I started to live in February when his family would make their annual pilgrimage to Wellington to visit relatives. An after Christmas-Christmas he said. He would come every year. Relations they didn’t particularly like, which is why the crusty motel, as opposed to actually just staying with their family on the farm.
He said his Grandpa is a Nazi and his Grandma is a homophobe. His Aunt who lives in a little sleep out down the bottom of the farm worships the devil and her husband yells mean things at her when he’s drunk, which is all the time.
Every year, with him he brought blissful entertainment. He brought kindness and respect and undivided attention. When I was younger he brought fairy tales and imagination games. When I was older he brought packets of chips and impossibly thrilling stories of his own youth.
He let me follow him around and pretended to be mad when I would steal his hat. He liked wearing those brightly coloured caps around backwards so they did absolutely nothing but look idiotic. Then he would chase me around the motel courtyard and usually catch me, turning me upside down until I released the hat. Then I would immediately steal it again, laughing my way gleefully across the courtyard once more.
When it was raining, we read books in the Motel reception. There was this book exchange library on a shelf above the couch, and I would always be the first to read any new book. I never had any books to exchange so I had to read the borrowed book quickly so Mr Wong wouldn’t notice. Although, I don’t think he would have minded, because I always brought the book back without any damage.
Most of the books were from old stuffy backpackers so I read everything from language dictionaries that had folded pages to bookmark certain phases and science books that had lots of drawings and diagrams in them to soppy romance novels and musty classics.
James didn’t heap like reading words, said they slid away from his eyes when he tried to look at them. So he mostly just read comics that he would bring from home.
I liked the comics but most of the time I would always end up reading something with just words because then I could make up the pictures myself.
On really stormy days it would rain so much that the concrete courtyard would fill up with rain and we would run outside and jump in the makeshift pool. One time he found an old piece of thin wood behind the motel and if you ran then jumped on it, you could surf across the water on the board.
The more that time went on, the more it seemed he had to do. I was slowly losing interest in castles and imaginary banquets so I didn’t mind. I would still follow him around, telling him how Aunty, the dairy-gas station lady was, she had cracked her hip a few weeks prior and it was all everyone was talking about. How Mr Wong had been robbed, by that I mean a guest had driven off without paying and Mr Wong was outrageous and seriously considering buying his first security camera. This had caused friction between Mr Wong and Joseph and the girls because their customers wouldn’t want to be videoed coming back into the rooms with them. Mr Wong never did end up buying that security camera.
He would often do whatever he was doing while listening to me ramble on, agreeing at all the right moments and making noises of disapproval whenever appropriate.
By now, I was on good terms with his parents and sometimes they would let me stay for dinner. I loved his mums cooking, she would always cook two whole chickens with extra stuffing and heaps of vegetables or a whole dish of lasagna or sometimes a massive pot of macaroni and cheese pasta, then once we had finished, she would loudly complain about having too much food and send the leftovers home with me in plastic containers.
‘It’s no bother sweetie,’ She would say. ‘I cooked far too much, and we can’t travel with it. If you don’t take it, it’s just going in the bin.’
The first time I brought the leftovers home Mum freaked out and chucked the containers in the bin.
‘I don’t need that woman's pity.’ She had yelled, slamming the rubbish bin lid shut. ‘I can feed my own family fine.’
That night we had defrosted chicken nuggets and frozen peas that were still a little bit frozen. Mum ate silently, a glare anchored to her face.
Me and Hugo, my little brother, ate quickly and said thank you lots of times as we were cleaning up, but later when Mum had gone to her room and shut the door I snuck back into the kitchen and retrieved the plastic containers, taking them back to my room. They had been sealed tightly and were still good, so I and Hugo sat in my wardrobe and worked our way through the feast until there was nothing left.
I kept going to dinner and I always brought home the food she would send me off with, but I kept it hidden and shared it only with my brother after that.
I liked James’s parents. His dad, Grant, didn’t talk much but always patted me on the shoulder and looked proud and his Mum, Aroha, always asked me questions and called me sweetie.
‘How are you this summer, Sophie?’ Aroha asked when I had arrived at their door one late afternoon looking for James.
‘I’m good Mrs Whiten,’ I said, as she waved the formality away.
‘How was school?’ As she said this her eyes looked overly inquisitive. ‘Do you like your classes?’
