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Summer of a Germane Narwhale

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It began with flying fish. It began before that, but the flying fish point was when there was actually something worth a beginning.

Rudy said that when she tensed her shoulders, she should imagine singing birds perched on them. She should imagine she was just about to flick her shoulders, one-two, like a dance move, and the birds would fly up into the sky. Bah birds, thought Marnie, and cheesy, and hmm, angry birds? and she imagined them ruining the pale, light bamboo-blended cotton with bird poop, and then she clamped a grim expression onto her face because she was trying not to snicker. 

No way birds, Marnie decided, but she had a moment or two to get posed while Glenna smoothed out the ruff that spilled down her front – and her face was hidden from both Rudy and Glenna — so she tried to think of something better. There they were, it was obvious: imaginary flying fish were leaping up and around her shoulders, like her own living creature mobile suspended above her head, or maybe she was standing half in water like the Queen or King of Cups cards and that's where they were coming from. The flying fish were splashing water on her and she was flicking it back up at them. That was why her shoulders were tense.

See! thought Marnie, and it was funny, because she really wished Rudy could see, as if this flight of fancy were something she could have just pointed out in the air. But anyway, when Glenna stepped away and Rudy checked her over, she was smiling, and he smiled back, approving.

So it began with flying fish. It began in the living room of Rudy's summer house in Mission Bay, on a spring morning, with a photoshoot that was over and done like that – done before her hair was dry. It began with a friend of a sister of a friend who remembered she did TV commercials two years ago before dragonboating had become a thing, and so it began with Glenna, designer, and Rudy, director, as glamorous strangers who asked her for an off-the-cuff thing. No obligations, no promises (just cuffs, actually, with buttons).

Marnie really wanted it to turn into something.

Meaning Rudy, but modelling too. She thought that being a model was probably just a summer fling of a career, but — well, she'd kind of like both that way.

Rudy had a wicked smile and broad shoulders and he really looked at things. Starting with her. You could track Rudy's gaze across your cheeks and smile in time when he reached your lips. It was kind of cool.

He was almost silver fox potential, bit young for that, maybe a silver cub — are those a thing? Marnie wondered.

So she went to an exhibition opening Glenna had told her he'd be at, and skipped across a chain of strangers to place her hand lightly on his elbow. Tag. Yeah, he was startled, but he also laughed.

He called her to say that they were expanding the set of photographs from the Mission Bay shoot, come back please. So there

She turned up at eight AM, after dragonboating, which was maybe a bit cheeky because there was still salt spray in her hair. Rudy and Glenna consulted briefly, and Glenna shrugged. “I can work with this today,” she said. “But not tomorrow.” And then they exchanged a mysterious Look, and that turned into Rudy washing Marnie’s hair in the bathroom sink.

It felt really really good, and Marnie was on board with being princessy and pampered and getting an unexpected scalp massage, and she managed not to purr because that was not subtle at all.

Does anyone offer spontaneous hair washing if they’re not into you?

Rudy was singing something to himself. His voice was almost higher than Marnie’s. I guess we can sing in the same keys, she thought. Marnie’s ears were half underwater, so the song came through in echoes and bursts.

“I knew her when summer was her crown,” (something) “…brown her eyes.

He tugged gently on her nose, and slid a hand under her head to pull the plug out as she tilted up slowly, rubbing her neck. “There, you’re done,” he said, laying a towel and a comb beside her, and wandering off with the song still in his throat: “I knew her when winter was her cloak, and spring her voice she spoke to me.”

You can have Spring’s voice, and Glenna can have Winter's cloak, and I’ll have Summer’s crown, decided Marnie contentedly, later, as she and Glenna arranged flowers over her still-damp hair.

One thing she hated about modelling was the light, Marnie decided.

