Sometimes, Saph wonders why Byron chose her. Saph is quick to judge those around her. Byron is quick to see the other side of the story. The harshest criticism Saph has heard Byron utter is against the juice shop they once frequented- where, the service, Byron admits, is not on. Saph thinks the service is so shocking that it's a disgrace to the economic system that such inefficiency is rewarded with wages, and she made the mistake of telling the shop assistant so. Now, whenever Saph craves a fresh mix of pineapple, watermelon and orange juice, Byron gently reminds her that it's her fault they can't return to her favourite juice shop without being escorted off the premises.
Luckily for Saph, her love of juice is easily replaced. She moves from watermelon to strawberry, and unlike watermelon, strawberry can be added to milk and ice cream with delicious results. The only time during the week when Byron and Saph have a break at university together is on a Monday afternoon. Byron quickly learns that Saph doesn't function as a normal human being without food, and to ensure that the afternoon they spend together is special (or that his head doesn't get snapped off), Byron always brings her a strawberry milkshake.
Saph sits under a tree on the quadrangle- the very spot where Byron once assaulted her with neon pink spray paint, and starts munching on the fudge chocolate cookie she brings from home. Strawberry and chocolate, Saph thinks when Byron arrives with her shake, are just meant to be. For every week without rain, they sit on the grass and talk and afterwards, they do not remember the words they share, just the feeling of belonging. Sometimes, Saph would like to do more than talk, but Byron always surprises her- not here, he's a private person, he says. So Saph tells him about the three essays and four mini quizzes she has in the next two weeks, and she whips herself into a frenzy. How will she find the time to do all her work? She doesn't understand anything, she spends half her life reading law textbooks that are written in a different language, and why is she doing law in the first place?
"You're doing law because you chose to," Byron says with simplicity that robs his words of stupidity- instead, Saph thinks Byron is channelling Gandhi, or Confucius.
"Yeah, but why?" Saph jokes, but she isn't really. Saph enrolled in law because she could, but of late, she's begun to appreciate that what she can do, and what she should do aren't always the same. The realisation scares her more than she has ever admitted to Byron.
Byron loops a hand around her waist, and Saph blends into him. "Because you wanted to. Based on the knowledge you had at the end of year twelve, you made your choice. Don't beat yourself up about it." Saph nods and Byron breathes against her neck. "Besides you can always drop law."
"Drop law?" Saph's stomach drops at the thought.
"See?" The only time when Byron is cocky is when he has been proven to be right. "You do want to do it."
For their six month anniversary, Byron buys her a strawberry plant. The accompanying card reads- 'so you can always say what you want, and still enjoy strawberry milkshakes.' Saph, who has the uncanny ability to put any plant to death, thinks it is the best present she has received. She chooses a sunny spot in the garden, puts it in a well-drained pot, places a net over it to protect the fruit from birds, and impresses her brother Shonar so much with her dedication that instead of teasing her when she forgets to water it, he waters it instead.
Their mother watches the tiny strawberries grow with trepidation. She has just accustomed herself to Shonar's girlfriend, Shane- whose hair colour changes every month, and whose laugh rings like a foghorn. Then Saph brings Byron home. It doesn't escape Saph's notice that her parents' eyes wander from his skin, to his eye-brow piercing, to his laid-back smile that is the very antithesis of Saph's nervous travesty of a grin. Over dinner, Byron speaks twice- once to explain where he bought his surfboard, and the other to compliment the roti and goat curry. Shane, who is sucking the marrow from a bone, heartily agrees.
When Shane and Byron leave, Saph's father retreats to his study, leaving his wife to tackle the departing of life advice alone. Shonar and Saph are fighting over the television remote, when their mother enters the room, standing before them with such presence that they stop bickering immediately.
"Listen, it's not that I'm saying I don't like them," their mother says, wringing the tea-towel in her hand. Saph wishes, for the sake of her own blood pressure, that her mother had stayed in the kitchen washing dishes. "I just want to know that you two are happy."
"Ma," Shonar complains, rolling his eyes. He puts his feet up on the coffee table. Saph knows if she had treated their mother so flippantly, she would have been read a lecture on respect- 'Why do you have such an attitude? You always think you're right, you never want to listen to what I have to say.' Unfortunately, during the extra two years he has had with their parents, Shonar has learnt to get away with more.
