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A Victorian funnel-web spider, black and round like a beetle, scuttles out from the metal rung on the windowsill as she slides it open. She stands there, coffee in hand, looking at its thick latex-like legs until her cat leaps onto the counter and the funnel-web retreats inside the windowsill cavity. She pulls the cat’s tail through her hands as he paws at the glass and thinks about the latex bodysuit in the porn she watched last week, unaroused at the steady creaking rub of plastic, thinking only about the layer of ocean floor it would twist itself around, twenty, fifteen, ten years from now—would the coral find its suffocation erotic?

I suppose you want to be fed, she says to the cat, and her tongue has a strange spasm of déjà vu. These are the only words she has said, twice a day, morning and night, for a month.

When she worked a call centre, her tongue would do this too—cramp and freeze after speaking the same line over and over, folding itself into weird angles, not relaxing until the first sip of pinot in the evening. The tongue is a muscle, she thinks, and reaches impulsively for her phone, but it’s seven in the morning, and although she knows the friend she wants to talk to is awake, she puts the phone on the counter again and gets the cat food from under the sink.

The grind of construction starts up from the apartment block she’s watched rise for the last seven months—measuring its growth not in storeys but in the afternoon sunlight it stole from her yard—and she wonders if she should be righteous because it’s Sunday. Instead she laughs. One morning, when the building first emerged over the rusted red and brown roofs in the surrounding streets, she’d burst into the backyard naked but for her sandals and underwear, startling some pigeons that were eating her grass seed as she gestured wildly, her breasts flopping every which way, screaming to Please, for the love of god, stop blasting Kelly Clarkson. It’s six fucking thirty in the fucking morning. She’d received enthusiastic waves and the refrain of ‘Never Enough’ stuck in her head for the rest of the week. Then she’d thrown her toothbrush at them—it spun in an acute arc, catching in the neighbour’s fig tree. Kelly’s main refrain starts up in her head again now and she turns away from the window, trying to remember where she’d put her tent.

*

At Coles for a twenty-litre bottle of water. Although it is, she scolds herself, in plastic. A few cans of beans and some potatoes, too, in case her plans to fish for her food fall through. And, after almost forgetting and running back into the store, instant coffee. She returns a third time for three bottles of wine from the adjoining bottle shop. When she is approaching the crossing to the car park, a woman in a purple hijab comes to an abrupt stop in front of her. The security bracket on the wheel of the woman’s trolley has snapped shut, her full load of groceries halted with it. The woman looks down at the bags, then at her small child straining against her grip, pleading to go back and have a ride on the escalator that descends into the underground Kmart.

She approaches the woman, smiles, asks if she can help, then loads her arms with the bags and follows the woman after she’s scooped up her now red-faced crying child, abandoning the trolley in the middle of the footpath.

After the boot of the woman’s silver Lexus ergonomically shuts itself, she stands there for a second, unsure what she’s lingering for. The woman looks at her and asks business-like how much she owes her.

No, no—that’s not. She looks down at her pilled flannel, dirty sandals. Thinks of wine bottles clinking like a wind chime in her tote bag. She tries to say have a nice day, but moves off without knowing if she got the words out right.

In her own car, she says a small prayer to please, ye Mini gods, get her and her car down to the peninsula. Her car that she knows should be a high school senior’s first car and not belong to a thirty-two-year-old with a PhD. Thirty-three. Shit.

She gives her car an encouraging pat on the dashboard and turns the key in the ignition.

*

The Mini gods listen, but she still takes the long way down the coast to avoid any roads not reasonably crossed without some guzzling four-wheel drive, and it’s dark by the time she arrives and finds a suitable stretch of beach. She pulls up her car on a small grassy lawn between two palms and falls asleep, seat leant back.

She wakes to the sun eating into her thighs and emerges from the car to a bright clear morning. Stripping off, she runs into the water in big splashes until she’s waist-deep. There aren’t waves, and the water is too fucking cold for her—even in the middle of summer, this Victorian surf—but she dives in, emerging in a shriek. Once fully submerged, she finds herself happy to float on her back, thinking of the crashing Mooloolaba waves of her childhood that would tug her togs down like the eager men she would later meet at bars in her twenties—like she, in turn, would do to the young women she met at better bars. Waves that would take her in a tumble until she forgot which way to break the surface with a grateful breath.

