Butterflies & Palindromes
A (Somewhat) Short Story
“I’m sorry but are you planning to run at my exact pace all the way to Bondi Beach? It’s kind of an invasive thing to do to a stranger, you know”
Not even two miles into her Australian coastal run from Coogee to Bondi Beach, just as the chaos in Elle’s mind was beginning to fade and make room for the steadiness of her breath and the clear blue water to take center stage, a barefoot boy with disheveled hair and Billabong board shorts had decided to match her pace, completely throwing off her moment of peace. Elle had tried to hang back and then speed up in an effort to lose him, but the boy only did the same. It must have been at least a kilometer now, Elle thought. Usually polite and non-confrontational with strangers, Elle’s comment was unlike her. But the fact that she had begun to focus on the boy instead of her own breath meant that her single method of clearing her mind — her run — was in jeopardy. She had to get rid of him.
“Canadian Eh?” The stranger nodded to her.
The second Elle had slowed her pace and side glanced at the boy, addressing his intrusive behavior, he had turned 180 degrees in an effortless hop-like motion and was now running backward facing Elle, continuing to match her pace without so much as glancing over his shoulder for rocks or other obstructions.
“Yes… Toronto…how did you know?”
Elle’s voice was hesitant and broken between now uneven and shallow breaths as she responded to the boy. He seemed to be chuckling in a way that Elle took as extremely offensive and mildly compelling at the same time.
“How did I know? C’mon mate! The running on the right side of the path screams foreign, the running in general eliminates European, and the way you just said ‘sorry’ speaks for itself.”
The boy’s thick Australian accent was playful as he beamed at Elle, still running backward, miraculously avoiding what Elle thought would be an inevitable collision.
“I’m sorry, can I help you?”
“There it is again! If you’re ever trying to hide, I’d avoid being too apologetic ‘bout it. You’re “sorry”’s give you away. I’m Otto by the way. Otto Redder.”
Still running backward, the boy extended his right hand to Elle. In response, Elle stopped dead in her tracks and nearly tripped over a shell the size of her toe. The boy — Otto — stopped as well, leaving his hand extended for several seconds before withdrawing it with a frown.
“What, they don’t shake hands up in Canada?”
“No… it’s not that… it’s just…” Elle took a deep breath, “did you happen to be… were you born with that name?”
“Well that’s an odd question to ask a stranger.”
“I’m not the one who just matched a stranger’s jogging pace identically for a straight kilometer.”
“Touché. Alrighty then. Yes ma’am, I was born with my name. Or if we’re getting technical it was bestowed upon me several months prior to my birth. Otto Redder the second. It’s my old man’s name too. Wanted to keep it in the family because he was pretty keen on the fact it’s a perfect — “
“ — palindrome?” Elle blurted out.
“Yeah that’s it. Most people don’t notice that until I tell them or they see it on paper. Good on ya, mate!”
Elle shook her head in amazement. Of course this disheveled, barefoot, intrusive Australian boy would have the type of palindromic, identical-forward-and-backward type of name she would’ve done anything for. How completely unfair. Elle’s mind automatically traveled back a conversation that took place nearly a decade ago.
“There’s a fine line between perfectionism and serious OCD,” her mother had told the counselor. “And I feel like — and please shed light on this for us — that Ella has officially crossed over that line.”
“Elle, mom. Not Ella.”
They had been sitting in the counselor’s office some seven to eight years ago, discussing Elle’s recent intent to alter the final syllable of her given name from “a” to “e”. At twelve years old, this wasn’t merely a childish whim soon to be set aside for another lofty request. Elle (Ella on her original birth certificate) had done her research. She had entered her mother’s room with a confident, definitively even stride, laying the color-coded, highlighted papers out like a paralegal about to argue her case. In the left hand pile of papers were the names, addresses, and contact information for ten different locations offering legal name-changing services, and in the right hand pile of papers was a list of ten perfectly thought out and articulated reasons why her mother ought to agree to this request.
“It won’t even be that different, Mom. I swear. I guess you yourself can keep calling me the old name if you really want… But only you… Under your breath or behind your back… When I can’t hear you. Or maybe in your head would be best. I just… please Mom? I really really really really need you to say yes.”
(That was four really’s. Not the typical imploring three.)
Elle had this thing about even numbers. The perfect symmetry, the splitting in half without anything left over — no overflow, no mess. Elle didn’t just like even numbers, preferring them as many tend to over their odd counterparts. Elle needed even numbers. She desperately needed the symmetry. At age twelve, Elle was all but entirely obsessed with clean-cut perfection.
Hence the need for a palindromic name. In her mind, Ella was an “odd number” name and Elle its even counterpart. She could fold Elle in half, spin it around, read it backwards, and it would remain the same. Two letters only, inverted like one of those finger paint butterfly symmetry art projects she adored in Kindergarten. Her need for the change felt like a dire need for a nail clipping or a haircut. Or to q-tip her ears, brush her teeth, or itch each elbow in exactly the same spot. She needed the change and she need it immediately.
“Your name is so beautiful how it is though, ella-phant!”
Elle’s mom had formulated the nickname for her pretty much day one, when her baby’s tiny infant hands had reached out for the pink plush elephant that dangled over her crib. The inclination toward that particular plush toy was no doubt a function of an elephant’s head-on symmetry, recognizable even to an infant. Two big ears fanning out from the center, elephants in a way reminded Elle of butterflies — soon to become her favorite animal, which she would collect throughout her life.
“Plus it’s already four letters! An even number just how I know you like it. Why are you letting this symmetry thing affect you so much, sweetie? It’s honestly troubling me lately. Can’t you just wear your hair in piggy tails every day the way you used to?”
Elle’s mom had reached over and tucked a loose strand of her daughter’s pin straight, middle parted, shoulder length blonde hair behind her right ear, lingering there for a moment as if searching the twelve-year-old’s face for some hint or notion of understanding. Automatically and immediately, Elle had reached up to her own face and done the same on the left, tucking a strand of her own hair behind her left ear and returning her arm to her side in a single movement. Her mom frowned as Elle burst out into tears — something that the unnaturally composed, perfectly tempered child seldom did.
Elle’s mom had agreed to her daughter’s name change on the grounds that she begin to see a counselor. Maybe if they could talk about Elle’s perfectionism with a professional, it would gradually consume her a little less.
As Elle quickly snapped back to reality, her eyes fell upon this random stranger, now staring at her bemused.
“Mine’s one too. A perfect palindrome. I’m Elle Nolon.” Elle didn’t know why she offered her name. She didn’t share the fact it wasn’t “originally bestowed upon her” like his.
“Would ya look at that. What’s the L short for? Wait let me guess… Lil? Lorol? Lenel? Can’t say I know too many palindromic L names. Enlighten me.”
“No, not the letter L. It’s not short for anything. It’s just Elle. Like that’s the name itself. E-L-L-E.”
Wonderful. The boy was stupid too.
