Note: Names have been changed.
Which storm spun with more ferocity is difficult to say: the one dubbed Cyclone Debbie, less than 50 kilometers from shore, or the one in the white Taurus heading north from Airlie and encircling Lisa and me.
What was apparent, apparent from day one in Noosa, was that to Lisa I represented everything for which she had an unaffected scorn. Relationships with men, brother included, induced incredible drama. Not intending to play psychoanalyst here, merely putting to paragraph form the rare conclusions she made about herself, she struggled to separate into distinct entities the men in front of her from the men who’d done her wrong. Any overlap in habit, no matter how minor, I had with any man in her history incensed her. At times I committed the sin of “assuming her thoughts,” which convinced her I sought to control her the way a particular boyfriend had. “Is there any more cheese in the cooler?” She’d ask. I’d say: “I don’t think so, we can stop at the next Coles to get some.” She’d snap at me, “How many times do I have to tell you to stop assuming my thoughts. I do not want to stop at the Coles.”
Unlike Leonie with her natural leniency and inborn joy, Ward’s lovable ineptitude with card tricks, or Alice’s spirited study of English, Lisa had for me a set of expectations that were impossible to abide by, as so often they were quietly laid. Yet she chastised me for the smallest transgressions: once, passing a public cemetery overlooking the ocean, I paused to snap a photo. “Rude,” she said, “You shouldn’t take photos of tombstones.” I’d never heard of this etiquette and asked if it was unique to Holland. “No, everyone know this is rude.” I had a high school teacher whose hobby was photographing gravestones and in San Diego’s Old Town it is a tradition to make grave rubbings. I told Lisa that was my experience. “Your culture is rude then,” she said.
What fractures arose from cultural differences, I wondered daily and tried to make a permanent note of. I struggled to discern typical Dutch behaviors from ones peculiar to her. Dutch directness is a known cultural phenomenon, lamented by visitors from countries like America, Germany, or England, countries where pleasantries buffer truth and a negative opinion is served in the linguistic equivalent of pudding. (Yes, there is a book on it: Why the Dutch Are Different.) This directness, or, bespreekbaarheid, might have a Dutch person saying, “No, I think it’s ugly,” in response to the question, “Do you like my haircut.”
Lisa’s directness was, shall we say, more ripe, better matured than that of her countrymen. She believed honesty was its own virtue, regardless of context. She held back no opinion, regardless of how little merit it possessed, or how random its injection into conversation might be. On an aborted discussion of the creative process: “I do not care about such things.” On a discussion of flying and my fear of it: “I am leaving this talk, I disagree with it.” In answer to a question about how her morning went: “Your haircut I think is ugly.”
She did have earnest and endearing idiosyncrasies, yet it became my duty to abide by these punctilious quirks under constant threat of reprimand. Her way of doing dishes, for example, was to rinse them, scrub them, lather them with soap and at that point rack them, thick swirl of suds and all “to save water,” she explained. I abided by my own method, the one with no soap residue, and she chastised me heavily. Getting angry by the third time. She was particular about mornings and instituted a blanket prohibition on any form of communication until she had caffeine. She responded to violations with an exasperated huff, and then even caffeine wouldn’t lift her irritability.
When a friendship is new, it’s natural to concede the veracity of the new person’s side in any story they tell, but after time together, you begin to see the degree of difference between the narrative as they tell and the reality of their personage. So it was with Lisa. The ex-boyfriends, spurned friends, high maintenance or difficult family members, they no longer struck me as her antagonists but rather possessors of a self-preserving clairvoyance that’s typical of rational and anchored people. Lisa was driven by impulse and seemed to rarely engage in the introspection necessary to realize her own caprices.
Whitsundays had provided a distraction from our mutual antagonism. And, once docked, we thankfully didn’t have each other to pin our disaffections on but were united by a common purpose: to get out.
Cyclone Debbie’s longest reach touched Queensland’s coast. The wind was stern but not unsettling. Rain fell in pockets. We knew, as we’d been told, that Debbie was drumming the sea and landfall was inevitable. She’d been upgraded to a Category 4 cyclone. Yet as we drove north, we came into unobstructed sun.