"Na, shono," implores their mother. The languages in their house are always a clash of east and west, a kind of mish mash that has become so common place that nobody recognises the shift between tongues. "I'm not going to say who is your boyfriend, who is your girlfriend. I don't even think you have to date someone who is Bangali," she says, naming the part of India from which they hail. "Kintu dakho, maybe you want to date someone Indian. Just because they understand us, they understand our culture. You will find it is easier, amar mone hoi. More compatible."
Both Shonar and Saph know what their mother really means, is 'I think I will find it easier' and they exchange looks. It is a silent agreement that one of them will speak for the pair. "Ma," says Shonar, because they both know he is their mother's favourite. "You don't need to worry, we're fine."
"Ha," Saph agrees, thinking of her strawberry plant. "We're fine."
"Do you think race is important?"
Saph has wanted to broach the topic for some time, and she doesn't know why she's chosen a slothful afternoon at Byron's place, when she's watching him wax his surfboard. Byron is surprised- Saph can tell by the way he stiffens slightly, and his face slips out of any expression.
For Byron, who has been brought up on the Australian school system, the word race is synonymous with the White Australia Policy, with the stolen generation, with multiculturalism and diversity and food. There are so many things to consider, so many ways to phrase his words, but the sun is warm, the air barely breathes, and Byron lazily settles for saying, "I don't know."
Saph is disappointed and Byron realises he's fallen lamentably short of the occasion. He replaces his board on the long wooden table and squeezes onto the bean bag beside Saph.
"Oof," Saph says, rapidly losing feeling in one leg thanks to Byron's weight.
"Hey," he says, tracing invisible patterns on her shoulder. "I think you're pretty and I-" Byron's throat closes up and he freezes in shock. This is the closest he has come to telling Saph, to telling any girl, that he loves her. Saph's big round eyes blink up at him, waiting for him to finish. He swallows. "I think we're good together. That's what counts."
"Yeah." She snuggles closer to him and lets the warm sunlight wash over her. "You know, I think you're pretty too."
"Thanks Saph," Byron smiles into her hair, but he flicks her with her finger. She giggles against his chest, and Byron is satisfied that he's dispelled her worries.
That would have been the end for it, but for the existence of mobile phones. It's another Monday afternoon, Saph has her strawberry milkshake, and Byron drops the greatest bombshell of their lives thus far.
"I'm going to take a break from uni."
Saph sits up so fast that that the her drink somehow escapes her esophagus and gushes out her nose. "Byron are you crazy? You can't do that!" She feels her credibility is somewhat diminished by the fact that there is milk coming out of her nasal cavity, and Byron, shaking with laughter, hands her a tissue.
"I've been thinking about it for a while, Saph. I've got things I want to do."
For Saph, not going to university is akin to declaring one's wish to abandon the use of soap and live in a commune. It is beyond her comprehension why Byron would want to throw his life away- because as much as she hates to admit it, she knows if Byron leaves university, it's unlikely that he'll have the drive to return. "What kind of things? Surf?"
Byron has anticipated Saph's response, but he is conscious of a niggling frustration all the same. "Yeah, maybe."
"Byron, you can surf and go to uni as well."
This isn't the kind of rationale Byron wants to hear. He's taking courses in English and visual arts and Arabic history, and he doesn't feel it is taking his life anywhere. Maybe if he leaves university, he'll be able to clear his head and think about himself. But he can't tell Saph this. Saph is the most driven person he knows and he doesn't want to tell her that he can't see his life in one year, let alone one month- except, maybe, for the hope that she'll be in it.
"Maybe I can go pro?"
Saph sips on the dregs of her milkshake, making a slurping sound that if her mother had been near enough to hear, would have resulted in a lecture and a slap over the head. "Do you think you can?"
"Yeah, I have a mate- Jim actually-" Saph's nostrils flare. She has met Jim, and she has met the stash of pot Jim keeps under his sofa as well. "He's heading up to Noosa next month for a surfing comp. There's still time for me to enter."
Saph is torn between the role of supportive girlfriend, and the desire to tell Byron that he's being the world's biggest moron. Fortunately for her moral dilemma, Byron's mobile commandeers the situation, and blares out Michael Jackson's Bad at a deafening volume. In spite of her shock and (slight) horror at Byron's bombshell, Saph can't help but smile. Byron, with his piercings and his endless collection of board shorts, doesn't strike anybody as a Michael Jackson fan, but what Saph loves best about Byron is that he can't be slotted into a character type.
