It was the big things I found hard to remember; the small things were all there. Like the box of cassettes that lived permanently on the floor of her car. I could guess what kind of day she had from the choice of tape. She hadn’t quite made it to CDs, and anyway, her whole life’s songs were in that box, so why change? I kept that box when she died. Nobody else asked for it. It had been her box of stories and now it was mine. I don’t take them out of my room. But I play them when there is nobody home, which is most of the time.
The Principal had called all senior girls to the assembly hall at lunch break. You couldn’t catch me going in there. It would only be about the latest wave of white-sock-wearing radical students. Wasn’t about to be lectured straight before lunch, ruin my digestion. So I left school by the back gate, past groups of kids coming from the corner shop, rolls of white paper steaming with salty, greasy delight. It was tempting, but I kept going, around the corner, and raced up the hill to my sister’s flat for a smoke and a coffee. I had been going there most days. It shouldn’t be this easy.
I had been wearing socks pretty much since the Brisbane summer heat had kicked in. But for the other senior girls it had recently become a thing, a way of standing up , a way of shouting back. For me it was simply that black tights were crazy in the tropical summer. I had it pretty easy at home, no real reason to rebel at school. And Dad had been distracted since we landed in Brisbane.
Although it was home for him, it was a world away from my home in Melbourne. My sister had left years ago to follow her boyfriend to the sunny state. But when we left it happened overnight, and I know I hadn’t made it all that easy. But Dad sure had. His not being home much gave me more freedom than a seventeen year old in her senior year really deserved, or should have.
Anyway, it suited me to be a little invisible, like now, having a smoke and playing some records a block from school. Seems pretty reasonable, at least it wasn’t on the tennis court, and I would be back in time for fifth period.
It was music that had saved me lately, music that walked with me and held my hand, music that blocked out the pictures of everything else. Who would have thought, years of lessons almost paid off. I thought of my guitar, still packed away with my Melbourne winter coats. Opening that case would mean I had resigned to our new home, and I wasn’t quite ready to give in.
They had so many records, I put Rodriguez on.
…I wonder, how many times you’ve had sex….
I wonder about sex, I wonder why I hadn’t done it. Not that I hadn’t considered it carefully, had weighed up all my options, all the boys I knew, and a couple that I had dated. I was actually pretty keen to explode the virginity myth, and join the dark side of ‘real women’. But the only few times I was even close, I was really turned off.
I saw some weed on the table, it must be her boyfriends. Would they notice if I went back to school now, just a little stoned? I put some in my zipper pocket for later, who knows. Dad was pretty relaxed about alcohol, letting us drink, I don’t remember Mum or Dad drinking when we were growing up, though now he sometimes buries himself with both work and whiskey…his solitude is his soul-food. It was this complete freedom that meant I never really drank now, the irony still amuses me.
…you can’t get away from it, no you can’t get away….
I like kissing boys, I can replace my darker thoughts with bright, warm, soft thoughts of kissing.
Lovely brown boys at the beach, friday nights in the surf clubs, smoky, dark corners, lots of dancing and kissing. Spinning around in the living room, I watched small dark creatures fly off me and blow away. I carry them with me everywhere, just behind my mind. I finish my smoke with one long exhale, and get a little dizzy. I don’t smoke enough to ever get used to the lack of oxygen. Who needs booze with a cheap rush like that?
I thought about my sister, and how she had got away, and missed everything. Missed watching mum become more transparent with the days, missed watching Dad pretending it wasn’t happening, missed me hoping that if I hid in my room for long enough it would all go back to normal. But normal just got worse and worse. Mum was the only one with any kind of strength. Although faded, something still shone from her like it had her whole life. She always had a sense of being in the right place, of belonging, it’s hard to feel she has gone even now.
My phone alarm went off, without it I would just stay up here and be lost all day. Time for some reality. In the five minutes it took me to run down Hampstead rd I was caught in a small tropical downpour. I was soaked… Brisbane summer was a dirty mix of heat, dust, bitumen and flowers.
I was almost through the gate when a hand grabbed my leg.
” I don’t think you should go back in there, at least not until you dry off” his other hand stubbed out the end of a cigarette. I hadn’t even seen him sitting there, just inside the fence, blending with the shrubbery.
“Let go of me, what do you know anyway?” I didn’t quite kick him, but he ducked his head.