Okay, so it was only day two of the project and even having lists like 'One thing I hate' and 'One thing that's really cool' was running a bit ahead of herself, really. And she felt kind of stupid whining already, because real models probably didn't even notice, or if they noticed they had advanced skincare tips and reasons to wear sunglasses indoors and they put photo-active-something pick-me-up drug things on their skin so they didn't stress out. Well, maybe they did. So she made a point of adding something good to the mental list: it was good to have someone else, someone way better, doing her makeup.

It was crazy decadent to have Glenna hovering over her, touching up her eyelashes or touching up her chin because this shot required her to arch her neck and look up. The waiting, and Glenna’s careful, smooth movements, put her in a kind of daze, as if her head were just floating on the sea-scented air.

And Glenna actually smiled, and answered in quiet, dreamy way, once Marnie got her nerve together to ask questions. Glenna was the most fantastic temporary ultimate style consultant. Marnie blinked, on command, and she must have missed something — mysterious coolness spread across her eyelids — but Glenna explained.

Still, blinking was kind of a problem.

Rudy hadn't said anything else about birds, but he'd given her a book to hold, a pretty edition of The Iliad that had embossed waves on the front cover. Classics and English hadn't been Marnie's thing in high school, but she saw how extra details could make her new prop an object to treasure, beyond the style of its story.

And she saw... well, blinking was a defense against the studio lights, and as a defense against the blinking, she added to her own story. The flying fish were gone from the backs of her eyelids for now, but she had got herself a boat and was a traveller. Between wet hair and light clothing and the breeze coming in through the open verandah, she got a shiver every time they turned the lights off, so her inner traveller person was bundled up — thick pretty layers instead of thin pretty layers. Same onion of things.

Rudy snapped out, reminding her to keep her chin up and her gaze focused. She sighed just a bit. Maybe it was that gust of breath that allowed birds to enter the picture, on Rudy's behalf, flying across the bow of her boat, ahead of a thundercloud. Go, traveller, go, she urged her story-self, sailing before a storm.

The studio room was at the front of the house, which faced northeast, towards the sea. As it got on past noon, light stopped falling through the windows and the hallway, and they stopped for the day. It was funny, the way the light seemed to carry the sea with it, and when it was gone, so was the feeling that Marnie could step off the porch, take one step into sand, and another into ocean.

Instead, they drew further back into the house, which had its own kind of shoreline. The front rooms were white and open and repainted, but the back rooms were smaller and darker and wood-panelled. The front rooms were stark and bare, a convincing blank canvas, but the back rooms were compacted and messy and real, as though a kind of wave had swept up through the house, washing everything up the beach. In the back rooms, Rudy pulled things out of boxes: teacups and paintings and postcards and pool cues.

“Are you competitive?” Marnie asked him, holding up a pool cue and grinning. Woman flirts with man over pool game wasn’t exactly original, okay, but it was a way of getting the point across.

He pulled a face. “No. Ben used to beat me all the time.” He was exaggeratedly woeful, mocking himself, but even so, a bad pause fell after those words. For every second that passed Marnie wanted to add another bullet-point in her defense —

It’s not the ex-husband thing that freaks me out, it’s not the fact that you’re kind of an ex-wife, it’s not even the way that sounds like domestic violence, it’s not that I don’t know how to deal with your past, okay, it is kind of like I don’t know to deal with your past but mostly because you just threw it into conversation, you were probably just being casual, um, now I say..?

“I’m pretty good,” she said. “If you wanted to polish up a bit.” And he still looked neutral, so she said, “Or I shall take these sticks, blessed in your name, and chalk up victories all through the pool halls of East Tamaki, and so the curse of the cues of loss shall be lifted,” and that, at least, got something like a smirk. B for effort. A for chewing the scenery.

She carried a couple of red patent-leather chairs through into the front part of the house, checking her game plan. She was surrounded by Rudy’s past life — deconstructed and reconstructed around her. His possessions-as-props deal, making memory into domestic still-life, was half the project. Well, that’s kind of a way to talk about it without talking about it?

