I’m back home for the first time in months and having coffee with Sydney at the Corner Café when we run into Mum. I say run into, though I know that Mum had intentionally walked this way hoping to see us together again. She asks Sydney how her mum has been.
‘Oh, you know.’ Sydney rolls her eyes. ‘Is the honeymoon period ever going to end?’
Sydney has this way of making her disinterest in anything but herself seemed feigned, exaggerated at least, when in fact it’s genuine. Back when she first told me about her mum’s new boyfriend, she’d rolled her eyes too, but there had been no smile, not even pretend. ‘He’s such an old man,’ she’d said. ‘Like, an Old Man. He talks about kayaks and stuff, like he subscribes to kayak magazines.’ Now, over steak and pepper pies, she pretends she’s happy for her mother’s late-in-life romance, this bratty child stuff an act.
‘Oh, nobody saw him coming, did they?’ Mum’s excited and giggly, a grown woman pretending to be a girl.
Our mothers are best friends, which had forced Sydney and me to be best friends from childhood. We slept top-to-tail, shared spatulas lick for lick. We learned the words to Ice-T and rapped together with accents we mimicked from black men who played the bad guys on telly—behaviour I’ve now learned is politically incorrect. We tasted between each other’s legs once when we were seven, though didn’t mention that again until the first time I got drunk. In primary school, our mums referred to us as bosom buddies, which we laughed at because we didn’t have boobies yet, but by high school our differing personalities were too pronounced to ignore.
Sydney went to parties and drank her first lemon Ruski in Year Eight. At lunchtime, she and her friends splayed themselves on the oval, tanning. Sydney hitched up her school dress and knitted her bare, curvy legs around those of her friends. I ran laps of the oval. My crew were the netball team. We had Friday-night movie nights together before our games and celebratory choc sundaes after we won, but otherwise I spent the rest of my weekends with Sydney.
She used to paint my toenails on Sundays—hers would already be done—as she gossiped to me about her friends. She complained about them a lot.
‘If only everyone was like you, Pooch.’
And I used to say it back to her. ‘If only everyone was like you.’ Because I didn’t have to be running or standing on tiptoe, my arms stretching out of their sockets, to feel comfortable with Sydney.
After I first started living at college, I got the V/Line home every Friday afternoon. The summer was clinging on, and those first weekends were spent in Mum’s pool. Sydney and I flopped on inflatable donuts—mine a fluro green, Sydney’s illustrated with pink icing and sprinkles. I did the readings for my classes on the train home and had my books stacked beside the pool. I underlined passages I thought Sydney would like and read them to her in the water. ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’ My fingers, spongy from the water, struggled to turn the pages.
‘So, Kate has been with Tim for three years, and she says she loves him, but after lock-in on Saturday she had property of Mike written above her tits.’ Sydney laid on top of her inflated ring, her body near straight, like she was teetering on the edge. She treaded water delicately, her hands moved like two royal waves. Her donut rotated slowly. ‘Mike’s the bartender,’ she concluded.
Sydney was taking a gap year, working as a waitress to save money to go travelling. I took one of the scholarships. Everyone said they were easiest to get your first year out of school. They were also apparently easier to get if you studied Science, which everyone urged me to do. It was the sensible option because of the free money, and because I had the aptitude. My chemistry teacher told me this. As soon as I had enrolled, I switched majors and nobody at college said anything. Sydney was the only person I had told about studying Arts. She swore she wouldn’t tell anyone.
‘What are friends for, Pooch?’
What we talked about in the pool was much the same as what we had talked about at school, except her anecdotes were no longer about Michael Hutchins’ or Mara Campbell’s but lock-ins.
‘Did you hear Eloise and Ben broke up?’ I’d said, paddling my hands in the water to face her. I had spent the summer trying to change the subject back to her old friends, people I knew but had never cared for. A flicker of interest flashed over her expression before, more noticeably, a change back to disinterest, dislike even.
‘I’m surprised,’ she said. ‘They’re both so pedestrian I’d have thought they’d get married. You know Tamara who owns the Fish and Chip shop was married.’ On she went. ‘You know Rob’s?’
I nodded. Rob’s had been the only Fish and Chip shop in town our entire lives.
‘Well, it used to be called “Fish & Chips on Main” and then Tamara’s husband, Rob, cheated on her with the woman who did the books, so Tamara took him to the cleaners, took the business and named it after him. You know she takes in close to sixty grand a week in summer? Suck it, Rob!’
