When I was thirteen, I had decided that I would never change again. Having moved back to Perth for the second time in two years, my mind was concrete, quickset against the possibility of ever moving again.
My family had moved to Bibra Lake (a suburb south of Perth) the year before, but having been in Singapore, the neighbourhood was still new to me. I knew there was Adventure World (Perth’s only ‘theme’ park). I also suspected there was a lake.
Only a couple days into the school year, we were already running late, with an ETA of 8.27 am. Our silver 2005 Toyota Camry was a restless mess each morning, composed out of scrunched up paper bags, croissant crumbs and napkins. My younger brother pulled on his willow green school socks in the front seat, while my twin sister and I sat together in the back, wearing our sky blue summer uniforms with the purplish buttons. “Do your old friends from Queen of Apostles still remember you?” my mum asked me and my sister, as she pulled out of our driveway.
“No,” I replied, remembering the awkward half-silences that had arisen when we met again. They puffed and expanded like a bag of microwave popcorn, and I dug my nails into my hot palm. I looked at my hand, nestled in my school dress. A piece of popcorn marauding as a fist.
“Not really,” Jo confirmed.
“Well you’ll just have to make new friends, then,” my mother said.
“No, everyone is stupid. No more making friends.” I allowed my bottom lip to protrude further and further, an act of stubbornness that always exasperated my mother into silence.
We veered away from North Lake Road, avoiding the morning traffic, and flew down Progress Drive. Bibra Lake ran alongside us, and I was amazed. Its surface was flat and glistening, like the wide side of a screwdriver. Somehow, this body that was so still managed to stretch effortlessly, until it ran past our car window and out of sight. This lake was beyond me.
Soon, I noticed that the lake was draining. Things were changing, I realised, as I sucked pensively on a chilled Up n’ Go. (My mother had learned to streamline our meals).
“What’s wrong with the lake, Mummy?” I asked, as Progress Drive pulled into sight. My mother ignored the question, and replied, if only to give voice to her thoughts and distractions.
“Aiyah we’re so late already! All because you took too long to change this morning. Just eat your breakfast. Hao can you stop kicking the seat! Where is your other shoe?” The sharpness in her voice collared me by the ear, and I twisted away, turning to look out the window.
I could see the lake bed, acned with mud. Bushels of reeds sprouted unapologetically from its surface, like hair in unwanted places. The ducks that once floated by on placid waters had disappeared, and had been replaced by peppery cranes that spent their days stalking around in the muck. I grew anxious, at the unruly nature of change, and realised that this was war. I crouched in the Camry like it was a trench, peeping over the window ledge at the low waters. I willed my eyes to be strong, to stay open, pumping steel into my gaze, daring the lake to do more violence to itself while I watched. Sliver by sliver, a pair of balled fists materialised, followed by flat forearms and pointed elbows. It floated in midair, unsupported by the other fleshy parts I had deemed unnecessary. I had summoned a defender of the lake, in all its tense, geometric glory. I blinked, and the fists left as quickly as they had come, leaving me behind with my sore, watery eyes.
My mother looked over, and perhaps alarmed at my sensitivities, asked if I was making friends. I said no, and that me and Jo were fine hanging out together. She stopped at a traffic light near the Lakeside Recreation Centre, and applied her lipstick in the rearview mirror. “Then what are you going to do?” she said, pursing her lips. “Just the two of you sitting there by yourself at recess?” she paused, confident she was about to deliver the killer blow that would make me anxious to make more friends. “Is that fine for you?”
My eyes prickled with a defensiveness she could not know. We had been fine, I meant to say, without friends in Singapore that past year, in a country that we had wanted again to call home. Where our friends who we had missed and wrote to, now had forgotten our names, had pointed fingers and shrugged shoulders, and implied that things had changed. And now that we were back in Perth, we would be fine again.
“Yes,” I said. “We’ll be fine.” My sister didn’t look so sure.
As the winter term began, our morning run seemed to drag mercilessly on. My mother started the car engine as we piled in, shrugging at our blazers and pulling at our ties. None of us were looking forward to our school day – not even my brother, though me and my sister were jealous that his canteen sold sour straps and ours didn’t.
“Hey,” I said to him, and he twisted around in the front seat to face me. “Will you buy me some sour straps?”
“…Maybe,” he said, glancing shiftily away, as if I had said something illicit. I rolled my eyes, and patted my blazer pockets, listening for the jingling of change. Digging two fingers into my chest pocket, I extracted sixty cents, and clinked them next to his ear.
“Can I have some?” he asked, and I shrugged, turning away. He put the change carefully in his pocket, the one that did not yet have holes.
I pressed my nose to the cold tempered glass window, misting it with my breath. We passed the Red Rooster, and the old Adventure World logo, which had a sketchy looking castle painted on and parking directions: Turn right on Progress Drive. We turned left instead. I lifted my nose from the glass, wet from condensation, and paused, surveying the landscape. I could see the lake, behind my breaths. It had all come back; the ducks, the reeds swaying in this open pond. I felt relief at first, then wondered what happened to all that had come during the summer months. The marshy reed islands that had sprouted and spiralled out from the lake’s centre, or the migratory wader birds, who steeped their legs to the hilt in mud to cool while foraging for grubs. I breathed in, and out, the mist reappeared then faded, as soon as it had come. I raised a finger to the glass.
What if the lake came and went, like mist on a window? Could the relative dryness of summer be just a season-long exhale?
I paused, unsure what to write on the window.
The lake was not dying, was never dying. It would change, and change, and change again, because it was alive, and that was what living things did. Could I change, change, change, like a living thing too? Would it be alright if I did?
I felt, at thirteen, too old for a smiley face on the window. Too young and self-conscious for a pithy remark. But I knew what I could write. What I could always write, because it was just something people always said to one another, that I never wanted to say back. As the mist began to fade, I hesitated no longer, drawing on the window one letter after the next, until all five stood out in childish, wiggly handwriting, like the font for Adventure World.
‘Hello,’ I wrote to the lake. It’s good to see you, my friend.
Janelle Koh is a writer and law student from Perth, who is currently based in Melbourne. She enjoys writing non-fiction and poetry, and her work has been published in Rambutan Literary, Pencilled In, and Art Ascent Magazine. You can find her on twitter @writeforwhat.