CONTENT NOTE

‘Zugzwang’ makes mention of conflicted sexual experiences, including while drinking.

For I.M.

Spring holidays. The house party has reached that stage of the night where the bathroom is perpetually occupied with someone crying or throwing up. The friends I’ve come with have vanished into some dark corner—maybe even the bathroom—and my mouth’s sticky from cheap peach liqueur. ‘Nights’ by Frank Ocean plays loudly. She dances with her friends, wearing a tight black top which cuts off just above her bellybutton. Leaning against the deliciously cold kitchen counter, I realise I’m drunk.

            She notices me watching and comes over.

            What’re you drinking? she says.

            Peach.

            She gestures and I hand her my drink. She takes a sip and makes a face.

            Yep, I say and laugh.

            She pours herself a glass of water from the kitchen tap, then stands too close to me.

            Why do you keep looking away from me? she says.

            It’s hard not to.

            She smiles slowly. Why’s that?

            You look good tonight.

            Just tonight?

            You know.

            Oh?

            I shrug, embarrassed.

            She laughs. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to toy with you.

            She steps forward and kisses me. She tastes of beer. Her lipstick feels waxy. I put my hands on her hips, brushing her warm bare sides.

            All the bedrooms have already been claimed, so we go outside. The stars are bright, planted in the blue-dark like turnips. We make out for a bit, leaning against each other, stumbling, her cold hand sweeping through my hair.

            I feel a bit like in year nine when I stuck the needle in the sewing machine, she says. All tingly. Maybe it’s the cold, too. Hang on, I’m gonna go grab a blanket.

            While she’s gone, I notice my buzz has been scraped away by fatigue. I feel hungover and my bladder is painfully full.

            My phone rings. My ride home is leaving.

            Just a moment, I tell them.

            When she returns, she holds the blanket in a canopy over our heads, and it reminds me of the blanket forts I used to make as a kid, sectioning off my own small, dark, dusty world. She kisses my neck.

            I’d better go, I say.

            You could stay.

            I’ll stay next time.

            Silence—the moments flapping their wings and the air holding them.

            There won’t be a next time, she says.


Early summer. The river’s a brass bell collecting light in colours as if it’s been annealed by the sun. Crickets throb beneath birdsong. In our underwear, on the bank, we lay in silence.

            Eventually she laughs and says, This is zugzwang.

            What?

            It’s a chess term.

            She rolls to face me and slowly traces my hipbone, stomach, sternum with the tip of a finger. I imagine she’s moving chess pieces over me, checkmating me in four moves.

            She stops, sits up. Do you know what you’re doing?

            No, not really.

            Neither do I, she says. She sees my surprise and laughs. I’ve done it a few times. But not very, I don’t know, seriously. With girls, with guys, it was all a little awkward and fumble-y. It’s pretty easy to hook up on a night out.

            I’m still only seventeen.

Sunlight splits the air between us and dapples our bodies in shadow. You were dating Erin, right? she says.

            Yeah, she broke up with me two days after we…

           Fucked.

            Yeah.

            Well, I suppose that speaks for the quality, she says, grinning.

            I think she just wanted to get it over and done with before she left for uni. It’s funny because I didn’t even want to that much, I mostly did it because I was worried she was going to dump me. Is that weird? I thought guys my age are meant to want to all the time. I remember this sense of relief when she told me to stop. Neither of us really got anything out of it.

            What I don’t say is that afterwards, in bed, Erin started crying, and I lay next to her, our arms barely touching, and understood her. This thing, this act which had been hanging over us for years, was not only a disappointment, but gone, done, complete. Now what was there left? What else was there to desire?

            I’m sorry, she says. That was shitty of her to pressure you.

            It’s not that I never want to have sex, it just wasn’t the right time then.

            Sometimes it’s like my body doesn’t exist and I’m just a spirit floating between spaces. But sometimes I’m all charged up and I feel as if I need to touch someone and be touched or I’ll shiver into sparks. Do you ever feel that?

