It was the end of feijoa season when it first occurred to Keira she’d have to break up with Jesse. They sat at a table outside Verona—opposite Josh and Simran and Omar—drinking hot toddies and sharing a bowl of chips before Omar’s gig at Wine Cellar. Jesse mentioned,in passing—as anything stirring is first mentioned—that perhaps he could work here next year, make a bit of money. Keira wanted to ask him what he meant. Had he forgotten their conversation about moving to Melbourne after graduation? Had he thought she was joking? Had that conversation even happened? By the time she thought up what to say everyone was upending their glasses. It was late in April, already night by five-thirty, the kind of cold that reminded Keira of playing netball in intermediate: her magenta Asics scuffing on the rubberised asphalt, the sting when she’d cut her nails too short, her taut earlobe as she removed the tape covering her gold studs, the sharp whistle of the referee pulling her up for obstruction, forcing her to stand aside. How, after a game, when it was her turn to wash the bibs, she’d sling the bag off her right shoulder into the boot and notice, away from the floodlights of the court, how dark it had already become. She would have suggested sitting inside but the booths were too small for all five of them and anyway, Jesse wanted a durry.
Jesse was a decent guy, and made Keira laugh, and after three years together they had enough shared history to fall back on when silences loomed. She loved the focus with which he scooped out the flesh of a feijoa, the clough between his brows that would in time grow permanent, the shadow of his back in the flat grey light of morning. She’d spent these past three years slipping in and out of love, or whatever this was, but it wasn’t enough, not anymore. Everyone was going somewhere and she wanted to leave too, although she wasn’t quite sure it was the same thing. Simran had accepted a scholarship at The University of Melbourne, and Keira figured Melbourne wasn’t too far, a trial run. They got wide-eyed and giddy thinking about living together in some cute Fitzroy townhouse. Jesse didn’t see the point; he thought it better to hang around a while and see what they could make of things in Auckland. She’d never understood his loyalty to this city.
But then maybe he was right. She grew nauseous if she thought about it too much. If she didn’t leave now, though, she wasn’t sure she ever would, and that seemed somehow more terrifying than anything. She’d kept her desire concealed, even from herself, for fear of being caught out. She’d known she’d have to end things ever since that night at Verona, somewhere low in the cavern of her gut, but who could ever admit to something so selfish? That she wanted something more than Auckland and Jesse and all this, and worse, that she might act upon her wanting. It wasn’t until early December, when exams were over and the heat had settled in, and everyone was packing boxes to go overseas or back home or somewhere new, that Keira finally decided to break it off. Perhaps it was the humidity, she wondered, or the holidays. For whatever reason, the inevitability was all of a sudden too much to contain.
An hour before Simran’s Christmas party Keira carefully pulled her black tights up to her waist, running her palms over the glossy nylon. She checked the weather app and rolled them down again—it was staying in the twenties all night. Standing at the mirror, she watched Jesse’s reflection as he lay in bed, propped up against a pile of pillows like a sickly eighteenth century prince. She catalogued the reflection of their room, his room; his Emin-esque twin mattress on the floor, all scattered sheets and dirty plates; his lamp, its pallid yellow certainty; his bedside ashtray; his stack of books; hers.
Unease congealed in her stomach. For three years now, they’d grown together, negotiated space in relation to one another. She considered talking herself down, certain she could have. Instead, she clenched her jaw, trying desperately to caulk the grief calcifying in her throat. For eight or nine minutes she said nothing, and then, as if suggesting where to grab dinner on their way to the party, ‘I think we should stop.’ Jesse barely glanced up from his phone.
‘Stop what?’ he mumbled.
‘This,’ she said. ‘Us.’
He sat straighter, looked her reflection in the eye.
‘Well, if I’m going to Melbourne and you’re not,’ she said.
He stood and walked over to the mirror, gripped his hands around her waist and rested his jaw on her head. Keira stared at this uncanny couple in the reflection, looking for a reason to stay.
‘That’s not for ages yet. You could get a job here for a bit first, somewhere close, see how you go?’ he said.
He kissed her shoulder and she pulled away. He scuffed his knuckles across his nose in that violent way men do when they get stubborn and defensive, cobras raising their hoods.
‘You just want to break up now so you can get with someone at Simran’s,’ he accused.
‘Oh fuck off,’ she scoffed. She began packing her things into her Jansport.