“Ah, my mistake. Well I’m honored to meet another perfect palindrome person. PPP’s. They should have a secret society for us, you know, that meets in old libraries with leather bound books. We’d have to speak a palindromic password to enter and only speak in palindromes for the entire meeting. We’d say sentences like ‘Anne, I vote more cars race Rome to Vienna.’”
It took Elle a second to process the words and their palindromic order.
“Did you just come up with that?” Maybe the boy wasn’t stupid after all.
“Are we not drawn onward to new era?” He began to jog again, and for unknown reasons Elle began to follow closely.
“You mean ‘huh’?”
Elle raised one eyebrow, impressed this time.
“So how bout that handshake?” Otto reached his hand out once more.
Elle still didn’t shake it though. She was weird about handshakes. The last one she had given was to the dean of the University of Toronto upon receiving her diploma graduation day, a moment that she had since tried to forget. Again her mind began to reel. She thought of graduation day and how she had graduated top of her class with a large network of friendly acquaintances, to whom not one of which she had allowed herself to become too connected. On graduation day, after shaking the dean’s way too thick hand, every single one of these acquaintances had embraced her, congratulated her, and asked her what she planned to do with her brilliant accomplishments.
Elle had graduated middle and high school classes with high honors followed by Suma Cum Laude from the University of Toronto. An Applied Mathematics major and Linguistics minor, Elle never credited her outstanding GPA to any sort of intellectual gift. In fact, she had a habit of shrugging off any compliments to her intellect at all. Her unnatural organization and diligence, Elle knew, went hand in hand with her apparent “OCD.” Throughout the academic life of Elle Nolon, not one single class was ever skipped or assignment neglected. Her class notes were so breathtakingly beautiful that peers would often request to purchase their copyrights and sell scanned reproductions. Elle didn’t mind. Word on campus was that some of the purchases weren’t even for academic use — students found her precise penmanship and color coordinated highlighting so aesthetically pleasing that they would often tack her notes on the walls of their dorm rooms for decoration and a little piece of mind.
When her classmates congratulated her, Elle had smiled appreciatively and repeated a harrowing “I don’t know” in response to their questions about her post-graduate plans. The recurrent sound of her uncertain replies had sent her running kilometers from the graduation convention to her favorite park without so much as stopping to change out of her cap and gown. She had clutched her diploma tight to her chest as she ran, creating a sweaty five-finger indent in its plasticy leather cover — something she knew would vex her for eternity but couldn’t avoid in the moment. When she reached the Craigleigh Gardens, Elle burst into the park’s public restrooms to blow her nose. It was only then that she realized she had been crying for the first time she could recall since the twelve-year-old name change incident.
Elle remembered peering through her tears into the aged and slightly opaque public restroom mirror. She had thought her face looked soft and malleable — a melted wax version of her usual pristine, definitive features. The “I don’t know” was still ringing through her ears. How could she not know? She always knew everything. She always knew exactly what she wanted. For the past 21 years, she may not have been able to control everyone and everything around her, but she had at least been able to control her own life without fail. She had had it down to a science — the controlling herself thing. How could this be happening? When Elle returned to the graduation convention and went through the remainder of the day’s festivities. But even then she was silent and evidently preoccupied.
So Elle hated handshakes. And this stranger — Otto — didn’t get it.
“Dammit, I’m mad!”
Did he seriously just speak in another palindrome?
“I take it that last one wasn’t intentional?”
“Now you’re catching on!”
Otto winked his left eye at her and she instantly noticed its piercing green color, striking against his freckled, evidently over-exposed and sun-kissed skin. Elle didn’t usually carry on conversations with strangers. It just wasn’t her thing. In any other circumstance, she would have instantly generated an excuse — catching the bus to make dinner plans and sprinting away or something to that effect. But yet she continued jogging behind the boy, curious as to the next clever series of words that would come out of his mouth in perfectly accented Australian drawl. She told herself listening to him speak for a few minutes would be part of her linguistics research — a study of vowel articulation. Elle had a habit of telling herself excuses like that.
It was quiet for a few moments as the two jogged on. They were both facing forward now.
“Anyhow, the name’s lovely. Lovely name for a lovely girl.”
Again, something that Elle normally would find creepy, or at least invasive coming from a stranger. But instead she blushed. Something must be seriously wrong with her. Maybe she had had too much sun?
“So why the woolie on a run by the beach?
“What’s a woolie?”
Otto gestured toward her beanie, making Elle think it must be another Australian slang term for a hat. Of course he was asking about her hat. Around the end of middle school, Elle had taken to wearing a snug knit beanie. No one thought twice about it — the style was luckily in vogue at the time. But to Elle, the article was a security blanket of sorts. She occasionally felt that her obsessive, symmetrical thoughts were powerfully begging to escape confinement, causing her to lash out and correct every discrepancy surrounding her. With the circumference of the beanie resting snuggly around the peripheral of her head, her thoughts were protected and imprisoned. At age 21, Elle still wore her beanie over her pin straight, middle parted, now waist length blonde hair. Luckily, the temperature at home in Toronto had been rarely high enough to make the article uncomfortable. Of course she had lighter-weight beanie variations for times that called for them, one of which she was wearing now in the Australian heat. Her head was uncomfortable at the moment, but she would never consider removing her beanie. It was necessary. Almost like an oxygen tank, Epipen, or inhaler, she had to have it on her at all times. And now this boy was questioning her beanie and calling it a “woolie.” Elle immediately felt defensive.
“Why no shoes on a rocky path?” She rebutted.
“I asked you first.”
“Sun protection,” Elle lied.
“Tough feet,” Otto responded.
Elle had just realized they were both full on sweating when Otto began to slow to a walk.
“Nar mate, we’ve just arrived at Bondi is all!”
Elle took in the scene — the massive white beach was wide and slightly curved, surrounded by cliffs with the most beautiful colored houses she had ever seen. At the top of the beach was a wooden boardwalk with boards and boards of intricate, bold street art as far as she could see. One of them was a perfect painting of larger-than-life symmetrical butterfly wings, with a space left in the center instead of the butterfly body. A small child stood for a photograph so that it looked as though he was the body of the butterfly. The sun was setting over the beach now and the sky was absolutely pink.
“First time at Bondi? You must be newer to Oz than I thought”
“How’d you know?”
“The way you’re staring, mate! If your jaw dropped another millimeter I believe it would be in the sand!” Otto reached out to Elle’s face with his right hand and gently tapped her hanging chin shut with a single upward motion. Elle flinched and took a step backward, immediately reaching up to touch her own face with her own right hand. Her reaction must have been spastic, since Otto instantly wore a look of embarrassment and confusion.
“Sorry mate…” He stuck his right hand in his board shorts pocket and scratched his unkempt dark hair with his left.
“Don’t be sorry… I just… My skin is sensitive. Must not be used to the Australian sun, I guess. I got really burnt the other day.” Elle lied again. The truth would’ve been that she hated being touched at all by anyone ever. It threw off her equilibrium physically, which was almost worse than throwing off her equilibrium mentally.
