The Summer of '89
By Nicole Lee
‘The girls here are like watermelons,’ says Scully. ‘Hard to crack and full of seeds.’
It’s hot. We’re straddled round the kitchen table, stuck like slugs to our chairs.
‘I like them fierce,’ says Gaz, his mouth full of Weetbix.
‘Dude! You’re supposed to eat Weetbix with milk, not orange juice!’
‘Nah, the lady at corner shop told me.’
‘The lady at corner shop eats guinea pigs for breakfast.’
Gaz looks at me.
‘Johnny, tell him what the lady said.’
‘She said with your Weetbix, not in your Weetbix, numbnuts.’
Scully pisses himself. I grin. Gaz catapaults mushy Weetbix at our heads.
The phone rings. It’s Maria. She wants to talk. I tell her to G-E-T-F-U-C-K-E-D. Since Year 8, no girl’s ever got in the way of a good summer. Except for Henry O’Loan.
‘You’re right,’ I say, hanging up. ‘Full of fucking seeds.’
The phone rings again. This time it’s Mum. She starts to apologise about the money, but I hang up and grab the keys. It’s time we got outta here.
We kick up to the beach in Scully’s MX5. Makes us look like the fucking kings of the country. Sure feels like it. The air pineapple-tops us, squeezing past our ears like fresh juice. I wink at a chick in a polka dot bikini. She flicks her hair.
At the beach, we catch some waves. The polka dot chick’s got friends. From the surf they look like dalmatians. Up close they’re just as eager. We work our magic. Gaz takes Tracey home. I take home Carla. Scully doesn’t take anyone home, just wanks and sprays the sand with his sauce. Afterwards we drink VB and challenge the arsebutts from the Coast to a boat race. We win hands down. They kick us out when they realise we’re underage. No worries. We sit on the beach and howl and get pissed.
Yeah, my mates are dead set, I reckon.
We’re sitting around eating lychees and mangoes. It’s the best thing Scully’s smuggled back from Thailand. It’s the only thing Scully’s smuggled back from Thailand. The rest is all how Scully’s a winner with the Thai girls, how Scully’s dad overtook some arselicking drug company, whatta whatta. But this stuff—this is awesome. Gaz’s mouth is geysering as he sucks a buttcheek of durian gloopy like pudding. Me, I go for the dragonfruit. The kiwi sweet flesh is cool on my tongue. I suck on it like an ice block.
‘Nah,’ says Gaz. ‘All girls here are like durian. Horny on the outside, and smelly on the inside.’
‘Fuck you’re a wanker, Gaz,’ says Scully.
Gaz smirks into his jackfruit.
‘I’m serious, but,’ continues Scully. ‘The girls here are like watermelons. If they had breasts like ‘em, that’d be orright…’
‘So, what, we try Thai, then,’ I snort. ‘That’s all you can talk about.’
‘Fuck it, yeah. Or Spanish, or Japanese. Mango chicks are the best. All yellow and sweet the whole way through.’
‘Nah, I’d want a banana,’ I say. ‘White on the inside.’
‘Pure on the inside,’ growls Scully. ‘Virginal.’
‘You could try a custard apple,’ suggests Gaz. ‘Ugly as a dog, but sure as hell to be pure as white on the inside.’
‘You’re a wanker, I’m tellin’ ya.’
The air is fat with sleepy heat. Sleepy heat that nestles behind our eyeballs and hacks at the pulley of our lids. Scully pulls out a bunch of bananas. They’re the chubbiest, most neon yellow bananas I’ve ever seen. They taste like velvet. Scully swallows six of them, and we kill ourselves as he coughs them back up, sticky yellow smush. We hoot and gulp them down, chucking the skins in front of passing cars.
So it begins. The search for exotic fruit. It’s not long till we find one. A killer dump’s just soured my back when Scully points her out to me. She’s reading a book on the bay where the rocks cleave into two. It’s in English.
‘Fuck, she’s yours, mate. No readers for me!’
She’s cute. She’s got an upturned nose and a jet black fringe. I’m too sore to go back out so what the hell. My grin’s as wide as a beach.
She looks up. ‘Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey.’
Her voice has the staccato catch of the Chinese. Eh, close enough.
‘Yeah, yeah, awesome book. Won the Booker prize. My dad’s an English teacher,’ I add quickly.
Her lips unzip into a smile.
‘So is mine,’ she says.
Scully and Gaz walk up, sniggering behind their surfboards.
‘G’day sweetheart, I’m Scully. Scully by name, and one a hell of a sculler by nature.’
She shakes his hand and peers at him. Her fringe parts, a wind fart. Scully sniggers. He’s impressed. As we walk away, he elbows his arms around Gaz’s neck and mine.
‘Good work, Johnny boy. Don’t talk much, but who needs conversation?’
