The party starts in 50 minutes, which means that I have 20 minutes to decide if I’m going. I haven’t even thought about what I’ll do when I get there. Today I swam all the way out to Turtle Island just to avoid thinking about it. When I got back, I washed the sand out of my togs and decided that I was done with the beach. Done with my friends. Finished with sunburn, getting drunk on school nights, and the ankle bracelets that we made when we were twelve. I tried to make myself go insane, today. I lay on my parents’ bed and decided to stop thinking. There would be fairies when I woke up. The water would be greener.
When I woke up, I needed to piss. When I woke up, I had a headache and a party to get ready for.
I took a shower and got dressed an hour ago. It was the first shower that I’ve had in three days. Whenever I have a bad spell, Mum shuts me in the shed. She says that she can’t stand the screaming. We had a talk about my episodes the other day and we agreed that it’s best if I hang out there when I’m upset. Still, when she told me that I had to go out to the shed, I hated her. It’s small, and dark, and it’s a bad thing, to sit there when you’re crying, with the cold of the floor spreading into your hands. Emma’s the only one who’ll come and visit me.
She brings me food and water when I’m too upset to get it myself. Sometimes she sits with me and we watch tv on my laptop. She doesn’t talk a whole lot, unless I want to. Just sits there. If I sometimes treat her with coolness, or snap at her, she pretends not to notice. Maybe she thinks she deserves it.
I always hear Emma’s wheelchair before I see her. It makes a loud electronic whirring noise, like the start of a crappy EDM song from 2002. Last week, Mum asked Emma if she wanted a quieter wheelchair. Emma looked at her as if she was high. I couldn’t do what Emma does. If I were her, I’d shut myself in my room and cry all day. She deserves some credit for that, at least.
I can hear the whirring getting louder now, and I know that she’s approaching my room. After a moment, I hear her soft voice outside my door.
‘Hey, can I come in?’
Two years ago, she would have just barged in without asking. Now she won’t open the door unless I tell her she can. I sit there for maybe twenty seconds, knowing that she’s on the other side of the door, waiting. And then I think that I’m probably being a bitch, that maybe I’m turning into her, and that scares me into opening the door. I sit on the bed as Emma motors in, stopping about a metre away from me.
She gives me a once-over, like the old Emma would have. She holds her head as if she’s capable of moving every muscle in her body. As if the act of moving only her head is a choice, revealing her self-restraint. She sits in her wheelchair like it’s her throne, looking at me like I’m an errant subject. Then something happens in her head, and she turns her face towards the floor, quickly.
‘Are you wearing that to the party?’ Her voice is as light and soft as whisked egg whites.
I’m wearing a 60s yellow print dress that I found in an op-shop, with green tights and sparkly purple sneakers. It doesn’t go, and it isn’t meant to.
‘I am wearing this. If I decide that I want to go to the party.’
‘Don’t wear that.’
‘I’m going to wear this.’
Emma flicks her eyes upwards and does a short, huffing sigh. ‘It’s not very eye catching. Or, like, it is, but in all the wrong ways.’
That was the problem with Emma: you could never be sure whether she was saying something to be helpful, or to undermine you. Right now, she’s trying to be helpful. I think.
‘I have my own style.’ Formed as soon as I was old enough to choose my own clothes. As different from Emma’s as possible.
‘Wear that silver top that I got at Forever New,’ Emma says crisply, moving her wheelchair a bit closer to the bed. ‘There’s no point in me ever wearing it again.’ The silver top is her favourite. ‘It doesn’t matter what I wear. All that people ever see is the wheelchair.’ She says this without the faintest trace of self-pity. It’s a fact, nothing more.
I’m pretty sure that she’s trying to help, but something about the way she makes the offer irritates me.
‘I dress to please myself, not other people,’ I tell her coldly. ‘And my goal in life isn’t to sell my tits.’
Emma’s breath spills out quickly, softly, and I think that what I said might have cut her. Her brown hair is caught up in a messy bun, and a few curls have escaped to gather at the back of her neck. Still brown eyes, like water. She’s a lot prettier than me, and did she ever know it. But it doesn’t matter now. As she said, now all anyone notices is the wheelchair. Absurdly, I feel a prickling of guilt for upsetting her.
‘I might not even be going to the party anyway,’ I say offhandedly. ‘I said some things.’ There’s a loose thread on the quilt that Grandma made me, and I’m focussing on unravelling it. I said some things. When I was on a high, I said some things. I’m always saying things when I’m on a high. That’s the definition of a high: you say more things.
‘What?’ asks Emma. ‘When?’
‘When I was on a high.’ A laugh bubbles up from somewhere in the pit of my lungs. There isn’t a whole lot of happy in it.
‘When? Was this before the most recent low?’ she tilts her chin downwards a little.
The Emma I knew when I was five years old, when I was eight and twelve and fifteen years old, has evolved into someone unrecognisable.
My new sister is caring.
My new sister tries to be my therapist. It doesn’t make up for anything, but it’s better than before. I’m definitely more certain of where I stand. It’s one of the few things that I’m certain about. And I’m on the cusp of wishing I was more grateful.