            Her eyes are slitted and her pupils are wide. My pulse flickers. Sweat trickles down my side.

            What does zugzwang mean?

            She smirks. There’s a dimple on her left cheek the shape of a comma.

            You can look it up later, she says.

            The sun is higher now. We are trembling. Everything is turning gold.


It’s late and I’m scrolling through Insta in bed, waiting for sleep to build up like some invisible, deadly chemical inside of me, when she texts: I’m really horny.

            Oh? I reply.

            She starts typing then stops. Eventually, she texts: Should I leave or are you gonna entertain me?

            I blink, stung, and in a sort of haze I ask: Are you wet?

            Very, but I’m also using lube.

            I’m imagining you on your back, head back and moaning.

            That’s all correct, except for the moaning part. I’m not home alone.

            Are you touching yourself?

            Yeah. I’m thinking about what it feels like for you to do this to me.

            There’s a pause, then she writes: I don’t mean to be a mood killer but I’m finished over here. It was great. But now I’m going to go to bed.

            It begins to rain. I plug in my phone, turn off my phone screen, white afterimage slowly losing its shape. It takes me a long time to fall asleep.


The classroom is hot and sleepy. Heavy green light is sloshed around the room by a whirring fan. There’s a vague purgatorial sense. Someone is speaking, but the phonemes of the words dissolve into the currents.

            Then it’s her turn to present on Robert Frost and sexual freedom. She speaks matter-of-factly, like no other interpretation is possible. She refuses to look at me, gaze cutting out my body in its absence, until, near the end, she reads out a passage from memory, smirking, staring straight at me:

            I made him do it for me in the dark. And he liked everything I made him do.

            My face prickles with heat. My ears throb. All at once I have the faint urge to cry.

It rained at some point during the class, and after school, in the car park, oil makes rainbows of the puddles. Her car is already gone. Maybe we live in different timelines.


Sunset the colour of prawn crackers. Ginkgo trees brush out their yellow hair. Against the horizon the misshapen silhouettes of construction equipment look like cut-outs of children’s books’ monsters. We take turns skipping stones across the river until it’s too dark to see their ripples. Once, she startles a pair of crested pigeons who chop up the quiet air. Then we sit on the bank and watch the stars appear. Woodsmoke tickles my nose. Somewhere a dog barks.

            You know, sometimes I think that I could try to kill you, she says. And you’d just lie there and let me do it. Each word is released poised and serious like she’s already looked in the future, seen her full sentences and my reply—the whole human chain.

            Oh really?

            She straddles me, scarf billowing behind her like a second moon, and wraps her warm hands around my throat and squeezes. The pressure builds until she releases, laughing.

            See? she says. There’s something sharp to the curve of her mouth. I can feel something between us slipping. Words are stuck on my tongue: large and flat and smooth as skipping stones.

            She gets off me, sighs, stuffs her hands in her pockets. Come on, she says. I’ll drive you home.


She’s taken me to the river again. Smeared with neon green algae, the water’s muddy and brackish as if it’s been congealed by the cold. Traffic drones dully from the new highway. Wind sweeps the slope. Bare branches flicker like silver lightning.

            There’s a usual spot—soft and sandy on the bank—but it hasn’t rained in a few weeks and the river’s receded, leaving a border of mud that’s cracked like hot milk, so it’s hard to find our bearings.

            Here’s fine, she says, breath pluming in front of her. I kick aside the larger stones as she lays out a tattered plaid picnic rug and some woollen blankets she stole from her grandparents. The blankets are itchy and smell faintly of acetone and horses.

            It’s pretty like this, she says. Wind catches her hair, hiding her face from view inside the blue hood of her anorak.

            It was prettier without the highway.

            You can’t even see it from here.