“Really?” Otto raised his eyebrows. “That’s odd. Usually a sunburn looks a little less flawlessly porcelain than your skin. What’ve you got on, SPF 100?”
“75 actually.” God this kid was observant.
“Hmm… very impressive feat, managing a sunburn through anything over SPF 50.” Otto smiled, flashing a perfectly white symmetrical smile that made the white sand behind him yellow in comparison. “Wanna grab a Foster’s over at Bucket List?” Otto nodded his head in the direction of several outdoor restaurants lining the boarded sidewalk over by the graffiti boards. “You know, to celebrate your first visit to Bondi and all. And running six kilometers in a woolie, of course.” Again with the wink.
“I don’t drink.” Elle immediately regretted blurting out the words. In high school and college, Elle never drank alcohol or smoked pot. She couldn’t stand to feel out of control or otherwise disconnected with her own thoughts or physical body. Substances of any kind reminded her of the anti anxiety medications that the counselor had once prescribed her in order to “quell the dwell” as he had tried and failed to put it wittily. She shuddered at the memory of that one week she took the pills — at how sluggish and out of control she had felt. If anything, the drugs had worsened her thoughts. In her lethargic, useless, medicated state, Elle had still noticed all that she couldn’t stand, yet couldn’t manage to control her reactions to her surroundings. With the weight of the drugs bearing down on her, Elle felt as though she couldn’t keep it all inside the beanie, so to speak. The alcohol felt the same. She stayed away from it at all costs.
Usually she didn’t feel the least bit ashamed to admit she didn’t drink, and never felt she owed an explanation. But, in the pattern of the last twenty minutes with this perplexing stranger, Elle felt different. She felt the need to provide an excuse. “It um… I heard beer makes sunburns worse.”
Otto raised his eyebrows again. He clearly wasn’t buying it.
“Well then, smoothies it is. Wouldn’t wanna aggravate that blistering sunburn of yours.” He winked again. Why did he have to keep winking like that? Elle was annoyed, not on account of the gesture itself, but because for some inexplicable reason it made her want to say yes to the smoothie. Totally unlike her given as she just met the kid on a freaking run for God’s sake. Her alone time. Her sanctuary. Elle Nolon was so far from running as a means to pick up boys. But she followed him to the smoothie bar anyway and sat next to him on a bench slurping down the tropical sugar slush in front of the almost dark Bondi Beach. This was not like her.
Elle’s love of running had begun in college, when solitary long distance jogs and bike rides had become an all but vital escape tactic. She loved the rhythm of the pedal strokes and even thumping of her sneakers on the pavement. On long runs, she would think about nothing but her own study breathing. In, in, out, out. It was perfect and solitary and gloriously uninterrupted. She loved to be alone.
Elle had never been at a loss for new friends throughout her schooling. Her strikingly perfect appearance was attractive to all walks of people. Peers were always initially drawn to Elle’s sleek blonde hair, deep brown eyes, and flawlessly symmetrical, so-white-it-was almost-transparent smile. Her small, slight stature, soft-spoken voice, and delicate, even motions balanced out Elle’s appearance and kept her from coming across as intimidating. In new environments, people made a point of befriending Elle. They would acquire her cell phone number, invite her to parties, request help on homework assignments, and go out of their way to say hello to her when they passed. Elle prided herself on how well she had come to hide the severity of her perfectionism from her peers. She forced herself to offer everyone a chance at first — even the most disheveled, disorganized, scatter brained individuals that had her screaming bloody murder on the inside. Sooner or later, though, Elle would come to fixate on a certain trait in each new companion that she couldn’t shake. Sometimes it took weeks, other times moths, but ultimately Elle’s internal symmetry would always win. She would dwell on an idiosyncrasy in the person so intently that she could no longer bear that person’s company. Elle would begin to generate excuses for hanging out. Her renowned studiousness fortunately made the excuses believable. Study groups, library hours, thesis meetings — no one ever questioned the validity of Elle’s academic endeavors. The excuses more often than not became genuine anyway. For each time Elle would shy away from another individual, she would take on another hour of studying or commit herself to another extracurricular. When Jennifer’s constant blinking became too much, Elle took up a sixth course in Mandarin Chinese. When Fiona’s playful shoulder tapping had Elle borderline imploding, she began writing for the literary magazine. And when the most beautiful, universally adored boy at the University of Toronto invited her on a date and subsequently turned out to have the most atrocious table manners Elle had ever encountered, she spent two weeks in the biology labs cultivating a rare species of butterfly and ignoring every pleading text from Bob to “come over.” If he ate like a pig, she had to imagine that he lived like a wild boar.
So why the hell was she now agreeing to drink a sugary smoothie next to a random, shoeless boy who was covered in sweat and sand?
Elle didn’t want any more inquisitions or any more grounds on which to blurt out another poor excuse. Otto was already too observant. So instead as the two of them sat and slurped, she asked him all about his life. It wasn’t difficult. She was genuinely curious. She found out that the kid was 24 years old and had lived in Australia his entire life. He had never left the country, not because he didn’t have the means to, but because he simply saw no reason to. Australia was a “massive” continent with everything to offer and the most “favourable” weather in the world. He loved surfing (of course) and had traveled everywhere imaginable within the country. He had studied at the University of Sydney — and had much to say about collegiate course work. According to Otto, the classes at the University of Sydney were too structured compared to the other Universities in Australia, which explains why he had chosen to study biology, concentrating in rare an endangered species. More hands-on work with the creatures, less time in the classroom.
Otto said he knew the name of every species in the world. Elle said that was a bold claim. Otto said wanna bet? Elle said I don’t gamble. Otto said I’ll take you on a trip up to Northern Australia where the rainforests are and name every species along the way. Elle said no chance. Otto said he was serious, they should take a trip. Elle said yeah right.
Otto’s playful “your turn” that followed was a sign Elle should get going. She knew he would ask her how she ended up in Australia, and more specifically how she had ended up at Bondi Beach today. She knew her answer to him would likely be a lie. Or at least a half-truth. And for some inexplicable reason, Elle was adamantly against the idea of telling this boy anymore lies.
Elle suddenly felt anxious at the memory of how it had all happened. She remembered returning from college to her childhood bedroom in Toronto after graduation day. Whenever Elle had come home from school for occasional weekends or for holidays before, she had almost always felt as though her perfectly organized bright white desk in her childhood room was quite literally molded to her. But that night, as she sat there and opened her laptop computer, clicking to the folder in her email inbox titled “post undergraduate prospects,” her old desk felt somehow off — like it no longer belonged to her. She had opened and closed all the drawers, checking to make sure none of her organization or files had been touched or altered. They hadn’t.
The folder in Elle’s gmail inbox titled “prospects” was where she had filed the myriad of suggestions and offers from professors and mentors for post-graduate opportunities. She sifted through one scholarship or fellowship email after another. Upon receiving the offers, she had responded to each and every one of them with perfect politeness, gratitude, and genuine promises that she would deeply consider the option once graduation day had come. Well, the day was here. And she had absolutely zero particular interest in one prospect over another. Mathematics research grants, biology fieldwork, even several offers for jobs in the US… six figure earning finance opportunities. Why didn’t she feel like she could commit herself to any of these?
