sunrise (part 2)

I began to think that that was what true love was; late nights and beers, Singha singlets and Dr. Dre’s voice in the background. Dan and April would debate philosophy, religion, Hong Kong cinema, Two and a Half Men, it didn’t matter. Whatever took their fancy, they argued vigorously. Sara sat firing jibes at the two of them from her corner like a ninja. She was an assassin with words. All whilst I stared in awe as April became more and more beautiful to me with every word.


This is a continuation of a short story posted earlier, Sunrise. You can read the first section here.


 

April.

They used to use a gun. A silence would ripple through the crowd, a collective tension so impenetrable that only the crack of a starting gun had enough force to shatter it. In those microseconds before the official fired, the world froze. My fingers became rigid; a self-imposed rigor mortis to stop myself moving, each tiny twitch of my muscle fibres felt throughout the entirety of my body. Violins and cellos plucked frantic, erratic chords in my head, coinciding with the beat of my heart. Everything slowed. I exhaled, waiting for my chance to take that one last, desperate breath. Beside me stood a legion, and in front of me, myself. Like Caesar beginning the games of the colosseum, the blank would fire to the sound of cheers. The competitors would leap into the water, and the battle would begin. I liked the gun. I liked the absoluteness of it: “This is the beginning.” The start.

There was something about competing in triathlon that heralded the best and worst of my emotions. There was guilt, despair, jubilation and determination in me whenever I raced; the entire spectrum of my being jostling to take prominence. I wonder sometimes how I ever finished a race. I was always angry at the start, caught up in the frantic desire after the starter’s gun to swim over the top of as many opponents as possible, mainly in revenge for them trying to swim over me. But, the swim was the strongest leg of my triathlon; I wanted to do well. But triathlons take a long time to complete, even the short ones, and being alone with your own mind for that long can fuck you up.
It was during a race I learned to hate April.

I met her when Dan Brooks broke his nose.
Dan and I attended boarding school together, something I was sentenced to at an early age.
I still remember the circumstances regarding my departure to boarding school; it was during a particularly rambunctious time of my youth, where I enjoyed the thrill of life, but cared little for the consequences of my actions, as many young boys do. Growing up in a rural setting seemed to feed this nature, opportunities were ample, yet authorities few. Many of my friends snuck away from their homes at night to escape their parents. I, simply joined them because there was no one at home to tell me I couldn’t.
My father, Iro, was the son of Thai immigrants, the first of the family born outside Asia, and he worked for the fisheries department. My mother, Jennifer, had Irish heritage, but her family had been in Australia for years. Mum was a biologist, she was researching the territorial habits of bronze whalers, while my father was assigned to track down illegal shark fishing along the coast. My primary years were undercut by a maritime theme; my nursery was adorned with fish and boats, and I had more shark toys than dinosaurs. My parents were great advocates for the ocean, something they tried to pass on to me, but during much of my childhood they were simply… absent.
My father’s patrols usually began around dusk, and he would be out most of the night. My mother’s day started at midday, and ended at 10pm. She always gave the sharks nicknames like, Clive, Nigel, and Bruce. I was at school whilst they slept, and they were gone when I got home, a jovial and polite note always left by the kitchen counter. When they arrived home in the early hours of the morning, I would emerge, blurry-eyed and pyjama-clad, to a kitchen of: ‘Sorry, son’ and ‘Go back to bed, sweetheart.’
I never did, though. Mum would tell of Nigel’s latest adventures, and Dad would complain that he had to arrest the same three kids he arrested a month ago for doing the same shit they got arrested for the first time. They drank coffee, I drank hot chocolate. I whinged about my friends, and protested that I was smarter than my teachers, to which my parents giggled. As I got older, I took to reading as I waited for my parents to return. In my teenage years, I found myself coming home later than even them.
They were out of town when I got arrested – it wasn’t serious, I got a little too drunk at a friend’s house, and may have (accidentally) set fire to a children’s playground nearby. No biggie, right? It was my grandfather whom came to bail me out, and I will never been as terrified again as I was in that police cell, looking at my grandfather’s face and wishing the police would keep my behind bars. When my parents finally returned, there was a disappointment lurking in the house that chewed through me like a chilling freeze. Looking back, I think it was their own guilt that I was sensing, as if somehow they had failed. It was more than I could bear.
My Nan – Chaiyo was her name, and she always insisted that I call her thus – stood in the kitchen, her little frame and loud accent coursing through the house as she argued with my parents.
‘This town is too small for him. Look, look,’ she would say. ‘He has no dreams. His friends have no dreams. When we come here…’
‘Please Mum, don’t play the immigrant card,’ my Dad pleaded.
‘He can live with us in the city,’ Chaiyo argued, waving a hand.
My grandfather just stood there, grimly.
‘We just… can’t afford it, Mum.’
‘All his friends are here,’ my mother said.
‘I see his grades. He is a very smart boy,’ Chaiyo begged. ‘He could go to boarding school.’
My parents were afraid I would hate them if they sent me away – I recognise that now. But the truth was I wanted to go. Getting arrested was a turning point. In that sobering, steel cell, cold and fuzzy-headed, I finally realised I had out-grown the people around me. My parents were amazing, but they had dreams too, and I loved them for it. My father cried as I boarded the bus to the city, my entire life bundled up into a pair of suitcases and a backpack.