She comes out of the water only when her feet are pruned and soft, the flesh underneath her underwear already several shades lighter than the rest of her. On the shore, she strips down naked to sun her breasts for a while. Once her tent is up, she sets out to find wood and afterwards reads in the shade for hours thinking she could stay right there and let the start of semester pass—student, colleague, head of department emails filling up her inbox with increasingly alarmed tones. The palm leaves flap up and down, big green waving hands, and she continues to read as the wind picks up and the chill erupts her skin into puckers.

She forgets fishing for the night, eats two cans of beans cold without looking up from her book, along with half a bottle of wine, and passes out to the rhythmic croaking of frogs in the bush behind her. She dreams the ocean lifts itself into a great blue amphibian, white froth swirling like marble in his throat as he swells to sing to her, crashing back into the ocean and reforming in between his orchestral climaxes.

When she wakes on the second day, she has a fleeting thought of her cat being harassed and squeezed by the neighbour’s kid, happy to feed him and clean his litter box in exchange for play. Dragging him around and brushing him too hard. She’d been hesitant about the cat—a tether to a place, although she loved him. The only cat she knew that didn’t scratch. Enjoyed a good belly rub even, patient and floppy whenever she picked him up to transplant him from outside to the couch inside with her for a pat. Although sometimes she thought she saw annoyance in his yellow eyes or the angular flick of his tail after the fourth time he tried to walk away while the kid, merciless, continued dragging him back into his sticky arms.

*

Pumping worms from the soft grey sand on an island only accessible in low tide, she sees a large, flecked dog lolloping along the shore, tongue flapping out the side of his mouth. Some kind of farm dog, a blue heeler, or a collie perhaps. The dog sees her and splashes into the water, making a beeline towards her instead of running around the crescent path that joins to her sandbar. As a greeting the dog shakes water on her, and she laughs as he sticks his head in her bucket to lap up some of her worms, then rolls onto her feet for a pat. Do you have a friend? she asks, and the dog jumps up and runs around her. In the distance a man in a green fishing shirt with a head of brilliant red hair lifts his hand to his mouth and whistles. The dog leaps into the water. She turns back to the sand and pumps until the black wiggling worms come to the surface, and she squats there sorting them from the grainy mud.

She finds what she thinks is a good place to fish and—to her surprise—remembers how to cast off perfectly, her finger letting go of the reel at just the right time, sending the hook and worm flying twenty, thirty metres out to sea. Her body sighing, Ah yes—I remember this. Now: where’s Dad? Not here. She gives herself a second, then reels her worm back toward her.

Getting the fish off the hook isn’t a skill so easy to recall; the fish’s fin cuts a deep gash in her thumb before she manages to unhook and throw him in a waiting bucket. She sucks the blood and looks down at the fish, its mouth gaping while it flops, a stark white crescent moon unable to decide between waxing and waning, arcing one way then the other.

*

Now this she feels comfortable with—the quick slice of a knife behind gills. She wonders why, of all the meat she’d stopped eating, she couldn’t cut out fish. How squeamish she’d become even walking past a butcher, but there was something about lifting the end of the cloth wrapped around her utensils, letting her scaler unroll itself onto her chopping board.

Never managed to scrape the title of vegetarian—never been able to relinquish the taste of the sea, the flake of fish, salt of scallops, rubber of squid. A muscle sliding down her throat. This: the methodical descale, gut, clean. She runs her hand along the plump silver-white of its belly, feeling the smoothness of the scales. Picking it up by the tail, she runs the spiked metal ring of the scaler, an incomplete bear trap, over the body of the fish in quick scraps— sh-sh, sh-sh. The scales peel out of their pockets, flecking the ground like iridescent pearls, peeking between the blades of the green grass and spotting onto the smooth surface of her legs.