‘I’m homeschooled.’ I said cautiously. This was what I had been told to say if anyone asked about my schooling. Truth was, I had never been to school.
‘Homeschooled..’ She frowned looking worried. ‘How is that? Surely you miss having other kids your age to play with?’
‘Oh leave her alone dear.’ Grant laughed from the couch behind her. ‘I saw her reading Ulysses the other day. For fun, she said. Can you imagine?’
I had managed to slip past Aroha and into the narrow little corridor that leads to the rooms but I could hear Aroha talking very quietly in an anxious tone to her husband.
I had never wanted to go to school, from what I could see on TV it looked pretty horrible and boring. I could read and I liked playing Poker, which Mum said was maths. And Aunty always made me add up how much our shopping was worth every time I went there, and sometimes there was bargains on and stuff, so that was like extra math.
I was thirteen the summer it all changed. I nearly had boobs and my first pimple left a scar on my upper lip because I didn’t know what it was and I picked at it until it bleed. Then I picked at the scab, not letting it heal. I didn’t mean to, my hands were just fidgety. To this day I don’t think I’m ever not moving at least one part of me. James said I’m like a shark, I have to keep moving until I die. Then he quickly explained that likening me to a shark is actually the highest form of complement.
In my thirteenth summer, the pink bike is long gone, traded in for my mother's lipstick and crop tops.
That was the summer I first realised all I wanted to see was his eyes, even more than the oceans on TV. That was the summer I realised that all those February weeks spent playing pretend in a castle of our imagination, to me had meant something more, or at least now they did. That was the summer I decided that he was in love with me, I with him, and we were meant to be together forever in a white picket fence house in the suburbs. Like those American movies about American movies.
It was also the summer he brought the girl.
I had seen the family car pull into the concrete courtyard and my stomach trickled down my legs and into my feet. My heart thudded and I checked my reflection in the mirror. The lipstick was slightly smudged around the corners of my lips. I groaned in frustration.
I flung open the door to Room Twenty and bounded down the concrete steps. His father, who looked much more tired than last year was getting out of the car. He chuckled in surprise at the sight of me.
‘Sophie.’ He smiled warmly. ‘You still hanging around causing trouble.’
‘Yes, Sir.’ I stopped abruptly next to their car and grinned cheekily. ‘Always.’
Then he opened the door and got out. His mop of hair had been trimmed tidily back, he was not more muscular but certainly more aware of his body, you could tell by the way he stood. He thrust his hips out first and the rest of his body followed that part of him. I thought it looked a bit stupid like he had forgotten how to walk.
‘Princess Sophie.’ He laughed. ‘As always, what a delight.’
I felt my cheeks flush and tugged at my top realising how short it was.
‘Don’t call me that, I was so stupid to come up with that name.’ It comes out harsher than I mean it too and looks to the ground quickly scared I’ve offended him.
‘No it’s perfect.’ He walks over and tussles me into a half headlock half hug. I pretend to try pushing him off.
Then the other car door opens and she gets out. She’s beautiful. More beautiful than all the prostitutes I’ve seen come and go from the motel, ever. Long blonde hair and a graceful figure.
She looked like the kind of girl that all the love songs are written about.
‘Oh my goodness you must be Sophie.’ She offers her hand out for me to shake. ‘James has told me a lot about you.’
I shake her hand hesitantly. James slides his arm around her waist. It’s a well-practised gesture. My stomach snaked from my ankles into my throat. It explodes, only held in place by the linings of my throat muscles. Sitting like a bubble suffocating me quickly and slowly all at once.
‘God Sophie, you look so grown up.’ He smiles down at me. ‘If I’m 20 then you must be 13 is that right?’
‘Yeah.’ I say slowly, distracted by his fingers that fiddle with the fabric of her top. ‘I’ve got to go do some stuff. I might see you around.’
He looks a little taken aback but smiles again.
‘Yeah, do what you gotta do kid.’
Kid, I think.
I ran back up the stairs. The stomach explosion centralised in my throat had now exploded in my brain and was leaking salty tears as it sucked the oxygen from my lungs. I slammed the door to Room 20. Sinking to the ground against the closed door my ribs started to shake, desperately seeking oxygen.
I had been stupid. I had misjudged him. I had been betrayed. But mostly I had been a stupid little child. A kid. I inwardly chastised myself as my breathing got quicker then eventually slowed.
I never looked forward to February ever again. But that didn’t matter, because that was the last time he came.