Our plan had been to remain in Airlie, but all indicative reports were that Airlie would be just off to the side of the storm’s epicenter. We would drive as far north as possible as we could in a day. The storm was expected to make landfall within the next forty-eight hours, and we didn’t want to live out the scenario of being on the road when that happened. That made Townsville the nearest safe harbor, so to speak. Meteorological expectations were that Townsville would get pummeled, but there was less of a chance for a crippling swipe.
On Airbnb, we found a granny flat attached to a Queenslander. Once arrived, we saw the owner on a ladder, his two sons maintaining its balance, pruning palm and gum tree branches. “Being extra secure,” he said.
“Think we’ll be hit hard?” I asked.
“They’re comparing this to storm Yesi, which did a lot of damage. But latest I heard on Debbie is she’s shifted south more than expected.”
We’d parked on a narrow, tree-lined laneway festooned with live electric wires. “Did Yesi bring down trees on this street?”
He saw what my concern was. “The whole street was crisscrossed with them. So for parking, it’ll be a crapshoot no matter where you go, so might as well be close.” I knew my insurance didn’t cover natural disasters, so, hoping to avoid any out of pocket expense, we got back in the car and drove around to find covered parking. We settled on his advice when we found none. At least we could check on what damage the car suffered when it suffered it.
It was late afternoon in Townsville, and Lisa had been engrossed in a string of WhatsApp messages with her parents in Holland. (Come to think of it, I’m not sure I even told mine.) They’d perused about every bulletin available on the Internet and had descended into a parental tizzy. Lisa spent her energies assuring them that all was well and she was looking out into blue skies. Her reprieve was suggesting we go shopping.
The shelves of the main supermarket were decimated. In the water section, stockers hadn’t bothered with re-stocking, so cardboard boxes filled with product were stacked and customers pulled from there. Even Voss designer water was 86. We bought a few items: water, non-perishables, foods that didn’t need cooking.
Neither of us felt panic or unease. Truth is, we were exhilarated: the air of potential disaster had enlivened us and Whitsunday had exhausted us. The idea of holing up was appealing. There was even talk about baking banana bread. We did the important thing and charged our appliances so that the summation of their charges could cover a day or two of entertainment. If that failed, we had books, the world’s original Internet.
That part of Townsville exposed to the ocean, and thus the one most likely to receive Debbie’s enfilade, had been boarded. Sandbags stacked against glass window fronts and at least one store had this hand-written sign hung on it: “Debbie said STAY HOME.” Camera crews set up on the grass knolls next to the beach, and the pier was occupied with residents gawking southward. Debbie was making landfall beyond sight. There was full cloud cover in that direction, colored as if bruised, but nothing that suggested tempest.
Back in our flat, Lisa turned on the TV and monitored the situation. I browsed Instagram and made regular checks of Accuweather. The warnings for Townsville were less ominous, the severe weather alerts gone. Chances for rain reduced from 100% to 90%. Yet for Airlie the picture worsened as sensationalism morphed into reporting of facts; when facts for a weather system can stand on their own as news without the injection of hyperbole and apocalyptic metaphor, then there is a high likelihood of an actual disaster taking place.
With dusk came an irretrievable view that we witnessed standing on the peak of Castle Hill, a granite monolith overlooking the town and coast. The sunset, with scarlet blushing clouds and an enveloping purple, awed everyone who’d come to witness it. By crowd size, it felt like half the city was there.
The next day was a continuation of this beauty. Under an awning of a baby blue sky, I watched as the weather apps downgraded the chance of rain to nil. A sprinkle did come, the drops dense gold with sunlight, but not even enough to trickle on the pavement. It steamed afterward, and the quick splash opened the pores of plants and the entire neighborhood smelled of botany.
In Airlie though, Debbie parked herself and tore the town apart. She imprisoned people in interior rooms, and these people took videos as the wind splintered trees and shattered glass. Roofs flew off. Metal signage pretzeled.
Debbie would go west and peter into heavy rain, letting loose so much that it’d make Rockhampton’s river swell into the city. Yet that was a problem days away. The greater issue, as I witnessed it, was that Lisa and I now had each other to focus on again.