She had stopped eating octopus, unable to reconcile their digestion period with their out-of-this-world intellect. She thinks now of the YouTube videos of octopi solving puzzles and escaping from jars, a compassionate tentacle reaching out to the big toe of its human saviour. The childhood fishing trips desensitised her perhaps, but rim-shotting the fish’s head into the bucket it spent the last moments of its life in, she thinks she might re-evaluate this at some point.

A family of four emerges from the bush to the beach, the father piercing the sand with the spike of a red and white beach umbrella while the mother smears the two young boys in sunscreen, securing waterproof legionnaire caps to their large heads and making sure the long sleeves of their rashies are pulled down properly. They are both young, the boys, their father’s blond miniatures—the youngest, with the distended belly of a toddler, even more so. They don’t seem to be camping, and she wonders what has brought them so far away from the security of red and yellow flags. It is a long drive for a few hours in this pocket of the Tasman Ocean. The mother stands ankle-deep in the shallows, clutching a large straw hat to her head and shrieking at her youngest— Dean? John? —for wading too far into the surf.

She sits for a while on her camp chair, thinking of her own industrial-sized bottle of 50+ abandoned to become warm glug in the backseat of her car. At home she applied the stuff every day religiously, but now the skin across her nose feels taught and raw—her cheeks pink and peeling, although the rest of her has browned—and at night when falling asleep, her skin is warm from the day’s heat.

She watches the mother watching her sons, hand still protectively on her hat. The eldest one, yet to enter the sea, runs back whenever a wave floods the shoreline, laughing and yelling as the water comes to splash him. He runs back towards the ocean, and this time lets a wave run over his feet, looking down in silence. The father is also wearing a rashie to match his sons, and she snorts at the sight.

The family leaves when the sun begins to sink in an underwhelming shift from light to twilight blue. Turning her back to the sea to stoke the fire, she hears a rush of water and thinks momentarily that the sea frog has returned—with the voice of her mother perhaps, come to scold her for her lack of maternal instincts.

She turns around, but the sea remains itself, although aggravated now. The moon, not a crescent but plump and yellow, has come over the horizon. She eats her fish, unwraps hot potatoes from their aluminium shells, and watches the sky shift again deeper into the night.

*

There are a few others camping along the stretch of beach, including an older woman, fit and sinewy, wearing an orange sarong and bikini top, perpetually holding the hand of her much younger boyfriend, both of them smiling from excess serotonin. They cross her campsite a few times a day, compelled to walk in a continual pendulum along the beach the way only new lovers can. There is a group of young men, too. Officially or not, they belong as a pack. A sports team? Military squadron? Maybe just old school friends. They arrived three days after she did, guzzling beer, some unseen portable speaker heaving with Top 40s, and ruined her fishing spot.

On their first day she reels her line in after an hour with no success, and when she passes their site on the way back to her tent, one of them—no shirt, kaleidoscopic aviators—whoops at her, swinging his hand in the air, his hips swivelling in synchronised rotation.

Her only thought is to relocate a few hundred more metres away from this fraternity—because that is how she thinks of them now—when another young man in a long button-up shirt runs out of a tent and yells Braedon! What did we talk about? He turns towards her and says sorry in a way that tells her he does not want Braedon here either. Another young man emerges bucket hat first from a different tent and says, Jesus Christ, Braedon. Braedon leaps to his own defence, but she’s already moved off from the scene, smiling and deciding she’ll stay put. Have a nice day, the bucket hat kid yells after her. Braedon, keen to redeem himself, yells Sorry, Miss, and she is overcome with the image of a fish slapping his face—but then, she hadn’t caught one.

She sees the red-headed man around too. She doesn’t know how long he’s been camping here before her, but he can’t be far from her—just out of sight, on the other side of the natural jetty, maybe in the trees behind her. His presence on the beach is always announced by the keen panting of his dog. At first she sees him only at a distance. Sometimes she only sees the dog, knowing he is walking just behind in the trees, crunching somewhere along the snake of bush.

