Eva Hale is a young Australian writer and poet, currently based out of Hobart, Tasmania. She has several publications under her belt, including several features in Pure Slush, The Platform Project Magazine, and Togatus. She has been a state finalist in the Australian National Poetry Slam in 2021, winner of the Platform Project in 2021 and a winner of ASA Tasmanian Writers and Illustrators Mentorship Program in 2022, wherein she has been studying under mentor Mark Macleod in 2023. She completed her Bachelor of Arts majoring in English and Writing at the University of Tasmania in 2023 and is currently the Editor-in-Chief at the UTAS student magazine, Togatus.
It accumulates over months. Small teasing gestures and outright teasing that simmers with a yearning that tugs at my chest. There are inside jokes about his flaccid bowl-cut and my unruly baby hairs that curl around my forehead in the humidity. I am still somewhat shiny and new to town after moving in with my father. He is desperate for any sort of spark after a damning childhood as the chubby kid. It is tragic and brutal, the way we twist together. It is the cruellest part of me that I can never undo.
At the ancient theatre in town, I drag my best friend along on what I am worried is my first date with him. We arrive early, and in the disappearing light of dusk, I spot him with a group of friends. They are all popular and clique and known-each-other-since-kindergarten. I have always kept my chin tucked around them. He pretends not to notice me, so I duck away in a cavern of the wooden structure. The custard yellow paint is cracked with moisture and pulling away from the timber. The theatre is almost one hundred years old, apparently, and proudly advertises being held together by over two-hundred and fifty-thousand nails, which I find peculiar. When I first visited the establishment with my previous best friend (the turnaround is fast in these early days of high school), I whispered to her as we stood in front of the counter, “I wonder who was counting.”
My current best friend stares past my shoulder as she leans against a lamppost. “He’s staring at you,” she tells me. But when I turn, he is talking to the pretty girl on the swim team.
I pay for our tickets, as she is both crabby and thrilled to be dragged along to watch the new Captain America. “We haven’t even seen the first one,” she whines as we drape in the canvas camper chairs and wait for the low-budget local advertisements to begin.
“I’m sure we can pick it up.” I tell her, but I myself am deflated at the thought of watching a superhero movie separate from the boy who invited me. He is with his group up the front, and we are tucked up the back, terrified of addressing the elephant in the room. Several times, I hear the deep echo of his voice, laughing.
After forty minutes, my friend and I have made a game of the film, cracking jokes every time an action scene occurs and picking apart the viability of the plot. We are insufferable and squawking with pubescent giggles when I notice him duck out of the row and skirt the perimeter of the seating area. I fall silent as my heart thumps in my chest, staring straight ahead at Chris Evans, who is flirting with Scarlet Johanson. Even when he falls into the seat beside me, I don’t look away from the screen. I don’t remember what we whisper about, but I remember that he nervously stares at my mouth and the side of my face as my body threatens to tear in two from the tension of it. When he retreats to his group of friends, I stare at his back, hunched over as he tries not to block the screen.
On our actual first date, we return to the old theatre. The ceiling arches in a massive bell curve, framing his shape as he leans against the posters of what’s showing. We watch a romcom that I don’t really find funny or romantic, and our hands drift closer and closer together until, in the last few minutes, our pinkies overlap with an electric simplicity.
Someone from the grade above us calls him Joshua and he doesn’t correct her. Neither do I. When his dad is waiting in the car to pick him up, I feel dejected and slightly put-off by it. Other kids relying on their parents has always felt embarrassing to me. I have taken to walking everywhere, even in the pouring rain. My father wakes up late and starts drinking early. At night, I walk through the haunted oval littered with needles and I scan the shadows with unblinking eyes. I pretend to yearn for nothing, as I am worried that asking for anything will make me seem weak. Or worse, it will land me back with my mother.
After barely a month of us officially ‘going-out’, he tells me that he loves me at the sports carnival. I glare at him as my friends look away, wide-eyed and uneasy. How could he put me on the spot like this, in a crowd of people?
Cold and annoyed, I say, “No, you don’t.”
He insists and insists as I push him away from me. He clings onto my knees, tenderly, like a lifeline as I scowl at him. I kick my sneakers into the red clay of the slope we sit on, adamant on ignoring him. He wilts and sulks into me, desperate for a crumb of affection.
At school, everyone says that he is wrapped around my finger. His doting, although irritating and demanding of attention, fills me with a clean, crisp wholeness. When people ask his name, he tells them mine first. It is thrilling to have someone so devoted to me after a childhood of dejection and loneliness, of being warned that the foster home is a phone call away.