Elle’s third time reading through the inbox nearly pushed her to tears yet again. She could feel the lump growing in the bottom of her throat, and for a moment she considered shutting her computer and crawling into her perfectly made bed and to continue to address the issue in the morning. But no sooner had she resolved to give up for the night when a shrill ping sounded and a brand new bolded email appeared in the top of the inbox. The message was from an old linguistics professor, Mr. Mattheson, who had since moved somewhere across the globe to take up an obscure language teaching fellowship. Was it Antarctica? Or maybe New Guinea? Elle mentally reprimanded herself for not remembering, but that wasn’t the point. The point was why? Why on Earth had an email from David Mattheson just popped up in her Gmail inbox?
No more than ten minutes later, Elle Nolon had returned to her perfectly executed practice of planning, navigating herself through expedia.com and webjet, looking for flights to Sydney, Australia (That’s where he’d gone!). As it turns out, Professor Mathesson was forwarding Elle an offer for a full grant to study linguistics at the University of Sydney — something only offered to several students from around the globe each year. The offer included travel and living expenses, and was only a one-year duration. It was a huge compliment to Elle’s currently shattered notion of self worth and purpose, and though she believed very little in chance or higher powers, Elle took the moment of the email’s arrival as a sign. Plus, she had loved linguistics. The detail oriented, systematized way of looking at language — something that to others seemed so arbitrary and chaotic — was always one of Elle’s more enjoyable courses of study. Almost like a hobby. Why not spend a year going deeper into a subject that she genuinely enjoyed and felt at ease studying? Evidently Elle was not ready to give up learning. Education was her comfort zone. She could take in information and organize it internally in any way she desired. School was where Elle knew she would thrive. It would also give her an additional year to come to terms with the “afterward” decision that she now realized she had failed miserably to address. Elle remembered how after her third time reading the email she had bounded down the staircase to where her mother sat spreading out fabric samples. Here was her newfound purpose, she had told her mom. She was off to study linguistics in Australia and nothing could stand in her way.
“That’s wonderful, honey! I’ve always wanted to go to Argentina too! What do you think, floral or paisley?”
A word on Elle’s mom. The woman was in no way to blame for her daughter’s internal symmetrical battlefield. In fact, as far as moms go, she was a pretty awesome one. Having lost the support of Elle’s father to whatever shifty summer fling brought him to her in the first place, she had raised a daughter completely on her own while simultaneously juggling her freelance-esq interior design career and unsuccessfully attempting to publish a series of children’s books about personified butterflies living their one-day-long lives to the fullest. As endearing as the individual stories of the fresh-out-of-the-cocoon butterflies tackling their bucket lists in 24 hours was, the general editorial consensus was that the concept of the butterflies’ premature death was far too dismal for the target child audience. But no amount of rejections could deter Elle’s mom from pursuing the series’ publication — and, for that matter, living her life in a similar manner to the butterflies she wrote about. Elle’s mom was constantly traveling, trying new hobbies, and meeting new people. She had active accounts on Match.com, eharmony, Tinder, Hinge, and Bumble, despite Elle’s gentle suggestions that maybe she should be wary of the online dating world. She was constantly living out of suitcases and making plans that more often than not would fall through.
But despite her chaotic lifestyle, the woman cared about her daughter more than anything else in her world. Her life was fundamentally “Elle-centric.” For 21 years, she had personally driven her daughter to every single school day and after-school activity (Elle couldn’t ride the school bus. Her mom thought it was because the older kids bullied her, but the reality was because of the emergency exit on one side, the vehicle had an uneven number of rows of seats on either side of the aisle, which gave the young Elle a deep paranoia that the bus was going to topple over to one side and she and all of her classmates would be instantly obliterated). Elle’s mom only bought her daughter’s favorite foods and household item brands and asked Elle’s opinion on every thing she did. Once Elle went off to college, her mom had greater separation anxiety than Elle herself and therefore called her daughter at least twice a day for the first three months, and thereafter would, every single morning, send Elle a text message consisting of the dancing blonde twin girls in bunny ears iphone emoji that she thought represented the two of them and knew Elle loved because of their mirrored image, with some combination of “have a great day sweetie” or “you rock ella-phant! never change!” Elle’s mom was incredibly proud of her daughter’s accomplishments and would more often than not muse out loud about how on Earth someone like herself had given birth to such a driven and extraordinarily organized and put together human such as Elle. Sometimes, she would chalk up the genes to Elle’s mystery man father, about whom Elle’s mother knew almost as little as Elle did herself, but most of the time, she called it a miracle. Elle was a miracle to her mother — the most special and incredible being to walk the planet. Elle’s mom knew very little of Elle’s internal obsessions. In her eyes, the fact that she happened to have a positively perfect daughter was magic.
Elle saw her perfection as more of a curse than any sort of magic. And she never thought it would benefit anyone to trouble her mom by complaining about it. Her mom had enough on her plate as is. She knew the rent for their small Toronto townhouse was a constant burden for her mom, and paying for a therapist for Elle (the only solution Elle’s mom would come to if she knew the extent of her daughter’s internal torment) was not only completely unnecessary but also an additional expense that their family of two could not afford. On college graduation day, Elle’s mom had clapped louder than any of the other thousand some-odd people in the entire commencement audience, while simultaneously bawling her eyes out and screaming “That’s my baby!,” nudging everyone around her and pointing in Elle’s direction.
After the ceremony and ensuing celebrations, Elle’s mom had taken her out to her favorite sushi restaurant just the two of them. (Elle loved sushi — it was so perfect and pristine all rolled up and every piece of the roll looked the same and she never really used soy sauce because of the way it made the rice fall apart all clump-like.) At dinner, Elle’s mom noticed Elle seemed particularly quiet, and upon Elle’s explanation that she was honestly worried about what she was going to do now that she had graduated, her mom confidently told her that she was sure Elle would do wonderfully in whatever she decided and why not just take a month or two to relax and enjoy herself and maybe some sort of epiphany would come to her, just like the epiphany for “Carpe Diem Butterflies” had flown into her mind one day when she was doing absolutely nothing else but watching a five year old Elle color pictures of butterflies in the sunlight of their kitchen without going outside the lines once. (The title was another issue the editors always seemed to take up with Elle’s mom’s children’s story series — no kid would realistically be able to tell you what “carpe diem” actually meant.)
After that fateful email and two months of perfect planning later, Elle was descending from her sixteen hour Qantas flight to Australia, her color coordinated, labeled luggage in hand. Her hair and small bit of makeup somehow remained flawlessly intact while all the other wary jetlagged travelers squinted through their finger-stuck-in-an-electric socket appearances. (Elle had obviously come prepared with all of the adequate electric converters, along with every other preparatory item she would need traveling in the land down under.) It was “winter” in Australia — sunny T-shirt and light sweater weather, unlike anything remotely winter related in Toronto. Elle immediately liked the dichotomy of physically being on the exact opposite end of the globe from that in which she grew up. She felt like she was putting some weight on the elevated side of an extremely unbalanced life-location seesaw.