It is not until she’s been there almost a week that he passes her campsite. She’s lounging in the early morning shade of her tent when the dog comes hurtling toward her for a pat, indiscriminate paws sniffing her belongings, then bounds off to some other more urgent locale. She thinks this is another Close Encounter, but a few minutes later he passes, same green fishing shirt, squinting in the bright sun. What she’s taken for a tan at a distance is in fact dense layers of freckles, thickest in clusters on his nose, cheeks, the skin between his collarbones. Although she suspected this already, up close he is handsome in an old Hollywood way—strong jaw and forehead, not an uninteresting nose. Familiar in some way too, and she thinks now how easy it would be to invite this man over into her tent—into her life. This man and his sturdy dog. How he would come over, sit beside her, and the two of them would make breakfast together as the dog lay down panting, lifting his head to sniff at the fish on the fire. It would require only a small gesture, she decides, to take this man into her life—a flower tucked into the collar of his collie and he’d be bulk-buying grains for the both of them.

He waves and smiles apologetically, and she smiles back, laughing at herself, but then looks down, folding this fantasy into the corners of her tent, because she knows she is not capable of properly interweaving her life with others. Neighbours that slept together, that’s what her ex said.

*

Over her last days camping she does not think about her invitation again, although on her run one afternoon she sees him bathing in the ocean, his chest reflecting the bright white sun, his hair contrasted in vivid red against the green shallow water, and she is flooded with the thought of stripping off and joining him—anything to touch his body onto hers.

She turns away blushing, astounded at what a little pervert she’s become, imposing her life onto others when she had decided, hadn’t she, that she wouldn’t do that? Impose with her silence and lack of people-pleasing urges. That is something her ex had given her when he left: the gift of not contextualising herself to others. So now she lacked social skills that had defined her early twenties, and her friends had let her slip in this way, agreeing perhaps, some more articulately than others, that she wasn’t capable or willing to be more nurturing—that she was mostly happy in her own way.

She runs harder now, leaning into the burn in her calves as the sand gives way and hollows under her feet, thinking of the things her friends knew or suspected about her. Did they know the way she could look at a one-night stand with the contempt of a decade-old relationship? Did they think she was a slut? Someone who threw herself into any sex any which way, just for the rush? Did they think she was pansexual playboy, or just confused? An old roommate had once confessed that until he saw a woman slip out of her bedroom one morning he’d thought she was asexual—like a starfish, he’d said. And she’d said she wasn’t sure that was true, about starfish being asexual.

Was she a starfish, though? Pink and puckered. Able to grow back the limbs people took from her, to reject the things that were imposed on her. Maybe this way she could be a starfish. Although she certainly wasn’t asexual, she had wondered about her own sexual habits. How she liked her men carved, athletic, strong-jawed; men whose blood pumping in their veins could be mistaken for testosterone. But the women she loved—loved to smell, to touch, to hold—were big-haired, soft, delicate-featured, peak-lipped, doe-eyed. And this had come so naturally to her, what she preferred, the outer edges of the masculine–feminine divide. She did not have an awakening; it was not a surprise, and she did not feel she needed to tell her parents, her family, her friends. They in turn never asked. Like they’d all known from the beginning, as she had, that this was how she was.

Did she feel she occupied the space between them, the masculine men, the feminine women? What did her friends think, her family? Did they think about her at all? After three years with no serious partner, they’d stopped asking about her love life, and then, as she moved and everyone else got older and coupled off, she’d let the friendships lapse, saw them once or twice a year, and didn’t want to bother them. Even her mother had stopped knitting in guilt trips about her lack of grandchildren.

Did they think about her at all aside from the times she occupied a seat at their kitchen table, drank too much of their wine? Perhaps not. But it was becoming a little easier, wasn’t it? Each time, each day, to sit with herself.

Some of the kids—young adults, really—in her class asked to have gender neutral pronouns, and they were respected and nurtured in her classroom, but she knew that film of support wasn’t necessarily reflected in the outside world. She thinks again of the family so far away from the red and yellow flags of a safe tide, and then to her students. Young and opinionated with innovative piercings, wearing sneakers that look modelled on tropical fish. Did she keep herself inside these red and yellow flags as well?

