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Unashamed

Dani’s car pulled up under Greg and Natalie’s carport and I climbed inside.


“Thanks for coming to get me,” I told her.



“No worries,” Dani replied as I fastened my seatbelt. “It should be a good day.”


She reversed out of the driveway, then drove up the hill.

 

“How have you been?” Dani queried.


“Good, yeah, well thanks,” I replied. “I’ve been staying here at this time of the year since I was a little kid.”


“I suppose it’s different now you’re grown. You know, with Geoff and all.” Dani smirked.

 

It wasn’t quite true, but we still had plenty of time before I was going back home.


“Yeah,” I agreed, smiling.


Dani turned the corner at the top of the street, driving westwards towards the park. The car radio was playing softly. I was tempted to turn off the news bulletin. The war in Gaza was too depressing, but I knew that it was a privilege to be able to turn away. I’d felt the same way about the stories of missing people, before my own brother had disappeared. Thankfully either way, the drive in Dani’s car wasn’t particularly long. There had been a time when we would have opted for an activity like putt-putt. Instead, a relaxed picnic was just what the doctor ordered, even though there was an almost inappropriate level of summer humidity. Dani parked, then we retrieved the picnic basket and rugs from the boot of her car. We seemed to be the first ones there. Dani and I chose a spot in the shade of the gumtrees, spreading out the blankets. She had brought along a bottle of iced coffee, pouring glasses for both of us which had been decorated with rhinestones.


“Cheers.”

 

We clinked. Sasha arrived shortly after. She wore beautiful sunglasses which she rose onto her hair as she sat down in the shade. Sasha brought along more drinks, so I was grateful that her cousin Dani had supplied the food. It seemed to keep coming and coming, like the wicker picnic basket was Mary Poppins’ own bag.

 

“Is there anybody else coming?” Sasha wanted to know.


“I thought that Bella was coming,” I admitted, “but I’m not sure.”


Of everyone within the group, I thought that I was closest to Bella, but perhaps that was an incorrect assumption. I felt a cool summer breeze against my cheeks, as I tried to relax.


“Yeah, I haven’t heard from Bella. I really thought that she would be coming today.”


I couldn’t help but be worried. The concept of my friend coming to harm distressed me, even though I couldn’t even be sure of what had occurred. A text message soon came through. The explanation made sense. Bella needed to meet with a solicitor for a last-minute appointment associated with her business. While it would have been lovely to have her there, I understood. I was proud of Bella for setting up a business and wished that I shared her professional ambition.

Instead, I tucked into a mini pavlova and decided to be grateful.


“Do you think that it’s time for presents?” Dani wanted to know.


I tried not to panic. My effort had gone into making sure I attended the get-together dressed, wearing shoes and makeup, and I hadn’t planned for presents. I knew it was a faux pas I could have avoided by asking Natalie. She would have been happy to give me small crafty items for my friends and maybe even had a few chocolates to throw in with them to boot.


“I think it’s time for presents,” Sasha agreed.

 

Dani retrieved trinkets from her bag. She handed a small bag each over to Sasha, who feigned surprise, and I. I wondered whether or not they gave each other presents as cousins, but it was nice enough of Dani to ensure that both of us were included.


“Thank you.”

 

I pulled open the drawstring of the bag. My heart started to beat faster as I poured a thin bracelet into the palm of my other hand. A tiny gemstone caught the light – a blue topaz to represent my birthstone.


“This is so cute.”

 

I glanced across to Sasha. Sure enough, her bracelet was adorned with a little pearl. I slid the bracelet onto my left wrist, but I found myself glimpsing my finger. A part of me would have loved to be getting engaged, to have that engagement ring sparkling from my hand. Maybe that would be part of my future, once I’d graduated and Mitchell had returned.

 

“How have you been finding uni?” I asked Sasha.


“Yeah, I’ve been loving it so far,” she confirmed. “Sure, it doesn’t have a patch on the Amalfi Coast, but, you know, these things don’t last forever. I’ve been learning heaps and I want to enjoy the whole uni experience while I have the chance to.”

 

“Yeah, of course.”


I glanced across the sky. My body felt a bit heavier than I would have liked while enjoying Friendsmas.


“Did you get tickets for Taylor Swift next year?” I asked.

 

“Oh, look, absolutely, I’m really looking forward to it. Trust me, I’ve seen the movie and I’ve been watching all the livestreams on TikTok.”


I couldn’t quite understand having that level of dedication, but I hoped that I would still have time to see the movie.

 

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Sasha apologised as she yawned. “It’s just been a big last few weeks.”