‘That’s it, huh? Three fuckin’ years and you just wanna go get with some guy at some party.’ He grabbed her by the wrist and threw her down onto the mattress.
‘So what,’ she yelled back up at him. ‘It’s not my fault you’re happy to live in this shithole forever.’
He swore at her and locked himself in the bathroom. She stood up, hoisted her backpack over her right shoulder, and walked out the door.
Keira arrived at Simran’s an hour late and half a bottle of Peter Yealands deep, steadying herself against the rusted handrail with her left hand and clutching the bottle with her right. Two guys in stained Anti Social Social Club t-shirts rushed past her down the stairs, racing to call dibs on the extra box of VBs from the fridge in the garage. Simran lived on Sandringham Road, right by Kingsland station. The house rattled as the trains passed, to Swanson and Britomart and back again every fifteen minutes. Christmas lights strung along the eaves twinkled red and hazy. Six stubbed out cigarettes floated in the wax of a candle in the terracotta dish on the round glass table, the scent of citronella in the air. All of Simran’s Elam friends wearing Kowtow and no makeup huddled under the outdoor light at the other end of the deck, a smoke ghost swirling just above their heads.
‘Keira!’ Simran beamed and pulled open the sliding door.
‘You’re so beautiful,’ Keira slurred, and she meant it. She’d always thought Simran had the kind of beauty of a mother before she was a mother, the album photograph a daughter Instagrams on mother’s day. They hugged, the heat of Simran’s silk spaghetti-strapped back foreign and comforting at once.
For hours they danced to old Britney and new-ish Kanye, and old Kanye too. At one point Keira heard sirens but couldn’t tell if they were in the song or outside. Simran’s keys jangled on the carabiner clipped to her belt loop. In the corner of the kitchen a girl lifted her velvet dress to show a friend her hipbone tattoo: the tiny outline of a rose, probably a stick and poke. Simran offered Josh a plate of spring rolls.
‘Careful, they’re hot,’ she said.
Josh grabbed two, then turned to warn Omar: ‘Shit watch out, they’re hot.’
The plate didn’t move far past these two, yet was licked clean in no more than fifteen minutes. Josh wouldn’t stop complaining at the Spotify ads every five songs, so Simran logged into her premium account and put on that one Tove Lo song everybody knows. Within the first two bars, the living room swelled. Everyone danced, sweaty and electric. When the chorus came around, Keira downed the rest of her wine, tossed her wrists over Simran’s shoulders and shouted the lyrics the loudest of them all. She’s always believed there to be something recalibrating about being drunk and dancing with your best friend to a great pop song.
A hoarse rendition of Jenny Don’t Be Hasty followed before the party trickled out to the back deck. The weather held out and everyone sunk into old couches from roadside collections of semesters passed. Simran’s cousin, the one from Wellington with the Jeffrey Campbell studded boots she wears year round, turned up right on 1:00am, climbing up onto the second storey deck and hoisting herself over the loose railing, a bottle of ginger Scrumpy in hand. Omar lit a joint at the exact moment Lana Del Rey came up on Simran’s Spotify queue, which made everyone laugh, because of course. After they’d all taken a hit Keira lay down in Simran’s lap, her thighs smooth and cool in the evening air. She kicked off her shoes and tucked her feet into the crease where the couch cushions met. She was pretty sure her skirt had ridden up but with Simran stroking her hair, she was too comfortable to check. She closed her eyes as the conversation turned to horoscopes. She desperately needed to pee, but she was so snug, just lying there. Someone said the party was good because there were no Geminis or Virgos. Keira didn’t really know what any of it meant, just that Jesse was an Aquarius and she was a Taurus and they always thought they’d prove the incompatibility forewarnings wrong.
Moments later she stirred to a pressure against her shoulder—Simran was pushing Keira up off her lap. She fell against Omar’s warm chest as he lifted her dead weight off the couch and carried her inside. She hung off him, interlocking her fingers at the back of his neck. Everybody laughed and turned the music back on. She pressed her thighs together, but it was too late, a hot wetness had already soaked through her skirt.
‘Fuck,’ Keira mumbled. ‘I’m so sorry.’
Omar stared back at her with a forgiving smile. She hadn’t noticed the scar on his chin before.
He lowered her down onto the toilet in the dark, pulling her underwear to her ankles. He steadied her shoulder with one hand and flicked the light on with the other. The metallic click rang in her ears and the fluorescent light made her feel drunker than the wine.