I have figured out how to kick the dog and keep it coming back for more.
I take his foggy-eyed puppy love and I grind it into a paste of bones and blood and sinew. When he watches me as though I am his entire world, I decide that this is both lovely and annoying. How stupid he is, I think. How blind to the gritty and violating truth of loving someone. At just fourteen years old, I am jaded, and he is not, and I decide that this is a crime worth punishing.
One night, he tells me that his mother used to date some really scary men. He tells me that he would have to watch as they hit her, and he was too small to do anything. He felt so powerless, and he tells me that sometimes, he still feels that way. When I ask if the men ever did anything to hurt him, he says no. I don’t remember what I say in response, but I am sure it is bad.
I am so deeply embarrassed by my attachment to him that I keep him a secret for as long as possible. When my older sister pesters me about my pubescent love life, I easily slip into a hard, marble version of myself. After almost six months, I finally give in. Regret fills me immediately, as this secret vulnerability spills over to her boyfriend, our other sisters, even our mother. I am mortified, disgusted, humiliated.
Withdrawn and frigid, I hold myself out of reach. Still, he reaches and caresses and reassures me, like I am a scruffy alley cat suspicious of a dish of milk.
After a trivia night fundraiser in the school gymnasium, I leave the bright lights and pressing discomfort of mixing teenagers with the general public. He walks me toward an eerily empty Kiss & Go Zone, a few steps behind. My body fills with heavy, viscous dread as I see the headlights of my sister’s car pull into the lot. Of course, I realise, my father would never have been in a state to drive so late.
“You can go now,” I assure, trying to proverbially shake him off. As always, he insists and dotes, wanting to make sure I get to the car safe. It is gentlemanly and chivalrous and irritating like an itch that has been scratched to a wound but still has the audacity to itch.
My sister shouts hello to him, and my body becomes rigid. He kisses me on the cheek and pulls away, but she objects.
“Give her a real kiss!” She bellows from the driver’s seat, and I’m petrified that the crowd in the gymnasium might hear. He seems equal parts ecstatic and frightened at the prospect of sharing our first kiss here, now. His eyes are wide and longing, searching mine. I look past him, at the railings lining the cement footpath, the kind that leave an unavoidably sharp and bitter metallic scent when touched. The footpath around the school is covered by a tin roof to protect from the almost constant cover of rain. The assault of raindrops rattles in my ears, the perfume of it heavy in the wet air. I can even smell the tinny whisper of the railings if I focus hard enough. The shadows from the headlights stretch and claw at everything behind him, but when I close my eyes to block it out, I think he mistakes this for a permission.
Almost a year passes between us. At the old theatre, we see movies as an excuse to make out and whisper adorations to one another. I squeak and moan as he kisses my neck, making the entire audience squirm with discomfort. In the everchanging shadows of the theatre, we are mostly symbiotic. In the dark, I let myself fall into it the way I think I’m supposed to.
It’s here that, after months of alluding and implying, I tell him that I love him. I have avoided it for so long, spurring on a narrative of being too afraid to say the exact words. I don’t know when I decide that I can’t draw it out any longer. In a way, it feels like a mercy, despite being the cruellest lie I could spin. Outside of the movie theatre, I am robotic and cold with him. I drive him to desperate frustration and then dare him to break up with me (a sort of pleading). He never does. I am so far removed from him, yet am drawn to sinking my roots even deeper, clinging on to a half-dead thing. I am skin over bones with a gnawingly sweet disposition. I have run out of superficial ways to keep him enamoured with me.
And so, in the dank concave cavern of the decrepit movie theatre, I finally say the words, so ridiculously long after he first gave his heart to me. I do this because, after so long, I am certain that it should be true. I am also almost certain that it is not.
“Do you want to break up?” His voice shakes, quiet in the forest.
I have been trying to say it for half an hour, opening and closing my mouth like a jittery fish as I avoid his eyes. I couldn’t even do this without his undercurrent of support. I stare at the roots gnarled, twisting out of and back into the dirt. I toy with a stick, some grass, anything to keep my hands busy. I’ve been wanting this for a long time, frightened of the tired familiarity of our relationship. I am repulsed by any hint of my soft underbelly. He met my mother recently, and that hot brand of shame that pressed into me made me sure that we had reached our end.
