In her fourteenth summer Alex started taking baths in the big green tub by herself. They used to jump in together, all three of them — it was deep enough — after their last swim when the sun was fat and low and Mum had come down to the beach to find them. Joel was the smallest so he went in the middle, with Alex and Chloe on the flanks, slippery backs against the avocado-coloured enamel. You could track their growth by photographs of them in this bath — limbs lengthening, teeth falling out one by one.
They had arrived only half an hour ago and Alex stared at the marbled kitchen linoleum, finding the old patterns in it without even trying — the lady brushing her hair, the round pig, the coat hanger. A parcel of fish and chips lay wrapped in butcher’s paper on the kitchen table where she sat, towelling her hair and trying not to hear the squealing and splashing in the bathroom, trying not to think about the hair between her legs that excluded her from it. Thick wiry hair, like the hair on her dad’s arms and legs, dark against skin untouched by sun. It itched, and curled around the sides of her underpants; it grew defiantly, in obscene contrast to the thin, scabby limbs of her childhood. Mum touched her damp head lightly as she passed, setting the table. Alex understood that the touch was an acknowledgment and she recoiled from it instinctively.
She knew what it was, of course: puberty. Some of the girls in her class already wore bras, sat out of Phys Ed class every few weeks, holding their bellies piously, speaking to each other in murmurs about cramps and wings, inducted into some savage secret that both enticed Alex and repelled her. She’d seen pictures: breasts ballooning, distended and heavy, the skin stretching so rapidly that it turned shiny and white like scars. Hipbones tilting wide, spreading already to receive and to bear, the very architecture of her body shifting in awareness of its function. All this hung, inevitable and colossal, in her future; she could not hide from it and she had longed for it and yet now that it was here she did not feel elevated or arcane, just embarrassed, overpowered, alone.
From this new vantage point the familiar summer smells tormented her: battered flake, bubble bath, the cough-medicine leaves of the red callistemon tree in the driveway that welcomed them every summer like a blazing flag. The floorboards creaked as they had always creaked, under the carpet, under the stain where Chloe had vomited green cordial when she was six, under the incessant inhale and exhale of the nearby sea, so omnipresent that you soon became deaf to it, its salty haze on your lips all the time, waiting to be licked. Even though it was almost ten o’clock at night Mum poured Coke into glasses, and Chloe and Joel emerged from the bathroom, pink-kneed and wrinkled. They would ride their bikes barefoot to the jetty tomorrow and throw them aside, not even bothering to lock them up, running over the hot bleached wood and leaping high and long into the deep cool water. Yes, Alex would join them; yes, she’d have sauce on her chips, thanks; the sea shushed, the curtains fluttered in the callistemon air, and these things she had loved did not evaporate but her love for them did, at her fingertips, and this shack and this street, this town and this beach were to her as alien as her deforming body, and as lonely.
Emma Marie Jones is a Melbourne poet, writer and editor. View more of her work on her website.
Mitch Gee is a Brisbane-based freelance illustrator. Find more of his work on his website.