Joan by Talin Rose Hadlow.
The reflection on the water ripples beneath the wind, blurring the clouds and the pot plants surrounding the pool. Joan stands on the edge of the pool, toes curling like claws over the lip of the sandwash coloured tiles. Like the clouds and the pot plants, her reflection in the pool flickers, distorting her naked figure. A figure she no longer recognises. Joan’s traditionally flat stomach now has a little fatty layer under her belly button. Her ass and thighs have grown heavier, too, even though Joan didn’t think it possible as they were already a reasonable size. Her thighs rub together now when she runs, causing a red rash to break out on her tanned legs. She has her dad to thank for those thighs. And the bum. Both used to be strong but now they are flab. Her duck bum was always a trophy body part.
She sighs as she studies her rippling reflection in the pool. She’ll get her body back again eventually. She thought it would be back by now, but not quite. The shape of her waist has returned, despite the residual roll of fat on her belly, but her jeans are still that little bit too tight, and she hasn’t even attempted to try on her leather pencil skirt again.
That’s the price to pay for being happy and indulging in life. Travelling for months, undisturbed by the chaos and stresses of routine and everyday life. No family drama to roll her eyes at, no ex-boyfriends to tear her down, no boredom or lack of enthusiasm for activities. The jolly fat girl. Like Santa. She tries to imagine a thin, fit Santa. No. It just wouldn’t work. The only physically positive aspect of this weight gain for Joan is the boobs. Normally a happy handful, they now sit full and heavy in her bra, perking up depending on which Elle Macpherson she wears. The boys don’t seem to mind the extra junk in the trunk either. It’s also the case that happiness radiates positive vibes. Big smiles and an open expression are sexy and inviting. She pulls more lads now than when she was skinny and depressed. Sadness radiates negative vibes and no-one wants to be with the negative girl. Even if she is fit and thin.
The sun beats down on Joan’s bare shoulders, warming her neck and turning her chest pink. She stretches her arms above her head, causing all of her body to move up a few centimetres. Arms that used to be toned, that used to pull her body weight, now flab like uncooked chicken wings. Changing into a dive position, she uncurls her toes from the edge and launches from the tiles, sliding into the water. Loose leaves and bits of bark float around the pool, layering the surface as Joan swims underneath, holding her breath as she tries to swim from one end of the pool to the other. This is not as easy as it used to be. When she was younger, Joan could push four laps underwater. Swimming with her arms by her side, her hands near her hips and working through the water, with her legs frog-kicking behind her. She would bounce off the tiled walls, cruising from one end to the other. She wouldn’t even be puffed by the end of it. She would spring through the water with a big smile on her freckled face and laugh when she discovered that she had beaten all the boys.
Joan makes it one lap holding her breath underwater. She emerges pink-faced and breathing deeply, as if air never tasted so good. The ripples from her dive have pushed the debris from the previous night’s storm further towards the edges of the pool. It floats into the filter, clogging the grate with a black-brown muck of waterlogged bark and broken leaves.
Nothing is as easy as it was when she was younger. Adult dramas and responsibilities have invaded her life, causing her fun to feel like guilt. The psychic had told her she has too much fun. As if an adult cannot possibly enjoy life as much as Joan does. The psychic had grabbed Joan’s left wrist, stroked it lightly with her thumb as if wiping away a layer of dust, gazed at the wrinkles on her wrist and then thrown her head back and burst into laughter. “Girl, you have far too much fun. How do you have so much fun? Far too much fun and you never get caught. How do you do this?”
Joan takes another deep breath, drops underwater and kicks off from the wall. The tiles are slippery with muck. Arms by her side, hands by her hips, legs frog-kicking, she goes for two.