Elle’s move into her student housing in the Camperdown neighborhood, walking distance from the University of Sydney, went smoothly. She had a single room on the second floor and she unpacked her belongings in perfect arrangement. Everything seemed under control — that is, until Elle attended the first day of her linguistics course. A middle-aged professor with a thick Australian drawl, untamed facial hair, and what looked to be swim trunks instead of proper pants arrived to the course seventeen minutes late for the allocated time slot. He then proceeded to announce to the more or less empty lecture room that, as graduate students, smart and driven enough to be in this program in the first place, he trusted they would be able to structure their own linguistics research agendas, and that if they wished to talk anything over at any time, he would be dropping into this lecture hall sometime in the early “arvo” (Elle had to look this one up — Australian slang for “afternoon”) most days of the week. Except of course for the days he would not be there, “well then mates, you will just have to come back another day!”
For the rest of the students, this warranted a chuckle, but to Elle, the utter lack of structure was absolutely harrowing news. The lecture hall was dismissed after the announcement, and Elle remained there frozen, opening and closing her empty notebooks and folders, completely void of a single syllabus or course requirement handout. She shut her eyes and tried to imagine her beanie physically tightening around the peripheral of her head. She had to keep her frustrations inside. She tried to tell herself that she could totally do this whole “structure free” year. It couldn’t be that unmanageable if every other student at the University of Sydney did it and somehow managed to get an education. But as she walked home through campus and noticed all of six students sprawled out on the lawns, smoking more-than-your-average-tobacco cigarettes and tossing around Frisbees, she realized that education here was certainly not what it was back home. This was going to be a lot harder than Elle thought.
Given as Elle’s coursework required so little actual time in the classroom, she of course felt compelled to take up additional extracurricular or groups. But between Surf Club, Outdoor Adventure Coalition, and “Students for Sloppy Cooking Club,” her options were limited. Every Australian that Elle encountered seemed to be strolling along at a snail’s pace with nothing to do and nowhere to be. They all had big goofy grins, disheveled long hair, and some sort of sloppy attire that suggest they were either coming from the beach, their bed, or a combination of both. Elle felt discouraged, disorganized, and on the verge of a beanie-bursting breakdown. It didn’t take more than fifteen minutes of Elle crafting and deleting several desperate texts to her mother (she couldn’t send them — she couldn’t worry her like that) for Elle to decide to go on a long run. If nothing else, she could at least clear her head of the chaos for the duration of the exercise. Plus, she had heard incredible things about the sights on the six kilometer Coogee to Bondi scenic coastal path. It might not help, but it certainly couldn’t hurt. Elle took the Sydney tram from the University of Sydney stop to the Coogee Junction beach stop where she deliberately went through her pre run ritual (eight deep breaths, a retying of each of her shoe laces twice, cracking her knuckles, her neck, and finally hopping up and down twice) before heading down the path along the wide, white beach with a steady, even stride.
As Elle sat next to this perfectly palindrome-d named boy, she wondered if maybe she was coming down with an illness that seriously affected her psychological wellbeing. Otto and Elle talked for several hours as the sun disappeared and the crowd of people around Bondi Beach disappeared with it. Otto ordered a banana-only smoothie — a selection that did not exist on the painted surfboard menu above the smoothie joint’s counter. Elle questioned the smoothie choice. Even she was a simpleton when it came to food, but ordering banana alone struck her as unbearably bland. Otto told Elle how it was a mistake when he first ordered it. The new employee had forgotten to add the mango. But now he liked how the smoothie barista would yell out “Yo banana boy!” whenever he approached the counter.
The sun disappeared completely and the breeze was chilly. Elle’s sweaty clothing hadn’t dried after the run and its dampness was now giving her goose bumps. Otto noticed.
“Now would be the time to wear the hat, mate! Speaking of which, I’m still looking for an adequate explanation as to why you wore it to exercise in 26 degree Celsius weather.”
“I think I better get going.” The mention of the beanie somehow reminded Elle of Otto’s otherness. She had just met him. She couldn’t be telling him all about her internal symmetrical battle and her exploding/imploding head and the snugness of the beanie’s circumference that kept all the perfection inside and the imperfection outside. She couldn’t be telling him about how her mom made her see a counselor after she had demanded she legally change her name. Or how the counselor thing had lasted exactly six months and six days because Elle couldn’t bear to stare at the old man’s face a day longer on account of the way the man’s left eyelid drooped over his cloudy gaze. Or about how Elle learned pretty quickly that if she wanted to escape her mother’s absurd requests like seeing counselors and psychiatrists, she would have to find a way to convince her that she was “growing out of it” just as she had overheard her aunt promise her mother she would over the phone countless times. And how, therefore, as the years went by, Elle had learned to keep her thoughts and obsessions confined to the inside of her perfectly organized, catalogued, color-coordinated, alphabetized, dewy decimal system-ed mind, yet still followed her own private obsessive demands like only wearing a select one of the seven colors of the rainbows on each of the corresponding seven days of the week (red on Monday, orange on Tuesday, yellow on Wednesday, Green on Thursday, and so on and so forth). Elle couldn’t stay talking to Otto. She’d be unable to tell him anything.
Otto didn’t protest. He walked Elle to the bus stop before asking for the number to her “tellie.” Elle didn’t have an international phone plan yet, she told him. Another lie. Of course she had gotten one months before she traveled. Again, she immediately regretted her lie. She never gave her number to boys — or anyone, really. Why did she feel inclined to break the pattern now? Otto told her not to sweat it. Maybe he’d run into her on another run sometime soon and they could take that species naming trip. As he began to walk away, Otto mumbled something that sounded too Elle like “never odd or even.”
What was that supposed to mean? Did he already know something about Elle’s obsessions? Had she let it slip that even numbers defined her life?
“What?” Elle responded, her nervous voice an octave higher than before. Otto stopped walking away for a second.
“Nothing, just another palindrome.” He flashed the smile and winked at her again before turning and continuing to walk away. Elle took a deep breath, shocked that she was about to do this.
“Wait!” She called after him. “firstname.lastname@example.org.”
“That’s my email address. I… I don’t have a phone number but you can email me if you wish.”
Otto’s smile widened.
“Alright. Later ellenolan88.”