‘Yeah, before the low.’ I don’t want to tell Emma, but it’s her or Mum. And it’s sickening, being this cheap, being this ready to spill. But I’m deciding to tell her, I am, I’m taking in air, swinging my legs over the edge of the bed.
‘This one… it was probably the worst one that I’ve ever had. I mean, it wasn’t full blown mania but… we were at the beach. The group, all of us.’
‘Your close friends, or the group group?’ Emma asks. It’s a good question. The right question.
‘Shit,’ says Emma thoughtfully. ‘Yeah, that’s heavy.’
I don’t feel like I can say it. The words feel like a flock of birds flapping around in my throat. I bite down on my cheek until the skin breaks and my mouth fills with spit and blood.
‘I made these jokes that weren’t appropriate to the context,’ I continue quietly. ‘When people didn’t listen to me, I just talked right over the top of them. And then I just sat down on the sand and laughed to myself for maybe fifteen minutes.’
‘Wow, that’s pretty… extreme,’ says Emma. She’s using the safe language of someone who cannot understand but is trying, the language of sympathy.
My toes are curling up, my fingers are digging into my knees and for some reason, I have the urge to bite something. I want to sink my teeth in, rip, tear, chew.
‘I’m not done. Then I lay down in the middle of everyone and started making sand angels.’
‘You could try telling them that you’d been trying something really weird and heavy.’
‘Everyone knows that I don’t, though. Not after the time that something interacted with my mirtazapine.’
‘Wow,’ said Emma again. ‘That’s rough. I still think that you should go to the party, though. You’re going to have to see them all eventually.’
She’s right. Present-day Emma is usually right. But I’m looking at her gold hoop earrings that Mum put in this morning, and her thin mouth, and the harmlessly warm expression on her face, and I don’t know why, I don’t know why she wants me to like her now.
I’ve twisted my legs around so that I’m facing the wall.
‘Why did you start being interested in my life?’ I ask her. I can’t see her face from here, and it’s bothering me. I can’t make up my mind about where to look.
‘Sade, can we just leave it? Can we not?’
‘I want to go into this now. You want me to trust you?’ It’s still bothering me that I can’t see her, but I don’t want to watch. I imagine her raising her eyebrows up to the maximum height, and then dropping them again. Her face folding up.
‘It wasn’t always fun,’ she continues. ‘Being at the centre of everyone’s attention. Being able to control–’
‘Control people. Control everyone. Me.’
‘I didn’t think I could stop. And still be popular. And at times, yeah, it was kind of fun.’
‘You could have been nice to me,’ I’m saying. ‘You could have been nice to me, and I still would have done whatever you wanted.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Emma says again. ‘I was a bitch.’ There’s something wrong with her voice, but she quickly corrects it.
‘Yeah, you were. Every time that you told me that I looked fat. When you told everyone in my grade nine class that I stuffed my bra. When you told everyone in my grade seven class that I had gonorrhoea.’
‘I’m sorry. I told you I’m sorry.’
‘When you had the accident,’ I say, and my voice is quiet, clear. ‘When you had the accident, I was hoping you’d die.’ I’m putting weight behind that word, making it dark and heavy and vicious.
‘Now?’ Emma asks.
‘I don’t know,’ I say, because it’s the truth. ‘I don’t want you to die any more if that’s what you’re getting at. I try not to hang onto things. We’re different in that way.’
She’s watching me, and I’m watching her, again, and if her eyes were water, then they wouldn’t be still anymore.
‘Are you going to forgive me at all?’ she asks neutrally.
I shrug again.
Mum’s shrill voice floats in, calling Emma from the kitchen, wanting her opinion on something.
‘I think you should go to the party,’ she says. She blinks several times. ‘Go and be fabulous. Ignore the haters.’
I’ve got my legs crossed, with my hands resting on my knees. I could be a Buddhist monk, meditating. I could be praying for peace. I give her a nod. She holds my look for a few seconds, then turns and motors out.
When she’s gone, I go into her room and rifle through her wardrobe. I decide that I’m not going to wear the silver shirt. Silver isn’t a good colour on me. But here’s a green dress with geometric patterns that looks alright. I’ll wear my Pink Floyd t-shirt over it, knotted, with the pink sneakers. I’ll look good.
To leave the house, I have to walk past the kitchen. Emma’s sitting by the fridge. Mum’s making gluten-free banana-chocolate muffins and singing a song the missionaries taught her.
Author: Hannah Vesey is a thrift store-clothed twenty-something with a passion for eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations. Her work explores neurodiversity, disability, trauma and love, mourning all that we have lost and celebrating a better future. Hannah was the winner of the 2022 Allen and Unwin Writers Prize, and has had work featured in Glass magazine and the QUT Literary Salon. Find her on Instagram @hannah_vesey_ .
Artist: Emma Bruce is a multi-disciplinary visual artist from Yugambeh country working out of Meanjin. Her work discusses the relationship modern society has with the environment through an archival style in hopes to preserve the experience of being in the natural world. Her work hopes to invite her audience to partake in activities that nurture native flora and fauna as well as create a sense of pride to be part of it.
Editors: Brock Scholte and Rory Hawkins