Dan Brooks was my best friend during my years in boarding school; years that seemed to fly by so quickly. He was from Eucla, and was extraordinarily keen to do whatever was within his power to never return there. In school he was a skinny, yet athletic boy. In no way attractive, his patchy black eyebrows and orange-gold hair made him attest that I only hung out with him to make myself look more appealing to girls. It wasn’t true, I was equally as unappealing as a juvenile, it wasn’t until I started triathlons that puberty began to be kind to me.
I think it was the three-part structure of the triathlon that made me love it so. It was like reading a novel; there was a beginning, the swim, filled with hope, but not without its trials. A middle, the cycle, wherein the protagonist begins to struggle and wane in the face of diversity; there is no pain like lactate acid and cramp combining together to mangle the feeling in your thighs. Lastly, there was the finish, the run, where the problems are overcome in a moment of glory. Admittedly, I never felt glorious after a race – mostly violently ill.
Dan and I ran together in the mornings. We’d cycle together in the afternoons, and swim on the weekends; he lamented that I had big feet and long arms, he claimed in moments of envy that my strong freestyle was the result of genetics rather than talent. Through the bond of training, our friendship flourished.
When school ended, we applied to the same university, and moved into a small flat on campus together.

I sit in my car watching the blurry, morning sun penetrate the blanket I’d tried to cover over the windscreen with frightening ease. The light is rude, and my mind isn’t prepared for a new day yet; but through the haze of dusky morning gloom filling the car, I draw an inner warmth. I yawn; I didn’t sleep well. My mind has been in tumult ever since the cafe the night previously. I realise I’m going to need another coffee if the processing plant in my head is going to keep dredging through the storage banks all day.
I sigh heavily as I crack the window enough for me to swipe the blanket out from underneath the wipers holding it in place. I recoil slightly from the sun, and then slide my sunglasses over my eyes like an alcoholic on a Monday morning. I turn the key, start back towards the Cafe of Ordinary Lattes (an ordinary latte is better than a terrible one), and with my morning java procured, begin again on my journey.
I still have several hours ahead of me on the road. The road turns inland at an incline, much to my lament, as I would’ve been happy to follow the cliffs all the way home. Green hills with thick gum trees and warped branches engulf the road, and more than once, I find myself needing to stop as a farmer moves his herd from one paddock to another. The car rumbling idly, my index fingers tap the top of the steering wheel to the sound of synthetic guitar and heavy bass riffs oozing from my speakers. The farmer gives me an apologetic wave as he looks left and right: there’s a shitload more cows still to come.

Dan studied philosophy at university. He had this cowboy swagger; his collection of suede jackets was enough to make any self-respecting rancher envious, and he had this stack of books in his room that was continuously growing. He was too lazy to buy a proper bookcase and was worried that a legitimate system of organisation would ruin, in his words, “the aesthetic.” Somehow, confusingly, he managed to navigate his book stack perfectly; it never once fell over – that I saw.
The flat we lived in was unassuming. One of many in a village of clones, it had plain tiles in the kitchen and tiny room, and carpet through the rest of the house that was more grey than white. One morning, at 4am, mid-sleep, Dan rolled out of bed and busted his face on the floor.
I had come to the city via bus, I had no car. Dan’s shitty little wagon was at the mechanic, as the growing census amongst other members of the university housing was that it was unfit for driving. Dan argued he felt safe – everyone rebuked that no one else did. So it was, that at 4am, I had to walk to flat next door, Dan behind me holding a nose literally gushing with blood, and knock on the door.
A few moments passed, the only nose being Dan’s constant swearing as he threw his head back again and again trying to stem the blood flow, the once-white tea towel that he held to his face had once been mine, now it was permanently rubbish. There was noise from inside, indistinct mumbling amongst the housemate, one sentence I distinguished as, ‘shotgun not.’
Eventually the mechanism inside the door clicked to life loudly, and a zombie-eyed girl in a ponytail and an over-sized Dragonball-Z shirt opened the door.
That was how I met April.