“Come on, there’s a better way to do this, but not by this gate” and he got up, expecting that I would follow. I watched him walk down the footpath, he wore our uniform, so I guessed he was at least from my school. I followed, not sure why, he was tall, yes, scruffy, yes, but he was pretty hot I suppose.
He turned and laughed at me, while I was still dripping on the pavement. I suddenly felt really shabby. “Its Zeb, by the way, you coming or just watching?”
Watching wasn’t so bad, he was pretty thin, and his hair was just long enough to tie back. So I fell in next to him. He had to look down to talk to me. I noticed his eyes were really blue. They were kind eyes and he was staring back at me.
“You are Joni, right? Like Joni Mitchell? Or is it short for something else?” he had a really deep voice, reminded me of something, someone.
“Joni like none of your business maybe. ” But he just turned around, took my hand and made me run for a bus that had just appeared; we made it too, with me still gripping on to his sleeve and hand. For just a second I stopped feeling really angry. I had forgotten what it felt like to not be mad at the whole world. The loss of control was pretty cool.
“I can’t believe we are doing this. Where are we going?” I laughed. I knew this bus went to West End.
“My place of course, you have somewhere else to be?”
“Maybe like fifth period, I wasn’t going to miss school, just lunch break.”
He looked down, and stared at me, not speaking, then he smiled, then he laughed. He turned back to me. “for one more time, let your madness run with mine”
“No time now Joni, you ready to go?”
The bus was pulling up, we hadn’t even gone far, we could have walked. READY? I was far from ready to go anywhere, but I let him take my hand again. When we stepped off the bus it was still raining just a little, just enough to keep the steam rising from the hot February road. We had a little shelter under a drooping Poinciana; it’s large red bunches of leaves pretending to the bees that they were actually flowers.
“No, I just want to stop for a minute, what did you mean … what you said on the bus?” That wasn’t the only question I had for this laughing boy, but it needed answering.
“And where are we headed, and why am I going with you….I don’t know who you are”
“Do you trust me Joni? Will you walk down the road with me, instead of running up the hill to wherever it is you go each day on your own? ”
I looked at him, and it was as though my mind was made up way back at school, but I didn't let on.
“For now, but if I change my mind, we walk back, ok? Together.”
I remember that some of the songs had made her close her eyes, just for a moment, not to sing, maybe to remember. She could look happy and sad all in one moment. Like the day I cut her hair, we had to move under the large window in the lounge room for the best sunlight. The glass faced straight across the lawn and was the last window of the day to be lit. The sun landed on her hair, so thin, but golden. She was smiling but I was quietly crying, trying not to show her. She said she always wanted a pixie hair cut and her mother had made her grow it long. Who wouldn’t, it was so golden red. I didn’t see anything funny about it. I didn’t let her hair fall on the floor, but caught each piece as we cut, like fairy floss, keeping it safely in my hand. We played Joni Mitchell that day. I haven’t played it since.
It was the fact that he could see me that made me trust him, at least a little. I had been in Brisbane for a month, and had managed to hide not only from my Dad and my sister, but from most of my teachers and class mates. It’s not that hard to be invisible at a school. I rarely had trouble with school work, so there was not a lot of dialogue with teachers. And as long as Dad didn’t hear from the school, he seemed happy.
I wanted to ask him so many questions, but he was talking to most of the shop keepers as we walked through West End and turned down a side street past Black Star coffee. The barista came out to the footpath and gave him a big hug, another tall, scruffy but cute guy with dreads. I felt a little out of place in my uniform.
“Zeb, time for a coffee?” He was talking to Zeb but looking at me.
“Hey Dave, this is Joni, we might just head off, got some stuff to do. We’ll just grab a couple from the fridge to take with us. So are you still coming tonight? ”
“Sure man, see you there” He wouldn’t take the money, and there were more hugs.
“I work there weekends” was all he said when we left. “Dave is my boss. If I hang around now I will end up behind the machine, let’s go.” He handed me a bottle.
We had only gone a few houses when he opened a gate to the left and entered a big shady garden. It was immediately cooler. I ducked under a large overhanging branch while he held it up for me. There was just a few steps up to the wide verandah that sprawled across the front of the house. The paint was peeling just enough to give it a well travelled look, but not neglected. Layers of colour were poking through the rails. I was in love. I just stood there and took in the smells of the rotting flowers, the strange buzz of a range of tropical insects, and wished that we didn’t live in a new house.
