Authors: Rebecca Burton
Leaving Jetty Road
To Glenn, Grace, Robbi, and Sylvia,
my four writer friends:
because you listened so hard,
and write so well
here are two kinds of people in life: the swimmers and the drifters.
It’s like, some people swim purposefully through their lives, always knowing where they’re headed, always looking strong and fit and ready to get there. Others, well, they don’t sink, and they don’t swim; they just
It’s easy to tell who’s a swimmer and who’s a drifter. Take Lise and Sofia and me, for example, on a hot Sunday afternoon toward the end of December. We’re sitting on the carpet in my parents’ living room, the three of us, arguing in lazy, sweaty voices about what movie we’re going to see in town this evening. But it’s too hot to go anywhere; at 100 degrees, it’s too hot to do
except sit and talk.
“You thought about New Year’s resolutions yet?” Lise asks suddenly.
Sofia and I look over at her.
“No, seriously,” she says, gazing steadily back at us. “Next year’s Year
to make a resolution.”
New Year’s resolutions are Lise’s “thing.” Every year, she makes one. She thinks about it carefully, writes it down on a big sheet of paper, and pins the paper up over the desk in her bedroom. Usually, it’s something fairly everyday, like
Practice the piano every night.
In Year 11, though, she made a resolution that she’d never drink alcohol again. Not that she ever drank much to begin with, but “it’s bad for you,” she said simply. “It’s
Most people break their New Year’s resolutions, right? But not Lise. She hasn’t had a drop to drink since.
“Anyway,” she announces now, without warning. “This year I’ve decided to go vegetarian.” She glances at us, sees the expressions on our faces, says hastily, “Not forever, okay? Just to see what it’s like.”
Then, before either of us can say anything, she gets up and goes over to her bag, propped against the wall in the corner of the room. She pulls a video out of it and holds it up to us triumphantly.
Cruelty to Animals,
says the title on the cover.
Sofia groans. “Where did you get
“Just let me put it on, okay?” says Lise. “If you don’t like it, we can always switch it off.”
We sprawl out on our stomachs on the floor to watch the video, with the ceiling fans whirring madly to stir up the hot, still air and my brother Tim’s latest heavy metal CD reverberating through the walls. At the start we’re still chattering away, but by the end we’re sitting there in total silence, our faces riveted to the screen.
Cruelty to Animals.
It’s the kind of video you know you’ll never forget. I knew about slaughterhouses and animal experimentation in theory—but it’s different when you see it in the flesh.
“So how about it?” says Lise afterward. “Going vegetarian, I mean.” She pauses, pushes the heavy mop of hair back from her face. “Just for a year. That’s all. Just to see if we can do it.”
I mean, what can we say? I can’t get the picture of those slaughterhouses out of my head.
So we shake hands on it.
“No more barbecues,” says Sofia wistfully.
I sigh. “I can’t imagine a whole year without sausages and tomato sauce.”
“Or roast lamb.”
But Lise just smiles. “Vegetarianism’s good for you, you know. Think of all the
we could lose.”
That’s the thing about Lise: she’s so
She’s quiet, shy; solitary, even—but when she sets herself a goal, she goes out and achieves it, no matter what it takes. That’s what I mean about swimmers and drifters: she’s a swimmer through and through.
So’s Sofia—in a completely different way. She isn’t focused like Lise; she’s more of a happy-go-lucky, anything-goes kind of person. At school she carries around a pack of cigarettes in her bag, like she’s some kind of rebel or something; and sometimes, before Assembly, you’ll find her under the peppercorn trees at the back of the tennis courts, puffing madly away. But then get her on the subject of her younger half brother, Mattie, and she’s as sweet and domesticated as they come. She even cooks dinner every night when she comes home after school, just to make sure he gets a “nourishing meal.” (“Mate, Mum’s
If I didn’t cook, we’d live on pizza and baked beans every night of the week.”)
She follows nobody’s rules but her own, Sofe. That’s what makes her a swimmer. She just strikes out in her own direction and never looks back.
Me? I’m the ultimate drifter.
Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor . . .
I’ve never known where I’m going, what I want to do with my life. What I want to
Next year Lise is gearing up for trying to get into law (which she’ll sail into), and Sofe has vague plans for nursing (because it’s a good job for traveling). Me, I still don’t even know if I want to go to university. Decision making is hard work: even
about it’s hard work.
Sometimes I feel like I’m so unmotivated, you know? So boring. It’s like I’m just
floating through life.
Beside me, Lise rolls onto her stomach, her feet kicking the air. She has this pale, pale skin, Lise: it gets even paler on hot days, and dark smudges form under her eyes where the sweat collects. Somehow it makes her face look even more intense than usual. Right now, looking at her, I find myself thinking about what she said earlier:
Next year’s Year 12. You’ve GOT to make a resolution.
The thing is, there are heaps of resolutions I could make. I could study hard right from the start of the year instead of leaving it to the last moment, like I usually do. I could get that weekend job I’ve been talking about for so long; start saving up, at last, for a car. I could learn how to cook something other than chocolate cake—I mean, who else is going to cook all those vegetarian meals I have ahead of me? My mother’s a
Or you know what? I could just—stop drifting.
’ve been fighting with my brother Tim about who gets to drive the Mini ever since I got my P-plates last year.
“Just because you got your licence before me doesn’t mean it’s your car, Tim. Mum and Dad gave it to us to
“You’re still a bloody P-plater. You’d crash it the first time you took it out.”
“At least I don’t drive when I’m
This is a sore point with Tim. A few months ago, he drove over to a party—the eighteenth birthday for one of his mates from the building site where he works. He left the party around midnight, drove home at just under the speed limit, took the side streets all the way. He got in at half past twelve, crowing over having dodged the police and ready for a few million liters of water before bed. (“Best way to get over a hangover, Nat. You just remember that.”)
But there, looking up at him from the old floral couch in the living room, were Mum and Dad. Just sitting there, waiting for him.
“I can smell your breath a mile away,” Dad said wryly, and took the car keys away from him for four weeks.
But that was months ago. Since then, Tim’s guarded those keys even more jealously than before.
why I’ve got to get a job.
One day a few weeks after New Year’s, I mention this to Lise. We’re at the beach, lying on our towels on the sand, sunscreen plastered across our faces, legs kicking the air. It’s hot, and Lise is looking kind of—not bored at my conversation, exactly, but not overly thrilled, either. I guess it’s only about the millionth time I’ve talked about it to her.
“But I mean,
about it,” I say, trying to make my point. “If I got a job, this time next year I could have my
This beach trip: it’s a regular Lise-and-me thing. We do it every summer on the last Saturday before the new school year begins. The first time was at the end of Year 7, which was the year Lise and I met, the year we became best friends. Mum took us that day. She packed a picnic lunch—squashed Vegemite sandwiches and juice boxes, and red Popsicles that melted in the cooler on the tram. Then she lay on the beach and read her book while Lise and I swam and threw the Frisbee at each other, and compared bathing suits and beach towels. We’ve come back by ourselves every year since, meeting at the tram stop near Lise’s house. We always go to the same beach, at the end of Jetty Road: Glenelg—my favorite stretch of sea in Adelaide, my favorite summer place.
Today, like every other year, we’ve spent the time swimming and snoozing, lying under the jetty between swims, staring up at the wooden beams and talking. When I say talking, I mean, like
Hopes and dreams; plans and fears; life, the universe, and everything—you name it, Lise and I’ll talk about it. You know what I mean?
But now, when I’ve finally talked myself out about getting a job, she goes all funny on me.
“Well, aren’t we meant to be studying or something? I
to get into law.”
“Lise—” I sigh. She’s been saying she wants to do law ever since I met her. “You’ll get into law with your eyes closed.”
She pulls a face. “Maybe.”
“Anyway, I only meant a one-day-a-week kind of job. You’ve got to have
kind of break from studying.”
She shrugs, and doesn’t answer. Then she goes kind of quiet.