The same faded sign still stands on the outskirts of Kane Patterson’s farm: ‘Welcome.’ I roll the windows down as I make my final approach into the town, the edges of the road becoming paved, the middle of the road filling with palm trees. A southern wind blows in over the cliffs, I allow the stale, air-conditioned aroma of the car to empty as I take in the natural freshness of the breeze.
It feels unchanged. Everything is where it was years ago. The bakery, the surf shop, the caravan park, it’s all there. I’m not sure what I expected. Everything in my life has been so fundamentally altered, I keep waiting to see that same change reflected in the world around me.
I realise too late that I’ve made the mistake of returning to my hometown during summer. Holiday-going families and their caravans block the main road, waiting their turn to enter the holiday park. Despite the crowds, the town still feels stagnant; frozen. It comes alive during summer, and then enters a suspended animation from March onwards. Business owners hoard their money and the council spends its budget on pleasing the once-a-year tourists rather than the locals. As I end up stuck behind the fifth caravan in a row trying to turn right, I huff. The side streets, then.

April became a part of my life with a bang.
April had kindly, and with no small bit of regret for her lost night of sleep, driven us to the hospital. Dan had broken his nose falling out bed. Moreover, the attending nurse said it was the worst she’s ever seen. I, naturally, found it hilarious. Dan did not. April did not. Two days later, at 4am, I awoke to a thunderous banging on our door.
‘Shotgun not,’ Dan yelled.
I unlocked the door, and saw April standing there, scowling.
‘What the fuck, man?’ I asked.
April, her expression unchanging, her tone quiet and unwavering, whispered: ‘Revenge.’
We hung out around campus with increasingly frequency. April didn’t actually live next door, she was simply staying with a friend the night Dan and I came knocking. She lived in the city, where her dad’s construction business afforded them a beautiful two-storey house in a cul-de-sac by the esplanade. She was tanned (her house was 500 metres from the ocean) and her jet-black hair was pink at the tips. She wore overalls that were shorts most days of the week, and when the weather was cold, she seemed utterly lost. She had an aversion to makeup as strong as her opinion against whaling. She constantly wore boys’ jumpers and caps, as they, in her words, were ‘far more comfortable.’
I saw in her echoes of the beach-going surfing girls I’d known at home, and perhaps that was why I gravitated towards her so strongly.
She was doing a bachelor in film history, something I liked to tease was nearly as useless as Dan’s degree. In truth, I was envious. Whilst my homework consisted of essays and critical reading reports, April was able to get a rug, some popcorn, and spend two hours at home with a DVD and call it ‘research.’
Dan and I would find ourselves at her parent’s residence often, usually with Sara, April’s friend and our neighbour. The beach near her house was entirely flat, but Dan and I sourced a couple of paddle boards from an elderly couple nearby and paid them $20 to let us borrow them for a day. Dan and I scooped and glided out into the flat, protected gulf waters, diving into the water whenever it took our fancy. The girls, meanwhile, simply sat on the sand, tanning themselves.
We’d sit all four us and watch a film from the latest director April had decreed was the ‘best.’ My favourite time was when she became wholeheartedly enraptured by Korean cinema, exclaiming I would love it.
I asked if it was because I was Asian.
‘Naturally,’ she’d shrug with a smile, shaking off my attempt to play the race card.
Sara, our neighbour, was in April’s film history degree. Her hair was the colour of sweet candy, and her laugh was a pleasure for the ears. In those early days, before April and I were even aware that we fancied each other, our little gang of four would stroll onto our small balcony (ledge might be a more apt description) and smoke together as Dan continued his experiment with rap music. He was listening to the albums of NWA and Biggie Smalls on repeat, obsessed with finding parallels with modern rhythm and poetry and the great thinkers o philosophy.
I began to think that that was what true love was; late nights and beers, Singha singlets and Dr. Dre’s voice in the background. Dan and April would debate philosophy, religion, Hong Kong cinema, Two and a Half Men, it didn’t matter. Whatever took their fancy, they argued vigorously. Sara sat firing jibes at the two of them from her corner like a ninja. She was an assassin with words. All whilst I stared in awe as April became more and more beautiful to me with every word.

