Liv was on her own for hours. Every now and then she passed fishermen who stared at her, grim and suspicious as they hauled their boats in, and once she rode past a flock of tern who were picking over the remains of a picnic and took off in a great riotous flurry when she toiled by. When she turned her face to her arm, rubbing her itchy nose against her sweater, the lake was long and bland, further than she could see, light sinking into it like lead. Her bicycle veered. It didn’t matter; there was no one else on the road for a long, long time. By the time she rounded a gentle curve and saw the dark smudge of a figure waiting in the distance, she was near-blind with fury.
It took another twenty minutes of battling the headwind before she could see Sidra clearly. Her hair was pulled back in a small, curly knot at the nape of her neck, her white sweater marked with dust and grime and rolled up over her tanned forearms. She was leaning on her bike’s handlebars, every line of her body loose and relaxed as though she was waiting for Liv on the corner outside her apartment. Liv didn’t slow as she approached, but when she was within shouting distance Sidra swung lazily back onto her bike and moved into position alongside her.
“Sorry,” Sidra said. “Lost you for a while.”
Liv squinted towards the horizon. The sun had been dipping steadily for hours but the light stayed flat and broad. The lake complicated the push of evening. She couldn’t tell when it was going to get dark. Her legs were shaking with every rotation, muscles hot and dripping liquid pain.
“I think we can camp pretty much wherever along here,” Sidra said. “You say when.”
Liv tried to shrug, her back knotted with tension. “Up to you.”
Sidra tossed her an unapologetic look. Her mouth was quirking at the corners, like an indulgent older sister. “All right,” she said, accent light around the consonants, and sped up, whirling along the path as though the wind was another cyclist to beat. Liv put her head down and followed her.
She was stronger now than she’d been when they first set their bikes down on the road in St. Petersburg, and if she couldn’t beat Sidra, she could at least keep up. Her jaw ached from grinding her teeth. She wondered how far it was to the closest city, closest airport, closest exit.
They stopped when the slopes of dirty sand by the lake shore gave way to grass and huddled trees. Sidra dropped her bike on the ground and the bell made an involuntary noise, the hum of struck metal hanging in the air.
There was a tanging cluster of nerves in Liv’s arse, strung tight down on one cheek and slipping into her thigh. She lay down on the ground and pulled her knees up to her chest, straightened her legs out. In her peripheral vision Sidra unpacked the tent with easy flicks of strong forearms and silver tent poles. Liv ignored her, stretched her legs out, pulled them back in again, panting a little and making high, hurt noises when her back stuck.
“Still sore?” Sidra said, sympathetic. Liv ignored her and stared up at the flat sky, dipping into blue and dusk. Sidra disappeared in a tangle of mesh.
When she sat up again the tent was done and Sidra was sheathing out of her cycling trousers, shins tanned brown and knees rough with scabs. She put on the black sweatpants that hung loose around her waist and tight around her ankles, dust-stained and paint-smeared from repainting Liv’s apartment last spring. Sidra was usually only stylish by accident. Just then in the lowlight of the dying day, her curls scraped back with sweat, her eyebrows heavy, she looked almost ugly. Liv stared at her, resentful. In twenty-one days they had to be back in Berlin for the party.
They cycled along Lake Peipus for another three days, weaving in and out of swampy forest and back to the shore. Clumps of civilisation sprang up: wooden houses with head-scarfed women leaning out their windows to watch Sidra and Liv with bronzed, careful faces, and then disappeared in the low glare of the horizon. Liv stared at the neat garden plots bristling with glossy fat green. It took her twenty kilometers to realise they were onion plants.
Sidra cycled by Liv’s side as though she had and would never leave it, handlebar-to-handlebar, nearly jostling at her shoulders.
“They’re the old believers,” Liv said, and then, when Sidra rolled her eyes, “No, really! I read about it. When the Russian Orthodox Church was reformed in the eighteenth century, they didn’t like it, they left. They came here instead.”
“For peace,” Sidra said, only half-interested.
“I guess,” Liv said. She shrugged, legs pumping. The sun had come out today, making the Baltic pastoral green seem somehow more appealing. “You know those wooden prayer-houses, see? When the authorities tried to make them join up with the reformed church again, they would lock themselves inside and set it on fire.”
Sidra looked at her, considering. She could have been an alien, Liv thought, or a dog, friendly and unknowable. “But not anymore,” she said.
“So they are like Russian amigos,” Sidra said.
Liv nearly braked. “What?”
“Oof, no.” Sidra waved a hand lazily, encompassing her disinterest in the whole feral borders of English. “Not that word. Something like it. The ones in America, who don’t have telephones—”
“Oh,” Liv said, and laughed. “Amish. Yeah.”
“Mm,” Sidra said. She let her eyes wander over the wooden houses, the garden plots, the women watching in rows.
Liv wondered where all the men were: working elsewhere, maybe, or drinking, or asleep. She’d forgotten the day of the week. It couldn’t be Sunday—there were no bells. But she also remembered reading something that said the old believers down here didn’t use church bells, thought they were gratuitous and vulgar. She thought about asking Sidra what day it was a dozen times, but never said it aloud.
That night Liv wandered down as close to the lakeside as she could get while Sidra put up the tent. The ground was dense and overgrown, thickety with hidden slip traps, mud, and mosquitos buzzing. Liv found a long, twisted branch and prodded it out but still couldn’t reach the water, not even the vague blur where wetlands and lake met. A few hundred metres away was a man-made canal, carved out by locals. Liv dipped her hand into it and angled it so it would grow, fattened and ominously large, a giant at the end of her wrist. She stretched again, on her back and then sitting up, one knee pulled over the other, ankle tucked towards her seat, gritting her teeth and feeling something stretch long and loathsome into place.
“Is it feeling better today?” Sidra asked, coming over. “You look a bit better.”
“A bit, yeah,” Liv said.
“You’re probably still getting used to the bike,” Sidra said. “Your body was just in shock.”
“Maybe,” Liv said. She scuffled her feet against the ground. “You shouldn’t ride off that far in front without me.”
“Yeah,” Liv said.
Sidra nodded. “Okay.”
“My phone’s out of battery,” Liv said. “I’m not even sure we’d get reception here, or if I could call, whatever. I’m not being a baby. It’s unsafe.”
“Yes,” Sidra said, watching her, eyes flecked green. Like river stones, shiny and slick.
“I mean,” Liv said. She nudged her chin against her shoulder, mouth curving down. “You can go on ahead, whatever. Just check on me once in a while. What if I’d fallen?”
“I will check,” Sidra said, and put her hand on Liv’s head, curving over her scalp like a cap. Her fingers didn’t twitch, didn’t stroke or pet. Liv bowed her head under the weight. After a while they split a Snickers bar and went to sleep.
