By Vita Forest
Did he have water? Had he put sunscreen on? Was he at least taking a little bit of food? I was distracted by Max getting ready, Max who had forgotten to take a water bottle on the previous scorching day, that stinker, that heatwave, and had managed by slurping from various taps and bubblers but had come home parched, lips cracked, cheeks red.
I had been distracted by Max, checking his phone, throwing back a glass of milk, checking his phone, cleaning his teeth, checking his phone. We were leaving early to drop him at the other train station where he was to meet his friends before I went up north for some Zumba with my favourite Latino instructor, the one I scour the timetable for, who I travel for, who brings a smile to my face with his high-energy antics. But I was distracted by Max, so I slid my feet into my slip-on shoes, the wrong shoes, the unsuitable shoes, but I was distracted. We got into the car, Max – cap jammed on his head, skateboard jammed by his legs, idly spinning its wheels with his right pointer.
“They’re already there,” he updated me, checking his phone.
These school holidays Max has become a true teenager, preferring his friends to his family, taking his opal card and flying all about the city on trains, buses and boards, following rumours of skate-parks, cheap food and branded shoes.
“Do you remember when I hated teenagers?” he asked as we waited to pass the local roadworks.
I saw him again, hunched in the corner of a bus seat on a ride from Lucca to Barga in Italy, glaring when the aisles suddenly filled with loud local teens, shouting, laughing, full of joy and private jokes, delirious that school had ended for the day, unconcerned with the ears of other passengers like Max, who found them obnoxious and unbelievable. Their mindless chatter, their supreme confidence, their lack of consideration.
“I hate teenagers,” he had announced, all of eight years old.
“Huh! Now we are probably like that…” and I could imagine Max’s gang up the back of the bus, shouting over each other, one-upping each other, skateboards flipped up beside their too-large bodies.
I was distracted by watching Max as if through a stranger’s eyes, jumping out of the car at the kerb and sloping up to the traffic lights, waiting for green, then running, running off to meet his friends so they could make the next bus to the beach. I was remembering how at Pilates the day before, I was chatting to an old acquaintance, catching up on news, when I became aware of a woman standing beside her waiting. And then was introduced to her daughter, Max’s age, who I remembered as a curly-headed pre-schooler, all grown-up now (or looking that way).
As I lost sight of Max, I turned on the radio and became distracted by the story of a man in Noosa telling an appreciative crowd about his three angels – his adoptive mother, his adoptive grandmother and his birth mother. How they watched over him when he couldn’t cope and how they led him to meet an unknown brother who was there in the crowd today! (I blinked away tears – items on Radio National always get me in the guts).
Then I was distracted by Ted Hughes reading his poems at the Adelaide Festival years ago. The Thought Fox, which we had done at school and Song for a Phallus, which he almost sang, and struck by the violence and brutality and passion of Lovesong. I was distracted by learning that after the break, he had actually met up with Sylvia to discuss her Ariel poems – they were not new to him at her death. I was distracted by remembering reading Ariel for the first time in the cool quiet of the library of UNSW, my lecturer warning that “it will be an experience”. She was right.
And so I sat in the car, listening and thinking, then distractedly turned off the engine when it was time and walked into the gym thinking of Sylvia, Ted, Max, that pre-schooler now woman. Then I looked down at my feet and gasped – the wrong shoes! No Zumba today.