In my hometown, I forego stopping at the house I grew up in. It’s not a family home anymore. I think my parents still technically own it, but no-one lives there. It’s just an empty pile of wood and brick now, and I’d rather see it knocked down. It hasn’t been my house for years. it hasn’t been anyone’s house fore years. Let that haunted land start over, forget the ghosts and the memories that riddle the timber like termites, and try a second time.
I still know my way through the back streets, although, it feels different. The last time I’d been home was six years ago. I was twenty, and there was less development then. Now, there are two story houses everywhere, each of them jostling with the building in front for a view of the beach. The closer to the water I get, the worse it becomes. There was a time when I could remember all the houses in this part were ground level, with decrepit utes or Hyundais parked out the back. Now I see gleaming SUV’s with stickers on their bumper bars depicting city private schools.
Making my way towards the jetty, I drive softly down the steep descent – I know the crosswinds as well as anyone. The bay upon which my hometown was built was a long, arching one. The jetty expanded out into the ocean from the western end, whilst the best swimming conditions were to be had on the east side. To the west, monolithic sandstone cliffs the colour of charcoal and crimson rose up, sloping and carved by the wind of millions of years, and atop them, an ancient pinewood of wind-swept stood overlooking the bay. To the east, the wreckage of the older, storm-broken jetty marked the end of the beach, and further along, the coastline was carved into half a dozen smaller, rock-covered inlets only accessible by walking track.
Putting the car in park, I step outside. I immediately inhale a mouthful of ocean air; the salt tastes like home. The sunlight here feels different to the sun from the city, this feels like a hug from my mother. By this stage of the day, the afternoon was almost over. I’d been driving for what felt like years, I was worried my legs might’ve atrophied. There are a few fishermen out on the pier already, and although my stomach rumbles with hunger, I push ahead with my plan. I grab the bucket, my tackle box and rod, spare wire and, more importantly, a hat, and begin the long walk up the pier. As I stroll, the wind blows fresh memories into my head.

Somewhere along the line, April developed feelings for me, too, and drunk at a friends 21st birthday party, she ended up coming home with me. We had breakfast the next day together in a balcony cafe by the university, and from there we rarely spent a night apart.
‘You love me, yeah?’ she asked one night.
I nodded in the assent, and then repeated the question.
And she kissed her response.
But it’s a sobering realisation when you realise that what you thought was love, might not be love after all.
Despite our confession to one another, April refused to acknowledge our relationship publicly. Dan knew. Sara knew. Everyone else we knew at university either suspected or knew. But whenever she was asked, April’s response was always the same:
‘Ray? No, we’re just friends.’
Each time she said those words my body filled with lactate acid, my muscles burned. Short on oxygen, short on energy. Tired from keeping up the ruse. April was obsessed with her secret; we never caught up if Dan was home, nor could I come to her house if her parents were home. Eventually, I got to asking Dan if he could stay at Sara’s so April could stay the night with me. When that started up, Dan and Sara were together by the end of the week.
Watching Dan and Sara caused me envy. Dan could kiss his girlfriend in public. I couldn’t even hold hands with mine. I wasn’t one hundred percent sure she even was my girlfriend half the time I was with her. I was hollow, and the emptiness was filled with bitterness.