"Hello? Yes. No. Ok. I'm with 3. About forty dollars." Byron pulls a face at Saph and she rubs his back sympathetically. She deduces that it is a telemarketer. Neither Saph nor Byron are the type of people to hang up on a flimsy pretext. After about five minutes, Byron manages to convince the man on the other end that he is happy with his mobile plan, and no, his company won't be able to offer him a better deal. "God, I thought he'd never let me go," Byron says, pocketing his phone. "Calling from India. Hello would-d you like to hear about our special deal sir? It is bh-ery b-hery exciting," he continues, in a poor imitation of an Indian accent.
Now, Saph has received her fair share of annoying calls from Indian call centres. She is the first to point out that the Indian accent just isn't sexy. Regardless, her threshold of things to tolerate just snaps. "Are you mocking him?"
Byron stops laughing. "What? No. I mean-"
"Some poor guy is out there trying to earn a living, working one of the hardest jobs out there, and he doesn't need some university drop out mocking him for making an effort to make his life better."
Byron's throws his hands up in self defence, his brows knitted in confusion. True, the first two times he met Saph, her sense of humour didn't show its strongest points, but since then, he hasn't seen her temper fly up at him, and even now, he can't understand why. "Woah, I didn't mean it like that." Saph stands up and brushes her jeans off. Byron grabs one of her arms. "Hey, what do you mean uni drop out?"
"Byron, be serious. We both know you taking a break equals you never coming back." She writhes out his grasp and picks up her satchel. Usually, Byron offers to carry it, Saph says she's not physically disabled, he snatches her bag all the same, and she grabs his. It's silly, but it's routine and Byron knows it isn't the time to fall back on it.
"Saph, you're being ridiculous." Comprehension dawns on him. "Is it that time of the month? Are you hungry?"
"Oh right because the only time I can be snappy is when I'm about to menstruate or when I'm starving. Typical! You are such a-a-"
"A what?" Byron cocks an eyebrow.
"A guy!" Rather than railing against the insult, Byron falls into laughter, and it does nothing for Saph's temper. "Don't laugh, Byron. I'm trying to have a serious conversation with you."
"Sorry." Byron regurgitates the word without thinking. "But come on, don't you think this is-"
"No, I don't. I think you're being stupid and inconsiderate and…" Unbidden, her mother's words enter her head. Maybe they are incompatible. Maybe she'll always have a different picture of her life to Byron, and maybe culture has something to do with it. "And I think I need a break. I need some time to think."
Byron feels like Saph has punched him in the gut, and he doesn't know what he's done to deserve it. "Ok."
"Ok," Saph repeats. The words 'I will not cry' ring in her head as a mantra and miraculously it works. "I guess I'll see you around then."
With every step that leads her away from Byron, Saph feels like she is stepping on her bloody, battered heart. And Byron does nothing to stop her. She doesn't know which is worse.
"You're being a bitch," says Shane. She has come to their house under the pretext of seeing Shonar to keep him happy, but Shane tells Saph it is really to check that Saph hasn't drowned herself in a toilet. Which, as a medical science student, Shane knows is perfectly possible.
"I know," Saph agrees. It's the kind of honesty you adopt to push your bitchiness into a better light, but it doesn't make Saph feel any better.
Shane makes herself comfortable on Saph's bed, content to watch Saph do (stare at) her homework. "Hey Saph, what do you call a gay Indian?"
"What?" Saph asks wearily.
"A brave sucker!" Shane watches Saph carefully for a sign of a reaction, but over the past few days, Saph has become inured to Shane's politically incorrect jokes. Saph knows what Shane is trying to do. Shane is trying to prove that if Saph doesn't get annoyed at Shane for insulting the race of her motherland, she doesn't need to get annoyed at Byron. It isn't working. "Ok Saph, just call him."
"No." Not when he hasn't called me, Saph adds silently, because she knows Shane will lose all respect for her if she says it aloud. She wants to tell Saph that she is better off without him. That when Michael Jackson comes up on her iPod she doesn't think about him. That she doesn't need a pothead, a surfer, a uni drop out for a boyfriend because she isn't that kind of girl. She doesn't need to get hung up over one boy. If she spends the rest of her life in this city she knows she will disappoint her parents, who weren't afraid to move to find a better future, and she will disappoint herself, because she allowed herself to get bogged down in relationship drama. But she tells Shane none of this. How will Shane believe her, if she doesn't believe it herself?