Chest heaving, cool sweat dripping down her back, she stops at the end of the sand jetty, high tide preventing her from crossing further as she catches her breath and looks out to sea. Maybe instead of the starfish she was the largest female groper? When the male dies, she changes from female to male—no, that’s not right, she thinks, because as far as she was aware a female-turned-male groper was not able to then switch back as he pleased. No, she was not a groper. Or a star fish. Perhaps she could have found a more apt animal metaphor had she not been coddled inside the walls of academia. It seemed absurd to her sometimes to be lecturing a class on avant-gardism in 20th-century literature in a time like this. I do not feel like I am helping, she wanted to tell her class. As she asked them to cut back on adverbs, instructed on dangling modifiers. There are more important things to be doing right now.

On the beach, she looks out onto the calm ocean, green and clear and blue, and dark and cavernous, and breathes still more rapidly. In and in and in. Beneath her foot is a plastic wrapper—a chocolate bar. She picks it up and looks around her. There again to her left: another piece of rubbish, plastic, filth, and again, and again. The beach is filthy! How has she not noticed before? She runs back, stopping and snatching the rubbish from its sand grip. She finds a plastic bag, tugs it out from its depth of sand, and fills it on her way back to her tent. And what a mess she’s made! Rubbish! Everywhere! Tin cans and aluminium. So she cleans. Cleans and packs as the sun sets. Filling another bag with rubbish to the light of her phone, then another as it grows darker still and the heat evaporates from the ground. She piles everything into her car. Folds and packs everything into her car, leaving only the fish scales which gleam and flash in her headlights as she pulls away.

A memory, although she is not sure if it is real, of her father and her, both of them next to a pond. He has a stone… Ah, yes, the ripple-effect talk. This she remembers, but also something else—he was playing a prank on her? Yes, he was playing a prank. He said: Now what happens when the stone is thrown into the pond? And she had answered, There are ripples. So he had said, Imagine you are the stone, and then he gave her the stone and she threw it in. But there was nothing. No ripples; instead, a thick layer of pond scum, algae—mud, it must’ve been mud—absorbed the stone, accepted it without fuss and she had stood there, horrified that the her-stone had no ripple effect.

She is going the wrong way, and she swears to herself when she realises she’s gone down the track she’d previously allotted to a four-wheel drive, but there is no red dirt road pebbled and eaten away in large chunks. Instead there’s a paved road—bitumen. As she follows it further into the trees, she sees a balcony, another balcony and the glint of someone’s arm in a spotlight—the straw hat mother sipping from a wine glass on the balcony of a luxury hotel not three kilometres from where she’d been camping. She stops her car, her tiny little car filled with bags of rubbish and undrunk bottles of wine and laughs so much she begins to cry, worrying for a second that she won’t be able to breathe through her hysteria. But she does, she breathes, and she stops. She sits there for another second, staring at the woman, then puts her car into gear and drives away. The radio stays off for the rest of the trip home.

*

At dawn her house is quiet and dark, the morning light only just slipping in through the kitchen window. She’s been gone for only two weeks but feels like a stranger in her home. Her body, returned to the lanky tan of her youth, feels foreign in her adult house, out of time. She expects the echoing of her cat’s bell to greet her but she can’t find him, and when she lets herself into the backyard there are the grey feathers but not the body of a bird cascading down her fence, splayed across her lawn. A pigeon, she hopes, not the tawny owl that visits her—although that was unfair to the pigeon. Do pigeons know, she wonders, how little we value them? Is that why they come so shamelessly for our scraps? Now she is here again, alone, no bird, no cat, no starfish, nothing. An isolated dot under the dome of sky. She feels first the endless distance between herself and the next person, the next animal—then the vertigo of the distance rapidly shortening; a tradie in an orange vest pops up on top of the construction site. They stare at each other for a second and then, together, raise their hands. Behind her, a bell jingles.

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