I couldn’t help but wonder if she was referring to her relationship. Even though Sasha was only the same age as me, I anticipated that she and Ben would be on the fast-track. It was just the vibe that I got from them and I believed that they were serious about each other. As much as I wanted to ask, I feared that it would label me as nosy. I was glad to get to know Sasha a bit better, rather than thinking of her as the queen bee. That might have been the case at high school. Everything changed, though, once we were out in the big, wide world. I’d thudded to the ground faster than most.

 

“I did have a relationship while I was overseas, I thought it was quite a serious relationship. Of course, he didn’t feel the same way.”


This was a side to the story which I hadn’t heard before. I took another sip of my drink and tried to listen deeply.

 

“Oh, Sasha, I’m so sorry.”


“It’s OK, honestly,” Sasha reassured us. “I’m glad that I had that experience and I’m glad that it’s over.”


A cheeky smile came onto her lips. I assumed this was to do with Ben. Perhaps Dani would be the one to ask her, being her cousin, although it was more than possible those conversations had already been shared. I wasn’t sure whether I’d done the right thing. Therefore, I poured myself another drink. I wasn’t going to get buzzed off iced tea.

 

“I think that I used to jump hard and fast,” Sasha mused, “and I don’t want to do that again.”


I nodded. She let out a soft sigh.


“So, tell me,” Sasha wanted to know. “Can I ask, how are you going with seeing your counsellor at uni?”

 

“My relationship with Rose is great.” I sounded like I was talking about a partner. “I’ve been able to see another counsellor, too. I think that’s good because we’re able to have more of a professional relationship. I’m not sure whether I’m allowed to say who she is, but she actually has a bit of an Instagram presence doing sex ed content.”

 

“Really?”



Sasha looked intrigued, but I felt like Dani was trying not to.


“I certainly wouldn’t want to tell other people what to do.”


I nodded, then took a deep breath.

 

“Oh, I definitely think there’s good educational content out there. I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable making it.”


“Well, I might,” Sasha admitted with a chuckle.


I laughed from deep within my diaphragm. Was Sasha no longer a virgin? I found myself much more intrigued by the question in regard to my friends than was likely appropriate, especially because I didn’t really want to talk about my own sex life with them, either. Was I ashamed of myself? I didn’t think so.


“I think that communication is really important,” I explained.

 

Dani reached into the picnic basket and retrieved the next course – fruitcake with white chocolate icing.


“Are you going to have Ben over to your place for family Christmas?” I wanted to know, as I accepted my slice of cake.

 

“Well, yeah, of course it’s wonderful to spend time together,” Sasha outlined.


I felt a bit bad having this conversation in front of Dani, given that she was single as far as I was aware. She hadn’t given any indication of whether she wanted, or didn’t want, a relationship. I ran my fingers through my hair. Perhaps I was over-thinking things, as usual. Maybe it was an outdated mindset to think that a man completed a woman. The man I thought about the most was not my boyfriend, after all. Of course, it was Mitchell. It was the purest type of love. I zoned out from the conversation briefly. Taking a deep breath, I decided to tune back in.

 

“Generally, with study, I try to look at it as something of a calling,” Sasha outlined. “I may as well give my best effort if I’m going to be doing it at all.”


“Have you been studying over summer?” I asked. “Like, are you?”


“Oh, no, this was before exams,” Sasha clarified.

 

I nodded. There was the option to take summer classes, but I had decided against it, because it meant that I didn’t get the chance to take a break and work more than I usually would have, during the regular semesters. I wanted the chance to rest and try to work on myself, doing those necessary and painful things like exercise.

 

“How’s your Bible study with Bella and Miriam been going?” Sasha wanted to know.


“Yeah, it’s been really good,” Dani outlined. “We’ve been going through this book by Sarah Bessey.”


“I think that I’ve heard of her through Rachel Held Evans,” I pointed out. “I’m pretty sure she has an eshet Chayil tattoo because of her.”

 

“I love that expression,” Dani assured with a smile on her face.


I tried to think about whether I’d ever seen it as a tattoo on a real-life person, or whether it was just on Instagram. A part of me pondering getting a tattoo in honour of Mitchell, but I didn’t know what it would look like.

 

“Oh, that reminds me, I saw this video on Instagram.”


Sasha pulled it up on her phone, then displayed the clip to the rest of us.


“Would you?”


“Oh, I would not,” Sasha admitted. “At least I don’t think I would.”

 

The woman in the video was getting a tattoo on the back of her neck. There was a jazzy soundtrack which had been added to the reel.


“I mean, that looks great,” I mentioned, “but you wouldn’t be able to see it. Isn’t that kind of against the point of getting a tattoo?”

 

The video transitioned to another one. Sasha continued to show us, where a tattoo was being applied onto the arch of a woman’s foot. I noticed another person at the park. A bloke was setting up his own picnic, all on his own. I wanted to feel sorry for him, but perhaps that was just how he liked it. The bloke’s beard hadn’t been in fashion for at least twenty years. He at least could have grown a bushy one which would have been perfect at this time of year to be a Mall Santa without even having to wear a costume. I let out a little chuckle, but I didn’t explain to the others what I was thinking about.