Several weeks of frequent email checking went by without a word from Otto. Elle had decided to forget about it. It was completely unrealistic and irresponsible of her to want to see this boy again. He was the antithesis of everything she needed at this point. Her course work was completely unstructured, her free time far too abundant, and her few new fellow abroad acquaintances far too flakey and caught up in their own “chill” agendas. What she needed right now was structure, not a spontaneous, shoeless, surfer boy to drive her further away from establishing any sort of routine. Yet for some reason, Elle continued to open her gmail inbox, scanning her incoming mail for any sort of palindromic nomenclature. She couldn’t stop replaying the running encounter in her head — the boy’s exact words, gestures, and goddamn flawless smile clouded her perfectly organized mind to the point where she was beginning to feel dangerously out of control. Categories, names, numbers, schedules… they all began to blur into one another, overwhelming her with a sense of anxiety she hadn’t felt since graduation day. Only this time the anxiety wasn’t so awful.
Elle ran the Bondi to Cooggee coastal trail every day after the encounter. She wasn’t even looking for Otto, she told herself. She loved to run anyway, and this trail just happened to be the most beautiful one in the vicinity of Sydney. But every time she finished her run and casually strolled past the smoothie stall, she felt a weird sinking sensation in her stomach when she didn’t see any barefoot boys hanging around the counter. Again, this was all so completely unlike her.
Three weeks later, Elle had nearly given up. The memory of the boy was beginning to fade and her thoughts finally beginning to reorder themselves. She felt controlled again, and resented the boy for throwing her off for so long. This was a good thing. Elle still decided to go on a run, though. Obviously. At this point it was one of the only constants in her Australia routine, meaning she could not under any circumstances neglect it. Even on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, when the usual beating Australian sun had gone into hibernation, bringing all of the usual Bondi to Cooggee runners with it, Elle still laced up her sneakers and headed out on her run.
At the end of her rainy run, when Elle arrived at Bondi Beach and slowed her pace per usual, she ran straight by the smoothie bar. She no longer bothered to linger or glance around looking for Otto. Elle had her hair tucked in a ponytail up under her beanie and the hood of her raincoat pulled over the top. She laughed to herself as she thought about how much she must resemble a boy right now. Or a wet rat or something. She wouldn’t want to run into him anyway. But as Elle was passing the smoothie bar, she heard the smoothie barista shout: “Yo, Banana Boy! Only customer of the day! We were about to shut the whole place down since the rain scared all of our usuals inside.”
Elle didn’t turn around immediately. She continued to listen
“Nar, mate. A little rain never stopped a true Aussie! Been up North for a few weeks… man I missed the Bondi swell! And this banana ice mush, obviously. Let’s see a large?”
“You got it mate.”
Elle heard the sound of a blender roaring to life and, against her better judgment, turned around and approached the boy. He was wearing a long sleeved wetsuit — or, half of one that is. It was zipped up to the waist, but the top half was unzipped, the sleeves tied at the waist to hold it up. His hair was soaking wet and he was breathing heavily. A large surfboard was propped against the counter behind him. He was staring straight up into the storming sky, letting the now heavily falling rain pound his face.
“Yo… banana boy?” Elle had to raise her voice slightly to be heard above the crashing waves.
Otto turned to face her. He looked completely confused, if not shocked.
“Ellenolan98! What on Earth are you doing here, mate?”
“In this weather?”
“In this weather?”
Elle smiled. “Best runs are in the rain.”
Otto smiled back. “Best waves are in the rain.”
But his smile immediately vanished as he shook his head.
“Thanks for the fake Email, mate.”
“Huh?” Elle’s smile vanished too.
“If I have to read ‘message returned to sender’ one more time I think I’ll smash my computer.” Otto’s accent was even more captivating than before.
“It’s not fake! Ellenolon88@gmail?”
Otto somehow managed to blush through his the already rosy rain soaked cheeks.
“I was going with 98…”
“88, ‘mate.’ It’s a palindrome. You should know.”
Otto retrieved his banana smoothie and stuck a straw in it, biting off the paper wrapper and spitting it in the sand.
“88 it is. How ‘bout a date, 88 mate?”
“What’d your emails say?” Elle avoided the date question.
“Nothing really, just sent you an itinerary of sorts for the road trip I’m planning up to Byron Bay… bout six hours North of Syd. I don’t usually make itineraries. I kinda just wing it. But you seem like the typa lady that wouldn’t join me without an itinerary. In fact I had to research how to make an itinerary… proved to be quite the waste of time when my email was returned to sender.”
“You were wrong about the number, but right about my “typa lady-ness.” No itinerary, no road trip.”
“Well no bother, I’m planning to leave tonight actually so I’m guessing that’s a bit too late notice. Maybe I’ll see you on a run when I’m back? Shame, it woulda been a keen time.”
Elle stared at Otto. She felt as frozen as the banana smoothie he was holding. Again, what she was about to do was so completely unlike her she didn’t even think it was her. The words were clearly coming from someone else… A ventriloquist or hypnotist hijacking her sanity.
“I’ll join you.”
Otto looked at her dumbfounded. “You will?!”
“Uh…yeah… ‘Are we not drawn onward to a new era’?”
“Wow, you’ve completely surprised me, Elle Nolon. I admit I thought this was a complete shot in the dark.”
“It’s… I’m not doing this for fun, ok? I need to study the dialects of Northern Australians for my linguistics research. I was going to have to go anyway. And I… I don’t have a car.”
“Six hours North…? Yup tooootally different language. Whatever you say mate” There was the wink again. Otto slurped the rest of his smoothie and tossed it in a bucket beside the counter, grinning.
And just like that, they were off. Otto was headed North on the pretense of studying a rare bird species up there called a Cassowary — an ostrich-sized bird with a rhino-like horn thing on its head. Elle thought it looked like a dinosaur. Otto said the chances they encounter one would be one in two hundred — roughly the amount of the things left on Earth. Otto drove an army-green roofless Jeep. It was the type of car Elle vowed to herself she would never drive, let alone ride in as a passenger. Especially on the wrong side of the road with a boy she had only met twice. She was practically asking for her own death with this kind of psycho vehicle. Elle hesitated when she saw the car.
“Don’t worry mate, been driving since I was thirteen.”
“Policemen aren’t very observant down under, in case you haven’t noticed.”
Elle took a deep breath before hopping up into the too-high passenger seat. Why was she doing this again?
It was about 3PM once Otto had showered off in the public beach showers and thrown on a new pair of board shorts and a grey flannel shirt, which he left unbuttoned.
“You want me to swing you by home to grab some dry clothes?”
Elle thought for a minute about going back to her student housing and acquiring some belongings she normally wouldn’t even think of leaving home without… A hairbrush, a toothbrush, a spare beanie… maybe she would even grab a notebook and a tape recorder to keep some notes for linguistics. But the more she thought about stopping at home, the more certain she became that she would snap out of it and change her mind if she were to run upstairs. She could already see herself locking the door to her room behind her, never returning back downstairs to Otto’s car and mentally slapping herself for being so incredibly irresponsible and uncontrolled as to almost say yes to driving six hours in a car with this random Australian boy. No… she couldn’t stop at home.
“…What do you say, mate? Stop at home?”
Elle snapped out of her thoughts. She must have been sitting there silent for a few seconds too long.
“I… uh… It’s raining and your car has no roof, so it’s safe to say I’d get wet anyway.”
