Noah shook her head and sparks leapt off the ends of her hair. I could see them falling from across the room. They fell like fireworks and the cold in the air snuffed them out before they reached her shoes.
The girl speaking with Noah couldn’t see them. She was distracted by something, her mind eating up everything else in the room but Noah. The girl’s friends were gathered around the kitchen, talking to a boy. Her boy. The room held little bundles of people, all of them wishing to be in the next bundle over. But Noah didn’t seem to notice. She was never a good conversationalist. I could recite just about every conversation we’d ever had, they felt so nice, but that doesn’t mean she was good at conversation. She hid this fact by sipping her drink mid-sentence, relishing in the pauses this created. Anything to prolong her train of thought, anything to keep the other person mesmerised by her words. From across the room I could almost see the perspiration on her upper lip as she tried to make her language something magical. She was always too forced; too obvious; too far away from the person opposite. Someone should tell her that.
Still, the room orbited around her nucleus. Still, it seemed like the party was pulsing for her. Sitting by myself, on a fraying couch at the frayed edges, it seemed as if each post-teen, pre-adult, Converse-clad person in the room was a prop to Noah’s play. They greyed in comparison.
Now, the girl was training her eyes towards the boy, purposefully turning ignorant to Noah. She’d catch on soon; when she reached the end of her sentence. She’d catch on. It’s not like she couldn’t read people. I watched as, on cue, she let her last phrase fall out of her mouth. It lay squirming between them on the floor; a gap in the conversation.
The girl looked down, realising what Noah had done. She smiled gratefully at her before running over to her boy. He grinned smugly as she approached, knowing he could pull the girl across the room just by standing in it. And then Noah just stood there next to the fireplace, not even bothering to pretend that she hadn’t been left alone. I watched as her head circled the room, lazily. The sparks lit up slower this time, fizzing out as they fell past her shoulders. Her nonchalance was suffocating. She would only ever notice other people retrospectively, when she was finished with her own thoughts.
The first time we met it had been hot; the sky was the kind of heavy that smothered any suggestion of romance or affection and still I had stared at her. Her hair was longer then, down to her waist, and it lit up as she circled through the school yard. She was placed next to me in class. When she looked at me, I felt myself being swallowed up by the wall behind me. The first time she spoke to me, it was to ask how to spell the word ‘disintegrate.’ D-i-s-i-n-t-e-g-r-a-t-e, I had replied. Di-sin-te-grate, she had said back, placing emphasis on sin. And then she laughed her strange, hollow laugh and our descent into romance began.
By the time that her love for me had started filtering through the layers of her mind, my love for her had already begun pooling at my feet. It leaked through the doors of her dad’s car as we drove over the speed limit down the highway, and my parents could smell it on me as I sat down to dinner each night. Walking through the city to go to the movies, or to the shops, she would hide our clasped hands behind her back. My heart swelled at our secret. When my desire to share us with the world got too much to bear I would draw the outline of her mother’s dress, of her makeup brushes, of her bed frame. One time, my art teacher stood behind me as I drew.
“Oh Abigail! How wonderfully violent,” she exclaimed, rolling her eyes at another tortured teenager in love. Three months into knowing Noah, I had memorised her moods, the times of day she liked to be alone, the moments before she retreated. I loathed those stretches of retreat, where her eyes glazed over and her mind shut itself off to the world. But I would persist; I stayed watching her and talking to her and touching her until she closed off completely and I could taste my aloneness. That’s what defeated us in the end; what di-sin-te-grated us. My aloneness. Her aloofness.
Eight months later and Noah was standing by the fireplace, her phone open to the notes app. I could tell by the way that she was typing and then pausing, typing and then pausing. She was writing a poem. It would go like –
My parents died today
Or so my empty house said.
Mother hanging in the laundry
And Father facedown on the bed.
Or perhaps –
The Wind howled and
roared at the sea and the
Sea roared back.
Later that night, she would sit at the edge of her bed, her hair glowing. She would have her phone on one knee and her notebook on the other, and she would copy the poem down under today’s date. Or maybe she wouldn’t. Maybe she didn’t do that anymore. I suppose it didn’t matter where she kept her poems. They weren’t any good now that they weren’t about me.
Read the companion piece here
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On my first day of primary school I found myself walk- ing into a sea of white. White walls, white uniforms… white faces. These were the faces of the other children. I looked nothing like them and they knew it. The hairs on my back spiked from the intensity of their stares and their white fingers pointing at me. I examined my own light-brown arms, and I knew right then and there that I wasn’t going to fit in at this school. My heart pounded, and I buried my face into my mother’s chest, my tears soaking her t-shirt.