I nod, unable to form words. We stay silent for a long time, and I can feel him concave but say nothing. He walks me home, and when we go to part ways, I awkwardly jut out my hand for him to shake. He stares at it for a moment, then smiles affectionately, the skin around his eyes crinkling in a way only meant for me. His eyes are so sleepily sad, like he’s waiting to wake up from a horrible dream. I cannot tell if I’m the horrible dream or me leaving him is the horrible dream.
The grief knots itself into my body until I am a fabric of it. It does not feel the way I want it to feel, the way I expected it to feel. Something gluey and saccharine emerges from the cracks, something that instils me with fear. Early the next morning, I call him, feeling hysteric. I don’t understand why I’m doing this. It’s not fair to him. I do it anyway.
He picks up on the second ring.
“Hey,” he says, soft.
“Hey.” I reply, struggling to find the words. After a long time, I ask, “How are you?”
He laughs, once. “Um,”
“Sorry, I mean,” I inhale, shake my head. “Are you going to school today?”
“Yeah,” he says, still soft, “Are you?”
I sit on this for a moment. I truly had expected him to skip after yesterday. A small part of me bristles at this; have I not broken him completely? Do I not have the power to do even that? I try to push this thought away.
When I tell him that I think we should just go on a break, he is relieved. I tell him that I need space. That I need to work on myself to be better for him. That I haven’t been good, and I want to be better. It’s usually quite easy to convince him, so that’s not too impressive. The impressive part is that I manage to convince myself.
I have always been frigid and avoidant of intimacy, and sexual intimacy is no exception to that. I’ve been clear about this with him, and he’s never pushed me, but there is a quiet yearnful tug from him. It grates on me. Once, he asks if he can move my bra strap while kissing my shoulder and I become detached and cold, pulling away from him completely. The thought of sex is a daunting and ever-present fear I try desperately to avoid.
At this point, I aware that there is something wrong with me, but I cannot comprehend what it is. I find the world’s obsession with sex grotesque and distorted. I cannot look directly into the face of it, I am constantly averting my eyes. At this point, I have been assaulted many times, but will not remember for several years to come. I am terrified of my own ever-changing body. Thus, I am repulsed by him trying to love it.
When he asks why I wanted to break up with him, I tell him that I wanted to kill myself, but didn’t want him to feel guilty about it. This is both true and untrue. He tries to hold me, panicked at the possibility of losing me, grappling at the second chance, but it doesn’t reach me. I have felt so alien for so long, so far removed from everyone else. I am worried about this, so I lean into him, trying to be more upset than I feel. It’s like I am calcified, cut off from the whole world, lost in a tomb of myself.
I do not understand how he can love me like I do not understand how my father ever loved my mother. My poor mother. Her screaming furies and cold indifference. Her cheekbones. Her pestering phone calls and threatening affection. To me, he is something of a gross experiment and I am dismayed by the outcome. If he can still want me after all I’ve done to him, I can still want my mother.
I break up with him again, over text, one month before I turn sixteen. I am terrified that once I am the age of consent, he will expect me to have sex with him. It is callous and cruel and easy because I know that if I wait to do it in person, I will be too much of a coward. Again.
The new school year is bitter. It is clear he still loves me and is furious about it. He glares at me, and I glare at him. We spit acid at one another, with me petrified that he will make me look weak or vulnerable, and him inconsolably heartbroken. We are the picture of a young love gone sour, the two people who are not put in a room together. In classes, he is sullen and resentful. He flirts with my friends to get my attention and I look at him like he is an ugly wound that won’t close. We are not fair to each other.
In these years after, he breaks his leg and drops out of school midway through our final year. I starve myself and attempt suicide half a dozen times. My body is stubborn and refuses to let go. On his last day, the class asks me to write the farewell card because I have nice handwriting. I wonder if he notices.
In the narrowing months wherein we still inhabit the same small-town-planet, there is a moment of indignation in which I harshly admit to a girl in my class that I never loved him (I did have love for him, I’m sure. I hated so much of him but loved the feeling of being so blindly adored. I had cared for him deeply, I think; a regretful and pitying fondness). At a party I’m not invited to, she gets drunk and this secret spills over into the textile of the student body, drenching him in renewed despair and humiliation. It is only now that I begin to feel sorry for him, for what I’ve done. After I have delivered this final, gut-wrenching blow to a boy who made the mistake of falling for me, I see myself for the snarling animal I’ve always been. So frightened of losing control that I will create the illusion of it wherever possible. When I see an old photograph of us together, I realise that I’ve grown to look a lot like my mother.