They pulled over when the summer rain turned into a downpour, dragging the bikes further into the woods and sitting under a cluster of pines. Liv dug around in her pockets for the remains of a bread roll they’d bought passing through a village.
“This is meant to be the loneliest part of the ride,” Sidra said.
“Hasn’t been too bad. We’ve seen other people every day.”
“Oh, little old Europe cannot compete with the great emptiness of Australia.”
“It’s not empty,” Liv said.
She leaned her head against the bark. She and Sidra were beginning to smell the same: clean sweat, dirty hair, the cool iron of their bikes adhering to their palms and bare shins. The night before, when Liv was drifting off and had thought Sidra was asleep, she heard, clear-voiced and startled, “When did I cut myself?”
“That’s my hand,” Liv told her, flexing fingers scraped pink. “I jammed it in my chain earlier.”
“Oh,” Sidra said, sleepily reassured and somehow not amused. It should have been funny, but Liv didn’t want to be like that. She liked knowing exactly where her limbs ended, the neat container of space that Sidra silently demanded and so Liv guarded with jealous pettiness. She flinched away when Sidra touched her. She glared when Sidra borrowed her toothbrush without asking. A friend of hers from high school had come out on Facebook and was now marrying a woman with the same name, and Liv had silently scorned them both. She imagined living like that with distaste, calling your own name back and forth all day.
Four days before their flight to Saint Petersburg, Liv had taken three beers and a bottle of cheap vodka to Sidra’s flat. Outside the building she’d necked two shots of the vodka. She felt sick of herself and ready to crawl out of her own skin. She went upstairs and gave Sidra a beer. Then she said that she wasn’t sure if a month long cycling trip together was such a good idea, because she was in love with Sidra and Sidra didn’t love her.
Sidra looked up at her mildly. “I love you,” she said.
“You don’t want to fuck me,” Liv said. Her eyesight was blurring at the edges, crinkly dark through salt water.
Sidra turned back to the equipment she was carefully laying out: shock cables, maps, lanolin, chain lube. “I don’t think we should worry about it,” she said.
Liv had stared at her. “What?”
“I just don’t think it will be a problem,” Sidra said, and showed Liv the puncture kit that had arrived in the post that morning.
The rain was shockingly cold where it broke through the leaves, slicing through the thick air of the afternoon. Sidra stuck her feet out into it and it hit her dusty legs, leaving its own hurried pattern behind.
“We’re meant to ride another 20k today,” Liv said.
Sidra rummaged around in one of the corners of her heavy satchel until she found a bag of dried apricot. She dug her fingers into the thin plastic, wasting the container, tearing it open without trying the knot. She passed it to Liv first.
“Plenty of time,” Sidra said.
“Mm,” Liv said. They’d calculated that it should take them about twenty-nine days, with rest stops built in, and they’d given themselves thirty-two, in case of emergencies. They couldn’t be late. Jonno was turning forty and had been planning his birthday party for at least the three years that Liv had known him. He was as serious and greedy about it as a small child: talking the details over quietly, assured of its importance. It would be a garden party, with long tables stretched out in Jonno’s sprawling backyard and a catered feast and musicians, at the end of August when the evenings in Berlin slowed and stayed, humming on, hot and golden. Sidra was going to give one of what Liv assumed were several scheduled toasts, and Liv herself had a new dress hanging in her closet, one that she had picked out months earlier with Jonno’s wife.
She ate another dried apricot. It felt fleshy, stringy, the golden core startling her, and she choked on it, gasping into the cool air while Sidra pounded her back with her fist. The rain was easing up.
They had to cross back into Russia the next day, waiting in a queue for two hours with the sun on their heads and their hands tight around their handles. A few men leaned out of a truck to hoot at them in an unfamiliar language and Liv followed Sidra as she rolled her bike calmly up the queue and out of sight.
The border guards had heavy guns and gave their passports and visas lazy, sweeping looks.
“You’ve already been in Russia,” one said.
“We’re cycling from St. Petersburg to Berlin,” Liv said. “It’s the European R1 cycle route.”
“I do not know this thing,” the guard said. He looked at another guard, eyebrows raised. The other shook his head. “How long will you be in Kalingrad?”
“Two days,” Liv said. “Three at the most, depending how fast we go.”
“You are not staying? Not working?”
Liv’s mouth was dry. She wished Sidra didn’t look so scornful, gazing with her German blankness at the border guard as though he was nothing more than a colossal waste of her time. Liv said, “No.”
“Going back to Australia?”
“I live in Germany,” Liv said. His eyebrows went higher, incredulous. Liv stared back at him, jaw set.
“Hmm,” the guard said, flicking through their passports again. “Wait, please.”
He said something quick in Russian to his colleague and they both walked away, their hips angular with the jutting off bone of the rifles. Liv turned to Sidra, holding her face carefully still.
“They should have a separate path for the bicycles,” Sidra said, disapproving. Exhaust fumes dragged along the ground, swept at their shins.
“I shouldn’t have let them take our passports.”
“They’ll give them back if they don’t let us in,” Sidra said. “We’ll just have to fly to Latvia.”
Liv didn’t say anything. She shifted from foot to foot. They waited another forty minutes and then the guard came back and gave them their passports and waved them through.
They took Kalingrad at a burst. Kalingrad, Liv’s friendly and unhelpful guide book had told her, often unfolds to many visitors only at the second glance. The Baltic looked oily, slick and unwelcoming, and locals stared at them. They zipped along seaside roads and scummy streets, barely looking at each other, barely giving the land even one glance. Nearly a third of the way through their trip, Liv felt the push of time, and she was relieved when they came to their second border and passed simply into Latvia.
The Baltic stayed to Liv’s right. Sometimes they stopped for lunch to eat on the sand. Sidra swam when the beaches were empty enough, stripping down to black underwear and heading into the froth. Liv stayed where she was and watched out for Sidra’s elbows slicing above the foam, or she went and walked barefoot where the waves would break around her feet and send the lines of her body wavering again. It was icy cold, made her toes cramp up and look for a pedal.
In Riga they bought Frappuccinos from the first coffee chain they could find. They walked into the central markets with beige liquid and ice cubes rattling, Sidra’s eyes wide.
“This is fantastic,” she said. “Fantastic,” and Liv laughed. She kept looking over her shoulder. She didn’t like having left their bikes behind, out of sight. Their backpacks shoved into a locker at the train station, her compass out of reach. They’d stopped in the coffee shop for long enough to charge their phones and now hers was buzzing steadily in her pocket, messages dripping through one by one. They were mostly from her mum.
“I dunno,” Liv said. “Do you really want to stay at a hostel tonight?”
“Oh, Liv,” Sidra said affectionately. “You’ve lost your taste for cities.”
