Charlotte kisses anything. I am fourteen. She thinks I don’t understand.
I have never been kissed.
She is embarrassed over hard plastic trays of noodles and vacuum-packed cheese at the back of an empty 747 in the middle of the night. She has lent me a CD. She is nineteen. She has remembered that the last track is Tori Amos. She titters, as if I might not know what’s gotta be big.
Out the window, a gentle ribbon of yellow light weaves across jagged mountains and Charlotte thinks that I am innocent, imagining another softly lit avenue, not the barbed wire and twitching weaponry of the India-Pakistan border. We are in the middle of the shortest night, east and southbound, chasing dawn. Hour seven of twenty-nine. There is a swimming pool on the roof of Singapore airport, a kidney of cobalt and baby blue, encased between grey brick decking and perspex windows above the runway, and it will serve as an intermission between the grey drizzle of European spring and the grey drizzle of antipodean autumn. Only two weeks ago, it was the venue of our first swim on the journey, and it will be the venue of our last. Only two weeks ago.
Only a year ago, I gingerly unfolded the staples in the middle of a swimming magazine and removed the poster folded within, its photo taken beside the airport pool: sharp slim hips under a high-cut racing suit, the wiry claws of a tattoo emerging from the base of the contorted back and the five rings we all covet teasing a tan-line that struck a path from hip flexor to butt cheek. I pinned it up beside my mirror. Two nights ago, before a pool in Paris, I stood next to the poster’s subject. Affixed to a blue and black starting block, toes curled, take your marks, and then we raced. She took gold, beating both Charlotte and me. You’ll never win when the competition is bathing in the evening sun on your bedroom wall, child.
They fly us to the other side of the world to ply our trade and think nothing of what we might learn along the way.
Last night in the twentieth arrondissement, drunk on kahlua and filthy from two weeks of laundry washed by hand in bathtubs, I fell asleep in a stranger’s hotel room, waiting for Charlotte. I found her before sunrise and we walked two miles back to our hotel in silence. The Metro was closed and we’d run out of money. She pretends I don’t know. And I didn’t. I didn’t know why she kisses them, leaves with them, leaves them there. I didn’t understand why on every overseas trip, she’s there at the back of another jumbo jet with someone who hasn’t bothered with the gritty detergent from the grim little marchés and the hotel bathtubs.
Earlier last night, before the raucous afterparty that our coaches and managers instructed us not to go to, the party that says the games have ended: drink yourselves sick, we were walking through George V station when a hand wrapped around my face with a sweaty clap, and its owner appeared at my side, squeezing. Grinning. He wore business casual that implied insurance, IT, accounting. He carried a satchel. We were awed by my first public groping, scandalised to see him later on the platform opposite, casual and suburban, waiting for his train.
She thinks I don’t understand but she doesn’t know what I learned when I watched her leave with the first man who looked at her the same way.
Jane Copland is the Creative Nonfiction editor at VirtualZine, and her work has been published by Ellipsis Zine, Spelk, Fairlight Books, and other magazines. She is from Wellington, New Zealand, and now lives in Oxford.