They stood in front of door number thirteen. From the hall they could hear the grunting and banging of the removalists in the stairwell as they lugged the side-of-the-road tartan couch up the three flights of stairs. Hugo held their two keys on the tip of his right index finger. With his left hand he squeezed Kara’s sweaty one.
Hugo’s eyes narrowed as he sized up the door. ‘That couch is not going to fit.’
Kara snorted, her hand moving to the handle. ‘That’s why we hired them.’ She jerked her head towards the grunting. ‘Come on, let’s go inside.’
‘Hey,’ Hugo’s hand tugged hers and she turned into him. He smiled, the boyish dimples settling deep into his flushed cheeks. ‘Do you love me?’
‘Of course not!’ Her lips stretched wide, a laugh echoing through the hall. His eyes crinkled at the edges when he smiled. His hand left hers and weaved into her hair, pulling her closer, her head coming to rest on his chest. Her eyelids met for a moment as she breathed in the musky scent of him that lived in the fibres of his shirt. He brushed his lips across her forehead as the key went into the lock with a metallic click.
His lips on her ear littered her smooth skin with goose bumps. “Welcome home.”
* * *
On Kara’s first day of kindergarten, the car window hosted raindrop races and the yellow plastic raincoat stuck to the skin of her leg. The school was surrounded by green paddocks filled with horses and cows and a main road bordered by flooring and home-wares stores. Beyond the cluster of moss stained classrooms, the rambling expanse of the school’s sporting fields and playground was visible, puddles of water flooding the grass. The leaf filled rainwater from the car-park ran in rivulets down the path to the kindergarten buildings and collected in a sock-soaking puddle at the bottom where the cracked bricks halted its progression.
Kara’s eyes prickled as she watched the swarming crowd of yellow rain-coated, brown-shoed children spilling off the path and onto the asphalt like a river breaking its banks. A sob finally escaped from deep in her chest as her mother wrangled the umbrella open above them and wrestled the schoolbag over Kara’s shoulders. Finally, her eyes spilled over like the gutters on the brown brick buildings of the school, leaving her cheeks stained with tear tracks.
‘Why are you crying?’
Kara turned to find a small boy and his tall mother standing under their own umbrella, hand in hand. The boy, Hugo, had blue eyes that reminded Kara of the colour of the dress on her favourite Barbie doll. Hugo blinked at her, his hat slipping down over his eyes every few seconds. He pushed it back up with the tips of his skinny fingers.
Finally, Kara sucked in a breath, scrubbing her sleeve across her face. ‘Because.’
He swallowed hard, his cheeks dimpling as his eyes flicked around their sockets, his teeth leaving indents in his bottom lip while their mothers chatted easily beside them. After another moment, he shook his hand free and splashed towards Kara, the brim of his hat spotting with fat raindrops. He paused in front of her, considering, before he threw his arms around her shoulders and turned to the mothers, taking Kara’s hand as he did.
‘Can we please go to school now?’
They nodded. Hugo turned on his heel and, his fingers folded around Kara’s, marched off towards the crowd of crying children, dragging Kara behind.
* * *
Her laptop dinged. She felt her face bloom red. Hugo Jameson has accepted your friend request. Write on Hugo’s wall.
The laptop dinged again and a flashing blue message box popped open at the bottom of the screen. ‘Hey!’ She sighed. What else would you say to someone you hadn’t seen in a decade?
She’d been slouched over her laptop staring at an eyeball disintegrating Word document filled with Modern History study notes for the last hour. Once her eyes had begun to bleed, she’d shifted to the relaxing blue and white of the facebook newsfeed. When his name popped up as a suggested friend, her mind had jumped to the days of throwing rocks at the school bell, missing and shattering the classroom window, doing bombs off the retaining wall into his swimming pool and pulling his labrador’s tail to make it play.
She’d nearly choked on her vegemite sandwich when she’d clicked on his name and saw his profile picture.
Ten years ago he’d been an eight year old with chubby, rosy cheeks and a smile full of gaps that made his eyes scrunch up into small slits that reminded her of the coin slot in a vending machine. His profile picture still showed the same toothy smile, but with a hard jawline and high cheekbones that tapered across to his pointed nose.