‘I’ve never seen you like this before,’ he said.
‘Yeah,’ she slurred. ‘I don’t really ever get like this.’
All of a sudden Keira felt her stomach revolting. She slid onto the ground and sped around just in time for the wine to make it into the toilet. She felt her bare knees sharp against the cold hard tiles, the tug at her scalp as Omar pulled her hair taut.
‘Me and Jesse broke up,’ she said, her confession amplified by the toilet bowl.
Omar leaned over and pushed the flush.
‘Yeah,’ he said, running a face cloth under the tap. ‘He texted.’ He wrung out the excess water into the toilet.
Keira wiped her mouth on the cold cloth and let her head thud against the wall. The sounds of the party, muffled and distant, snuck in with the draught underneath the door.
She kicked off her underwear and shuffled over to Omar until their forearms pressed into each other. She looked up at him and slipped her hand underneath his faded grey t-shirt. He traced his fingers up her thigh, and then into her and out again. Omar stood and pulled her to standing and they stumbled down the hall, ducking into Simran’s bedroom, tripping on the boxes just inside the doorway. She knew this was reckless, that she’d likely regret it come morning, but it wasn’t morning yet.
Keira woke to the light streaming in gold and harsh. Through groaning eyelids, the glare of the living room looked tourmaline cloudy, bodies strewn all around, everyone still asleep. Her skin felt tight and dry, her mouth drier, no water in reach. She pushed the tartan blanket off her waist and a heavy wave rushed to her head, another, and then another. She braced herself against the arm of the couch, staggered to the kitchen, and filled a mug with tap water. She hadn’t remembered about Omar, or Jesse, or Melbourne, but as she leaned against the bench it all seeped back in. A brief audit of the room—no Omar. Running her fingers along the hallway wall, she caught a glimpse of herself in the bathroom mirror, all flushed cheeks and frizzy hair and the crusted sarcophagus of last night’s makeup. She peeked into Simran’s room, her beautiful best friend curled up like a fossil, boxes stacked in a fort all around. No Omar here either, though she’d assumed as much already.
Retreating back to the living room, she collected everyone’s bottles and gently piled them into recycle bin under the sink. She brewed a plunger coffee and opened the kitchen window and there she saw it. Tiptoeing over the sleeping bodies of people she’d been introduced to but couldn’t remember the names of, she pulled the sliding door open smooth and slow. She stepped out onto the deck, already warm from the morning’s sun, keeping a light tread in an effort against splinters. She leaned over the railing, her hips pressing against the metal bar. She reached out and out and out, and plucked it—a feijoa from the overhang of the neighbour’s tree. Back inside, she inched open the cutlery draw just enough to retrieve a teaspoon, and poured her coffee.
On Jesse’s birthdays she’d make him breakfasts like this. He just scraped by as a summer baby, so it was always warm early then too. The steam swirled up and up and it was just like when she was eight and visited Hot Water Beach, and how that same summer she had slap cheek, and how she had to wear gloves to stop the scratching, and that awful stench of calamine lotion. This then reminded her of the summer she had nits and spent all January quarantined from her friends and stinking of tea tree, and how for the next two years she had to wear her hair up even though she hated it, and all the ice cream containers that decorated the kitchen bench, filled with boiling water and brushes and combs and hair ties and scrunchies. There was the summer she went camping with Josh’s family up at Ruakaka, how they spent weeks swimming in the estuary and playing beach cricket and pulling prickles out of their heels. How, on the way home from the beach, they’d wipe their feet on the grass to get rid of all the dried sand and lay their towels over the back seats so as not to get the car too wet. Another summer was spent at the Metro on Queen Street. Every day at the arcade and, come evening, trading in tickets for lollies to sneak into the movie theatre for a double feature of Easy A and Remember Me. And the last summer before she met Jesse, that was a good one too. She spent three months umpiring primary school summer netball games and drinking rosé with Simran and Josh on this same deck she was standing at the window, staring out at. These summers would go on, at least. Kiera heaped a spoonful of brown sugar into her mug and stirred until it dissolved.
Setting her breakfast down on the bedside table, Keira climbed into the sheets and pulled the duvet to her chest, careful not to wake Simran. She polished her teaspoon on her sleeve and scooped out one half of the feijoa, took a sip of coffee, and let her head thud against the wall. The room rattled, and for a second she thought she might still be drunk, but then she saw it out the window; the first train of the day, taking everybody somewhere.