A Story of Now: Chapter 56

Christine loves Mia. Of course she does. On paper and in person, Mia is everything Christine desires in the kind of company Claire keeps.

By the time they left the kids with their aunt and walked back to the cottage, it was early evening. Claire’s parents both, in a united front of insistence, demanded that they stay the night, unwilling to let Claire drive back to Melbourne so late. Because apparently Claire is not capable of driving in the dark and will most likely kill them both.

In fact, Christine’s so determined that they are to stay that by the time they returned, she’s bundled Mia’s belongings into the spare room and remade the bed in there. And, to make it even more difficult to protest, she’d put the makings of dinner together for them all, so they couldn’t really refuse.

Claire knows there is little she can do to convince her parents otherwise when they are both agreed on something, and she barely tries to protest. Mia, clearly dizzied by the whirlwind of energy that is Christine, quietly acquiesces.

So, to Claire’s incredible discomfort, they’re swiftly and violently submitted to a night with her parents at the cottage. And in one fell Christine-driven swoop, the night that Claire hoped for—a quiet, private night to be with Mia, to possibly make sense of this new dynamic between them—disappeared. Instead, that night, so full of potential and promise, was swiftly exchanged for this highly awkward imposter replacement. And now she’s relegated to the charade of Claire and her friend just hanging out at the cottage with Claire’s parents. It’s the last role she wants to play tonight. Or any other night.

They sit at the dinner table, so recently the site of raucous poker and drinking games and of fun, messy meals. Now it’s the site of Claire’s almost paralysing social anxiety. And Christine, of course, submits Mia to the usual barrage of questions that she mistakes for normal human conversation. Nothing is left un-interrogated. She asks about her studies, her career plans, her job, her parents, Blue, where she lives, everything.

And despite the fact that she must feel at least a fraction of the awkwardness that Claire feels, Mia deals with it well. Claire listens to the cross-examination and to Mia’s cheerful responses. She politely provides answers to everything she’s asked and responds with queries of her own. For a moment, Claire finds herself staring in utter admiration at Mia’s open, friendly face as she talks. Of course, Mia is good at parents. No parent has probably ever disliked or disapproved of Mia, ever.

A bonus to this unexpected social arrangement, though, is that Christine is so taken with her new friend, she’s too busy to pay any attention to Claire. And Claire is incredibly grateful to be left to herself, to concentrate on the simple hand-to-mouth task of eating, playing the patient listener alongside her father. He leaves the table the minute he finishes dinner. Claire stays, though, and pushes the food around her plate, not wanting to abandon Mia.

Slightly wary of Christine’s historic ability to deduct everything Claire doesn’t want her to discover, she wonders if there is any way her mother could possibly figure out what transpired between Mia and her. Why they are still here, alone. Of course not. Her mother is quick, but how can she see something that can’t actually be seen? Besides, Claire barely knows what this thing is between her and Mia. How could her mother know? But just to be careful, she drags her eyes from Mia and doesn’t look at her again in case her expression reveals too much.

“Do you have a boyfriend, Mia?” Christine suddenly asks.

Oh god. Claire’s fork freezes momentarily on the journey from her plate to her mouth. She bids herself to keep eating, to pretend she hasn’t even heard.

“No,” Mia tells her lightly. “I don’t have much time for a social life,” she adds as she smiles and tucks her hair behind one ear.

“Ah, I guess not,” Christine says airily. “With all that study you have to do.” She places her knife and fork neatly beside each other, done with her dinner. “I don’t know what Claire’s excuse is, though. She has plenty of time on her hands these days.”

And with that double whammy, Claire clenches her teeth and puts down her fork. Dinner is officially over.

“What happened to that musician you met, honey?” Christine throws her napkin on her plate.

“He isn’t a musician,” Claire mumbles as she stands abruptly. She starts to clear the table, desperate to end this meal and this particularly awkward conversation tangent. Now she really can’t look at Mia. She picks up the plates and takes them into the kitchen.

* * *

Later, in the safety of her sleeping porch, she lies tucked under the blankets and stares into the darkness, sleepless. Thank God the evening is over. Now they can just pack up in the morning and leave.

After they finished dinner, Christine settled in the living room, with the television on, still busily drawing out every aspect of Mia’s life. Unable to cope with any more of her mother’s questions or comments, Claire escaped to the porch where her father was going over his fishing gear. Her father, of course, wanted her to retell the entire story of what happened to Rhiannon and the kids, to run through every step taken, to assess how Claire had handled it. Claire submitted to it, though, as the better of two evils. By the time she went back inside, Mia had taken herself off to bed. Claire has no idea if it was tiredness or just a need to escape Christine.

Claire said a quiet good night to them both and bolted herself, using the morning departure as an excuse for an early bedtime. And now, as she lies under the covers, she wonders if Mia is awake, wonders how she feels about this whole turn of events. Poor Mia, subjected to her parents on this most surreal of days.

What also keeps her wide awake long into the night is the realisation of another question that she hasn’t yet given a second’s thought to. What would they—what would her mother especially—say about it if she were to date a girl? Christine will have plenty of opinions about it, Claire knows that for sure. But she isn’t sure she wants to know what they will be. And she certainly doesn’t want to know any time soon.

She’s still lying there, turning these thoughts over in her mind, when her phone lights up over on the dresser and emits a quiet buzz. A message. She wonders if it’s from Mia. She doesn’t get up and look though. Because what if Mia wants to come out here to her? Claire wouldn’t dare. Her parents, ever vigilant, hear everything that goes on in this place, and she doesn’t want them to hear any sneaking around. But Claire doesn’t want to say no to Mia, either, so she ignores it and squeezes her eyes shut and bids sleep to come.

She cannot deal with any of this right now.

* * *

It’s just past dawn, but Claire’s already up. She leans against the porch railing and watches Blue run around and hunt out scents as the sun lifts itself up over the lake through the trees. She packed her bags, showered, and dressed. And now she’s waiting until they can leave and get away from this awkward situation.

She knows her parents are up, too, going about the business of their day; neither able to sit still for long. However, when she finally committed herself to the morning and went inside to the kitchen, she didn’t find anyone there, just a half-full coffee pot and an empty room. No sign of Mia either.

The screen door opens quietly behind her. Claire steels herself for the potential assault of her mother.

“Hey.” It’s Mia.

Relieved it’s not her mother, Claire turns briefly, long enough to note that Mia’s dressed and ready for the day but not long enough to meet her eye. She can’t.

“Hey.” She clears her throat and puts her coffee mug down on the railing. “We should get going soon.”

Mia comes over to stand near Claire. “Sure, I’m ready.”

They stand there suspended in a long silence, and both stare out at the lake and the trees. Claire chews on her lip. She wants to apologise for not answering her message last night, but she also doesn’t want to bring it up. Because that will bring all the unspoken weirdness of this last twelve hours into a firmer reality. And maybe if it stays in the land of unspoken, it can be ignored.

“Awkward, huh?” Mia suddenly says. She, on the other hand, is clearly not willing to let the situation go by unmentioned.

Claire nods, not quite sure what to say.

Mia takes a step closer to her. “Are you okay?”

Claire tenses, suddenly wary about the unknown whereabouts of her parents.

“Of course I am.” She tries to sound as light as possible. “Let me know when you’re ready to go.” She picks up her coffee cup from the railing and slips back into the house before Mia can come any closer.


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