When Lise is annoyed, she lets her hair (which is thick and curly and, at the moment, very damp) fall in front of her face, so you can’t see what she’s thinking. That stuff I said before, about talking? The one thing she and I don’t ever talk about is what makes Lise angry, and why. But you sure as hell know
she’s angry. The silent treatment: that’s what she gives you. (“The sulk” is what Sofia calls it.)
One thing’s for sure: she’s giving it to me now. I glance across at her, elbow propping my chin, wondering what I’ve said. She ignores me and stares at the sand, tracing patterns in it with the sharp edge of a broken shell, her face completely obscured by her hair.
Clearly, there is no point going on with this conversation.
I sigh, give up talking, roll over onto my back. In my head, lying next to Lise, I go on dreaming about having a job, a car, money. I mean, there’s no harm dreaming, surely?
Sand prickles my shoulder blades, and the towel creases damply, stickily, beneath my back. The sky throbs above us, late-January blue.
Afterward, we walk back up Jetty Road toward the tram, soggy bathing suits scrumpled up in our bags. Waves of heat swell up from the pavement toward us, and the asphalt pulses under our feet. I straggle along beside Lise, dreaming of ice cream, and cold drinks, and air-conditioning. Already it feels like we never went swimming at all.
But it’s weird, sometimes, how things you really, really want can suddenly just
right there in front of you. My mother’s got this summed up in three words: “Life is good.” (That’s Mum for you—ever the social worker, ever the optimist. She’s
to implant positive thoughts into her kids’ minds.) Sofia just calls it fate. “If it’s meant to happen, it’ll happen, Nat,” she’s always telling me. As in,
Just go with the flow.
Anyway, whatever—something I’ve been wanting for
happens now, just as we’re crossing at the traffic lights about halfway down the road.
Lise reaches the other side of the road before I do. (She always walks so quickly, Lise—like she’s in a real hurry to get somewhere.) But then, instead of going on farther up the road, she stops suddenly. It’s not that she’s waiting for me: she’s standing, staring through the window of the little health food café on the corner. It looks like she’s seen something she hadn’t expected to see.
“What?” I say, catching up with her.
“Look.” She points at a piece of paper pinned up in the café’s window.
In dark blue pen, the writing on the piece of paper says:
Kitchen hand / waitress needed.
Saturdays only, no experience necessary.
Interest in health foods required.
“Hey!” I say excitedly. “D’you think being vegetarian counts as having an ‘interest in health foods’?”
Lise pushes a coil of long brown hair back over her shoulder. “I s’pose—”
“You could apply, too, you know. They’d probably interview us right now. We could just go in and ask.”
Lise is looking at me like I’m crazy. “You’re not serious.”
The metal tram tracks lining the street glint up at me, hot and black. Sweat trickles down my nose; my T-shirt sticks to my chest. The skin on my arms feels parched, burning, after the cool salt of the sea.
“Why not?” I say. “At least it’ll be cooler in there. And think of all the movies you could afford to go to if you’re the one who gets the job.”
Lise is the only person I know who likes movies more than I do; she’s the biggest movie freak this side of the Nullarbor Plain. I knew that would suck her in.
I push open the coffee shop door before either of us can change my mind.
Afterward, to pacify Lise, we wander over to the Italian café opposite the cinema, a little farther up the street.
“Gelato? Or coffee?”
“Coffee,” says Lise instantly.
It’s her favorite drink.
We sit at a table by the wall, away from the glare of the big glass windows that front the street, soaking up the air-conditioning. Opposite me, dreamy with coolness, Lise spoons up her froth. I can smell the salt in my hair; my skin is white-crusted with it.
“If there was one thing—just
thing—you could change about yourself,” Lise says suddenly, “what would it be?”
She does this heaps, Lise: asks you these deep, intense questions right out of the blue. Like that’s what you’ve been talking about all along.
“Lots of stuff,” I say, without giving it too much thought. “I’d argue with Tim less. I wouldn’t lose my temper so much.” I grin at her: “And I’d spend less money on cappuccinos.”
things,” she objects. “I mean the
I think seriously this time. “I’d like to be more decisive, you know? I’d like to work out what I actually want to
with my life.”