 

“Oh, that would be terrible,” Sasha insisted, even though none of us could stop laughing. “That would be so, so painful.”


I couldn’t really imagine it, although that wouldn’t stop me from trying. Dani passed over another glass bottle, although her cousin struggled to read the label.

 

“Oh, I probably need to go and get my eyes tested again at some stage,” Sasha mentioned. “I actually wear contact lenses some of the time.”


She laughed a little. I didn’t know this about her, but it seemed not to be a surprise to Dani, which didn’t shock me as they were cousins.

 

“I don’t think my eyesight’s getting any worse, but maybe I’m just kidding myself.”


For a moment, I glanced away again. The Mall Santa bloke and his picnic seemed to have disappeared again. I found myself reaching for my phone, even though I knew it was rude when I had real-life friends right there.

 

“Do you know what you’re doing for Christmas this year?”


“Well.” I rolled my lips. “That’s the tricky thing. Usually we would just go to Geoff’s parents’ house on Christmas Day, which would be great. This time, Mum wants us to go to Aunty June and Uncle Carlos’ place.”

 

Sasha and Dani looked at me with sympathetic, if bemused, expressions.


“I mean, I don’t really want to have an argument. It would have been nicer to just have Christmas with the Devereuxs, but it’s not to be.”


“And after Christmas?” Dani checked.

 

“Oh, sure, I would love to travel some more,” Sasha pointed out, “but I reckon that would be within Australia. Ben has travelled overseas already.”


At least that was something that they had in common. I knew that Ben was a fair bit older than Sasha. It didn’t bother me. Geoff and I also had an age-gap, even though it was smoother over now that we were both finally adults, after knowing each other for so many years. This could have been the sort of topic I could discuss with my friends. Yet, I wasn’t welcoming to any potential negative feedback.


“Are you going alright?”

 

I thought that the question was directed at me, but thankfully, I didn’t answer, because the conversation had moved on to experiences of endometriosis.


“Yeah, it’s not pleasant,” Dani confirmed. “Generally, when I feel like that, I just try and sleep through it. I know that it’s worse for Bella, though. She really goes through it with her endo.”

 

I’d only been in hospital – other than being born – once, when I was a very little kid. I had vague memories of it, but mostly of how the nurses took care of me and not of the actual illness, which was for the best. My more pressing memory of a hospital was Mitchell hurting his ankle, at the beginning of last year. It was only a few weeks before his disappearance. I knew that there were bushfires somewhere, although I couldn’t smell smoke. Instead, it seemed like a storm was brewing, with periwinkle clouds floating across the sky. The run of ideal picnic weather would have to come to an end eventually. While I tried to be shameless, it wasn’t always practical. We made sure to snap a selfie, just in time for a crack of thunder overhead.


“Well, we’d better get going.”


Dani quickly packed up the picnic rug. We bid each other farewell. I was glad to have had this friends’ Christmas and hoped we’d get to do it again sometime. I returned home. Being with Geoff filled me with gratitude. We’d been back together for a year. We giggled as we ran up the stairs. I steadied myself on the wooden railing as Geoff kissed me.


“Are you good with this?” he checked.


I nodded my head as I nibbled on my bottom lip. Geoff padded back into his bedroom. He balled up the fabric of his shirt into his hands. I knew that Geoff and I had the house to ourselves and it was highly unlikely that his parents were going to come home. As Christmas lights twinkled outside, our clothes were discarded onto the carpet. As we made love, I felt so free. Geoff threw his head back, allowing the sheen of sweat on the freckled skin of his neck to glisten as it caught the early evening sunlight. The golden illumination seeped in through the sheer curtains hanging over the window. Geoff’s body was frozen in ecstasy for a moment, his damp blonde hair bedraggled like sand disrupted by waves across his scalp. After a few seconds had passed, Geoff rolled onto his back beside me. He let out a soft hum as he panted to catch his breath, staring upwards at the ceiling. Geoff’s blue eyes were widened with heightened sensation and feeling.


 

The younger sister of missing Sydney man Mitchell del Reyan, Nina del Reyan lives on Dharug land in western Sydney. She has recently commenced a teaching degree at Macquarie University. Nina loves her family and friends and is deeply committed to finding answers and justice for the families of missing people.


Abbey Sim is the founder of Huldah Media. She is a creative writing, law and theology student who lives on the lands of the Dharug people in Sydney, Australia. Abbey desires to explore themes of hope, love and longing through her storytelling. She is the author of 'Shadow' and 'From the Wild'.


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