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The First Summer
She had noticed him staring at her, violating ice blue eyes that chased away her own, fluttering downwards towards the sticky bus floor. They would have stayed there, rooted in melancholy and Hubba Bubba, had she not been curious. When she had snuck another look, he was still staring. Her first thought was that he was trouble, barely contained by his stonewashed jeans, and ill disguised by his angelic blonde curls and rosebud lips.
Ethan had forecasted she would be the answer to all of his troubles, and he was right. He had guessed that she was wonderful, and misjudged her only in thinking her oversized, androgynous shirt, cigarette-legged jeans and drooped, dejected hunch were characteristic of the hard-up passengers of that bus route. It was not until later that her persevering habit of picking up on her ‘t’s and her easy surprise at everything Ethan said or did gave her class away. By then, the popular fashion for careless hippie dress, of androgynous shirts, cigarette-legged jeans and the carefully arranged appearance that implied pure chance, showed her to be a foreign thing entirely; her wealth and social standing was such that she did not follow popular fashion – it followed her. But then, Ethan took that advent of slapdash fashion and his meeting her as symbols of happy chance, an entity that he would later believe had attached itself to him as inexorably as a tail is to a monkey. Seemingly carried by the wind and not some extension of himself.
He had seated himself behind her, and she hadn’t looked back. Headphones connected to a cassette player haloed her hair. She had goose bumps, despite the stuffy bus interior, as though prickled by the purity of the voice that sang directly, singly to her. How to speak to her? By chance, Ethan’s gaze had wandered to the cassette player on her lap.
“You forgot something.” Ethan grinned, leaning over the railing separating their seats and pushing play on her cassette player.
The girl turned around, indignant. The music straining in her ears had been a sharp re-introduction to her surroundings.
“You’ve been crying?” Ethan had been startled by the feeling that bristled bright in her eyes, but had shot with the simple candour of a child, knowing his directness could not be so easily waved away as a “Hey, are you ok?”
Daryl had stared bleakly at the garish colours of the fast-moving scenery. “My grandfather died today.” She had eyed him with suspicion then, admitting years later that she had never been spoken to with such familiar ease before, and wondered if he was making fun of her. Daryl knew all about stifling, of holding back till her child’s body had been forced to shoot upwards overnight, as though her pinafore-pocket frame was incapable of accommodating the sorrow. So it had simply grown; one morning she had awoken to the gentle sprightly push of her slanting bedroom ceiling against her newly flowered, at once strawberry-coloured hair, the shock of adolescence tingeing her hair the colour of her newly open womb.
It was bound to happen, really. Her father’s impenetrable wall of books and letters blockading his desk, and her mother’s disinterested beef and broccoli had not been lost upon the perceptive and sensitive Daryl. At twelve, she would cry secretly after watching the Natural History show each night in an effort to bond with her father, uncomprehending the cruel fate of infant water buffalo and lame giraffes, too ashamed to cry openly before her unflinching father. Years of indomitable silences at ‘family’ mealtimes had taught her restraint, guardedness as a very young girl. This, Ethan, was new. But, with piqued curiosity, and some relish, she had gone on, to Ethan’s fascination. “Grandpa left the world with a glass full of whiskey and an unlit cigar, as though he was expecting company. Or perhaps that’s it; he was so busy chatting away he didn’t have time to take a sip, or a puff. I’ll bet it was grandma, right there with him. I was too young at the time to remember her. But he said he could sometimes see her on clear days,” she said, eyes catching. “My grandpa’s always been kinder to me than either of my parents.”
Ethan had felt at once felt responsible for this broken thing before him. He would save her, nothing else could be contemplated. “Oh, well I think I know what you mean,” he said. “The same thing happened to me. Well...” and at this point Ethan had screwed up his mouth, imitating Daryl’s dubious twist of the mouth as a monkey mimics the pale evolved tourist, scratching her head at the lack of the picturesque in the Borneo hinterlands. She pouted; he laughed. And, without a hint of sadness or self-pity, only matter-of-factness, he continued. “At least my mum used to be really great to me and my little sister. Worked extra hours as a seamstress at a bridal store to support us. She spent fifty hours a week making perfect dresses; taking them in when the brides shifted the pounds they’d eyed with sniper-intent for the past ten years, taking them out when they binged on wedding cake batter and butter sticks. Go figure which stayed married longest.” He had hummed. “Ironic that when mum finally got married, she married a toad. She was Cinderella for the 20th century. She got a new boyfriend and he stopped her having any sort of independence, however hard it was to maintain. She didn’t seem to fight it, just... gave up. So we don’t have that anymore, either.”
She had smiled.
What he had always seen as indifference – a wilfully shut-down heart at his family situation, Daryl simply saw as courage. And she was fooling him into thinking it, too.
“You’re a sadist. I knew it.” Ethan had grinned broadly, and she had smiled again, this time showing trafficable Nivea teeth. Despite it all, the shared darkness against the monstrous magentas and gutsy greens of the spray-can adorned walls had somehow made Daryl’s anguish contract, like a pupil drawing back at the unabashed cloudlessness of a November noon. It had brought into focus the acuteness of the pained throb of the bus shuttle and the solidity of the monkey-boy at her side. She had thought of how today might just be the luckiest day of her life and, as the world would surely but belatedly come around to her cigarette-legged jeans, so now Ethan was starting to share her worldview – the wayward ugly duckling in her thrall.
He would marry her. And she would change him, he knew it. She whose smile had flaunted the first flickerings of summer.