Nothing has changed since she’s been away. The house is the same, smells the same, of Mamma’s cooking and cleaning products. She can single out her brother’s smell, crisp and light. If there had to be a colour for his smell, she’d choose blue. Light blue, like the sky on a really hot day, when it turns almost pastel and no clouds float by to disturb the sun’s glare, full of life’s pure energy and heat. Like when a ring forms perfectly around the sun as if celebrating how brightly it shines. Joan’s dad had told her that it’s called a halo. He explained that it’s formed by thin clouds, almost invisible, that carry tiny ice crystals that bend the sun’s rays. This break in the light reflects to the shape of your eye, therefore forming a ring around the sun.
Everyone behaves the same, too, since Joan’s arrived home. She has no idea how her family, or anyone, sit in front of the TV for hours after dinner, watching a new series or the news. Don’t they know there’s a bar down the road? There are probably fun people to meet, crazy people to talk to and someone who will always want to hear your stories. Don’t they want to go venturing out to see what they can find?
Joan breaks the surface after two successful laps underwater. It was harder than she suspected. She lolls the back of her head against the dry sand-coloured tiles, holds onto them and lets her body float to the surface. Joan’s always been good at floating. Do fat people float easier than skinny people? More buoyancy maybe? It hasn’t changed her floating skills either way. Salt water is the key to easy floating. Joan discovered just how salty the ocean can be while sailing the Aegean Sea in Greece. She had never experienced anything like it. The salt creeps into every cut and sore you have, burning your eyes and parching your lips. But the stinging pain is nothing compared to the beauty and serenity of the ocean. Joan could float forever in the Aegean. No sharks, no jellyfish, no crocs. Just you and the endless clear blue ocean, holding you up like a child in its parent’s arms. Her pink chest heaves as she breathes, causing the water to lap at her bare breasts. Her stomach breaks the surface as she moves the air to breathe from her stomach like you’re supposed to. She could go for three.
She kicks off the wall, arms by her side, hands by her hips, pushing back water, legs kicking. In the quiet she wonders how many laps her brother did. Yesterday, before the storm, when he woke up at the hospital, Joan’s younger brother said he was swimming laps underwater before he blacked out. Joan’s dad said it’s called shallow water blackout, also known as SWB. If you take hyperventilating breaths before holding your breath underwater, it lowers the level of carbon dioxide in your body, which increases the amount of time you can hold your breath, which increases the likelihood of passing out. From there, you have approximately two-and-a-half minutes before you die or suffer brain damage. If your lungs let in water you can drown. If you stay submerged but your lungs stay closed, you can suffocate. Fitness level is irrelevant.
Joan isn’t sure how long he was in the water before she pulled him out. She called the ambulance straight away, just as you’re supposed to, then she started CPR. CPR was taught in school. Joan followed the steps and easily remembered what DRABC stood for. D: danger. He was alone with no posing threat around, but something was lying at the bottom of the pool. R: response. None. His lips were slightly blue and his body limp. A: airway. Clear. She stuck her fingers in his mouth and felt around; she peered in and saw nothing. B: breathing. Negative. C: circulation. She felt for a pulse on his wrist. She had always struggled at school to locate a pulse on the wrist, and she couldn’t do it then either. She moved to his neck and felt the pulse there, although light. She proceeded to perform CPR. His chest was still quite childlike. He hadn’t filled out yet like some of the other boys his age. He didn’t have any chest hair either, Joan noticed, as she pumped her clamped hands onto his chest, between the nipples, reciting “Baa Baa Black Sheep”. The nursery rhyme provided the perfect timing and 30-pump count rate if you sang it to the second verse. Three bags full of wool. At school she had been warned to sing it under her breath or in her head, so that it didn’t seem disturbing or disrespectful to onlookers. Next to her backyard pool, it wasn’t something she had to worry about, though she still kept her voice low.
Her brother’s head was tilted back in the right position so his airways were clear and open. His hair was plastered to his forehead and fell funnily to the side. He’d hate it looking like that, she thought. She’d have to fix it later and remind him to book a haircut. As she started whispering the nursery rhyme to herself for the second time after forcing more air into his lungs, Joan’s brother came to. He coughed and spluttered like they do in the movies. Joan put him into the recovery position so he could cough up the water from his lungs comfortably. Joan’s hands shook as she felt his cold skin and let her tears fall freely, mixing in with the pool water still dripping from her face. She brushed back his hair from his face and fetched him a towel.