I have this image of Sydney burned into my mind: her tilting her head back and laughing, one solid ‘Ha!’ before her body collapses in on itself and slips through the centre of her donut and under the water. A second of her, ecstatic yet relaxed, before she disappears.
It was like everyone I met at uni was either Sydney or me. They never stopped talking (mostly about themselves) and I couldn’t stand listening to it; or they hardly said a word. I dreaded those silences. By Week Three, I’d enrolled in the college netball league and another off-campus team, even though I’d told Mum I wasn’t going to play anymore. Games were every second Saturday, so each weekend home became every second weekend. In the last month of first semester, I went home only once.
Maybe I was the first person to notice the difference in Sydney because I visited so infrequently. Like watching every fourth episode of a TV show, where you see two characters not together and then together, but you’ve missed the episodes where the camera lingers on their gazes lingering on each other. Maybe it was because I cared about Sydney more than everyone else in town. Or maybe it was because of a college party I went to where the Sociology kids were talking about the ice problem in country towns.
‘People in those places want to blame everything on ice, but ice is just a symptom. The real problem is that state governments aren’t supporting local businesses or community projects in regional towns, kids are bored, so they smoke ice.’
She had half a shaved head with one green curl.
When we were alone, I asked her where she was from. She was pulling my T-shirt above my bra and then my bra under my boob. She lapped at my nipple and told me she went to Northcote High. Later in her dorm room (she came, I didn’t), she told me how important the scholarship program is.
‘You understand the problems your town faces.’
She was right about that being the idea—that I’ll go to the big city and learn the big words and then come home and care for my small town. Unlike the sea-changers who arrive and try to mess with everything, or just sit around sighing as they admire the serenity. She also told me I should stop plucking my nipple hairs: ‘It’s sexy to let them grow.’ But I wasn’t sure she was on the money there because I hadn’t liked hers.
The next time I saw her it was late at night and she was walking across the college quadrangle carrying a bong—Gatorade bottle, three inches of garden hose. She stopped in the centre of the square and lit up. They call it the ‘blind spot’ because the college security cameras can’t see you there. Everyone else can, though. You’re ripping a cone to an audience of anyone staring out their dorm window, like I had been.
I watched her faffing with her bong and a small bowl. She lowered her mouth over the bottle and moments later smoke clouded around her. I thought about Sydney. I opened my laptop and returned to my most recent search. Sydney was never tagged in new photos anymore. I scanned events back home that we had both been invited to. Sydney never responded, and when the photos from the parties appeared online on Mondays she was never in them. And yet every week she sent me texts, usually on Wednesdays or Thursdays.
Sorry for the late reply. Big weekend!!!
I went home for mid-semester break thinking I’d stay the full six weeks. I called Sydney when I got in and she missed four of my calls, but when she rang me back she was excited. She said we should see a movie.
‘That’s a long drive. Are you sure you can be bothered?’
‘I have a voucher!’
Sydney collected me in a van she told me belonged to Snowy, a new friend of hers. There were a lot of gum wrappers on the floor, gum wrappers and ciggie butts, and there were whitegoods in the back—a fridge, an oven and a washing machine.
‘What’s with the homewares?’
‘I’m doing a favour for Keith.’
Her mum’s boyfriend was in real estate, or maybe it’s building—he owned and managed display homes.
‘I’m doing a favour for Keith,’ Sydney said again. She was looking in the rear-view mirror excessively as she drove. I’d expected to direct, but she knew where she was going. When we arrived, she parked the van at the furthest edge of the multiplex’s large car park.
‘Why are we parking so far away?’
‘Oh, I know. This place is stupidly big, right?’
We walked across the car park to the front entrance of the cinema where Sydney sat on a concrete bench in front of the Nando’s. When we were in high school we used to take chicken wraps in to the movies with us. I’d been a vegetarian for the last five weeks while Sydney looked like she hadn’t eaten in about that long.
‘So, how’s it going? Uni?’ She stared across the car park, not taking her eyes off the van, even as she lit her smoke. This was the first time she’d asked me about my new life.
‘Well, I’m on semester break now.’
‘Everyone says second semester is better.’
‘That’s good, that’s good.’ She smoked with shaky hands. She stared at the van.
‘Have you learned how to get red phosphorous from a matchbox?’
‘And you know you only need coffee filters and water to get pure pseudoephedrine? Chemistry is amazing, you’re gunna do so much cool shit, Pooch.’
I stared, waiting to see if she was joking. She wasn’t. She’d clearly forgotten I had switched to Arts.
‘Yeah, it is,’ I said.