The town looked like it was carved out of different fairy tales. Liv resented the mismatch. They walked through baking heat to Town Hall Square and stood with the crowd of tourists staring up at pink-orange buildings and elaborately wrought steeples.
“It looks like a wedding cake,” Liv said.
“Fussy,” Sidra agreed. She shouldered past people. Liv ignored the instinct to follow and stood watching her instead, Sidra’s short blocky form moving steadfastly to the front, certain of herself. She stooped over a scarred grey plaque and came back grinning.
“It’s not even the original building,” she said. “It was reconstructed in 1995. It was bombed in the war, and the Soviets demolished it after that.”
“You probably shouldn’t look so proud, with that accent of yours,” Liv said, amused.
“I knew it,” Sidra said. “It’s less than thirty years old. It’s like a Barbie Dreamhouse.”
Liv shot her a look. “Barbie?”
“I am a lesbian, not an alien,” Sidra said, as though Liv wasn’t too. “I know about all kinds of things. Come on.”
She led Liv across the square to a tourist trap restaurant where a waiter brought them cones of gelati and a pitcher of lemonade at an unreasonable price. Sidra leaned back in her chair, sunglasses on, and watched the crowds of tourists moving back and forth in neat tidal patterns with great interest. Liv got out her book. Jonno’s wife Marlene had given it to her, saying that the main character reminded her of Liv, and the book had become fiercely irritating to her, a labour to be toiled through. Every time the heroine thought anything Liv was overcome with a crawling dislike, and all the heroine did was think things.
“I can’t tell anymore if I would like this if Marlene hadn’t said I was like the main character,” she said at last, and laid the book down on its face, watching its pages crinkle with calm malicious pleasure.
“But that’s how Marlene understands art,” Sidra said, without looking away from the square. “She fits it into her world.”
“She makes art smaller,” Liv said.
“But her world bigger,” Sidra said, “and Marlene is very pragmatic.” She turned back to flash Liv a shark smile. “Do you think you are like this book girl?”
“I don’t know,” Liv said. “I’m worried I am. She’s silent all the time and too passive and shy.”
“People are frequently telling me you’re shy,” Sidra said. “I always want to tell them that I think you’re just not that interested in talking to them.”
Liv thought this over. She had the feeling she had been paid a great and terrible compliment and wasn’t sure how to react. “This girl in the book never wants anything,” she said. “She has sex with people because they want her and she doesn’t have the energy to say no. She does whatever people tell her to do. I know I can be quiet, but I want things.”
“Yes,” Sidra said, and cracked her knuckles one by one, tugging each finger thoughtfully.
Anyway, Liv thought, Sidra didn’t talk much, and nobody thought she was lost.
It took her hours to sleep in their hostel that night, discomforted by the restless noises of eight strangers and the parties that stumbled back at one AM and then again at three. Eventually she tuned in on Sidra’s breath, the hitch in her lungs where her mild sleep apnea kicked in, and fell asleep straining her ears for the next inhalation. She was relieved to pick up their bikes the next day, whole and unharmed, and to ride back onto the road that was their main track and nearly deserted in every other way.
Liv finally fell halfway along the Curonian Spit. The light came dappled and strange through the trees, slipping from burnt honey into deep shadow, the pines twisting and unfamiliar, and Liv, out of her head with the weird beauty of it, caught her wheel under a tree root as she spun along and went right over her handlebars. She sat on the ground winded, the heels of her hands as grittily pink as the morning’s sunrise. There were long dirty scrapes along her knees. She gasped for breath, caught it on a sob.
She looked at her bike’s wheel spinning. She thought, a little amused, Well, that’s that. It was unclear to her what was over, but she felt very certain that something was.
Shortly after she heard the scuffling thud of wheels through leaves and Sidra came back around the bend in the path. She jumped off her bike and knelt by Liv’s side.
“Oh, no,” she said, half-absently, like she was talking to herself. She took Liv’s wrist in her palms, cradled it carefully, turning it back and forth. She ran her strong hands down Liv’s shins, brushing off some of the dirt and looking at the grit that welled up underneath. “What happened?”
“How did you get back so fast?” Liv said, staring.
“You were singing,” Sidra said. “I heard when you stopped.”
They looked at each other for a moment, Sidra’s hands cupped around Liv’s knees.
“Does it hurt very badly?” Sidra asked.
Liv shrugged. Sidra said, “Well, I have alcohol wipes,” and set to cleaning the scrapes. She put thick pink bandages down over Liv’s knees, standing out clean and fleshy against Liv’s tanned legs and dark hair. She spent longer on Liv’s hand, picking out the tiny stones and splinters that had lodged in it, her eyebrows drawn together, intensely focused, quietly rotating Liv’s wrist and listening to the way she hissed. It hurt a great deal, but Liv felt weirdly peaceful, up high, like she’d given the pain over into Sidra’s hands and didn’t mind what Sidra did with it.
“I think it is not sprained, only a bad landing,” Sidra said finally, strapping Liv’s weak wrist up tightly with some of the clean white bandage from her medical pack. It reminded Liv of being a kid and begging her grandmother to tuck her into bed, her grandma laughing above her and pulling the sheets so tight that Liv couldn’t move, her shoulders pinned to the mattress, her feet slipping helplessly to the side because there wasn’t enough room to point up. She’d spend ages falling asleep, not out of discomfort, just unwilling to give up the painful security of it all, knowing she’d wake up in the morning having fought herself free.
Liv looked up at Sidra, dazed. Sidra laughed. “You look drugged,” she said. “You want some painkillers?”
“Ibuprofen in my saddle bag,” Liv remembered. Sidra came back with the packet and Liv swallowed two dry, the sugar casing sliding slick over her tongue.
“Well,” Sidra said. She tilted her head to the side.
“I’ll be all right in a minute,” Liv said, but Sidra shook her head.
“No hurry,” she said, and shrugged. “Let’s camp here today.”
Liv stared. “It’s only midday.”
“We’re meant to get to Poland today.”
“We have time,” Sidra said mildly. “This is what we planned the extra days for.”
“For emergencies,” Liv said, and felt tears prick in the corners of her eyes. “This isn’t an emergency.”
“This can count,” Sidra said. She put a hand on Liv’s shoulder. “What’s the rush?”
Liv started to cry, ragged embarrassing sobs. She thought about how Sidra had heard her singing, how other cyclists would probably hear this. Sidra looked taken aback. She sat awkwardly next to Liv and put her arm around her shoulders. Liv leaned into her, crying harder.
“I think I should be offended,” Sidra said. “I am often nice. It is not so unusual you need to cry.”
Liv laughed, choked through her tears. She dragged her sticky face against Sidra’s pullover.
