DAY BY DAY by Jennifer Nguyen

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Natalie put her clothes on. She buttoned up her jeans and said, “Anna, I enjoyed my time with you, but I’m almost 33 now and I want a family.”

Anna almost brought up adoption. Almost. Then she remembered it was a foolish idea because she had never been to Natalie’s house; didn’t know her home number; had never met her parents. The total time they’d been together had been less than a year. They might as well have been from two different worlds: Natalie was at least 10 years older, working on progressing her career, whereas Anna had just graduated university without any future plans, and was working at a beachside café in her local area, just getting by – day by day.

The sound of Natalie placing her spare key onto the kitchen bench signalled a gut-wrenching severing of ties. Anna didn’t call her name, didn’t plead, didn’t demand that the two of them talk about this like rational, mature adults. Anna knew the end whenever she saw it, and felt that it was better to just let it play out.

Natalie started her car; the roar of the ignition followed by headlights illuminating the front bedroom like a lightning strike. Anna waited until the car had left the driveway, and when she knew that Natalie had left, she lay down, and buried her face in the sheets.

Natalie’s smell lingered, invoking memories of a time when the future stretched outwards with limitless possibilities. The thought of it all disappearing into smoke, transparent and impossible to grasp, caused a lump in Anna’s throat, which naturally, resulted in tears. She closed her eyes, and willed herself to fall asleep, hoping that when she woke up, it would either be all a bad dream, or that Natalie would be beside her, sleeping.

***

Anna woke up at 6 a.m. every morning to surf. Today, it felt as if while she was sleeping, somebody had drained the blood from her body and replaced it with lead.

The water felt heavier this morning, too. Everything was much harder than she remembered – surfing almost impossible, because as soon as she stood up on her board, she’d lose her balance, and tumble into the water. Frustrated, Anna crawled back onto the shore, ripping the strap from her ankle. She sat there and watched the others surf without any problems, relishing their success, savouring the familiar feeling of riding a wave in her mind. In her stomach, she felt bitter and empty.

The terrible morning surf was followed by the blender exploding while Anna tried to make a breakfast smoothie. Then, she got foundation all over her white work shirt. Twenty minutes before her shift, the car refused to start, so Anna caught the bus to work, and came late.

In her hurry, she had left her phone at home. She wondered if Natalie had left any messages for her. Even though last night had not been a dream, it could have been a mistake.

The café where Anna worked had two floors. Customers tended to opt for the main floor as the rooftop was too windy. Even so, every now and then there would be someone who insisted on sitting upstairs. This was the case that afternoon when Anna showed a young woman wearing a white maxi dress and a large sunhat up to the upper deck. When Anna came back with her coffee order, she noticed the woman was intensely scribbling in a notebook. As Anna approached her, the woman smiled and said, “What do you think?”

Anna leaned in and observed the drawing. It was of the view from the café rooftop.

“It’s good,” Anna commented, and then realised the word ‘good’ in no way properly reflected this woman’s artistry. “I’m sorry, it’s better than good, I … I … uh –”

“It’s okay,” The woman laughed, and peered at her name, “Anna. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Anna said. “What’s your name?”

“Julia.”

“Julia, let me know if there’s anything else I can get you. It gets windy up here sometimes, so feel free to come downstairs.”

Anna had never seen her around before – she wasn’t a local. Maybe Julia was a tourist passing through. It was summer, so it was normal for the Seaside Café to see hundreds of tourists a month. Anna didn’t know why, but now and then during her shift, thoughts of Julia began to surface in her mind. Her smile. Her drawing. Her white maxi dress that suited her so well.

Julia finished her coffee, came downstairs and paid the bill, tipping Anna generously.

“See you tomorrow,” Anna said, and then realised that there was the possibility that Julia might not come back tomorrow. As Anna guessed, the words surprised Julia, who blinked, but then smiled.

“Oh. See you,” Julia said. Anna felt her cheeks burning.