I turn to look at her back. Milk porcelain.
Fuckin’ jeezus, yeah.
She’s there on Sunday, and Monday too, reading. Every time I reach the crown of a wave I sneak a peek. She sits like one of those hourglass things. Legs folded under, seagull’s wings. Sometimes I walk past and she’s on her stomach. Every so often I wink. Every so often she winks back.
She’s from Beijing. I remember something on TV about some demonstration in a square. ‘Gee, it’s lucky you got out before then, hey,’ I say.
‘Yes,’ she says.
‘You must miss your family, huh.’
‘I don’t think that they miss me,’ she says. She seems to be reading the same line over and over again.
‘Don’t think my mum misses me either,’ I say.
Her smile is sort of broken.
We’re invited to her housewarming party. Scully and Gaz are stoked. There are heaps of cute Chinese chicks in the room, from Singapore to Hong Kong. All white as sheep on the inside. They’re sort of surprised by the three of us, but we know how to work it. Scully’s got one already, over near the TV, and Gaz isn’t far behind on the couch.
She’s there too of course. I find her in the kitchen, warming up these crispy roll things. They’re kind of honey coloured and I want to bark like a dog, although I don’t. Instead, I try to look casual by leaning against the doorway. No point wasting time.
It comes out like I’ve got the runs. ‘You’re a virgin, right,’ I say. Shit.
She laughs and puts the rolls on the kitchen bench. ‘No,’ she says. ‘And I’m not a banana.’
Her smile is whipped butter.
She says, ‘Come to my room.’
Scully gallops like a chimpanzee in the background. I give him the finger.
In her room, I go to turn out the light, but she puts a hand on my wrist. Okay. I swing off my shirt and unbuckle my belt. My gut’s in a rut.
She undresses slowly, peeling her vanilla body. I can’t stop looking. My mouth is dull desert. I’m sweating. Something’s not right.
‘Please, can we turn the light off?’
Her brow crinkles. ‘Why?’
‘Um, because, I like it better in the dark.’
She turns it off. Her scent is tangy pineapple. My balls are so tight it feels like they’re gonna burst from their skin. I breathe her in. The edges of her scent are acrid, bristly against the insides of my nostrils. She reaches out and I gasp. Her touch sears. I try to tell myself to just breathe damnit but then her smell floods my lungs, milk thick, and I am choking, I can’t breathe, and she’s holding me, her flesh the shock of cold bathroom tiles, and I’m on the floor, now on the chair, and again on the floor.
I come to on the bed. She’s looking down on me, hair curtaining around her face. I can’t see her expression.
‘Don’t be sorry,’ she says. There’s pity in her voice.
She passes me my pants and I put them on.
‘I’m a paw paw,’ she says.
We stare at each other. Then she turns on the light, closing the door as she leaves.
‘Didja go her, didja go her?’
‘Yeah, yeah, course.’
‘Sick!’ says Gaz.
‘What did I say about virgins, mate,’ says Scully.
‘Aw, dunno, that real girls make you feel inadequate?’
‘Fuck it, back off, mate,’ he says, hands in the air. ‘I was only teasing.’
I fuck a Mandy, and a Kate, but she’s always there, reading. Sometimes I walk past and she’s on her stomach. Every so often she winks. Every so often I wink back. Jeezus, we’re like fucking lighthouses.
Gaz’s got onto some Tasmanian chick. He keeps asking me to compare. I tell him to try harder, coz Tasmanians are just Victorians who can swim.
When Mum finally pisses off, she’s moved on to Thomas Keneally. One day I’m up early for a surf and she’s sitting quietly on the sand, reading. Next morning, I take Dad’s copy of Schindler’s Ark with me on my run.
She likes lounging on the beach, looking out to the sea. Surfers ricochet off the waves, sinking into tubes like billiard balls. Scully and Gaz are the ones giving me the finger.
She waves back at them, all innocent like.
‘You like your friends, yes?’
‘Yeah, course I do.’
‘Would you die for them?’
‘Ah, dunno about that.’
Her eyes glisten. ‘I have many friends back home in China.’
‘Are they students too?’
‘Yes,’ she says.
A breeze laps at my cheeks. The sea is shiny metal. If she were Jesus, she could walk all the way home.
I tell her this. She says, ‘Who is Jesus?’
I take her to a church. I want to wait outside, but she hauls me in.
Inside, the darkness swirls like mercury. I stand at the back near the door but she’s walking around touching everything. She’s fascinated by the rainbow windows. The ceramic smile of the Virgin Mary. The rows and rows of pews. I last about fifteen minutes before dragging her outside.
‘What’s wrong?’ she says.
‘I hate churches,’ I say. ‘Reminds me of having to sing hymns.’
‘But is it not a place where people get married?’