“Come on,” Sidra said. “You can walk a little? Let’s get off the path. Wait, let me hide the bikes.”
She took the bags off Liv’s bike and deposited them neatly by Liv, then slung Liv’s bike up over one shoulder. She took a firm grip of her own bike’s handlebars and steered it away into the woods. Liv looked away so she wouldn’t watch the taut curving line of Sidra’s biceps. She came back five minutes later a little breathless and said, “There’s a clearing not so far,” and hauled all of Liv’s bags up onto her shoulders. “Wait a moment.”
When she came back Liv had levered herself up to standing, leaning against a tree. Her legs didn’t feel jammed and unknown the way her hand did, like someone had slabbed something new on her without paying any attention to how well it matched, but they were still trembling and the grazes stung. She let Sidra gather her against her side without protest. She imagined Sidra dissembling her the way she did with the bikes, hauling Liv over one shoulder without ceremony. They made their way into the little clearing, where Sidra deposited Liv on a tree stump and they ate lunch, their latest sandwiches thick with Lithuanian ham that tasted processed and tinny.
“Ehrlich gesagt, I don’t mind staying here an extra day,” Sidra said. She frowned, blinked. Liv didn’t say anything. She liked it when Sidra slipped between German and English, when they were so quiet and close that it was hard to remember what to think in. “Strange to have only one day in a country.”
Liv shrugged. “It’s pretty,” she said.
“Shall I tell you the facts?” Sidra said. Liv laughed. “The facts I have learned for you! I did not want to be caught out. I did not want another Russian amigos situation. Though I’m sure you know them all. Do you know about the giantess?”
“I stopped reading my guidebook,” Liv said. “I’m building up the nerve to use it for fuel. The what?”
Sidra threw her head back and laughed. “You’re too good for it?”
“The maps are useful but everything else was depressing me,” Liv said. “It kept saying things like this area takes a while to grow on you and although not immediately obvious, Latvia is very beautiful. I was wrong if I thought wherever we were was pretty and wrong if I didn’t. It was all about second glances and second chances, and we can’t be late.”
“You could tear out the maps and keep them,” Sidra suggested, “and burn the rest.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Liv said, not sure if she could reconcile herself to such a final action. “What about the giantess?”
“Can you walk?” Sidra said. “You’ve had some food. I think it’s good if you move your body a little, don’t let it… calcify.”
Liv wanted, immediately, to say no. Sidra stood up and held out her hand and Liv glared up at her, sullen like a child. But Sidra was implacable, immoveable, her face clear as the sky. Liv took her hand.
They walked slowly back towards the cycle path and then across it and through the break of trees.
“So in the stories the giantess lived here,” Sidra said. “Her name was Neringa and she was not so much with the — the — what does he say?”
“Fee-fi-fo-fum,” Liv said, and noticed a shell, buried deep in the forest mud. She knelt on stinging knees and picked it up, rubbing her thumb over the whorl. Sidra waited patiently, turned over and then back again several beetles with electric blue backs, before they kept walking.
“Yes, that’s it,” Sidra said. “My mother always used to say fee-fi-fo-fummy. Anyway, Neringa was not like that, she was very nice and she was friends with all the villagers, and she used to sit with them and eat their food and talk with them and carry the village children around on her shoulders. And she liked that they lived here, so she built up a mound of sand to keep the Baltic waves from hurting the village. And so the bay.”
“Right,” Liv said, and they pushed through the last ragged gasp of trees. Sea in front of them and lagoon behind. Liv thought of lagoons with tropical weather and palm trees sheltered all around; this water was dark and deep. “So they lived here?”
“No,” Sidra said, pointing back beyond the lagoon to the mainland. “There. The problem was, there was a horrible sea dragon—”
“Both. Either. His name was Naglis, and he fell terribly in love with Neringa, and brought her gifts from the sea, pretty pearl crowns or lost shipwreck treasures, and always the best fish for her and her villagers. Sometimes he brought driftwood that the villagers built houses from. And for a time Neringa was happy to have Naglis there to fight off the other dangers of the sea, and to bring such nice things, and especially during the winter, when it was too dangerous for the fishermen to go out on the sea.”
“Handy,” Liv agreed.
“But eventually, Naglis realised that Neringa did not love him in return, and he grew very angry and very sad. At first he just took back his gifts, the jewellery and the treasures, and dropped them jealously at the bottom of the sea. Then he burned down the houses that had been built with his driftwood. It was all his, he thought, and it was his right to take it back.” She turned to look at Liv, because Liv had stopped walking. “But he couldn’t take back the fish that had been eaten or the lives that had been saved, so instead he began to eat the villagers, one by one, all of Neringa’s friends, every mouth that had tasted the fish Naglis brought for them, every hand that hadn’t had to hold a sail in a winter storm. And then Neringa became very sad, and very worried.”
Sidra pointed, down at the ground they stood on.
“So she built this strip of sand between the bay and the Baltic, and the dragon was kept away forever, and he could not hurt any of her subjects again.”
“Cool,” Liv said. “Fuck you, Sidra.”
Sidra glanced up at her, startled. “You don’t like—”
“You’re a nasty fucking piece of work,” Liv said, and turned back for the campsite. She hurried at first, but her knees hurt and her wrist was throbbing and after a while it became apparent that Sidra wasn’t following her. She slowed to a limp. Her throat pulsed with heat. She thought about the cool barrier of a strip of sand. Well, Sidra wasn’t that fucking strong.
She was sitting on her tree stump pretending to read when Sidra came back. She was too furious, too embarrassed, to focus on the text; the words crawled boring and hateful over the page. She didn’t look up at the sound of Sidra’s footsteps, and Sidra said, “Ah, you are still angry.”
Liv stayed silent, felt it like a wall.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” Sidra said. She sounded almost apologetic, which was rare. “I didn’t think you would take it like that. I don’t see you as a dragon, I didn’t think you would.”
Liv’s cheeks burned hot.
“Liv,” Sidra said. “You know it is complicated.”
“It’s not complicated,” Liv said. “You forced me out here. I didn’t even want to be on this trip.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about,” Sidra said. She stood in front of Liv for a long time, hands open and waiting. Finally, she said, “Obviously I want to fuck you.”
Heat slammed into Liv’s spine. She didn’t say anything. After a while Sidra turned away and began to set up the tent. As soon as she was done Liv crawled into it. She wasn’t used to being in the tent during the day; the light was all red and yellow, filtered through the fabric, and it was hot and warm, so close that she felt like she was lying under a bed, trapped somewhere with just enough air for her. She pressed her face against the pillow. She only meant to nap, or sulk, but she fell into a deeper sleep than she expected; when she woke up it was dark and Sidra was asleep by her side, curled politely away.
