MOVING back to the sea was always going to pit me against the ghosts and their children. Although this once small, unpaved outer suburb has in-filled and the predominantly immigrant accents have taken on a more antipodean twang, the past now walks around in track pants and board shorts.
Case in point – this morning – out early to beat the anticipated heat – I emerged from the crisp turquoise water to find it topless on the sand. The careless slouch of a boy – skin brown, eyes darting over me. “Ain’t you Gracie Saunders?” he said.
“I was,” I told him. “They call me Liberty now.”
“You take the yoga classes, right?”
“First one’s at eleven.”
“Thought so. My mum goes. She remembers you.”
I had to look away – avoid the inherent judgement. I noticed the boy’s canoe – bright fibreglass colours against wet grey sand. It explained his well-developed biceps.
“I’m Josh,” he smiled – all teeth and freshness. His hand – big and loose – reached out. I shook it with a nod.
“Mum reckons you’ve changed.”
I was immediately struck by the strangeness of it. “Everyone changes, don’t they? If they’re alive.”
He laughed – his eyes big with childlike kindness and adult need. “She said you used to be real nice.”
Hearing it so bluntly filled with me a sense of lightness – of achievement. The dry old cladding was flaking off – new skin showing through. I ran my hands through wet hair – gave young Josh a good look. “Well, I’m horrible now.”
Another big, reflexive smile. A nervous shuffle – toes digging into sand. “Nah – I just reckon they’re jealous.”
It was my turn to laugh – a little flushed. Who was this pretty boy with the downy frame and probing eyes?
“Why thank you, Josh but – why? Why are you telling me this?”
Shrugging bare, already freckled shoulders he squinted. “I dunno – just thought I’d say.”
“Well I know what it’s to feel like jealous,” I confessed. “And it’s not fun.”
I walked past him – feeling the pull of his eyes. My footsteps squeaked a litte too loudly in the sand as I made my way towards the chipped and bleached stairs up to the road – shaking my head.
“Hey,” his voice called out – suddenly more purposeful.
Stopping and spinning I watched him jog up – athletic and awkward at once. My curiosity was firing. He stopped a metre or so away – hand up to shield his eyes from a low slung sun.
“They’re saying shit about you. They reckon you like young blokes.”
Sitting here – thinking about the class I am about to teach – I rehearse nasty come-backs I know I won’t use. Maybe Josh was feeling lucky – chancing his arm. Perhaps it was Indy that let it slip. No matter. There’s some truth in it anyway. You gave me a taste for it – so hot and unspoiled. Such a wonderful fuck. I understand that I am meant to feel put down. Dirty. Compromised. My return to this place – a defeat – a kind of backdown. And yes – I have been humbled – but not in the way they imagine.
Nor am I shamed or regretful.
Rather I am thankful – to have met you – for my love to have been so costly. Now that I am here on the ground – under the old tin roof of my mother – sweltering in the appraisal of my contemporaries – I am learning to be worthy of my both my names. Grace and Liberty. They seem like beautiful twins to me. I can only aspire to be like them.
“And how does that make you feel, Josh? Lucky?”
Impulsively – perhaps recklessly – I reached out and touched his firm, sandy chest. Felt his heart – it’s deep and aching beat. Poor boy – he was terrified. Hormones and small town spite had got the better of him.
I withdrew my hand – wiped it provacatively on my still wet bathers.
“I’m sorry,” he bumbled – a naughty kid caught out.
“Don’t be,” I told him firmly. ”Cos I’m not.”
Leaving him there on the sand with his toy coloured canoe and bewildered eyes I had a rare sense of victory. Not swagger. Not revenge. Just quiet knowing. I realised that for the first time in my life I genuinely did not care. What had once been a pose – a speech – was now a kind of breathing.
When I stand in front of those women in a couple of hours I will thank you. I will plead gladly guilty to their sins. Own their weakness with pleasure. And it will all be reduced to vanity – because I will have known the light.
The beautiful light you showed me.