‘Yeah,’ I groan. ‘And christened and confirmed and jeezus knows what else. Hey, you’re not going to tell Gaz and Scully that I took you here, are ya?’
‘My cousin got married,’ she says, as if over tea and bickies with God.
We stop at the fish and chip shop for lunch. Grease clingwraps our fingers.
‘This Jesus man,’ she says in between wheels of calamari. ‘What else does he do?’
‘Well, he was a bit of a hero, they say,’ I begin. ‘Walked on water, saved a few people. This and that, you know. Went on a hunger strike…’
‘A hunger strike?’ she says. ‘My cousin went on a hunger strike.’
God clearly makes a good cuppa.
She takes me to Chinatown. I’m a giraffe amongst zebras. The shop windows are paintstripped and the flies are determined. Little black helmets dart around me, duck into shops and yelp in their monosyllables. Outside the temple I hesitate.
‘Are you scared?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘Course not.’
On the contrary, I’m awestruck. The buddha’s belly is an entity of its own. It could star in its own movie, like, The Attack of the Giant Beergut, or something. However, she doesn’t seem to notice me, just lights up some incense sticks. The tips bulge like amber before crumbling. I kneel next to her and sneeze. I’m not sure I like the place.
We eat the fruit we brought to be blessed. The oranges taste like ash.
‘Well, that was nice,’ I say.
‘You think so?’ she says.
‘Um, it was alright,’ I say.
She tries not to look disappointed.
Dad asks me where his Bryce Courtenay collection is. I shrug and tell him he’s lost the plot.
‘Fuckit, Johnny, you’re like a puppy dog around that slit.’
‘Piss off, Scully!’
‘Speak any Chinese, Johnny? Go to any yum cha? Don’t worry, soon enough you will.’
‘I said piss off!’
‘What’s wrong?’ she says.
She puts her hand in mine. I cup it like a maple leaf.
She says, ‘Come to my room.’
At first things are sweet. She gets me excited pretty quick, and we can give rabbits a run for their money. But after sex she always wants to go out. I take her to the beach where she sulks. Walnut wombat eyes shrouded by her fringe.
‘What?’ I say.
‘I thought things would be…I don’t know,’ she says.
‘What did you expect?’ I say. ‘Commitment? A free ticket to middle-class mundanity?’
She doesn’t reply. We stare at the sea.
Our tree is lopsided but at least it’s real. Mum’s allergic to firs, but it’s my choice this year. On TV is a recap of all the events of the year. I eat cereal out of its box as I watch. There’s earthquakes and there’s the White House. There’s footage of men and women scrambling over a wall, spilling into open arms and embraces. There’s a huge courtyard and a statue. Tanks like crabs scuttling over people, alive and dead. A guy my age drags a girl in his arms. There’s blood on his body. There’s no legs on hers.
‘Gee, lucky that type of stuff doesn’t happen here in Australia,’ says Dad.
‘Yeah,’ I say.
We make love hard and fast tonight. There’s a storm inside her. I can’t keep up. She grabs my cock and twists it so hard it burns.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says afterwards.
‘That’s okay,’ I say.
‘No, I meant about lying.’
She’s breathless. ‘About having friends and family.’
‘What do you mean?’ I say. But she rolls over and pretends to sleep.
I trace the shelf of her spine. Lickity lemon split and mine all mine.
Of all people, Scully’s the one to tell me. One morning I’m up for my morning surf. There’s a crowd around the bay where the rocks cleave into two. Scully’s waving at my face but I don’t see him. ‘Fuckit, Johnny,’ he’s saying. ‘Don’t look, I tell ya.’ And I’m saying ‘What? What’s wrong?’ and I’m barging through the crowd and I’m looking down and I’m faltering…
Barbs of surfspit on my cheeks. Vomit on my feet. Is it mine? Prickly flames on my tongue. Yes, it’s mine. I think I hear Scully but it could just be the wind.
It takes them a few hours to identify the body. She’s unrecognisable with the bloating. They’re sending her back to be cremated with the others. When they ask if she has any friends here, I can’t speak.
They say she was trying to walk on water, that summer of ‘89.
I try to tell Gaz, but he’s as clueless as a goldfish. All he can say is ‘Fuck. Fuck.’ Finally I just say ‘Yeah, fuck off!’ and he does.
Scully doesn’t need telling.
When they have the funeral it’s not like the one we had for Gramps in the cornerside church. Instead, everyone dresses up in white and runs ribbons like a red gash through the air. When they come to the rocks they tip the embers in the urn into the sea. Everything tastes like ash.
In the new year, I sit on the beach, waiting for the dawn. The sea is shinymetal. Every so often it winks. Every so often I wink back.
Nicole Lee is from Sydney, Australia. In another life she memorized the common causes of pancreatitis and practiced how to insert catheters. These days she hides away in Melbourne, and is studying to be an actor.