“Hey you ok Joni? Come in, not sure who’s home, but lets go through.” Again he took my hand, but I didn’t mind. I stopped again when we walked inside. This time he walked ahead while I took in everything in the corridor. There were paintings all over the walls, and in-between the paintings there were photos of people, lots of people. I could see Zeb in some of them. I found myself touching the faces of these strangers. I wanted to know them and have them welcome me here.
I felt intrusive so called out to Zeb, who had vanished in the labyrinth of rooms.
” So, girl-snatcher, coffee-guy, what’s on tonight?”
But I don’t think he heard me. I followed the sound of familiar music all the way through the house, to a large room at the back framed with coloured glass windows. Rows of green and red glass filtered the hot sun and made the room glow. The floor was covered in old rush matting, a backdrop for an assortment of large armchairs and a piano. The internal walls were filled with books, records and CDs. I could see why he had brought me here.
But it was the song playing that suddenly made sense of his cryptic invitation on the bus.
Zeb sat cross-legged on the floor ” Midnite Cruiser…” he started.
“I know, Steely Dan, I had forgotten it. I love this record.” I picked up the cover and sat down with him. The artwork was a crazy mix of street girls and lips. “Can you please play the record from the beginning?”
But he didn’t move, just took the cover back and said quietly without looking at me.
“So Joni, where do you go every day? You got a secret boyfriend up the hill?” I didn’t answer for a bit, I wasn’t used to this scrutiny.
Zeb walked over and picked up one of the guitars from the wall. It was pretty old.
“Sure, that’s where I go, hang out with my boyfriend. Can you play that?” I was more interested in hearing how the old classical sounded. Plus I reckon he owed me some answers first.
“Would you like to try for yourself?”
“What makes you think….”
“It’s not hard Joni, callouses and long, worn nails kind of give it away.”
It had been so long, I missed it; I wasn’t sure I could do it. But Zeb ignored my hesitation, handed me the guitar then took down the Maton acoustic that had been hanging next to this one.
As soon as I moved the guitar into position on my lap I felt a rush of heat through my face and fingers. It was a bit like a drug I had been denying myself. I hid behind my hair, closed my eyes and let my fingers wander over the strings. Without thinking about it I started picking out a tune, it was something I had been working on in Melbourne, kind of a love song, but not for a boy. When I finished I realised that Zeb had put down his guitar and just sat and watched.
“I have to go now.” I put the guitar carefully back on the wall and stood there. Not quite sure what to do next. ” I shouldn’t be here.”
But as I turned to run out the obvious exit, it was blocked by a woman with short dark hair and light blue eyes.
"I thought I heard you in here Zeb. I guess school finished early again?" she asked him but only looked at me, smiling. I was trapped. "Well, seeing you have spare time you can help me with dinner, ok?"
Zeb laughed, bent down to kiss his mother on the top of the head and left the room, yelling "come on Joni, I am going to show you my famous burgers."
I wasn't entirely sure what to do, I couldn't stay, couldn't leave, couldn't push past his mum. I think she read my face, and took my arm. "he does that , doesn't he, just assumes we will follow in his wake. I might think its endearing, but you are welcome to try and stand up to him, if you think you can. I find the journey pretty rewarding though. " she laughed with the same eyes that he did. But I liked her. I liked the way she just took my arm and walked me slowly through the house. I felt like I had stopped falling.
"Sit here" she pulled up a wooden stool to the high bench that was covered in food, bowls of fruit, boxes of tea. "I will be back about 6pm Zeb, ... hope to see you again Joni? " it seemed to be a question , but as she was still watching Zeb I remained mute.
"Not sure mum, Joni and I might go to the open mic night. Will make plenty of burgers first though." She just shook her head, patted my hand, it seemed to say 'good luck getting out of that one' and left.
Zeb stopped what he was doing and looked across the counter at me. I don't know what was worse, when he was smiling, or serious, either way I couldn't turn away.
"Its my sister's place, I don't have a boyfriend" I suddenly blurted. I wasn't sure why I said that, but he smiled again.
"Good. Now lets make vegan burgers so you can get home and change."
When I was very small I remember my mother playing a guitar. I thought it had been a dream, it was so vague. She would sometimes sit at my bedside late at night, humming, singing, and picking out soft melodies. I don't know why she stopped, but at some point 'life' or being a mother must have got in the way. I should have asked her. I guess I thought I would have plenty of time.