The ambulance arrived and rushed him away. Joan’s parents were contacted and were at the hospital with him, leaving Joan alone at the house, staring at the 20kg bench-press weight sitting at the bottom of the pool. Joan’s dress was still wet from diving in to retrieve her brother’s body. Her reflection in the pool showed how the dress clung to her body and bunched up around her thighs.
She contemplated changing into her bathers before going in again, but that would be pointless. Joan stood at the edge of the pool, focusing on the circular weight, right beneath where her head was reflected, and dived in. The air bubbled out from her dress as it flared out slightly around her, making her feel like a mermaid. Everything weighs less in water; however, the bench-press weight was still heavy – heavy enough to pin you down onto the green tiles. It must have slipped off him after he passed out or his hands let it go. Joan dragged it from the water, dried it off and carried it back to its rightful place among the other bench-press weights in her brother’s room. So much weight.
Joan breaks the surface at three-and-a-half laps. She allows herself to float and stares at the blue sky. She won’t try for four. She stares at the halo that circles the sun and pictures the tiny ice crystals, trying their hardest to bend and reflect the light. Her parents stayed at the hospital overnight and told Joan to come and visit her brother today after he had some rest. She didn’t tell them about the 20kg bench-press weight.
Joan wakes with the sun. 6am, she rises with the birds, shaking off the dreams from the night. She rinses her face with cold water, washing away the layer of sweat. Water splashes onto the benchtop next to the sink. Joan looks at her reflection in the mirror. Droplets run down her face as she licks them off her lips. Her freckles have come out since being in the sun. They scatter across her nose and cheeks, her forehead is victim of a few as is her chest. There seem to be more every day, creeping onto her shoulders and appearing on her knees. She remembers the sun burning her face when she was little, her nose glowed red and soon began to peel. As her dead skin fell away, it took the freckles with it. Holding the flakes of her face up to the light, she could make out the specks.
Joan hasn’t slept easy since finding her brother’s body, unconscious and limp in the water. First hailed as a hero by family, friends, her town, now she is questioned, her motives supposedly unknown. There were rumours whirling around the town like a tornado, catching everyone in the chaos and throwing out new theories with the debris. The family was blamed, bad parenting, negative household. Her brother under speculation, unable to defend himself. The worst theory was that Joan was an accomplice. That she had tried to help end her brother’s life. There was no hiding from it. People constantly searching for truth in a story they can’t understand. A story that Joan struggles to understand herself.
The morning is the perfect time to run in summer, before the brutal heat sets in for the day and the body sweats without even moving. Before too many people are awake and crowd the streets. No-one is around to gawk at her or point. No whispers or glances from strangers and friends as she passes. Running at that time is like standing in the eye of the tornado, calm, quiet and safe, with mayhem swirling around her. When she’s running, lost in her own mind, she is untouchable.
Joan ties up her laces, making sure they don’t touch her ankles as she runs. It irritates her, making her feel like a bug is crawling up her leg and she needs to swat it away. The sun has risen a little higher and the birds welcome it. Light flashes through the gumtrees, creating shadows on the dirt roads as their branches hang relaxed. There’s a slight breeze dancing about the air, which tastes perfectly like summer. A mixture of gravel and dirt covers the road, the heat drying it out, making it into a dusty whirlwind when the wind picks up. The dust is dragged in with Joan’s breath and coats her throat. The scratchy feeling of dirt up her nose will stay there until she immerses herself in the ocean. It will sweep away all the dirt and dust, leaving her clean with only sea salt layering her skin. Joan dodges the potholes as she runs, which are more like craters in the ground. Miniature swimming pools if it ever rained. The council is constantly regrading the road, filling in the craters and smoothing the gravel. However, it’s never long until the corrugation reappears, like ripples reaching over the road after a crater impacts. Joan breathes deeply in through her nose and out through her mouth, controlled but desperate for more air. Her three-quarter Skins cling to her legs and protect her thighs from hitting, although this is becoming less of a problem or a priority now. Joan feels the stress and pressure from her family and the town is slowly chipping away at her extra baggage, developing back to the body she once had. Nothing like some attempted suicide to get back into shape, whether she wanted to or not.
