My darling girl,
Leaving you is harder than I could have imagined. I stand in the doorway, watching you, suddenly small, a tiny girl again. On the shelf above you, your newly curated books: Bad Feminist, The Handmaid’s Tale, Virginia Woolf and an assortment of new uni texts. Below them, you, and the tiny stuffed toy cow you’ve cared for since birth. There you are, my baby, my girl, a woman.
We drove down from Sydney, singing along to the slim collection of bad music CD’s I have somehow never managed to throw out of the car.
Another white dash appeared on the road in the slowly rising dusk, the highway spooling out ahead of us. I turned the music up and you grinned at me in the rear-view mirror as you recognised the opening chords. The disc is a remnant from another trip, one we did together, just you and me driving around the North West Cape without your brother or your dad. You were fourteen, just shifting into the startling territory of adolescence. We swam with whale sharks, and I cried inside my mask with the sheer joy of it. When a large fin flicked beneath us my heart pounded with terror, but you barely flickered. You out-swam everyone on the boat while I squinted into the horizon, trying to keep an eye on your shadow as it moved further and further away. Later, we drove down the coast in a hired four-wheel drive. The isolated petrol station sold only two CD’s: Willie Nelson and Mika. Mika survived. And driving here, to deliver you to your new life, your university hall, the beginning of your adulthood, we sang along, shouting together in our best Grace Kelly accents: ‘Humphrey, we’re leaving!”
A boy texted you while we were out there on the West coast. When I asked, you read it out. You are the reason I wake up in the morning. I gripped my hands tight on the wheel, alarm bells sounding in my head. Fortunately, you heard them too, and your calm assertiveness was inspiring. Months later, I mentioned the text to a friend, who sighed, “How romantic!” I was glad then, and I’m glad now, that you weren’t swayed by a mistaken view of romance.
I watched the girls your age, longing for a boy to gaze at them, longing to be seen. Longing for the drama of romance. I remember it myself, the feeling that I could only exist if I was desired. And like drinking too much wine, it led to dangerous decisions. Dangerous decisions like A, the older man who expected me to say yes to anything he wanted. Or like M, with his blonde hair, his blue eyes, his hand on my wrist while he told me that he was the only one for me, just before he punched another boy for asking me out. How romantic, my girlfriends said – while I felt nothing but fear.
You’ve been so much more sensible than me. So much more contained. Now, here you are, swimming towards the horizon, a shadow slipping into the sunlight. I can’t watch over you. I am standing on the boat, wanting to shout endless warnings at you but now, I can’t: you have to listen to your instincts. That’s all I can teach you, all I can leave you with.
Standing on that threshold, watching you, I want to run back, hand you a list, a whole manual on ‘how to survive becoming a woman.’ Falling in love is thrilling, it’s wonderful. But, watch out, I want to say, watch out for the charming ones, the ones who only wake up because of you, who can’t survive without you, who don’t want you to survive without them. They might claim to worship you but their only true god is their own neediness, laced with their own entitlement.
But there is no manual. And I remember that moment when I watched you in the ocean, the shark in the reef and the way you calmly let it swim beneath you. I’ve spent the last two years writing about a girl in danger, and all the women warning her, so you’ll forgive me if I can’t quite shake my fear.
In your new student room, your smile slips a bit as you stand to hug me; I swallow fast to keep my own smile fixed. I say “You are precious.” Above your shoulder, I glance again at your bookshelf, at that line of female voices whispering to you, warning you, helping to keep you safe while you swim towards your own horizon.
Novelist Kathryn Heyman’s latest novel explores a dangerous romantic relationship. Storm and Grace is in bookshops now and available to purchase online.