“I can’t go here,” I cried.
“Don’t be silly, Daisy,” said Mum. “You’re five, and you know that means you’re a big girl now. And where do big girls go?”
I didn’t respond.
“Where do big girls go?”
She pulled away from me and placed her hands firmly on my shoulders.
“Big girls go to school.”
My mum has white skin. I don’t. The darker colour comes from my Sri Lankan dad, but I hardly ever saw him after my parents divorced. No one else I met before I went to school looked like me. As a five- year-old I was so excited to start school and hoped that I would meet different people who might be a little more like me.
“I don’t like home,” I once told Mum when I was four.
“You don’t like home?” Mum laughed. “How can you not like home?”
“Because I can’t see anyone else.”
What I meant was that I couldn’t see anyone else I could connect with. Little did I know that this wasn’t going to change as I got to school.
I went to the local primary school. We lived on the outskirts of a wealthy suburban area. Mum didn’t make much money, so we could hardly be called wealthy ourselves, but I just so happened to be in the catchment area for that school. It was a ten minute walk from home, which meant that Mum could take me there in the morning and back in the afternoon without having to drive.
Someone was giggling behind me. I turned around, and I saw a group of three girls, three very pretty girls with long blonde hair, looking at me and smirking. More tears leaked out of my eyes.
“They’re laughing at me,” I whispered. “Laughing at you?” said Mum. “Whatever for?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
My first day of school was hell. Those blonde girls kept laughing at me, and the teacher did nothing about it. During recess, one of them came up to me and stroked my arm, which made me jump out of my skin.
“What’s your name?” said the girl.
“Um, Daisy?” I barely said out loud.
The girl turned around towards her two friends behind her. All three girls once again erupted into giggles.
“Daisy Duck!” the girl exclaimed. “Um, what?” I said.
“You’re Daisy, like Daisy Duck. You know, Disney?”
“Um, no. Mum doesn’t let me have Disney Channel.”
More laughs ensued. I kept looking left and right, trying to get my bearings as if I were in Wonder- land like Alice (Mum did let me watch that one).
What were these girls trying to say?
The girl at the front moved closer to me and poked me twice in the tummy.
“You’re brown and ugly,” she said.
Her two friends probably started laughing again, but I didn’t know for sure, because at that moment, I buried my face in my hands and ran away, sobbing my eyes out.
That was the first time I remember someone calling me ugly because of the colour of my skin.
From there on in things didn’t get any worse, exactly, but they didn’t really get any better, either. People called me names every once in a while. I cried a lot. I was lonely most of the time, but I kind of got used to it. I accepted that I was always going to be the ‘Ugly Duckling’, the odd one out, the circle that was trying too hard to fit into a square.
Then, at the beginning of Year One, a new girl arrived at my school. Her name was Ashanti. She had long black hair, almond-shaped eyes and brown skin. Like me, and like nobody else. On Ashanti’s first day I kept staring at her, and she kept returning my stares with smiles. She’s pretty, I thought. Girls were giggling at Ashanti like they always were at me, and every time they did I tried to give Ashanti a comforting smile, as if to say, You’re not alone.
Ashanti came up to me after class. She hadn’t spoken very much to the other kids, but she wanted to speak to me.
“Hi, I’m Ashanti,” she said. “Hi, I’m Daisy,” I returned. She looked slightly above me. “You have really cool hair.”
My insides began to warm up like a room after the heater’s been on.
“You have really cool hair too. You have hair like me.”
“You look like a swan,” she said. “Huh?” I replied.
“You look like a swan,” she repeated. “That’s good. Swans are my favourite animals.”
“But I don’t look like a swan at all!” I exclaimed. “Swans are, like, white. Like, they have white hair, or whatever. I don’t have white hair.”
“Well, my mummy always tells me that I’m like a brown swan.”
“There’s no such thing as a brown swan.”
“Yes there is, Mummy showed me a picture! It’s like in The Ugly Duckling- you know that one? It’s a fairytale about a duckling that’s ugly, but he finds out that he’s a swan? Like, I don’t know if he’s a white swan, but Mummy says that swans can be any colour, so I guess we can be brown swans.”
“I thought I looked more like a duck or some- thing, because people call me ‘duck’ sometimes, be- cause my names Daisy, which is the name of a duck in Disney, I think,” I said.
“But you’re pretty!” said Ashanti. “You’re a brown swan.”
I’m pretty. I’m a brown swan. Take that, giggly
Ashanti and I only stayed friends until Year Six. Then she and I went to different high schools, and we never really saw each other again. But I’ll never forget the day we met, when I found out that I didn’t have to be the only brown swan in my world.