I watch my duvet cover billow and plop in the dryer, folding its talcy white self in and out like a big old cumulus cloud lost in a thunderstorm. My shorts buttons are up and my halter bikini is tied tight, neck and back. Dad’s wallet’s in his pocket and we’re ready to go.
I don’t bring shoes – there’s only a bit of bitumen before the grass and the sand. I hate fishing but I love Dad when he takes a day for himself. We don’t have any gear because we’re just going to watch the competition. It’s one of the bigger amateur ones along the coast, and they hold it along the big jetty down the beach. We stop to spot some boats out past the waves.
‘See ‘em?’ Dad says.
It’s not a day for sailing. There’s a daytime moon and it’s the kind of cloudy day where there’s glare in your eyes no matter where you’re looking. Leaning into Dad as he cranes his neck, I pick an eyelash off the tip of my nose with a fingernail.
It’s quiet as we approach – not like the surf competitions where nobody could give a shit about scaring fish away. There’s an air of focus, but not too intense – tinnies, jerky and chips all over the place. Most of the people are men, and most are keen for a catch, sure. My feet touch the unsealed, splintery wood and my weight shifts to my hardened outer soles. The air smells like the gelatinous piscine flesh never properly washed off the lids of eskies. Dad strikes up a few chats with men jabbing fluorescent, flapping lures onto hooks. I walk slow enough that he can catch up. We reach the end and look straight down into the grey of the water, the way it washes around the jetty’s foundations, snagging like a sheet on the anemones and buildup. On the way back Dad picks up his pace – not much, but for sure we’re not strolling anymore and he’s no longer chatting or checking out anyone’s gear. It isn’t until we get back onto the sand that Dad turns to me.
‘That made me sick.’
‘All those men.’
‘They were leering at you like you were some kind of…’
He shakes his head and walks faster up the sand.
I wonder sometimes how my Dad would have finished that sentence.
Truth was, I hadn’t noticed. I was twelve, and aloof – I hold more vivid images in my mind of the cloud patterns that day than any of the men’s faces. I hadn’t yet been conditioned to enduringly monitor and clock the behavior of people around me, the way I do now. Being unaware of the pattern my Dad had sensed, and experienced the discomfort of on my behalf, made me feel naïve and unsafe. I had inadvertently became something sexual without realising it. Not because I was of a certain age, or had engaged in any real way with my adult sexuality, but because I had been observed, and perceived as a woman. The men on the jetty had viewed me as that stage of person, and consequently I became it. Like menstruating for the first time, it was out of my control.
Previous to the day on the jetty, I guess I had always thought that entering into the realm of sex and being a sexual being would be my choice – that I alone would prompt the transition, and portray it to others in whatever way I saw fit. Was it fair of me to expect a degree of control over other people’s perception of who I was? I’d been thrown into that new realm without consent. I had gained a hazy discernment of the system working around me: one that ensured that as an adolescent female I would almost inevitably have all decisions about my transitional stages of personhood made for me. Usually, this decision would be made by complete strangers. I think Dad remembers that day as clearly as I did, as his experience of it and the realisations that were to follow paralleled with mine. A perception of the part I would play in my own future – or for Dad, his part in mine – turned on its head. A sense of control and security broken down.
I don’t remember seeing any other women, that day. I do remember sitting near the edge of the water for a while, smelling chicken salt and looking over my shoulder to see Dad drop a bottle of strawberry milk in the sand and and hold out a nest of hot chips swaddled in paper for me to burn my silly tongue on like always. I took one and bit it in half, inhaling sharply and feeling my eyes water. I watched near-invisible fishing cords slacken and strain between the men and their bait hooks; the small whiting and bream gliding around in the wash. I projected my newfound wariness onto them and willed them all to swim away.
Image: Riku Lu
Grace McCarter is a Brisbane-based writer and design studio assistant with a BFA in Creative and Professional Writing from QUT. She has written for Stilts, FourThousand and Celapene Press, and was the recipient of the 2015 SLQ Young Writers Award. She tweets at @GraceMcCarter.