Kara stared at the single word in the message box and stole a glance over her shoulder. The bedroom door was firmly closed, the Blink 182 poster tacked to the back still projecting the fuck you visual message. She smiled at the memory of her mother’s puce coloured face after having caught a glimpse of the poster. Her eyes returned to the message window, her pen splattering blue ink over her knee as she tapped it against the skin there.
‘Alrighty,’ she muttered. Hi Hugo, long time no see … what have you been doing for the last decade?
He replied with a smiley face. Then: Well I could tell you here, but it would take forever to type because there’s a lot. How about lunch?
* * *
They’d pulled the dog’s tail too hard. She was sulking under the veranda, whimpering. Hugo’s mum had yelled. She’d locked them in the TV room with Beauty and the Beast. They sat on Hugo’s Batman beanbag together; legs sprawled out in front of them, Hugo’s sock half hanging off his foot.
‘Why do grownups do that?’ Hugo pointed at the screen where, newly transformed into Prince Charming, the Beast was kissing Belle.
Kara made a face, scrunching her nose. ‘I don’t know. Whenever my Mum kisses me, it’s always on the cheek and really slobbery and I have to wipe my face after.’
Hugo nodded vigorously, his hair tickling her cheek. ‘Maybe on the lips is better.’
Kara shrugged. ‘Maybe.’
‘Wanna try?’ He bounced out of the beanbag and was on his knees on the rug in front of her.
Kara glanced at the screen on the wall again. ‘Okay, but I think we have to hold hands. That’s what my mum and dad do.’
Hugo nodded, his brow furrowing. ‘Mine too. Okay.’ He took Kara’s hand like he had on their first day of school. ‘Do we have to close our eyes too?’
Kara nodded, the end of her ponytail flicking her chin. ‘That’s what all the grownups do.’ Hugo closed his eyes and leaned towards her on his knees, his pursed lips just resting on hers before he leaned back, his laugh escaping through the gaps in his smile where his teeth had fallen out.
A giggle escaped through Kara’s nose. ‘That was silly! I like holding hands though.’
‘Me too.’ His small hand still held hers. The credits began rolling on the screen. ‘What do you want to watch next?’
They turned to each other and nodded. ‘Toy Story!’
‘There’s a snake in my boot!’ Hugo exploded out of the beanbag, sprinted to the DVD cabinet, and returned with the navy blue disc case.
* * *
The sun stung their cheeks and made them squint. She reached a finger out and twisted the tip around one of his golden strands of hair. His hand lay lightly on her hip, his other twirling around the end of her ponytail. The grass scratched at the skin on their legs and his cockatoo observed them from the veranda and screeched, ‘What are you doing?’ over the humming of his neighbour’s mower.
His blue eyes transported her away from the pounding sun and the bubble of panic over university exams, immersing her in a cool world of azure that swallowed her and held her in a space where there was only room for her and him. His fingers tangled with hers; thumb tracing the back of her knuckles. His eyes came closer, the tip of his nose just touching hers. Softly her mouth rested on his. Then his lips parted and she breathed in the taste of strawberries and orange juice.
* * *
Hugo slammed the apartment door. Kara was already in their bedroom. Her mascara ran in parallel lines down her cheeks, the tears dropping from the tip of her chin, leaving black spots on her white blouse. She dragged the suitcase from the top of the wardrobe and snatched her clothes off hangers and out of drawers.
‘Kara, stop!’ Hugo’s hand crushed tight around her wrist. She wondered if it would bruise.
She shook her arm, glaring at him. ‘Let me go.’
‘I said let me go,’ she spat.
‘Fucking let me go Hugo or I swear to God-‘
His fingers lifted away. ‘What the fuck is your problem?’
She threw a skirt onto the pile in the bag. ‘Your parents just told us that I was a bad influence on you, that I was the one preventing you from doing something with your life. They basically just verbally abused the shit out of me and this relationship and you just sat there.’