            They’ve been planning and building the highway for over three years. In the beginning, when I still thought the politicians might listen, I protested with my dad: door knocked the neighbourhood for signatures, lofted shiny placards, organised a sit-in in the local council chambers. I remember the room was too grey. It smelled so strongly of kerosene I was afraid the warmth of my body might send everything up in flames.

            Today was the first time we drove down the finished highway, tarmac smooth and shiny, a black scar. A kangaroo had been hit and hauled to the shoulder, trailing blood and off-white gristle. She winced and said: It’s sad. At least birds can understand the danger of roads. There was this study I read and some of them fly in front of cars for a rush like little winged adrenaline junkies. I said: They should build those green overpass things like they have overseas. She said: It was probably too expensive. I said: Maybe they shouldn’t have spent eighty-five million dollars on the highway then. Let’s talk about something else, she’d said, then turned the radio on to replace the silence.

            Now she hums the chorus of an Ariana Grande song and snaps off the head of a dead thistle, worrying it between nail-bitten fingers. In winter this place reminds me of your English presentation, she says. Heathcliff and Catherine and the moors…

            I hated that book. Everyone was too much. Nobody really feels that way. Or maybe nobody really feels as much as they think they do.

            Of course you’d say that. She laughs dryly and flicks the thistle head away. Your presentation was good, though.

            I didn’t think anyone was listening.

            What’d you think of mine? She brushes her fringe out of her eyes. Her cheeks are flushed from the cold and the corners of her lips are cracked and bleeding.

            I can’t really remember. It feels so long ago already. (But how could I forget her English presentation? When she’d stared at me, reading that Robert Frost poem until I was sure everyone was looking at me and knew the truth.)

            I did really well, she says. Twenty-four out of twenty-five.

            Congratulations.

            You’re angry at me.

            No, I’m not.

            Something’s obviously wrong.

            Maybe I just don’t want to talk about school anymore.

            And really the problem is that I wish it was still summer: before they finished the highway, when graduation was only a gleaming promise hovering before me like a hawk.

            Maybe. I’m sorry, I’m just a little tired.

            She puts her hand on my thigh and leans in close, breath warm in my ear. The zipper of her anorak presses sharply into my cheek. Do you want to leave? she says and kisses me.

            No, I say. No, not yet.


            That was nice, she says. It reminded me of the first time.

            Yeah.

            I don’t like how she categorises things as if nothing makes sense to her until she weighs it carefully against the universe. I begin to dress, still in that post-sex liquid phase where you must continuously tell your body it is real and belongs to you.

            She holds her hands palm-up before her: a pair of scales catching the light. Then she says: I don’t think we should do this anymore.

            A pause—trees sway in minims.

            Why not? I ask. I’m wearing one sock. My lips are numb.

            It just isn’t really working for me. I don’t have much else to say.

            She starts to cry, which confuses me since she’s the one choosing this. Wiping her eyes with a knuckle, she says: You know you’re allowed to cry too, right? That would be a completely normal response.

            Why didn’t you tell me earlier?

            I didn’t want you to get all maudlin. This way we could enjoy the last time.

            You’ve said something like that before, I say and try to smile. But I don’t really believe I can pull her back from this. She processes things like a star: alone and hidden in the dark, light years ahead of me.

            I wrap my arms around my legs and we sit in silence together until the river has turned its cheek to the earth.

            Following her to her car there reaches a point, all at once, when I realise I can no longer hear the river. But always the droning of traffic turning over on itself, without centre and without edge.


            The car idles in my driveway beneath the bare mulberry tree. She keeps the lights on and mozzies zip through the beams like bright meteorites. A new James Blake song is playing, falsetto like oil tipped into my ears.

            Well, I guess this is it, she says.

            I guess.

            What is it that people are meant to say? Goodbye? Good luck?

            I don’t know. I unclick my seatbelt. The buckle is cold as a ghost.

            Let’s finish the song first, she says. She’s turned away, looking out her window into the dark.

            Chords grip my stomach. For a moment I watch her, then I shut my eyes and listen. I don’t want it to end because then it will be the end.

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