Liv climbed out of the tent. The stars were all out; she thought it had to be past midnight. It was still quite warm, though the breeze was cool. She wandered in a slow circle around their campsite, squatted by a tree at the edge of the clearing to piss. She couldn’t hear any animals but she could hear the sea on either side of them, the waves breaking and the hiss of foam caught by the wind further out. She flexed her hands by her side. The air smelled clean like salt. Right then Liv wanted to be clean very badly.
In silent agreement they packed up the tent early the next morning and got straight back on the cycle path. Liv’s hand had gone back to normal overnight, just a little tender, and the scrapes along her knees and shins weren’t so bad. Sidra rode ahead, but not very far, never out of sight. Finally, she slowed until Liv caught up with her.
“Look,” she said, pointing to a crossroad sign up ahead. “I think that is Polish, not Lithuanian.”
“You don’t think they would have signposted the border?” Liv said.
Sidra shrugged. “Maybe. We might have missed it.”
Liv felt sure that they hadn’t, that instead the cycle path had given up on them, was letting them fall through countries and borders with no attention or care. They had ten days until Jonno’s party. But after a little while longer they came across the Vistula, so they must have been on Polish ground. The first country Liv had been to before, like a rope leading her home.
After a silent roadside lunch with supplies from the latest village, when the sun was beginning to sink again, the little dark shadow of Sidra ahead tilted sharply sideways and split in two. Liv squinted. She rode further and sped up, but by the time she got to where Sidra had fallen she was already standing, dusting off her knees, examining the graze on her elbows with sheepish interest.
“Are you hurt?” Liv asked dumbly. She thought of how easily Sidra had taken control of the situation yesterday. She wasn’t sure she could.
“No, I’m fine,” Sidra said. Liv got off her bike and padded over to look at Sidra’s elbow. Sidra watched her, eyes wide and surprised. Something shifted in Liv, grudgingly, like a stone shouldered to the side.
“I can’t believe you fell right after me,” Liv said. “You’re trying to steal my thunder.”
“No,” Sidra said. She bent her head to Liv’s, still surprised. “You just reminded me I could.”
They swam in the Vistula. A terrible name, Liv told Sidra, it sounded like fistula, it sounded nothing like it was, this blue stretch, heat wavering above it, dipping in and out of cities, bending back and forth from their path like a hesitant friend. Sidra stayed where she was, floating on her back in the sunshine, eyes closed, and said, “Mm, well, it’s Wisla in Polish.”
“We should call it that in English, then,” Liv said, indignant. “What do they call it in German?”
Sidra didn’t answer, near asleep and cradled by the effortless gravity of the water.
They swam every day. The Vistula was warm the way the Baltic hadn’t managed even on the hottest days, and the roads were deserted. They swam before lunch, to get their appetite up, and in mid-afternoon, when the dust of the road was sticking to them and Liv’s shoulders tensed up and knotted from her bad posture. They swam in the early evenings and mornings, when the moon hung at the same clear spot above them.
Sidra swam naked. After the first awkward day Liv did too. There was never anyone else around, as though the whole continent but them had given up on the bike path, and the two of them pretended not to look. Liv saw Sidra in flashes: her short, strong legs striped shadowy with hair, the swollen peak of a nipple, her shoulder blades tense in her back, shifting as she prowled across the bank.
Liv ducked her head, shouldered in with a wriggle. She hadn’t been home in three years but sometimes she felt all the weird heft of her Australian-ness. She surfaced and scrubbed her knuckles against her shoulders, searching for salt. It was still odd to swim in freshwater, she was a girl used to seas, and the silty coolness of the river made her skin feel unfamiliar. She kicked hard to stay in the same spot, while Sidra fought idle battles with a lazy tide.
They lay on the grassy bank to dry out. They were indulgent with their hours, now that they were in the final stretch and making better time than either of them had expected. That old knot of pain in Liv’s thigh and arse was long gone; her body felt newly made and strong. She wanted to prove its strength. Every time Sidra looked at her the sky seemed bluer and larger and full of possibilities, and Sidra kept looking.
“Did you get Jonno a present?” Sidra asked, startling Liv out of her doze. Liv propped herself up on one elbow in the long grass, but Sidra was still lying there with her eyes closed, her hair wispy at her shoulders.
“Of course. Wait, did you?”
“I ran out of time,” Sidra said.
“How is that possible?” Liv demanded. “He’s been talking about this for years. He sent out the save-the-dates in February!”
“I know, well, that was very early,” Sidra said. “So I didn’t worry about it then. I looked a little before we went away but there was so much to do for this trip…”
“Sidra,” Liv said, laughing helplessly.
“What did you get him?”
“A sweater,” Liv said, and then, when Sidra squinted open one eye, “It’s a really nice sweater.” It was, and Jonno was vain. “I can’t believe you haven’t got him anything. He’s your friend, really.”
“He knows not to expect anything, then,” Sidra said, and Liv supposed that was true. Sidra and Jonno had been friends for an impossibly long time, nearly twelve years, having met when Sidra worked at the cafe where Jonno had spent several months trying to write the Great Expat Novel. He didn’t do much writing and it wasn’t long after that that he switched his attention to early SEO work, which had paid off better in the long run. For reasons Liv still struggled to understand Sidra had befriended him and in the evenings the two of them had gone to Kneipes and argued about Merkel and Howard in mangled German and English. Sidra was nine years younger than Jonno but treated him with all the fondness and dismissal of a little brother, and Jonno regarded Sidra with a certain degree of seriousness that was unusual in his life.
And it was Sidra, too, who had introduced Jonno to Marlene, in a constellation of events and people that made Liv feel especially young and intrusive, aware that there was some secret or history here unknown or untold to outsiders, reminding her of her own new status within the group. Marlene had been Sidra’s professor in her never-quite-finished Masters degree, an art historian who’d taken a liking to Sidra. They’d transitioned from long, fevered—often angry, Sidra had once mentioned, which seemed dangerous—discussions in Marlene’s office hours to glasses of wine at graduate conferences. Marlene invited Sidra to dinner parties at Marlene’s beautiful, expensive flat in Schöneburg, late night affairs with a range of academics and favoured students and visitors from Marlene’s exotic circle of contacts, and one night, for reasons that Liv still found foggy at best, Sidra had brought Jonno along with her. Liv would allow that she could see the attraction once he’d arrived: Jonno’s straightforward pleasure in Marlene’s intelligence, her looks, her glittering circle; his brash Australian laugh; the “refreshing,” Marlene said, “quality of his commentary.” They’d married six months later.
Sidra rolled over, laid her face against the grass and sighed. She was closer now, though not closer than the nights in their shared tent. Without thinking about it, Liv said, “Did you and Marlene ever sleep together?”