There it is again—this drifting thing of mine. I wish I could describe properly how it feels. It’s not unhappiness—not at all. I mean, I’m the kind of person who gets high on going out for coffee, or having a night at the movies. It’s not laziness, exactly, either. What I’m talking about is more a kind of indecisiveness, of
even about the stupidest things. You know, like—which TV program to watch, or how many books to borrow from the library. I can’t even decide what kind of music to listen to, because I change my mind about what I like all the time. (Once or twice, I’ve even found myself humming along quite happily to my dad’s country-and-western albums. Now
I’m like this with guys, too. I don’t have a boyfriend—never have. I’ve had a few crushes, of course, and there have even been one or two guys who were drunk enough to make a pass at me. (Unlike Lise, whose only male experience so far has been my brother Tim’s constant teasing over the years.) But basically, I just can’t make up my mind what kind of guy I like. Or what kind of guy might actually like me.
My mother’s solution to this kind of thing is to do a course. You know, like—a workshop. “Get to
yourself, sweetie,” she’s always saying to me.
Mum thinks that talking is the solution to everything. Maybe it’s because she’s a social worker: I reckon her biggest nightmare would be if she thought that either Tim or I had some problem and we were worrying about it by ourselves. You know, like
anything to anyone.
In fact, that’s the way she and Dad have tried to bring us up to deal with everything: to “talk things through.” Our family doesn’t have “arguments”; we practice what Mum calls “conflict resolution.” We don’t yell and scream at each other; we have “roundtable discussions.” When we were little, Tim and I used to spend hours trying to work out why they were called that when the only table we ever sat around was the kitchen one, which is rectangular.
But the upbringing kind of misfired on me, I think. Now I just try and avoid confrontation altogether, especially with my family. Just the thought of all that self-analysis makes me shudder. I don’t want to talk about stuff, to think about it. I just want to
it. I want to
it, and see what happens. How else am I going to find out about life? How else am I going to
“What about you?” I ask Lise now. “What would
change about yourself?”
She doesn’t answer. For ages, she doesn’t answer. She picks up an unopened sugar packet from the table, creases it into tiny, deliberate folds, then unfolds it again, smoothing the wrinkles out of the paper. She frowns. Then she says quietly, “I’d change everything.”
She nods, looking down. “My clothes. My body. My
I’d like to get outside of myself and be someone else completely.”
This is something else Lise does a lot; she says this stuff—this negative stuff—about herself. I mean, what are you supposed to
when someone says something like that?
So I do what I always do (what Mum would
do): I change the subject.
“How about another cappuccino?” I suggest lightly. I grab my purse, stand up. “Or a bowl of gelato? We could share one.”
Immediately her face brightens up.
“Yes, please.” She hands me some money. “Life’s got to be all right if there’s a cappuccino on the way, right?”
I say, and head for the counter.
She doesn’t bring the subject up again when I come back, and for the rest of the afternoon we talk about other things—you know, much more important things, like what movie we’ll go to see next weekend and what color Lucy Davison will have dyed her hair for the first day of term (it’s a different color every year, without fail) and who our biology teacher will be this year.
Mr. Schumacher got sacked last year,” Lise says. “He was a great biology teacher.”
“Sofe says it was for ‘getting involved’ with one of the Year 12 students.”
She wrinkles her forehead. “Like—what does that mean exactly, ‘getting involved’?”
Our eyes dance wickedly as we look at each other across the table.
“You think he felt her up?”
“Or kissed her?”
“Maybe they had sex in the lab assistant’s room.”
“Yeah—on the desk. Next to that jar with the pickled brain in it.”
I could have asked Lise what she really
about wanting to change all those things about herself, I suppose. But to be honest, I didn’t want to know.
I still don’t, either. Everyone wants to change
about themselves, you know? What’s the point of getting hung up about it? Sometimes you just have to move on from that stuff, think about something else. That’s
theory, anyway. I think Lise just needs to be reminded of that every now and then.
theory: maybe if I remind her often enough, she’ll remember it for herself one of these days. I mean, if I can get myself to do the reminding, surely she can start putting it into practice.