From the beginning of our trip. Lisa had a tendency to suffer from heat exhaustion. Any day north of 30 C with humidity vacuumed her energy and left her with horrendous migraines. She failed to sleep, and on a few occasions slipped into worrisome bouts where she could neither move nor speak and needed me to hold cold compresses on her forehead and talk her breathing into a sustained and shallow pattern. She suffered a severe one of these following the withered storm.
I found her in bed, still and unresponsive. She didn’t react when I touched her and I had to shout for her attention: she recovered the scarcest bit of consciousness. She had not been asleep and now existed just beyond her eyelids. Her lips opened and closed the way a fish’s might. I engaged the routine: talked her through to breathing regular, put a cold compress on her head, suggested next steps and asked for her to make a sustained blink if she agreed. She had shreds of focus to communicate she wanted water, and I got this for her. Then ibuprofen. She recovered enough to speak and remain in bed for the remainder of the day and throughout the night.
I slept on the unit’s sofa cushions, which I had to array on the floor as the couch frame was too small for me. I woke just after five and realized I had time to see the sunrise. I roused and checked on her. She was fully asleep, which I knew was a rare thing. I hustled out to jog Castle Hill and made it to the top for the eyelid of day to crack. For the first time since joining Lisa, I felt happy in solitude. One of those rare life moments of absolute peace, a happy interlude. I returned to the unit with the thought that the peace was expansive: that if I felt it, others could too.
Lisa still slept. It was past eight, a time she’d normally be awake for. I prepared breakfast for myself and ate on the small table positioned outside next to the unit’s entryway with the door closed. Our host found me there. We had some chitchat, which he started by saying he’d heard me off this morning and wondered what I’d gotten up to. I told him.
He wasn’t from Townsville, but grew up on a cattle station more west. Considering the social isolation, it made sense that he’d wind up in Townsville: many of that type of upbringing seek salvation in density. I asked him what it was like dating on a cattle station, whether the cows were scared. He said to find a partner, kids relied on Bachelor and Spinster balls. This is the concept: with young people so few and far between, towns host annual balls and invite everyone of high school or college age within a few hundred kilometer radius. It’s a black-tie affair, but an ironically. Outback kids adorn themselves with thrift shop finds and get rolling drunk and dance. No Jane Austen romances come out of it, though marriages do. Stands of a night become table length. This intrigued me and I made a note to visit one if I could.
Lisa had woken up, apparently before that conversation occurred, because when I finished breakfast and entered the unit she was sitting on the edge of the bed and said, “You went to see the sunrise without me?”
“You were asleep.”
“I would have really liked that.”
“I’m sorry, I figured you’d want to sleep since you haven’t been.”
She threw up her hands, “I told you not to do that. I told you to stop controlling me and making my decisions.”
“You’ve been struggling to sleep. I let you sleep.”
“Stop saying what it is I need. I make that decision.”
It continued like this. She dressed and went to the mountain herself.
The real crucible moment, however, came upon her return. She was in the unit, tossing aside pillows, shifting and re-shifting our bags. “I cannot find my water bottle!” She shouted. I joined in moving the bed frame, rummaging through my things. I went to the car and reached under the chairs and into nooks. I scanned for a canister, something sturdy, perhaps colorful, a keep water cold/hot for 12-hour thermos, a designer one that could set a person back $50<.
I finally asked, “What does it look like?”
“Like…plastic plastic, a Nalgene bottle, re-usable plastic?”
“No, a small one from a convenient store.”
“That’s what we’re looking for? Let’s just buy a new one.”
She responded, fist pounding air, “But I want that one.”
Then we had this quiet moment where we looked at each other, like up until that point we had both been stellar method actors running through a ludicrous play and only then did we realize the absurdity of the script we’re meant to act out. I was perplexed, disturbed, and done. We spent another night in Townsville. I remained awake on the couch cushions imagining the logistics of Lisa’s abandonment and the words to share the news with.
Morning barely broke, breakfast served, the prohibition on communication before caffeine abided by. Lisa took her first sip of tea, and I said, “I don’t want to travel with you anymore. You make me miserable.”