From Bluff Hill we can see the ships come in. Past the buoys stitched crooked like Orion’s belt. My school is art deco seashell and lavender climb. Girls press their hands to the frames and breathe on the glass. There’s this one boy who got peach fuzz before the rest of them. His voice cracks seismic and we all swarm. I practice my California accent down the landline and my mother laughs behind the door. We pass him around like chapstick. Hickies like blossoms on his neck, like rose-purple flags planted behind pine trees and beach grass. There are socials. Socials with glow sticks and apple juice in cardboard cartons. We all look at him. We look at him, through him, to see each other. A postcard is no place to be a teenager. The sea air is too thick. Rusts my bicycle in the garage. Rusts the door hinges. Stings in the back of my eyes.
Our town’s like honey. You get knee deep. Arataki. Manuka. Clover. Sweet. Council flat, Sky TV, pyramid scheme, boxed wine, sun-freckled early twenties. Ultra-scan, veganism, Mum’s club with the girls who went to your kindy. His sisters, their perfume vanilla and daisies, their babies fat and milky. We could have built a vege garden. I could have kept a shotgun under the mattress.
Most of us. Most of us leave. We carve the initials of our high school sweethearts into lumps of driftwood and throw them out to sea. To big cities where no one knows us, where the cops drive with their windows up and their sleeves rolled down. We learn to sleep through the traffic. We keep on leaving till we find a way to go. We leave so one day we can maybe come back.
It feels like teeth fuzz and breath tang, because she has forbidden you to leave your room. Like your gut twisting into the back of your spine and blood trickling down your thigh because you must not leave your room. It smells like the metallic hum of the electric fly swat. Arm hair burning, you cornered and her laughing. It smells like lemongrass, green tea, lavender, lime. Tastes like copper. It looks like it all moving at the edges. Like hanging out the window frame at 12:03, your dinner in your throat, in your hair, in the garden, the walls choking up fast. Dust thick on your tongue, sucking on a spacer, no one has ever died of a panic attack but asthma – you must not make a sound. It feels like the kitchen tap turned full on cold, like pink corner mould against your white white ass, like the faucet burning up ’til all it spits is hot ash. It sounds like s’s in your ear. Your father would be ssso ssssad. You must not leave your room. It looks like the notch of growing pains in the door frame, picture frames in the door frame, dinner plates in the door frame, your dinner raw on the kitchen bench. One fork. One spoon. It feels like the walls breathing real heavy. It looks like you up to your elbows in bleach, the hot turned up and up. It sounds like the red gravel burn of she’s home and you better fucking not be. It feels like foil blister in your palm, your nails in your palm, your palms pressed together. God a waxing crescent. It’s like all there is, is dark.
1. Be fifteen. Fall in love with your best friend. This will last for five years. Collect white roses. Watch it end. (Proceed to step 3)
2. Fall in love again and know that you will always love him different. Seven years later, stay in the room when the Proclaimers play. Reclaim the local museum. The park bench. The rooftop. When he invites you to his wedding, accept. (14)
3. Get drunk. Dance with some guy that looks nothing like him. Dance until the lights come up and he can see the mascara smeared on your cheeks, the freckles on your neck, your eyes burning with spirits. When he asks if you wanna get outta there, make him wait (proceed to 5) or follow him to the taxi (4).
4. Diamonds you txt him. Spades you don’t. Pull a card. Spades. Txt him anyway. (Proceed to 7)
4a. He only txts you back when it’s cold. (8)
5. Walk into the pizza store the next day and see him there behind the counter. It is 2pm and you have your first hangover. You are wearing your work uniform which makes you look like a minimum-wage orca. Lift your chin up and give him your best migraine smoulder. When he scrawls his number on the napkin, tell him he’s seen too many John Cusack films. (Proceed to 4)
6. When the priest asks if there is any objection scrunch your toes in your shoes and look at Jesus all ripped and bleeding up there. Tell yourself that he will come to love her, that he will smile again like you remember. That if you were meant to be, you would have. Sit still. This is the only way left for you to love him.
7. Invite him over and, for once, don’t plan what you’re going to do. Swallow a screwdriver in one. Draw a blank. When he sprawls across your couch and grins at you real confident, draw another. When you go to fill in your application to enrol, draw him. (You’re an embarrassment. 9)
8. Fall for him. Hard. Ignore your friends. Hear the warning bells and fill them with shaving cream. Learn to live with the dull ringing. (16)
9. (4a). Idiot.
10. Stand up on the pew and say that his smile doesn’t reach his eyes anymore. That he speaks quietly now. Let her taffeta and lace blur as you stare right at him. Tell him that soul-mate sounds a lot like cell-mate. Tell him that you still love him. (Recede to step 3)
11. You have never successfully broken a rule. The second time hurts just as much as the first. You demand that he is entirely honest with you this time. He is. It is not enough. He learns to cry. It ends, again, and it is just as hard. (13)
12. When your first love asks you to take him back, do so. Kick Cusack to the kerb and run into his arms. Because exes trying again is not a good idea ever, except in this case. (11 for you, Miss Exceptional)
13. Write a lot of bad poetry. Ignore your better judgement and write it self-indulgent. Slam until your tongue bleeds and your throat dries and your mother buys you self-help books. (15)
14. The priest will smile and ask if anyone objects. Stand up (10). Stay seated (6).
15. One day you will forget the smell of his favourite cologne. This is a good thing. Keep writing. Eventually, you will write about something other than him. (2)
16. Make yourself smaller. Quieter. Calmer. Hate him for wanting to change you. Try to change him instead. (12)
Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor was recently announced as the co-winner of the 2017 Monash Prize for Emerging Writers. Her work has appeared in Starling, Mayhem, Brief, Poetry New Zealand, Landfall, Turbine and Verge. She writes thanks to the tireless support of some of the best people on this great watery rock.