Milkshakes and Cold Weather


It’s a Tuesday morning, and I’m cold. It’s supposed to be 7:30, but you could have told me it was midnight in Antarctica and I wouldn’t have taken much persuading. Poppy doesn’t seem to notice—me or the cold. She’s walking along, head bobbing, hands gesticulating so wildly I’m sure she’s going to hit me.

“…and next thing you know, they’re in bed together and cut to Aaron in therapy with the lesbian neighbours—”

“Hang on,” I interject, my lips struggling to form the words through the cold. “When did the lesbian neighbours become therapists?”

“Didn’t I mention that bit?”

She didn’t.

“Maybe.” I say. “Please, continue.”

We turn the corner, passing the dodgy tile place that’s always empty, which Mum swears is only a front for drug dealers. Hanging on the door is a cheery yellow sign that reads “CLOSED”.

“Yeah, well they work together and Aaron sees them for ages and they sing this song with his son at his bar mitzvah…”

I don’t even bother wondering when the lesbian-neighbours-come-therapists got invited to the bar mitzvah but instead try ignoring the numbness in my feet. Poppy always talks on the way to school, but today I can barely a squeeze a word in. Or maybe I’m just tired.

We get to this point in the street where all the shops bleed away to houses, and the only people around are inside, tucked away, clutching mugs like lifelines and staring bleary-eyed from behind lace curtains. It feels a tiny bit magical here in winter: only us and the trees.

When I zone back into the story, I’m not even sure she’s talking about the same thing.

“…the cancer spread to his liver and boom! Now he’s in hospital and the musical just ends. It just ends, Rosie. I swear all writers are satanic.”

“I think you mean sadistic.”

“That too.”

We fall into silence for a bit. Poppy kicks a stone, sending it skittering forward and bouncing off the hubcap of a parked car.

“Maybe we could skip school today,” Poppy muses. She has a thoughtful frown on her face, but I can tell she isn’t serious. We’ve never skipped anything, ever. Because we’re those kids.

“And what would we do?” I reply. “Besides, we have double psych today. You like psych.”

She nods, not looking at me but off down the street.

She whips around to look at me. “I want to tell you something,” She says then bites her lip and spins on her heel to face forward again. She does a little skip and speeds up.

Not wanting to be left behind, I catch up to her with an awkward hands-in-pockets run. I wait for her to continue, but she doesn’t. “Go for it.”

She gives a little giggle, almost like she’s drunk. “Well…”

Then she stops walking and collapses onto a brick fence. She takes a deep breath. “Gippsland was great, don’t you think? I mean, I love Judy, and she really likes you too, and her house is just awesome, and like the beaches? They were so nice.”

My mind starts to spin. “What are you trying to say?” A sickening thought pops into my head. “Is your Grandma dead?”

“What?” Poppy explodes to her feet. “No, of course not! That’s not what I’m trying to say.”

She laughs again and runs a hand through her not-quite-shaved hair. She starts off down the street again.

“Poppy!” I run a little to catch up with her. “I—”

Before I can even get another word in, she’s speaking again. “I think we got really close on that trip, and I feel like I can tell you something that I haven’t told anyone else, like not even my Mum.”

I want to mention that we’ve been best friends for six years before that trip, but I don’t think that would really help. Instead, this comes out: “Of course you can. Whatever it is, I’m here.” As soon as the words are out I want to drag them back down my throat. But what else is there to say? All I have to go off are the Generic YA Dialogue Guidelines.

Poppy takes another desperate gulp of air, like a goldfish stranded on a kitchen counter, and finally looks like she’s about to say it. Then she turns around and starts walking back the way we came.

“I really think we should skip. Wanna get a milkshake or something?” She calls over her shoulder.

“The café’s shut, we passed it on the way down,” I don’t know if this is true or not, but I don’t think that’s something Poppy would have noticed. “But the school canteen has milkshakes?”

Poppy stops walking and shakes her head, though she’s still not facing me. “Nah. They probably sell a glass of overpriced milk.” She sighs, and fiddles with the bottom edge of her t-shirt.

I don’t know what to do. My first instinct is to make a joke, laugh it off, but what if this Thing is serious? Has someone died? What if she’s pregnant? Lost her fortune to a Nigerian prince? Why does no-one ever tell you the fucking protocol?

“Poppy,” I say, walking up behind her and laying a hand on her shoulder like the Pope or something. “It’s your choice to tell me. It’s fine if you don’t want to, I’ll still –“

“I’m not a girl.” Poppy blurts. “I’m male. I identify as male.” Then, quietly, ferociously, she adds, “I’m a boy.”

And I think back to everything that happened on that fateful Gippsland trip. All the conversations about the genderedness of makeup, the lack of girls’ shorts in our school uniform, the weird obsession with boobs, and everything fell into place.

And of course the first sound that leaves my lips is a drawn out, “Ohhhh.”

Poppy looks taken-aback. “Oh?”

“Yes, oh!” I laugh a little. “I thought you were going to say you had terminal cancer or something.” I shrug. “This is almost a bit of a letdown.”

“But…you’re OK with it? You don’t hate me?” She – he – looks at me with eyes so sincere I can feel my own start to well with tears.

“Who else would fill me in on musicals I’m never going to watch?”

Poppy smiles, and I swear just seeing him happy makes me want to bawl.

“So, Mister,” I say, trying to discreetly wipe a tear from my eye and failing, “What would you prefer I call you?”

He grins, like he’s been waiting for this question. “Toby. Tobias, in full, but Toby to you. And he/him pronouns if you could.”

“Toby,” I repeat. It feels like stepping into a pair of second-hand shoes; new to you, but still comfortable. And right. “I like it. Where’s it from?”

Suddenly he looks bashful. “Divergent.”

I laugh. “You couldn’t have picked a better book?”

“I refuse to argue about the merits of YA fiction right at this second.”

“Fair enough.” I link arms with him—with Toby, my best friend Toby—and we start off back down the street.

“I never like being named after a seed.” Toby says, “It isn’t even one of the good ones.”

“Are you saying you want me to start calling you Sesame?” We both know he’s allergic to sesame seeds.

He slaps my arm away. “You’re such a twat.”

“Do you still want that milkshake?” I ask. “We could stop at Macca’s.”

“I’d love one.”

We walk on for a minute more in silence. Then, I add, “Maybe after school?”

Toby nods like he was just about to say the same thing. “Definitely.”

“Wouldn’t want to miss school.”

“Exactly what I was thinking.”