Dan, spending most his nights with Sara, was an unreliable training partner. I started running by myself first, then riding by myself, and then swimming by myself, too. During meets, I would look eagerly at the crowd, hoping to see April. Sara was always there for Dan, but never April. Sara always politely conveyed that April had ‘homework.’ My response was always the same.
‘But you’re here, Sara.’
‘Yeah… and?’
‘You’re both in the same course, Sara. If April has homework, don’t you also?’
What followed was excuses, and I began to sign on to more and more triathlons. At first, I saw it as an escape. I thought it was helping me flush out the negative feelings, and perhaps they did at first. But no matter how much of that dark matter I expelled from my heart and mind, it filled again whenever I was April. Eventually it became too much. Halfway through the bike leg of a Sunday morning meet, the dark matter opened up a black hole in me, and all the good I felt for April was sucked inside.
One night, deep into a marathon of Korean gangster films (we had just begun watching Ha Yu’s A Dirty Carnival) I asked April if I could start telling people we were together.
‘Everyone knows it,’ I said. ‘Why keep pretending?’
April’s answer was an immediate chuckle and a flat, ‘No.’
‘You know how I feel about you, I just want us to be together.’
‘Fuck, Ray. That’s the whole fucking point. We’re not together. That’s what I keep telling you.’
‘You could’ve fooled me.’
‘Don’t give me this bullshit.’
‘Bullshit?’ I scoffed. ‘You say you love me but…’
‘I do love you.’
‘But we’re not together?’
‘No, Ray. Jesus. What is it with you, what do you want from me?’
‘I want to be able to introduce my girlfriend to people as my fucking girlfriend.’
‘Ray!’ she slammed a book down. ‘I am not your girlfriend. For the hundredth time.’
There was a tension-filled pause. ‘Well what, then?’ I demanded, my voice rising. ‘Is this it?’
‘I guess so.’
Eventually, doing triathlons became a poison. I grew to hate April. She took Sara from me, and I hardly got to see Dan as he and Sara were still together. It felt, for the first time since I left home, like I was truly alone. Mid-way through a gruelling cycle leg, with no competitors around me to be seen, only made me feel worse. I stopped training altogether, and when that happened, I blamed April for taking my sport from me too.

Upon the jetty, I stop walking, and pause, two-thirds down the pier. The urge to groan aloud grips me like an ocean rip. What’s the point in hating someone? What’s the use? It’s a pointless, wasteful emotion, and for years its riddled me like shrapnel, leaking lead into my memories, making me ill. My own thoughts fill me with shame. More regret.
But the wind picks up. It almost pushes me around. It yanks my thoughts to and fro, it batters the hair around my ears. I close my eyes. I had believed I was over April. I thought I had evolved from the knuckle-scraping boy I had been during those university years, still fresh from the country, still adapting to the big smoke. I thought I had changed since then. I thought I could look back on April with the fondness I should, not the angsty, self-preserving anger I do. Some kind of mangled, adolescent PTSD.
I shake my head at myself. The wind continues to hover through my ears, around my head. Trying to help, trying to cleanse. I keep walking.
I reach my destination; my old spot on the jetty, a places recognisable by the patches of squirted ink stains from all the squid I’d caught over the years. I put down my stuff.
I feel her ghost. I feel her presence, in the wind, in the ocean.
I turn to look over my shoulder to the west. Atop the cliffs behind me, is a forest of pinewood and willows. Some of them are stripped of foliage on their south-faces, the coastal wind taking its trophies after years and years of barrage. At the foot of those trees, is the town cemetery. I’ve walked through it plenty of times before, but haven’t done so since the accident. Christ, I think to myself. Was that really only two years ago? It felt much longer. In the sky, the sun is starting fall beyond the great pink horizon, and the ocean is covered in a sheen of green. I drove 440 kilometres to go fishing. I don’t expect to catch anything.
I look towards the sunset, when a man approaches me.
‘Looks like something’s on your mind, kid.’
I turn towards him, sceptical. He’s about my age, 25 or 26; he’s got slicked back black hair, and an Asian appearance. He wears a knitted jumper, and a bucket hat. He seems to have a spot setup nearby on the jetty; two or three rods sit unattended, patiently awaiting a nibble. He smiles, ‘No?’
‘Sorry, dude. I don’t really feel like talking.’ I feel bad. I’m usually fan of the fishing banter, but today, I’m just not in the mood.
My new friend is persistent. ‘You looking at the sunset?’
‘Man…’
‘Are you?’
Reluctantly, I respond. ‘Yes.’
‘And what are you feeling?’
There it is. The big question. My memories of Claire flood back into my mind, joining the thoughts of April already present. A vortex of sparking electric currents, a confusing criss-crossing of neuroses firing across my brain. I shake my head. And then there’s the cliff, the cemetery. The accident. I look over my shoulders towards where I know the headstones and monuments stand. What am I feeling? I wonder. I remember Claire, and that morning in Thailand. ‘Sad.’

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