“Quite rational of you, Elle Nolon. No stopping it is.”
Otto’s jeep roared to life and he sped away from the beach parking lot. Elle felt completely thrown off sitting in the opposite side passenger seat, like she ought to be the one driving. She took a deep breath and side glanced at the actual driver’s seat. Otto glanced back and caught her eye in the rearview mirror. He was still smiling. Jeez, did this boy ever not smile? He hit the radio and began whistling along to the Hilltop Hoods’ Nosebleed Section. The rain let up slightly.
Twenty minutes went by. Otto continued to whistle to the radio and Elle continued to glance at him nervously. Seriously… What the hell was she doing?!
“Gotta admit, mate, I really didn’t think you’d come with me. You don’t seem like the typa girl who would — ”
“ — I’m not!” Elle interrupted, almost offended. “I mean… I’m not. I told you, I’m just doing this for linguistics research. Once I’m home tonight I’ll be compiling my vowel discoveries. You see, I had no choice but to come with you. My research is due Monday.”
“Tonight?” Otto raised his eyebrows. “Who said we were coming home tonight?”
Elle immediately froze and sat upright. “What?”
“I mean, it’s already 3:30, mate. Even if we hit no traffic, we’ll make it up to Byron Bay around 9:30… We’d have to drive straight through the night to be back tonight.”
Elle’s heart began to pound in her chest. Was it too late to turn back? She knew this was a mistake.
“Where are we staying then?”
“I dunno, figured we’d camp somewhere. More likely to see a Cassowary at night anyway.”
And in that instant, non-symmetrical severity of the scenario dawned on Elle. She immediately wanted to turn around and return to her bedroom in her student housing, never to see the boy again. Better yet, she wanted to return to her home bedroom in Toronto where everything was organized and predictable. This whole spontaneous-camping-trip-with-random-boy thing all of the sudden felt like the worst, most disorganized, dangerous mistake she had made in her life to date. What excuse could she pull out to get Otto to turn around? Jeez. She needed this car to stop. What was she doing? Elle felt like her beanie was going to pop off her head and blow away with the wind above the convertible. Her heart was pounding. Cars whizzed by the wrong side of the road, way too close to her. They were on the highway now. Elle’s head was spinning. She squeezed her eyes shut in an effort to stop it all.
“…Elle? Elle? Are you ok mate?”
Elle opened one eye and looked at the stranger next to her.
“I’ve been saying your name for like, ten minutes, mate! I thought you were taking a nap, but who the hell naps with her hands grasping her head and her knees pulled into her bloody chest? You want me to change the music or something?”
“Actually… if you wouldn’t mind turning it off…?” Elle’s voice was barely a whisper, but Otto heard her.
“Of course.” He glanced at her again, this time with a look that was a cross between genuine concern and slight sadness. His glance must have lingered a moment too long, because he swerved suddenly, noticing his car drifting toward the guard rail. He shut off the music and dug around with arm by his feet, pulling up a red Nalgene water bottle with a scratched up Bondi Beach bumper sticker stuck on the side.
“Here, have some H2O” Otto handed her the water bottle. Elle unscrewed the lid and tried to take a sip, but her hands were shaking, and in combination with the speeding car, she managed to spill the water all down the front of her chest.
“You weren’t kidding about the ‘already wet, screw it,’ were ya? Listen, are you actually ok? Cause you were just gasping for air like you’d emerged from being pulled down in some undertow or something. You’re making me nervous, mate.”
Elle just looked at him. She couldn’t form words. Her hands had returned to clasping the top of her beanie post failed-water-bottle-attempt. The two of them sat silent for a long while.
“You’ve never done something like this, have you Elle?” Otto broke the silence. Elle shook her head.
“That’s what I thought. To be honest, I’m having a tough time figuring you out, Elle. All I’ve got is that you’re alone in Australia, studying linguistics, wearing a woolie on runs by the beach and refusing to remove it. You seem pretty uptight — no offense — yet you agreed to my spontaneous whim of an invite. You talked to me for several hours on the beach that night, but never shared a word about yourself. You seem incredibly intelligent, but remarkably sheltered. The opposite side of your face twitches every time one side of your body comes into physical contact with anything at all? You have the straightest posture of any girl I’ve ever met. And did I mention this woolie of yours?”
Otto reached over and playfully tried to remove Elle’s beanie. She flinched aggressively, nearly jumping out of the passenger seat of the Jeep. If not for her seatbelt, she might have gone flying over the door and onto the highway.
“See, and you do things like that!” Otto withdrew his hand and placed it back onto the steering wheel. He sighed. “I have to be honest with you Elle, I don’t usually have a difficult time figuring people out. In fact, I’ve always felt like I’ve had some sort of superhuman ability to read people. It goes hand in hand with my species-identifying skills.” Otto half laughed at himself. “But seriously, mate. It’s been almost an inconvenience at times, I’m so good at it… you know, I always know when people are bullshitting me. Even when I wish I didn’t. But you’re quite the enigma. I’d like to know what’s going on beneath that woolie of yours, Elle.”
“You do?” Never once in twenty-one years of life had someone genuinely asked Elle to share what was going on inside her head. Aside from her counselor, whose interests she had felt stemmed from a forced, professional standpoint rather than genuine care. But for some reason, real people never asked her that question. Not even her mother. She was so in control all of the time — so perfect and intelligent. People just didn’t ask. Maybe they were intimidated, or maybe they just assumed Elle’s mind was exactly what they expected it to be… file cabinets, facts, labeled binders of relationships… no fears, just ambitions. Perfectly in check emotions. But Otto had asked. He was honestly curious. In fact, he was so curious that his question felt more like a desperate need. A need to know what was going on inside Elle’s mind. And a need to help her come to terms with it.
Elle looked at the boy next to her. She took in his disheveled hair, his freckled skin, his strong tan forearms and roughened hands that grasped the steering wheel. She took in his sharp jawline and dimples that remained pronounced even when he wasn’t smiling. And then Elle took in Otto’s furrowed brow — his expression of genuine concern and deep thought as he stared focused at the highway lane in front of him.
“I really want to get to know you, Elle.”
“You’re gonna regret saying that,” Elle half choked, half whispered.
And just like that, Elle began to pour her entire life out to the boy sitting next to her. It was like word vomit. She told him about her childhood. About her mystery father, her free-spirited, disorganized mother, her beanie-wearing, obsessive, perfect, wear-only-certain-colors-on-certain-days-of-the-week, overwhelmingly controlled brain. She told him about her name change (he laughed out loud), her butterfly collection, her distant, “acquaintance-friends,” her longing for deeper connections and inability to transcend imperfection. She told him of her valedictorian awards, her impeccable performances in everything she ever did, and her graduation day anxiety that had driven her to Australia in the first place. She told him of the lack of structure at the University of Sydney and how deeply it had tormented her day in and day out. Her insomnia, her physical symmetry, her aversion to anything slightly disorganized… She told Otto everything. And finally, she told him how truly lonely she had felt for her entire life.
