“Can I smoke this here?”
“Yeah, sure,” James said, “It’s just us.”
“Sweet – you know weed doesn’t stick, anyway? Not like cigarettes.”
I sparked the joint and reclined into the soft, faux-fur cushions. Maria watched from the kitchen. Her brown eyes met mine and she looked away, her hair bobbing up and down as though in subtle agreement.
“D’ya wanna blaze?” I asked.
“Nah,” she shook her head, “But whatever, you guys go ahead.”
I screwed up my face and passed the joint to James.
“Are you sure?” I laughed, “I think you need a blaze.”
Maria stared, her expression growing dark.
“I don’t want to smoke weed – just ‘cause you’re smoking weed with my boyfriend doesn’t mean I have to.”
“Sweet,” I shrugged, “So nice to be stoned, though.”
And you definitely need it, I thought.
But what did I need? More weed and wine? One more way to define myself within unaccepted, ill-treated boundaries? My sweet escape to Wanaka was nothing more than a temporary fix to the other troubles I had left behind in Christchurch and a self-righteous belief in creating my own future. I was transfixed by the life I had here – the local entitlement of waking up each morning just to watch the sun rise across the mountain-side; the way its golden light stained each rugged slope with a soft-pink glow, and melting powdery white ribbons of snow. Every corner of Wanaka was gifted generously by nature, and even the town itself boasted simple pleasures, filled with beautiful boutique gift-shops and bakeries that wafted the tempting scent of fresh bread. It was small, but all that meant was I could walk to order good coffee and be drinking it by the lake five minutes later, never having to worry about central traffic or parallel parking. Besides, nobody ever seemed to be in a rush, tourists and locals alike too happily vacant to care about time.
Wanaka was my safe-haven, and finding the excuse to drive five hours along New Zealand’s coast had been one of the best unweighed decisions I’d made in months. I was lucky enough to have Maria living here, and although it’d been years since we’d properly caught up, being around her still felt like home. I grew up believing we were bestfriends, despite already knowing I didn’t have a bestfriend, unlike many of the girls at school who had innocently fallen victim to the idea of social favouritism. On sunny days we would walk home from school, tactfully paced behind our little brothers so they wouldn’t see us stealing plums and picking lemons from other peoples’ driveways. Maria and I took stride as a team, sharing eleven-year old secrets during sleepovers in my single-bed and playing every competitive sport we possibly could; she was more like a sister than anything, and that meant agreeing on everything for the exchange of conversational jokes and stupid dares in public.
There was a loud, clanging thud, and a quick shudder pulled me back into my own body.
“I just feel really weird about this,” Maria burst out, dropping the cutlery she was holding as though it had burned.
That’s what she said, right?
“What do you mean?” I asked.
She looked slightly exasperated. Her hair flashed shades of red and gold, and she glanced around the room, refusing to look in my direction.
“You, just sitting there, smoking weed on the couch with my boyfriend, and now it’s like I’m missing out.”
“Yea’” I emphasised, restating the obvious, “Come sit down.”
. “Oh,” Maria hesitated, “Nah. I don’t want to.”
Stop complaining then.
“But I just feel weird about this, like, you sitting there, with my boyfriend and shit… It’s weird.”
I couldn’t help myself – I laughed.
“Actual, what’re you on about? You sound like a crazy bitch.”
Her face remained serious and she said nothing, so I turned to James and pointed back in her direction.
“Seriously, is she always like this?”
“Yeah, babe, is everything good?”
She looked back at him with empty eyes and shook her head, brushing away the wisps of hair that fell across her face.
“Ugh… Yeah, what do you mean?” she asked.
“Come sit down,” he spoke gently.
“Yeah, I will, I’m just finishing this,” she said.
“Yeah, good, else I might neck onto your boyfriend,” I piped in.
But she didn’t laugh at my sarcastic joke.
She didn’t do anything. She just stood there, as if immediately unaware of our attention, gripped in a moment of something I’d never seen before.
“I’m joking,” I said, standing to my feet and holding out the joint. Finally, she looked me in the eye, and for a second, I didn’t recognize her.
She was the same Maria; same oval face and delicate jawbone, lips slightly parted like dark-rose petals on brown skin; same freckles and forehead that shined from an oily glow; but her eyes – they were taken by a look of fear I couldn’t recall. My chest felt suddenly tight, and in an instant, my mind began to run, worried and full-pace.
“Seriously, babe, are you okay?”
“Yeah, what do you mean?” she asked, looking back with petrified, watery eyes. My heart rose and sank with a stabbing pain, all at once.
“Maria, it’s me.”
She looked at me, holding onto my words as though they were a lifeline to the very place she stood.
“Babe, seriously, it’s me, what are you even talking about, you’re worrying me,” I laughed, blinking back tears.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” she said.
“You’re freaking me out,” I laughed, nervously, as my heart began to race.
And then, as if we were no longer standing two metres apart in her small apartment kitchen, a veil dropped, and I was blinded by her tangible presence and instead overcome with a sense of heart-break – a fiery warmth that pierced its way through my body, gritty and torn – until there was silence, and a pulsing beat of light that drummed itself, perfectly in time, to my cold fingertips.
“I’m freaking me out, too,” she half-laughed, half-cried.
“Well, stop,” I cried – with her – walking around the bar and putting my arms around her shoulders, “It’s okay. It’s me.”
We stood there, saying nothing, sobbing, laughing, and not knowing what to do when the two became one. I hugged her and she wept into my shoulder. Without speaking, an entire conversation was had. Finally she’d let her walls fall, and in the midst of it, we stood as friends forever, an eternal bond that stretched far beyond the grave.
“I am so sorry,” she said, “I’m never like this, like, in front of anyone.”
“Maria, I prayed about this trip, literally for like, two weeks.”
“I know,” she said.
“I didn’t know,” I shook my head in disbelief, “God works in mysterious ways.”
Maria smiled through her tears and took my hand in hers.
“Yes, Sel. I know.”