“No,” Sidra said sleepily. “We discussed it but it never happened.”
“You discussed it?” Liv stared, but Sidra didn’t like echoed questions and didn’t respond. Liv said, “Has Marlene ever been with a woman?”
“Mm, of course,” Sidra said.
“Was she ever in a relationship with one?”
Sidra squinted open one eye, turning her face to the side, her nose squashed against her arm. “Not as far as I know. Is it important?”
“Not really,” Liv said. She let out a breath. “Why didn’t you, then? What did you discuss?”
“We decided it wouldn’t be constructive,” Sidra said.
The soles of Liv’s feet were tingling. “Does sex have to be constructive?”
“Not necessarily,” Sidra said. Her eyes were closed again.
“Was it because she wanted a relationship,” Liv said, not quite able to control the mocking ring to her voice, “and you can’t be tied down—”
“No, no,” Sidra said, “I would have probably dated her, at the time.”
Liv shut her mouth.
Sidra stretched, sighed. “Perhaps I will buy him a book,” she said, “or a… watch.”
“What do men want,” Liv said, still with that awful mocking note she couldn’t spit out. Sidra smiled, but didn’t open her eyes. Liv said, “Oh, you can discuss it with Marlene but not with me?”
“We can discuss it if you like,” Sidra said. “I’m not sure it will help.”
Liv bounced her tongue against her teeth. The sun was so warm, just hot enough to exert pressure, like someone was weighing her down with a rock in each palm, riverstones fitted to the hollows of her ankles. All of a sudden she wanted to be moving swiftly by a lake again, something huge but contained. She was done with rivers.
“We should start riding again,” Sidra murmured, and groped for her underwear. She slid it on, and then pulled on her t-shirt with that sweet jerk of the collar over her head, the dyke-shrug, tugging it bare over her breasts. She looked at Liv, raised an eyebrow. Liv stretched out in the sunshine and Sidra laughed. She slid her hand into Liv’s wet hair and gave her a gentle shake. “Come on.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Liv said, getting dressed, and let Sidra pull her to her feet. She stood smiling at Sidra and that afternoon they rode fast, chasing each other along the green flat of the country.
Two nights before the party they camped by the Polish border. It was an uninspiring spot, an unwelcoming backyard charging 20 Zloty for a pitch, but there were too many highways and suburbs around to find much in the way of wild camping. Liv walked alone to the tin shed operating as a unisex bathroom and brushed her teeth while a twenty-year-old guy leered at her. He said something in Italian, then English. Liv ignored him. She jumped, her mouth full of foam, and tapped her hand against the shivery timbers holding up the roof, felt her thighs bunch and release. She was half-swaggering when she went back to their tent.
Sidra sat half-in and half-out. “I’m very sick of these,” she said, holding up a protein bar. It was her first complaint of the trip; Liv wondered if she’d been holding onto it all these weeks or if it had only just wandered across her mind. Either seemed equally likely.
Liv sat cross-legged in front of her on the patchy grass. “Do you think I could beat someone up now?”
Sidra looked amused. “I am not sure cycling gives you very strong fists.”
“Well, we’ll see,” Liv said, flexing her fingers extravagantly and eyeing the campground. They played 66 until it got too dark to see the cards, and then they crawled into the tent and lay awake, murmuring to each other, rehearsing highlights, feeling out the partnered anecdotes they’d present.
“The girl with the white cat in a basket in Valka,” Liv said. “That salmon brötchen before we caught the ferry at the edge of Kalingrad—”
“The couple who put their tent up directly under a lamp post, and you said they were afraid of the dark—”
“The one nice dinner place in Riga, with the pasta, what was it—”
“Mint, capers, tomatoes, parmesan, tagliatelle—and you had to leave and get change because they couldn’t cash a 50 Euro note—”
“The period where I bled so much without noticing my jeans were stiff like plastic—”
“And you thought animals might smell it—”
“That pilgrimage trail in Estonia—God, we should have done that, let’s go back and do it—”
The night went cold, some last finger of winter. They rolled in close in their sleeping bags like two very clumsy and stupid but affectionate slugs. Liv knocked her forehead against Sidra’s shoulder, grinned up at her, and Sidra laughed at her, let Liv nuzzle in, her face tucked against Sidra’s throat. Right then the fact that Sidra was not in love with her did not feel so very terrible: they had ridden two thousand kilometres together, across the long lovely breadth of the continent. Liv pressed her closed eye against the sharp point of Sidra’s chin and pushed up just enough that the ache felt curious. Her eyelashes fluttered, twitching, and Sidra kept laughing, as though Liv and her love were a gift and not something to be kindly borne.
In the morning they crossed the border into Germany and rode their last hundred kilometres. It barely took five hours. Brandenburg’s forests were spring-filthy, birds sweeping above rotting green mulch and fields lousy with grass seed. In Buckow’s sunny hostility Sidra said, “You know, we could just get the train from here,” and Liv threw her a look of disdain and sped up. Sidra overtook her as easily as ever but at least she didn’t offer that again, not even when they passed the first S-Bahn stations.
Berlin had woken while they were gone. The light was blue-golden and sweet, drifting welcoming through the streets, and there were people wandering by the canal, having late lunches with beer out on the corners, eyeing Sidra and Liv and their grimy loads with blank interest. Other cyclists zipped around them, thin backpacks on unburdened steel frames. Liv swerved to avoid a pedestrian and felt slow for the first time in a month.
At Paul-Lincke-Ufer Sidra braked and Liv froze in the middle of the street. A car horn blared and she startled into unsteady motion, flushing and making the faintly aggressive hand motion, all that was left of her muscle memory, while the driver yelled at her through his window. She pulled up next to Sidra.
“This is my turning,” Sidra said. For the first time Liv noticed the dark shadows under her eyes.
“Right,” she said.
“I am sure all of our things are mixed up,” Sidra said, gesturing between their separate saddle bags. “But it can wait, I think. I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“I—right,” Liv said.
Sidra raised her eyebrows. “Unless you want to get a coffee?”
“No, I should—I should unpack,” Liv said. She felt the gentle weight of real life hovering, like a coat someone else was still settling around her shoulders. “And do some laundry, maybe. And have a real shower.”
“I am going to sleep in my own bed,” Sidra said, a little dreamily. “I am going to sleep all day.”
“Yeah,” Liv said. Sidra leaned in and Liv flinched back. She rode home with Sidra’s attempted hug stewing in her head.
