightly. “Are you sure?”

“What do you mean am I sure? Come here,” she commands, wondering why Mia seems to slip so confusingly between being tentative and being so sure of herself. It dizzies and mystifies her.

Mia obediently shuffles under the covers and lies down next to her. Claire pulls her in against her shoulder, curls her arm around her, and absorbs her into the warmth of the bed. She rests her cheek against the top of her head. Mia’s hair smells like grass and like water, like the lake.

“I don’t get it.” Claire inhales the scent and squeezes her closer. “I tell you to come here, and then you’re nervous I don’t want you here? What do you want, Mia, a formal written invitation? Because my handwriting is terrible.”

“I’m sorry.” Mia shakes her head and pushes her face into Claire’s neck. “I don’t know what it is. I’m not usually so…” She doesn’t finish the sentence.

Sighing, Claire pulls her arm out from under Mia and slides down the bed until she faces her. Mia chews her lip, looking more timid than Claire is used to. It makes her seem younger. It’s weird; Mia usually acts so grown up, so mature. But right now Claire feels as if she’s the older one.

“Well stop it. It’s just me, remember?” Claire whispers, echoing the sentiment that seemed to assuage Mia’s nerves last night. She brings her face close to Mia’s and brushes some of her hair from her face with her fingertips. Then she wraps a possessive, demanding leg over Mia’s and grins at her. “It’s just stupid me who, despite the fact she is kind of a brat, you seemed to like last night.”

Mia lets out a short breathless laugh, and Claire decides to take it as agreement.

“So stop being a weirdo.” She smiles at Mia to soften the name-calling, then leans in and presses her lips to Mia’s and tries to kiss away whatever doubts she’s carried into this room.

And Mia wraps an arm around her waist and kisses her.

Satisfied that Mia is finally present in some form, Claire rests her head against hers and lies there in the quiet and relishes being tucked inside their private little world. Over the gentle rhythms of their breath, the raucous soundtrack of another action film emanates faintly from the house. There are voices, too, somewhere further away. Probably some weekend arrivals. Their conversations slide easily over the still lake water.

Mia shifts a little under the blanket and curls her arm further around Claire’s waist, breathing softly into the half darkness. Claire shuts her eyes and wishes again she knew why Mia has all of a sudden been wrought so shy and weird and what this small but significant air of tension she has brought into the room is.

She still doesn’t even know why Mia abruptly turned around and suddenly seemed to want her last night, let alone does she know anything of what Mia’s thinking. Claire feels as though she declared herself in that clumsy speech on the porch last night. But Mia has not explained herself or her actions in any way yet. In fact, she just did what she seems to do—to act but say nothing about it. The only difference is that she has not run away this time. But Claire still can’t help but wonder if this silence, this apprehension, might be some form of retreat.

But it’s a retreat Claire is just as scared to try and pull Mia back from. Because she’s not sure how fragile this thing between them might be right now and what kind of danger she might put it in if she questions it. So she is willing to settle for the fact that right now, in this moment, she has Mia here in this bed, wrapped in this tender limbo with her. It’s a quiet, not quite comprehensible version of Mia, but it’s Mia.

Besides, the tantalising perfection of right now—of this whole day—is too good to want to spoil with those kinds of questions and whatever unexpected answers they might possibly yield.

Part of her wishes they were on their own here or that they at least had a little more time. Then maybe they’d have a minute to define or cement this thing between them before it’s time to return to the crude world of Melbourne and to everything that might get in the way of their doing that. And then there is that equally terrifying prospect: what if it’s not the same when they leave here? Unnerved by these thoughts, Claire reflexively holds on to Mia a little tighter. She does not want to leave this bubble yet.

But there’s no time left. They are leaving tomorrow because Claire’s parents are coming up the day after. She presses a kiss against Mia’s shoulder and sighs, knowing these silent minutes that are trickling by right now are probably the last moments of peace they’ll have together on this trip.

Mia turns her head. “I better go soon,” she whispers and presses her face against Claire’s cheek.

Claire nods but doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t want her to go at all, but Mia clearly doesn’t want Pete to wonder why she isn’t in the bunkhouse for another night. And Claire respects her need for privacy.

But unable to let her go just yet, Claire lifts her head and stares at her. “A bit longer?” She compounds the urgency of the request with a slow, tempting kiss. She knows she’s not great at talking or at knowing where to start to make Mia talk, but she’s fairly sure she knows how to keep Mia in this bed without saying a word. She slides her hand under the hem of Mia’s T-shirt and smoothes her palm slowly up her side as she kisses her.

And it seems to work because Mia’s only response is to pull her closer and to kiss her harder. Surfing the rapidly rising tide of her own desire, Claire rolls over and climbs on top of Mia. She lines her torso luxuriously along Mia’s, runs her hands up into her hair, and kisses her again.

Claire sits up and looks down at her. “Besides, it’s still my birthday, so you have to do as I say. It’s the rules.” She taps out a playful typewriter on Mia’s slender collarbones and grins at her.

Mia just laughs and wraps her arms around Claire’s waist. “Really?” She runs her hands under the back of Claire’s T-shirt. Claire shivers as Mia’s hands roam over her back. “And how is that different from any other day, Claire?” She grins slyly and pulls her down and kisses her.

“Oh shut up,” Claire tells her between kisses, but she’s not too convincing.


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