That was when I noticed the annoying way that she smoked. The suctiony noise she made when the cigarette left her lips, like she was kissing it. She had trouble lighting up another at one point. She crouched on her haunches, sheltering her lighter from the wind. When she stood again and looked out to the car park, she thought for a second she couldn’t see the van. She bolted up onto her toes and craned her head around, like she was goal-keeping. When she spotted it again, she relaxed for half a second, then asked me if the car had moved.
‘We didn’t park there, did we?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said, even though I knew where we had parked.
We didn’t see the movie.
I returned to the city after one week. Mum was disappointed, so I asked her to come visit me at college. When she did, I took her to the NGV and told her what I understood of modernism and postmodernism.
‘You sure are learning a lot,’ she said on the tram back north.
We went to one of the campus cafés and I shouted the coffees.
‘It is cute here, isn’t it?’ she said, holding her cappuccino with two hands and looking around at the bookshelves and the other students reading at the small circular tables. Before she’d arrived, I’d tried to start my semester two homework, but I got nowhere because I couldn’t understand Lacan. I looked up most of the words in the readings, but still didn’t understand much of it. I was going to tell her I was thinking of changing out of Arts, which would mean telling her I had changed into Arts, but before I did she turned to me, placed her coffee down on the table with both hands and told me how Keith’s display homes were being robbed repeatedly by ‘those ice junkies’.
‘A lot of people smoke ice because they grow up in shitholes and have nothing to do,’ I said.
‘You grew up in a small town. And look at you!’ She gestured to my latte, as though the fact that I no longer drank cappuccinos was evidence I’d moved up.
‘You know in the 1930s there were headlines about meth that said Now Everyone Can Be Brilliant because they really thought it was going to work. To make everyone better.’
‘Meth, Carol, what are you talking about?’ Mum said. ‘This is ice. It’s an epidemic. It was on Four Corners.’
They said it was because of the meth that she stole. They said it was because of the meth that she lied to everyone. Her selfishness—they said that was because of the meth, too. This version of her, the one that robs display homes, was not the real one.
Mum told me about it on the phone. She called to talk about it more than once a week. How distraught Sydney’s mum was, how sad it all was. ‘All that potential,’ she kept saying. ‘All that potential.’
‘She was a waitress.’
Sydney had been to rehab twice. In Bali and then in the city. Mum told me I should go visit her.
‘She stole, Mum.’
My mum sighed.
‘All that potential.’
I did go, though. I took a tram to the hospital almost every day between classes. One time I even got as far as the front desk, but I only asked if I could use a bathroom. The receptionist pointed me there with a look far more sorrowful than required for someone who just needs to pee. Maybe she guessed I was struggling to find the courage to admit myself.
Another time I walked there and saw Sydney standing out the front. Smoking a cigarette. This time she held her fag high, level with her shoulder. Smoking slowly out the front of rehab in her Doc Martens and big sunglasses like she was famous when, actually, she was just another bogan from the country.
‘Well, I’ll leave you girls to catch up.’
Mum purses her lips and hunches her shoulders. She touches Sydney on the back before she walks away. We have caught up. Sydney has told me how stupid rehab was: ‘It’s basically a hotel. It only works if you have the tools to recover yourself.’
She read a book, one by a Melbourne author who’d been a heroin addict and a sex worker, then recovered. The book had been a bestseller and Sydney had highlighted lines to read to me over breakfast. She said I was smart to escape the country. She told me she slept with one of the doctors. She’s put on weight since I last saw her, but still she looks different. Healthier, but artificially somehow. Something that has been sucked dry and then refilled. Her skin sags slightly and there’s a small, circular scar on her chin. One of her front teeth is grey, I see it every time she smiles, which she does a lot.
She finishes her cappuccino, straight down the gullet, head knocked back. She places the cup and saucer on her empty plate, which is smeared brown with pie and sauce.
‘So,’ she says with finality, both her hands on the table. She looks at me, square on, like she’s ready to stand and leave, leave it at that. ‘So, how’s it going Pooch?’
Her eye contact is stern, I wonder if it’s something she learned in rehab. I look down at my empty latte glass. I have switched to a double degree, Arts and Science. The year is over. I sat my exams and wrote essays, I aced everything. I even got a good mark on the Lacan, although I swear I still don’t understand it.
‘It’s fine,’ I say eventually, shrugging. ‘Good. Nothing to report, really.’
‘That’s good, Pooch. That’s really good.’
She’s seated still, hands folded one over the other. Not doing anything, only smiling, staring. Fixated on me, unlike I’ve ever seen her before.
I try to think what to say next.