Her house was quiet and clean, its walls so empty that it felt like a monk’s cell, whitewashed and simple. She dumped her stuff and then went to the Turkish bakery on the corner, bought dark knotted bread and milk and butter. At home she discovered she was out of teabags and drank hot water diluted with milk, like a child at a tea party. She ate the toast with the butter slathered on and melted in and salt sprinkled over the top. She took a long, long shower. She put on a t-shirt that she hadn’t worn in almost six months, a faded logo at the top from a tech conference. She plugged her phone in and left it in the kitchen. She went to her bed, fell onto her face and her hand, heel of her palm pressing anxiously at her pelvic bone, clean underwear already ruined.
“Darling,” Marlene said, and took Liv into her arms, hugging her close then pushing her back, long delicate fingers on Liv’s shoulders, holding her at arms length and taking a long look at her. “Goodness. How brown you are.”
Liv twitched a little in her grip. “Hiya,” she said.
“We’ve missed you,” Marlene said, and led her inside. Marlene and Jonno were the only people Liv knew in Berlin who didn’t live in an apartment building, though Marlene had held onto her old Schöneburg apartment, subletting it for long stretches of time—once to Liv. Their house was in Krumme Lanke, tucked on a hillside corner, a rabbit warren of rooms and a backyard with a view down onto the lake. It was the most hopelessly adult house Liv had known since her parents’, and right then it was bustling with preparation; caterers carrying silver trays through the living room, construction workers wandering past the windows, the dog bounding round yelping joyfully at everyone.
Liv blinked, looking around. “Why did you tell me to come so early?” she said. “Marlene, this is crazy—”
“But we wanted to see you,” Marlene said. “You’ve been gone so long.”
“A month,” Liv said. Truthfully, she thought it would not be unusual for her to see Marlene and Jonno only once every fortnight or so. She eyed Marlene, suspicion crawling up her neck.
“You know what parties are like,” Marlene said, “I wanted to get a chance to talk to you,” and she touched the small of Liv’s back and led her through the house. “Let’s go outside, it’s calmer there. You don’t mind the noise, do you?”
In the backyard Jonno was presiding over a small crew assembling a long beechwood table, sawdust gathering in the corners. The pavilion was collapsed on the ground beside it, a hung bundle of tent poles and fabric, and across the long sweep of grass cornflowers lay dappled as though they’d sprung up in his path. A half-drooping trail of unfinished birthday garlands tangled around the crooked knot of the big oak tree, and everywhere marigolds with their bright heads came cropping up. Jonno spotted Marlene and Liv and jogged over, raising a hand and a boyish smile.
“Welcome back, mate,” he said, and hugged her. She kissed his bristly cheek. “Christ, you’re tanned. Want a beer?”
“Sure,” Liv said. “Happy birthday!”
“Well, it’s not until Tuesday,” Jonno said, grinning hugely and retreating to the esky to get an Augustiner for her. He knocked its cap off against the corner of the unfinished table, untroubled by the scowls of the German workmen.
“On the actual night we will have a vigil,” Marlene said. “We will wear homespun clothes and eat only a little fish and greens and pray.”
“No, no,” Jonno said and handed Liv the beer. “We’ll just get takeout and go see a movie or something.”
“Hmm,” Marlene said.
Liv laughed. “Or maybe you’ll still be hungover from tonight.”
“It’s possible,” Jonno said. “But tell us about the grand trip! Sidra won’t even answer her phone, I take it you didn’t kill her—”
“She’s probably still sleeping,” Liv said. “It was—it was great. I don’t know. It was a lot of cycling.”
“Three and a half thousand k, jaysus,” Jonno said, shaking his head, and Liv started to correct him, explain how they’d had to chop off the last thousand or so kilometres, but one end of the table collapsed and Jonno hurried back to start cheerfully arguing in badly accented German with the guys setting it up.
Marlene drew Liv over to a corner of the backyard where it was a little quieter; they lay down in the clover and Liv answered Marlene’s questions haltingly, tried to explain the long, painful dream of it. Then Marlene was called away to direct the pavilion erection and then the catering and never quite came back. Liv didn’t mind. She sipped her beer so slowly it went flat as she drank it and napped in her spot of sun. She felt luxurious and beautiful in her black party dress, with its sheer sleeves and the low hem hovering halfway down her newly dark thighs; felt clean and triumphant. She would lie here in the grass and wait, she thought, as though Sidra was an arrow who would make her fleet helpless way to Liv. Liv already had the pain of it, she just needed the moment of strike, the collision, and today had to be the day it would come, their first twenty-four hours of separation in a month endured, the quiet certainty of knowledge that this was it.
She lay half-dreaming, listening to the party growing around her: the heaving up of the pavilion, the testing of the speakers and then the chopping shuffle of Jonno’s particular brand of indie folk, the popping of the first bottles of champagne and a low lovely clinking as glasses were arrayed all up and down the long table. When someone settled in beside her she smiled and didn’t open her eyes, her ankles crossed neatly, but the touch on the inside of her elbow was hesitant and when she looked it was only Elisa, one of the regulars at Marlene’s favourite bar.
The party assembled itself with light gravity. The last signs of preparations disappeared as the crowd filtered in, and the sky went the hazy warm blue it would stay for hours. Liv smacked her lips at the unfamiliar taste of lipstick, but her second beer went down easier than her first, and her third even better. She drifted from group to group. Everyone had heard about the bike trip; everyone asked. Liv tried out a few of the anecdotes to decent effect. Her neck prickled everywhere she went, and she kept stumbling, as though people were standing on the edge of her shadow. She was glad she hadn’t worn heels.
Everything was warm. Liv thought about hot air rising and wondered if she could be caught by one of the drifts in the night. She switched to champagne. The bubbles were stinging at her dry nose when Sidra put her palm on Liv’s shoulder. Liv swung to her; Sidra was already distracted, smiling across the backyard to where someone was calling her name.
“Hullo, friend,” Sidra said.
“Hallo, friend,” Liv said.
Sidra was wearing green high-waisted trousers and a white linen shirt, lazily buttoned. She looked handsome and untouchable, the rough ragged lines of her hidden away. She looked neat and contained, and Liv resented the lie.
“Did you get some sleep?” Liv said.
“Mm, yes,” Sidra said. She kept her hand on Liv’s shoulder but her gaze was tracking across the backyard, taking in the people, lingering on strangers, smiling when she caught sight of Jonno gesturing exuberantly. “And Marlene and I went to Geist im Glas this morning—I had forgotten how good pancakes could be. What?” she added, as Liv stared.
“Marlene said she hadn’t spoken to you,” Liv said, frowning, and then amended, “well, Jonno said it—”
“I did not see Jonno,” Sidra said, shrugging.
“But Marlene was right there.” Liv passed her hand against her brow; pricks of sweat beading there, too many people here and her black dress soaked in evening sun. She felt confused, as though she had been told some pointless lie that she couldn’t understand. “She was nodding…”
Sidra’s hand screwed tighter around Liv’s shoulder. “You look very pretty,” she said.