Elle poured her heart out to Otto Redder. It was a cathartic release she had never experienced. She kept talking for six hours straight, barely stopping to catch her breath. Elle didn’t understand what was happening, but she knew she couldn’t stop. It wasn’t until Otto pulled the Jeep off the highway and onto a small side street that Elle realized 1) it had gotten dark out, and 2) she had tears streaming down her face. She had a sip of his Nalgene, successfully this time.
“You’re dropping me off on the side of the road to find my way home, aren’t you? You must think I’m completely insane… In which case you’re right. I am.”
Elle could hardly see Otto’s face in the dark, but she could hear the smile in his voice.
“You most certainly are.” Otto had stopped the car. He took Elle’s hand. “You may be the single weirdest girl I’ve ever met, Elle Nolon. But normalcy is overrated. And I’m not dropping you on the side of the road. We’re here. Welcome to Ricky Ron’s campground.”
“Oh.” Elle sniffed and wiped her eyes on the back of her hands. She suddenly realized how cold she was. But for some reason, she didn’t mind. She felt an incredible sense of relief. She somehow felt… calm.
“And for the record,” Otto added, “I’d probably change my name to a palindrome, too, ya know, if I was born without it. So I could be in the secret perfect palindrome society and have a reason to meet you.”
Elle laughed, but it sort of sounded more like a snort on account of the fact she had been simultaneously talking and crying for six hours.
“C’mon, lets grab some beers.”
Elle didn’t say anything about not drinking this time around. Nor did she question where they were possibly going to acquire said beers, or a tent, or any sort of provisions in the woods on the side of the highway in the middle of Northern Australia. She didn’t care. She just disembarked from the jeep and followed Otto through the woods mechanically. When the trees finally cleared, Elle and Otto stood on a massive white beach under surprisingly bright moonlight. There was a lodge of sorts beside the beach, about the size of a small one-family home. There was soft regee music and coming from inside, and through the window she saw people laughing and shooting pool.
“Not what you thought of when I said campground is it, ‘eh?’”
Elle laughed at Otto’s impersonation of a Canadian “eh.” She couldn’t remember a time she had both laughed and cried this much in the same 24 hours.
The two ventured inside. Otto high fived an old, bearded Australian fellow behind the counter of a bar and put down two two-dollar Australian coins. The man disappeared beneath the bar and reemerged with two large mugs of draft beer.
“No, no, I don’t —” Elle began to deny the beverage the way she always had, but then, without thinking, as had seemed to be the theme of her entire past day, said, “Oh, what the hell” and took a huge swig of the hoppy amber ale. The bar tender laughed and several other bearded, dirty, disheveled, and incredibly happy looking travelers came over and greeted the two. It was evident Otto had been to this camp ground — or was it a hostel? — before.
“Is this pretty lady the reason our best worker didn’t stay up here last weekend?” The bearded bartender motioned at Elle.
“Nar, Rick, I told you, I had to get back to study!”
Elle put two and two together that this bartender — Rick — must be the owner of Ricky Ron’s campground.
“You work here, Otto?” Elle was confused.
“I, uh… I come up here every so often to make a few bucks helping Ole’ Rick out with the guests. Usually just travelers and hitchhikers stopping by for a night or two. I’m always guaranteed to meet some pretty interesting mates.”
“Every so often? Your boy lives here, girl! He’s a regular! Every since he ran off from the — “
“That’s enough Rick,” Otto promptly interrupted, “how ‘bout some pool Elle?”
Though Elle didn’t directly question Rick’s correction, she immediately felt comforted knowing that maybe Otto might have a few secrets of his own. That he too might have some experience hiding something inside that he would soon tell Elle in an explosion of cathartic release. Or just, you know, normally. They’d be even on this unfamiliar truth-telling thing that Elle had just experienced for the first time in Otto’s Jeep. She’d wait until Otto felt like telling her. Somehow she knew he would. But for now, she took another large sip of the cold foamy beer, reached out for the cue stick, and began to rack up the numbered pool balls in a triangle formation on the table.
“I’ll be odds, you be even?” Otto winked.
“Never odd or even,” Elle shrugged and smiled.
The night went on and Elle consumed several more draft beers. Her body was far from accustomed to alcohol, but for some reason this time around, the intoxication left her feeling relaxed and uninhibited rather than uncontrolled and anxious. Eventually, the guests at the cabin — four young Australian men and one German hitchhiker girl with bleached hair and an eyebrow ring — made their way onto the beach outside the lodge and lit a giant bonfire. Ricky Ron passed around a joint and, in the pattern of the day’s firsts, Elle didn’t deny her turn to “take a hit.” The travelers shared their stories about what had brought them here to Ricky Ron’s, and Elle listened, fascinated. Somehow Elle and Otto got to sharing their synonymously palindromic names — of course explaining first to the rustic travellers what a palindrome actually meant — and then launched into a palindrome-only conversation that had the others hooting and clapping, impressed with Elle and Otto’s linguistic abilities. When they couldn’t come up with any more, they began to make up nonsense words, laughing uncontrollably at the absurd phrases. The flames from the bonfire were high, climbing directly toward a perfectly spherical moon in the exact center of the sky.
Elle awoke to the curious sensation of something pecking at her toe. Was it a seagull? A sandpiper? Some otherwise life threatening Australian species that wanted to kill her? Maybe it was an actual Cassowary? She couldn’t quite tell on account of the paralyzing grogginess that kept her eyelids definitively shut and the paralyzing headache that kept her head pinned down on this unfamiliar but certainly not uncomfortable rising and falling surface — Otto’s chest? Yeah that must’ve been it. Elle couldn’t help but think she ought to be jolting awake petrified. But she didn’t seem to care. Slowly opening one eye, she observed her surroundings through a light-sensitive squint. A large pile of charcoal and ash remained where the bonfire had been. Beer cans and cigarette butts were littered around the pile in an almost artistically perfect circle. Elle saw the remains of the joint they had smoked, but she didn’t wince. The tide had come in and the water sparkled like an ocean-sized, freshly-polished diamond heirloom. The sun beat down on the beach with a brightness that made Elle want to spread her body out like a child making snow angles to absorb its rays on the largest possible surface area of her body.
And then there was Otto. Her face still smushed up against his rhythmically rising chest, Elle peered up at Otto’s still-unconscious face. Despite the disheveled, sand-encrusted hair and new army of freckles coating his nose, Elle noticed for the first time that his face was perfectly symmetrical. Like a butterfly. Or one of those fingerprint art projects you could fold in half and it would stay the same.
Otto’s lips turned upward in a symmetrical groggy smile as he opened one eye and stared back at her.
“Uh oh…Your beanie’s gone, ya know.”
Elle instinctively reached up to make the discovery that would have once sent her into a chaotic panic. Her head was fully exposed. She took a deep breath. Her brilliant blonde hair reflected the intense sun’s rays.
“Funny. It must’ve gotten washed into the tide.”