To her disappointment, that night when Anna came home, she saw no calls or messages from Natalie. There was only a voicemail from her mother, asking her to call, and asking her to come home.

***

It’s as if I’m going one way, and the waves the other, Anna thought, sitting on the shore after another bout of failed surfing. Her calf hurt, at one point she had fallen awkwardly, a wave knocking the board into her. Luckily, it wasn’t my head.

Julia didn’t come back the next day and Anna sighed a breath of relief, but halfway through her shift, hoped the young woman would show up anyway. Anna was amazed by her knack for instantly falling in love with strangers. That’s how it had been with Natalie as well. Natalie had come into the Seaside Café one afternoon, and she’d sat at a table, eating lunch with a skinny latte, reading a book, one leg crossed gracefully over the other. She wore bright-red lipstick, which she reapplied while Anna’s eyes were drawn to her slender wrist. When work was slow, Anna’s mind effortlessly imagined Natalie sitting there, every so often tucking some hair behind her ear, as her eyes never left the book she was reading.

Suddenly, Anna felt her chest tighten, and breathing became especially difficult. Her manager who spotted her, immediately took her into the staff room, where she made Anna a cup of camomile tea and asked her if something was wrong.

Anna explained that she had recently, probably, broken up with someone she’d been seeing for awhile.

“I don’t know, it’s complicated.”

Her manager smiled gently, and sent her home for the rest of the day, along with a box of camomile tea.

After taking a small nap, Anna woke up to a few messages, all of them from Natalie. They were photos of Natalie and her family. A beautiful family of five: Next to her husband, Natalie was carrying a baby boy, in front of her stood twin girls holding hands and smiling playfully. The photo looked like they were out on a play date at the park on a wonderfully sunny day. Anna knew she should have been shocked, but a small part of her had known, suspected that there was something more that Natalie hadn’t told her. Anna let out a long sigh, but felt something strange – as if suddenly, breathing became easier for her. The pictures were followed by a message.

I’m sorry, Anna. I never meant to hurt you. I was going through a rough time, and you helped me through it. You helped me see what was important. I hope we can remain friends, although I understand if you’d prefer not to. I hope you find happiness, someday. I know you will. Yours, N xx.

The message brought tears to Anna’s eyes. She thought about hating Natalie, for lying to her all this time, but couldn’t bring herself to. In the photo, she looked so happy. The joyful look on her face was something that Anna had always loved seeing. Even now, it comforted her.

Anna looked around at the shack she’d inherited from her uncle. He’d owned a surfboard shop here, but after becoming a professional surfer, he’d moved permanently to Hawaii, gifting it to Anna on her 21st birthday. Now, Anna was 23, the same age her uncle had been when he ran away from his home in the city to pursue his dreams of becoming one with the waves.

The next morning, Anna managed a pleasant surf, breaking out of the chain of bad luck. She came into work and told her manager and the rest of her team that she was going to take a break and go see her parents. Her manager understood, and since the café was overstaffed, wished Anna well.

The drive home was short, much shorter than Anna remembered the drive away from home to be. She knocked on the door, and her mother answered, immediately snuggling Anna up in her arms. It was lunchtime, and her mother had made a quiche.

“Hon, mind setting the table?” Anna’s mother asked, “I’m going to go fetch your dad.”
Her father, who came in from the garden, smelling of cut grass, pulled off his gloves and clapped Anna on the back.

“Hey champ, how’s it going?” He asked with a big, warm grin, as if Anna had never left.

She looked at the slice of quiche in front of her, the bacon had melted into the egg and cheese, the filling still steaming fresh out of the oven. She placed a forkful into her mouth, and almost burst into tears. It had been a long time since she’d eaten anything this good.


Jennifer Nguyen is a writer from Melbourne, Australia. She studies creative writing at RMIT and is a Creative Producer for Emerging Writers’ Festival. She tweets @jemappelle_jen

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