She placed the chairs, and headed away from the shore again… into the woods. Yes! Exactly. I can’t not stumble over something. I have pulled my boat ashore. I am in a forest! The story-self wandered deeper into the trees. She missed the flying fish. But it was better to realistically appraise the situation. Open your eyes, story-self, she advised the figure. Something might be looking back at you.

The light was falling now. Glenna poured them a glass of wine each, and Marnie made a point of not sniffing it or rolling it around in her mouth. Too obvious. It was funny, all of her friends of last year who'd hung out on the beach with her and chugged RTDs were the ones at university now. Those who had stayed in town this year met for coffee or a movie unironically, as though by passing up the typical OE or BA — by passing Go – they had gained experience on the sly. After being teenagers came people who just were. She tried this idea on Glenna and Rudy, who seemed to like it, though they both laughed.

"Come as you are," suggested Rudy, as a rephrase.

"Pay as you go," said Glenna, like the second half of a rhyme.

Look at me, I’m an adult now, she added in her head, but her story-self looked small and young and vulnerable, and the trees were watching her from heights far above her head.

"How many’s that?” asked Glenna in the kitchen, as Marnie poured herself another glass of wine.

“Probably too many to drive,” said Marnie. Might as well make it obvious what I’m thinking. She lifted an eyebrow at Glenna — are you okay with all this?

Glenna laughed. And looked kind of concerned. “I’m not really worried about you, honey,” she said. “And I don’t think it’s all one way, either. But not everyone thinks in terms of summer romances, okay? Don’t come on too strong.”

“I’m not…” Stupid. Selfish. Pushy. Crazy. Well, okay, she was starting to get a little single-minded about Rudy. Maybe. But she wasn’t about to wreck his life. She just wanted…

Rudy, yes, she wanted Rudy, his hands and his grin. But she kind of also wanted these things, the teacups and the dartboards, the sugar-coated brushed-up ideas around making a nest for yourself. A beautiful nest. A nest you could come home to after sailing the seven seas.

Nest. Fine. There are birds after all. As many as necessary.

"You and all his old things," said Glenna carefully. "As a model, to him, you're almost a portrait album."

"I want him to see me, not him in his old clothes," Marnie said.

Glenna laughed at her. "Maybe you know what you're getting into."

Glenna left, and Rudy and Marnie stayed talking on the hammock with the wine, and there were no more un-jokes about husbands. There was nothing edgy at all, really, just comfortably braced shoulders and talk that drifted into monosyllables, further and further into pauses — Marnie’s head was nodding.

“I’ll make myself a bed,” she yawned, “if you don’t mind me using some of those rugs. The crochet ones.”

“Good plan,” Rudy said immediately, and she was too tired to be disappointed, but because she’d done the noble, non-pressuring thing, she let herself reach for a hug.

Then she took the rugs, and built them up all around her, and swayed quietly in the hammock all night, with a lullaby of sea.

She woke up early, in the dark parts of the house, and made her way into the light. The breeze was up and they’d left a window open, so the whole house was cold and fresh.

Rudy came up the path from the beach, a towel over his shoulder, wearing board shorts and a t-shirt, both soaked. So that was where he got his shoulders – swimming. Maybe later they could go swimming together, or was that too — no, it’s not too anything. This was the last day. She needed to say something.

So she met him on the path, with the sea air around them. “I slept pretty well,” she said. She poked her tongue out at him, she tilted her head, she grinned: “Hey, do you think there’s a future in this?”

Rudy looked like a million different people thinking a million different things, and none of them made him lean any closer to her. “Look, I’m not sure that’s a good idea.” He looked cornered, not confident. He wasn’t looking straight at her; they were angled on the path and he was looking at the sea.

No. Come on. I am not way out of line here. I have flying fish to tell me so. And so she took the hand that was reaching towards her shoulder, and turned them both towards the water instead. “Look yourself,” she said quietly, keeping his hand in a light grip – you do not need to be scared of me. Because she might not have the right words and he might not have the right reasons to see her in the right way, but if she tried, very hard, she could find the place where they met.

And in that place, leaping out of the sea, there was a narwhale.