Shane throws her hands up in the air in defeat. She stands up, regarding the younger girl with a militant light in her eye. "Saph, you can sit here moping around. Or you can call the bastard and tell him you're sorry. Your choice, your life."
With which words she departs. Saph buries herself in the language of torts where boys and surfing and Indians don't exist.
Life without Byron means buying her own strawberry milkshakes. It means that Shonar has to look after Saph's strawberry plant, because she declares she doesn't want to look at it again. She purges her room of him- putting his CDs, his flannel shirts, his books, his bracelet into a large cardboard box, and leaving it on the side of the road for the council to take to the tip in the morning. Saph doesn't know until later that Shonar creeps out in the middle of the night to rescues Byron's box. He knows his sister, and he knows she will regret it later.
She does. But she tells no one.
Just when she thinks she has put her life back together, Saph sees him. It's a Monday afternoon and he's walking along with earphones in his ears, and reading a book she knows is a prescribed text for his English course. He didn't drop out. He's still here. The knowledge buoys her up over the buildings and into the sky. She is shocked by how happy she is and it takes an hour of soul searching for her to realise that she's not happy because he hasn't left university- she's happy just because she's seen him again. It's so sappy that her practical self wants to slap her romantic self senseless, but Saph has never been a fan of self-harm.
With the weight of the realisation on her shoulders, Saph wonders what she should do next. Her parents' marriage was arranged, and to this day, Saph is not sure whether they stay together because they're content if not happy, or because it'll mean too much effort- and scandal- to break the marriage apart. So her knowledge of love is gleaned from movies and books and songs, and she knows the formula- at this point, the boy should make some grand declaration of his love, preferably at an airport, when she is about to leave the country for ten years. But this is Byron- the boy who can make her laugh by dressing his nose in hokkien noodles, who believes dressing up is putting on a pair of jeans, and who laughed (in a bad way) through Love, Actually. She knows if anyone is to make a grand gesture, it should be her. She looks at her watch. There is fifteen minutes until they both have to get to class. Does she really want this? Does she really want to be with Byron- even if he chooses not to be at university? The word 'yes' crashes into her brain, startling her with its strength. All right. Her relationship with Byron began because she took a chance, and she knows now is the time to take another one.
She buys a strawberry milkshake, and her heart fluttering so hard that she is in danger of vomiting, she walks to the quadrangle. Sure enough, Byron is sitting under their tree. He must see her before she sees him, because when she does, his eyes are on her.
"Hi," she begins with, and it is such a poor beginning, but that is all she can muster.
"Hey," says Byron, and the grin that still makes her happy peeks out.
"This is for you." She hands him the strawberry milkshake, hoping to God, to the ether, that he will get it.
"Thanks?" Byron takes a slurp hesitantly. He doesn't get it.
"Byron," she says, crouching down so that they are eye to eye. "You're my strawberry milkshake."
Byron gazes blankly at her, but after a few seconds, his grin grows to infectious levels. "Really? You know, you're mine too. I've wanted to tell you for weeks."
"Why didn't you?"
"I like you too much to ask you to be with me if you don't want to."
It is the kindest thing Saph has ever heard. Byron pulls her to him, and at this moment, Saph realises how much she's missed the feel and the scent of him. He tastes like strawberry milk shake. Somehow, neither of them make it to their next class. Saph is curled up in Byron's arms. Her theory is that if she doesn't leave him now, it'll be like she never did.
So this is born of my love for strawberry milkshakes, my current craving for a strawberry milkshake, and my complete desire to not do the two essays I have to do for Monday PLUS a french assignment. I was just dancing around in my room, thinking how much I could go a strawberry milkshake, and then I thought it would be the sweetest thing ever if a guy told me I was his strawberrry milkshake, and then I thought, why does the guy have to say that, and then I thought- that is so a story, and then I thought, why not add to Byron and Saph's story because you love Byron and Saph might be your long lost sister? Haha, so my incredibly fascinating thought process aside, this is what happened, and if you've read Byron and Saph before, you'll realise I've put them into a collection of one shots. Further pieces pending the desires of my bizarrely drink orientated muse.
So, I think this is a bit rough, cos I literally just churned it out in two hours, but I would love to hear your opinion. Seriously, hearing your thoughts will make my upcoming three days of work-orientated torture more bearable!