She follows the back roads to the beach until she has to rejoin the main road of the surf beach. Cars fly along this road – even though it’s supposed to be 60km/h, surfers push it to 80km/h. Out-of-towners slow it down to about 40km/h to take in the sights of the shrubs and brief glimpses of the sea. They’re just as bad as the speeders. A line of cars and bike riders will tailgate them until they speed up or pull over. Joan pounds along the bitumen, following closely to the white line and into the grass when she can. Her breathing, the crashing waves and her runners hitting the road synchronised into a comfortable rhythm. She drifts away like the ocean tide with her thoughts, never questioning where she will go, knowing she is powerless against the current.
Her brother was checked out from hospital a week after his near drowning. He wasn’t sent home, but admitted to a mental-health facility out of town, closer to the city. On suicide watch. Somewhere for him to work out his issues and talk to professionals in a safe, controlled space. He hasn’t spoken much to the doctors. They try, in their sessions, but he won’t talk. He had been in there for a few weeks when the truth came out. Joan went to visit him alone. The centre looks like a hospital ward, or a nursing home. The floors are covered in that special non-slip coating and all the bathrooms have railings. They force him to get dressed every day, to shower and brush his teeth. Attempting to return him to his normal, everyday routine. They sat outside together in the garden, surrounded by perfectly manicured grass and trees, luscious and green. He had sat there, in his normal clothes, in his normal slouched way. The only difference is they had given him a haircut. About time, Joan thought. Joan confronted him about the weight left in the pool. About his actions. About how she found him. How scared she was. She
thought he was dead. And with her encouragement, the words, and tears, came. He said there was a heaviness constantly pushing him down. He needed to fight for breath, he needed to pull himself out of bed in the morning and resist the temptation to hide in it as soon as he was home. He found no joy. He felt lost and alone. He looked to Joan, eyes pleading for answers to his own feelings. Joan listened to her brother’s pain, while watching the agapanthus droop and move with the wind. The bell-shaped flower spurted out from the stem, reaching far and opening up, just like the flowers next to it. Joan knew the feeling of isolation and failure. The embarrassment of barely reaching expectation. But could it push her far enough to stop it all?
Tall shrubs cover the sand hills, hiding full view of the ocean and oncoming road. Makeshift dirt carparks dot the right side of the road. Cars already occupy some of the spots and surfers are scattered among the line-up. Sweat covers Joan’s face, undoubtedly pink now, dabbling into red. Sweat runs through her scalp, dampening her hair, and trickles down her neck, connecting to the sweat on her chest, becoming one. Early bike riders push past her, dinging their bells on approach. There was barely enough room for Joan on the road, she wondered how the bike riders managed. On the inclines they huff and puff together. Struggling to get enough momentum to pass Joan quickly, they sit beside her briefly as they travel past. An awkward pleasantry exchanged between biker and runner. Joan always looks forward to these odd moments and laughs when they try that little bit harder to move forward. What was so uncomfortable about some in-sync gasping for air anyway?