Liv looked at the ground. She was drunk, she realised. Nothing made sense. Someone called Sidra’s name, and Sidra told Liv that she would see her in a bit, unhooked herself, and sailed away. Liv went looking for more champagne and was given a glass of Sauvignon Blanc instead, good enough to taste more like mineral water than wine, slipping through her. She tried to remember if they’d drank at all on the trip; she thought they might have bought a few bottles of beer one afternoon in Latvia on the seashore, but all she could recall was the taste of ginger ale.
She mentioned this to a passing Marlene, who misunderstood and brought her a Moscow Mule.
Dinner was brought out in glass bowls and wooden platters, a long spread of salads: mango with bright sparks of chillies and coriander; thin green slices of apple and fennel; potato salad made with turmeric so it was a sweet burnished gold; penne tossed with zucchini and basil pesto. And heavy round loaves of Turkish bread, cold cuts, hummus streaked with paprika in matte silver bowls. Liv passed along it, dazed. She felt as though she was recovering from a very long illness, and ate sparingly.
She spent quite a long time talking to another Australian, a fashionably bearded guy from Sydney who’d only moved to Germany nine months ago. He told her his impressions of Berlin in great and authoritative detail. When she mentioned the bike trip he became exhaustingly enthusiastic and asked her a lot of questions, touching her more and more as she responded, his hand on her elbow or her waist. She excused herself and went to the bathroom, put her head against her knees. She came back out and drank some water.
Marlene rang a heavy antique bell, indulgent. Everyone gathered into a crowd. Champagne was passed around.
Liv expected Marlene to make a speech, but instead Sidra came forward. She climbed on a chair, one hand balancing on Jonno’s shoulder. She said, “Well, I rode two thousand kilometers to get to this party, and I guess it was worth it.” Jonno beamed up at her. Liv wanted to heckle.
Sidra gave a short, abrupt speech about Jonno: his warmth, his confusing Australian habit of ending normal statements as though they were questions, his ability to make the best of any situation. “Once we were on the U-bahn,” Sidra said, “and the train stopped suddenly between the stations. It went dark, there was a lot of static, people were worried and children were crying, and Jonno turned to me and said, ‘thank God, I thought I’d never get the chance to finish my book.’”
Liv had never made the best of any situation in her life. Marlene stepped forward and said, “My husband,” and something else Liv didn’t catch, and then people started clapping, parting as the cake was brought out to a cheer and a halting round of Happy birthday to you, Jonno’s face bright in the glow. Liv slipped away and went to vomit tidily in the bushes.
The next beer tasted awful, made her stomach swell. She shook her head when someone offered her a slice of cake.
“Liv,” Marlene said, appearing beside her. She put a cool arm around Liv, who pressed her hot brow against Marlene’s shoulder.
“I think I’m going to leave Berlin,” Liv said. “It’s time to go back home.”
“I’m not joking.”
“I know you’re not,” Marlene said, smoothing Liv’s sticky hair back.
“But you don’t believe me,” Liv said.
“I believe you,” Marlene said. “But you often want to leave Berlin when you’re upset. Where will you go?”
“Sorry,” Liv said. “I’ve had too much to drink.”
Marlene turned and tucked Liv’s face against her collarbone. “My poor girl,” she said. “There are worse things in the world than someone not loving you back,” which meant Sidra had told her everything, or worse, hadn’t had to, and Marlene had read Liv’s dumb unhappy face as capably as Sidra herself.
Liv breathed out. Marlene took Liv’s hand in hers and they swayed back and forth, just conceivably dancing. “I hated that book you gave me,” Liv murmured, but Marlene didn’t hear her.
When Marlene was distracted Liv slipped away. The last of the light had disappeared while her head was hidden against Marlene’s party dress, and Liv walked to the train station in the dark, her mesh bag so weightless now that its present was gone that she felt worryingly untethered. The train moved so easily. Liv stood leaning against the doors, contemptuous.
Liv had just left her station when her phone rang and she picked it up without thinking. “Hi,” she said, sulky as a child waiting to be told off, but Sidra only said, “Hello.” She sounded breathless and far away, no music, no conversation, just a weird rustling on the other end of the line and her voice tinny. Liv wondered if she’d forgotten what Sidra’s voice sounded like when it wasn’t dropped directly into her ear, but then Sidra said, “Can you hear me? I’m riding.”
The image hit Liv like a fist: Sidra on her bike, lit by that huge golden moon, no helmet, one earbud in and the other flicking out like a thin white tail in the night. Though all she said was, “Did you seriously bike to the party?”
“Of course,” Sidra said.
“You didn’t want a break?”
“I love my bike,” Sidra said, faintly surprised, and Liv laughed loud and long enough that she knew she was still drunk.
“I know,” she said, “I know you do. I’m just surprised you’re leaving so early.”
“I’m not,” Sidra said. “I’m going back. Jonno is panicking that they’re running out of ice, I’m riding to the 24-hour Edeka. You left, though.”
“Yeah,” Liv said.
Sidra didn’t say anything else, though Liv could hear the light labour of her breath and the low squeak her brakes had started making somewhere in Lithuania, as familiar to Liv as the sound of her own footsteps. More familiar.
“Walking feels really slow,” Liv said, “all of a sudden.”
“Mm,” Sidra said, then, “fuck, I went the wrong way.”
“You gotta go right on—”
“Right on Forckenbeckstraße, I know,” Sidra said. “I was distracted; I was thinking about you.”
“I think the best thing we can do,” Sidra said cheerfully, “is ignore it.”
“You think that because you’re not the one getting hurt.”
“Still,” Sidra said, “I am not having the best time.”
“I’m sorry it’s such a bummer to not be able to fuck me because you know I’ll get too invested.”
There was the low jingle of Sidra jumping off her bike and getting out her lock. “Well, Liv, I am all ready and waiting for your big idea.”
Liv thought about repeating what she had told Marlene, that she wanted to leave Berlin. She reached her apartment steps and sat on them, holding her keys in one tight fist. She said, “We could fuck anyway.”
“While you are too invested?”
“It might not be so bad,” Liv said. “For a little while.” She paused, thought through rapid misery and Sidra’s hands on her. “I’ll tell you before I start eating your villagers.”
Sidra laughed. “Well,” she said. “I have to get the ice first. Bis bald.”
“Bye,” Liv said.
At home she took her dress and bra off and put on a sweatshirt she’d stolen from Sidra long ago, pale green with Frauenschmiede stamped over her right breast. The sleeves were already too short and she rolled them up more, eyed herself in the mirror. Everyone was right: she was tanned. Her hair was overgrown and tangled. Her arms were lean and her thighs thick with muscle. She even looked taller; actually, she had always been taller than Sidra.