‘Well you didn’t-‘
‘They aren’t my parents.’ Kara’s voice was like a training whistle for small dogs. She could feel the vein in her forehead beginning to throb. ‘Why don’t you ever stand up for this, for me? Is this what you want, Hugo?’ She waved her arms around the room, her wrist enveloped in a red handprint.
‘Then why don’t you ever say it is?’ Kara’s hand slapped against her leg as she let it fall to her side.
His face filled with lines; eyes sunken among the dark bags beneath them. ‘I-‘
She waited. Nothing.
‘You can’t even answer me. Maybe your parents are right. Maybe this isn’t the right thing. You don’t know how you want to live your life. I’ve waited long enough. I can’t wait anymore.’ She threw her shoes in on top of the clothes.
He flung his arms out as if he were trying to keep the pieces of his life from severing completely. ‘So what, you’re leaving?’
‘Ooh, got it in one.’ He looked at her like she’d slapped him. ‘Sort your life out, Hugo. Figure out what you want.’
She stomped out of their bedroom. He watched her drag the bag through the living-room and past the kitchen. She dropped her key on the counter and struggled with the deadlock like she always did. She scrambled past the door, her suitcase denting the wall. The door slammed closed. He stared at the back of the door. She’d left her Blink 182 fuck you poster. He wondered if it was on purpose. He felt his knees give way and he dropped onto their bed.
Their bed. Theirs.
* * *
They’d just received final judgment. Her client was howling in the street. In any other situation, it might have been funny: the awkward lawyer, the howling client, and the brooding, grey sky. It wasn’t funny. Kara’s stomach was roiling, bile beginning to rise in her throat. Once she was sure the client wasn’t going to walk in front of the next bus that rumbled along the street, she said goodbye.
It started to rain. Kara didn’t have an umbrella. She’d been on this earth for thirty years and for twenty of those, her mother had been telling her to put an umbrella in her bag, just in case.
‘Fucking hell,’ she muttered, lifting the client folder over her head to try and protect her hair as she made a run for the coffee shop on the next corner.
She dashed through the puddles on the asphalt footpath and half fell up the step into the shop where the smell of roasting coffee beans filled her lungs and made her shoulders sag in relief.
She ordered a large cap and fell into a booth near the barista machine. She dropped the rain spotted client file onto the table in front of her with a scowl and pulled out her phone. She had thirty unread emails from her colleagues offering their condolences. She wondered when the email notifying her of her sacking would arrive.
The coffee arrived in a take away cup and she stood up, shivering as the door to the café opened and blew a rainy breeze onto her legs. Her phone dinged; a meeting request with the managing partner.
‘Joey, small latte please.’
Kara stiffened, her thumb hovering over the accept button on the request. She turned on her heel, coffee shaking in hand.
His shoulders were wrapped in a charcoal suit. His blonde hair was short on the sides and longer on the top, fringe falling into his eyes. He held a black barrister’s file in one hand and dragged a suitcase in the other. He brushed his fringe away as he turned to put his folder on the table beside him. His eyes widened, locking with hers as he turned.
The only sound was the noise of grinding coffee beans for his latte. After a moment, his face split along his mouth like a fault line that transformed the landscape of his face; he had new lines around his smile and a softening to the hardness of his jawline. Her eyes moved to his ring finger. Not even a tan line. She prayed that there wasn’t some bimbo girlfriend out on the town with his Amex in her purse and a Tiffany’s ring on her finger. She imagined the taste of strawberries and orange juice.
‘You, ah … you left your poster on the door when you left.’ His hand ruffled the back of his hair.
He spread his arms a little; an involuntary out-turning of his hands, like a habit. It was like he’d been doing it every day for the last six years. Like no time had passed at all. The gesture folded around her like a blanket, warming her like it used to when she’d had a bad day at university, or when they’d signed the lease for their first apartment.
She moved across the café and stopped, the toes of her pointed shoes centimetres from his. ‘Have you still got that poster?’
He nodded, brow furrowed. ‘Framed and everything.’
She sighed. ‘Thank god. I love that poster.’
‘Me too. I’m not sure I’m willing to give it up.’
She shrugged, brushing droplets of water off the shoulder of his suit. His face fell into the smile that was just for her. ‘Maybe we can share.’