Glimpses of the ocean show through the thick shrubs as Joan approaches the main staircase to the surf beach. The water is calm as clean two-foot waves peel. Longboarders getting a solid ride catch it out the back, following it all the way into shore. Shortboarders sulk and watch on in jealousy, pumping their boards along when they do catch a wave. Joan gains her breath as she stands on the top landing of the stairs. She jogs down the wooden stairs, flaked with sand and damp from swimmers. The smell of the ocean hits her when she is at the bottom. The smell of washed-up seaweed, drying in the morning heat, sneaks up her nose, mixing with the dust. A smell she has never hated, more so welcomed. Joan’s dad use to hang dried-up seaweed on the side of their back door. It was how they would tell if it was going to rain. He explained to her that if the seaweed remained dry and crisp, then the day was going to be hot. But if the weed was lithe, returning to its original rubbery state, then they could expect rain. Joan’s runners sink into the dry sand as she reaches the beach, her foot sliding to one side as the sand gives way underneath her. Sand creeps into her shoes and works its way into her socks, making her toes feel like grit as they rub together.
Their mum was listening in the garden as Joan’s brother opened his heart. She had seen them sitting, quietly chatting, from the bedroom window and decided to join them. But she didn’t join them. She hovered behind them, close enough to hear their conversation. That is when life erupted. Their mum cried, frustrated nothing horrific had happened to him to justify his actions. He was just feeling down. From then on Joan’s brother received double counselling sessions and doctor appointments. Their mum was dissatisfied and didn’t believe his truth. It wasn’t enough.
Joan removes her runners and socks, tipping out the sand and placing the socks carefully back into her shoes. She peels off her tights and singlet, folding them neatly on top of the shoes. Her skin is free and breathes in the ocean air. The wind is always a little cooler coming off the water than at home. She runs from the sand to the water, kicking her legs out to the side from her knees as she meets the water, like they taught her to in Nippers life saving. Reaching waist-deep, she dives into a small, unbroken wave. The water is clear, quiet. The wave rolls over her and moves towards the shore. Breaking the surface she begins to paddle out further, duckdiving beneath the waves like a mermaid, flicking her feet behind her and feeling the water stream through her open fingers. She swims until she is out past the break. The surfers are further down along the beach where the small swell is peaking. Longboarders tiptoe along their boards, older men with bellies hanging out and wet little ponytails dripping down their necks. The water gives Joan goosebumps, but she knows her body will adjust soon, like the surfers without wetties. Joan wades the water, feeling it move between her arms and legs, wiggling her toes to keep them warm as the ocean bobs her lightly. Chunks of dark seaweed sit still and flat on the bottom of the ocean bed like stingrays.
It reminds Joan of floating in the dinghy with her dad and brother at the inlet when they were kids. Giant stingrays, as big as the blow-up boat, glided underneath them as Joan and her brother shrieked and hung their heads over the side to get a closer look. Their reflections stared back at them showing their hat strings tied underneath their chins and pink zinc on their nose. The sun and water were warm and there were sandwiches waiting for them back on the beach. When the stingrays had passed, their dad had picked them up, one in each arm, and threatened to throw them overboard so they can tow the boat back to shore. They kicked and wriggled and squealed louder. Eventually, their dad had braved the stingrays, saving them all and delivering the sandwiches. Joan had thought the stingrays were giants – she had never seen them that big before, nor had she seen them since. She loved those beach days, hot and lazy in the blue beach tent, held down with bags of sand. Her mum biting into the skin of an orange and peeling it for her as Joan sat between her legs. Nothing had tasted so good before that first orange of the day.
Wading the water now, looking across the ocean to where the blue meets the sky, Joan wonders if her brother can remember those days. Couldn’t he find happiness and joy in the nostalgia of their childhood? Wasn’t it enough to pull him back from the dark times? Letting out her breath, Joan begins to sink, blowing out bubbles of air as she descends, until she hits the bottom. The salt stings her open eyes but not enough to close them. It’s a familiar feeing, that sting. She looks around the bottom of the ocean, in the blurry, never-ending blueness. It’s quiet down there, peaceful. Unable to hold her breath any longer, she kicks off from the sand, feeling the ripples of pattern like the corrugation on the dirt roads, and breaks the surface, taking in a raspy breath. She blinks the salt water from her eyes and it runs down her cheeks as if she is crying. She pictures the giant stingrays gliding through the water, and begins to swim back to shore.