Shaun looked over the edge of the rock to the lagoon below, where the sound of body hitting water had just reverberated. Eight metres doesn’t sound like a long way, but it certainly looks it when you’re standing that high above the water. Shaun looked around at the other people there, a group of people in their early twenties, joined by one social connection or another, gathered for a Saturday away from the worries of home, at the lagoon with eskies and fold-out chairs. He hoped they weren’t all going to jump off the rock, because then he’d be forced to as well, and as much as he feared falling from that height, he feared even more standing at the edge with everybody else watching, edging centimetre by centimetre to the edge. He looked pretty safe though. Most people were standing around talking, not even looking interested in the lagoon. The weather wasn’t really warm enough to send everyone rushing in for a swim.
Ally climbed out of the car. The surroundings were spectacular. They were at the top of a cliff, below them a beautiful blue lagoon, with trees as far as you could see. She could hear a couple of people already splashing around in the water. She took a quick survey of the people present. There were a few familiar faces from uni, a few she didn’t know, and a couple she had met before at similar social gatherings. Standing near the edge of the cliff was Aaron’s friend Shaun, looking very nervous. She smiled. She had met him a few times before, he was really smart, and really sweet. She walked up to say hi.
“You gonna jump in?”
“Oh hey Ally. Um, no probably not. The water looks nice, but it also looks a long way down. Are you?”
“Um… we’ll see. Probably not.”
Cloudy weather had meant she hadn’t brought her swimmers, she wasn’t even wearing nice underwear. There was, of course, another more subconscious reason for that; she wasn’t very happy with how she looked in a bikini. Her skin was an unattractive shade of beige, in need of a good tanning session. There were pockets of flab where she wished there weren’t, around her love handles and her thighs. With all these cute boys and cute girls around today, she thought it would be best to just play it cool.
Ally was a friend of Shaun’s high school friend Aaron. He had met her at Aaron’s house, and then a few times since. She came up and said hi. What did he say in reply? Something lame, his mind had gone blank. He hoped he didn’t sound too stupid. Unlike most pretty girls though, Ally actually made you feel at ease rather than on edge. Her mouth would just crack open when she smiled, flashing her white teeth like sunlight gleaming on the water. When she spoke to you she would look deep into your eyes, as if she was actually listening to every word you said.
“How have you been, anyway?”
“Yeah, pretty good. Busy with uni.”
“Have you been painting?”
“Not as much as I’d like. I started one, but haven’t done much on it.”
“How about you?”
“Same. I mean, without the painting. Pretty busy with uni.”
She liked that he had asked about painting. Last time she had seen him they had a conversation about it. She said she loved painting, but was too embarrassed of her work to ever show anyone. He had said he just wished he could do anything creative. She wished the guys she routinely flirted with would take that much of an interest in what she actually cared about. She studied him for a second. He was so… fragile. Not in a sensitive-guy kind of way, but just devoid of the cocky bravado that characterised most guys’ behaviour. It made you feel safe; safe to just be yourself; safe in the knowledge that he had no hidden motives, he meant what he said.
Ally wondered why she could feel this around Shaun, and yet there was no spark between them. He wasn’t particularly good looking, but he wasn’t ugly. Just kind of plain and like he didn’t put any effort into how he looked. Some better clothes, some grooming, and he wouldn’t be much different to any other guy. Maybe it was just that there was no thrill of the pursuit. He was just too nice, too sweet. You didn’t have to tease him into liking you. It seemed a strange trade-off, all the time worrying about what guys thought about you; making sure you looked good and acted cool; all the conversations about whether he was into you or not. was that all really for fun? Because here she was, not needing to go through it all, yet there was no appeal. Maybe it was that she was worried about what other people would think. Her friends, or people who saw them together. What would they think? That she had settled for the nice, kind of nerdy guy because she couldn’t play the game of pursuit? Because she couldn’t get the cool guy? Maybe they wouldn’t say it out loud, at least not to your face, but they would think something was wrong.
Shaun’s heart beat a little faster when Ally spoke to him. He wasn’t used to speaking to girls like her. He spoke to other girls sure, but with a girl like Ally it was like there was an invisible barrier between them. If they had been in high school together she probably wouldn’t have known his name, she would have been with the popular, pretty girls, while he was with the unseen underclass. She would have been out partying while he studied or read. Shaun wondered about the barrier – intangible, but as real as if there was a brick wall between them. You could feel it in the rush he got when they spoke, like was peeking over the wall into a place where he wasn’t allowed to go. You could see it in the fact that nobody, least of all Shaun, doubted that they could never be boyfriend and girlfriend. She was beautiful, and did what she wanted – had her nose pierced, wore clothes from the op shop and made them seem cool, studied an arts degree and didn’t care whether it would get her a good job. He was plain, and constantly self-conscious – was he wearing, doing, saying the right thing? Was he getting the marks that he needed to? When they finished uni, she would go off travelling, live some bohemian dream. He would get an engineering job on the bottom of the ladder, and keep working hard until he was nearer the top. That was the wall between them. That was why when they did speak, he always had to check that he wasn’t just imagining it.
“Do you know many people here?”
“Some. I went to high school with a few.”
“I couldn’t see that many people I know. Other than the guys I came with.”
“Maybe more will come later, it’s still pretty early.”
“Yeah. It’s a nice day, isn’t it? Although it would be good if the sun came out.”
“Well I might go see who else is here. It’s nice to see you again Shaun.”
“Yeah, you too.”
“I’ll see you later.”
Before they left, they both took one more glance over the edge of the rock. It definitely held an allure, to leave the safety of solid ground for the unknown expanses of air and water below. But it would have to wait for another time.