The anxiety returns when my sister asks, “Where the fuck am I?” I look around and it’s all smooth, black pitch flowing out in every direction into scrub and one green light on a pole. Life in the bubble. We talk over peppermint tea for an hour at 2 AM.
“What are the plans for tomorrow?” I ask.
“No, there never is.”
“We’ll just see what happens.”
And this is part of the reason I packed lightly for this month in Australia. It’s a culture in which there’s always tomorrow. Time is different here. It runs slower. The other part is that I have decided not to borrow a car, although three extras have been offered. My body has forgotten how to drive on the wrong side of the road.
Someone else at the wheel when there’s always tomorrow means that I might get in a car and not see that particular front door again for days, yet never leave town. So I packed lightly and I carry all I need with me.
I leave my kids’ dad a message using my sister’s phone: “I’m fine, no cell service, can’t get a sim card tomorrow because we’re at the end of the earth and nothing will be open.”
My sister speaks as I finish, “...at the end of the earth, but no drive-by shootings.”
“No, but the murders get weird.”
“Speaking of murders,” my sister says. “Flora’s husband’s dad was murdered recently. Yeah, it was a really horrible murder. He picked up a young French backpacker in a club on South Street. She cut off his penis and wrote on the wall of his house with it in blood. Yeah. My podiatrist’s niece’s friend is the French girl. She’s in the loony bin. Oh, that reminds me, mum and I were at the funeral home the other day. Did you know Dad’s middle wife was French? Audelie Alain.”
“Huh? Dad had three wives?”
My cousin, Mark, comes in. “It’s good to see you, Steph.” He hugs me so hard that I check for bruises later that afternoon. His sister and my sister laugh. “Yeah, we don’t let him hug us anymore.” But I want more. I want to grin like that; be so rich with hugs that I can afford to refuse them. He’s so handsome—a digger home on leave—likely to break a heart or two while he’s here. He’s a pallbearer today. I don’t know the other guests. I know who they are but not what they meant to my father or how they made him what he was or how he affected them. People like old business friends of Dad’s whose names I heard over the years, but never met. And the current neighbor, Sean. Sobbing Sean. Sobbing for the death of my father like I want to. Like I want to want to but don’t.
My mother tells me that Sean would wrap my father in a blanket, set him on a comfy outside chair, and sit by him in the cool of the evening. My father would tell him stories. As I hear these words, my breath leaves me. He finally got his son, then.
My mother once told me during one of our screaming matches that, “you wouldn’t have been born..!” If… if? I knew. I already knew. Dad had already told me that my mother hadn’t wanted another child; that he had ‘convinced’ her. Mum had already told me that my father had wanted a son to train in his business. It was never, to this day, very clear just what that business was. I saw the inside of bars a lot, casinos, offices with many desks but no one sitting at them, race tracks. My mother managed to convince herself that she had freely agreed to another child. This was essential to keeping her psyche intact. So there you have it. His coercion, her denial, and my sorrow at being born female.
It seemed as if my gender confused my parents. I was too intelligent and feisty to be trained as a trophy, and too female to be trained in business. Perhaps if I hadn’t been so pretty I could have made it as one of the guys. Perhaps if my mum had fully recognized her role, she could have taught me to choose to be bait for sleazy businessmen rather than be shamed into it.
As it was, my dad would take me to the racetrack and leave me in a room that smelled of sawdust and leather and booze. There in my lace dress I’d sit holding the winner’s trophy and the jockeys and owners would talk to me. Then my father would appear and grill me on what they had said as my heels sank into the mud on the walk back to the white Jag. Or he’d take me to a dark, dank bar and leave me with a lemonade. The barmaids would look at me with resentment. As soon as a man came to talk to me, my father would appear and I was told to go sit somewhere else.
If only my father hadn’t wanted me sexually, we may have had a chance as a family. If only, if only. Because from the day I ran into the kitchen to tell my mother that he had made me “lick the thing that goes up and down” and she had told me not to “say things like that” about my father, I was not in control of my sexuality and it hurt me and almost everyone else it touched.
THE NEXT DAY
Suddenly he looks so suave, so comfortable in his skin. My old friend Gabe. The gray hair that had on previous visits seemed ridiculous now begs to be grabbed while I kiss his mouth. I hug my high school friend Megan goodbye at his door. Say, “I love you.” I want him to hear it so I can say it to him later without him thinking I want anything, or mean anything more than just that.
He’d said ‘no’ all those years ago. “No, I won’t let you come back with me—you need to stay in New York City.” And Abby had said it, too. “Don’t move back to Perth, Steph. Don’t even think of it.” And Lila, “No, you can’t move back, you’d be bored, not enough things to do.” Even Carl, my friend’s husband, who had known me for only two days said, “for three months you’d be happy, then you’d want to stab yourself in the jugular with a pen. It’s obvious.”
But more than anything, I want them all to tell me to stay. To say, “yes, move back; be with us; we love you.” And most of all, I want Gabe to say, “I’ve been in love with you since we met at twenty years old, and I want you to marry me, finally. I want you to marry me, and live here with me and have more children.”
I see Megan’s text as I sling my phone on the table and ask Gabe for a coffee. She had checked Gabe out at the front door as I hugged her. “Hot!” Yes, indeed. And I, the famed seductress. How was I to do this? I didn’t seem to be so great at seducing the men I loved. Or at least, the ones who knew I loved them. I had been hoping to have fallen into his arms at the door like some Checkov heroine but it’s always too damn sunny for that. Then I think of the kids’ dad, who I’d left almost a year ago. I start to cry again; I like to feel the tears roll softly and gently down my cheeks. I’ve spent so much time crying in this town, I used to feel as though I might drown in my own tears. At least now I don’t hyperventilate. At least now I can enjoy the beauty of my melancholy as I wait for Gabe’s coffee. Everyone has espresso machines now, and the houses are made of wire and planks and sails and straight, cool lines; no carpet. Finally Australians have figured that out. Higher ceilings—a bitch to heat—but the summer lasts eight months. So throw on the sheepskin boots and a jumper. Actually, Gabe has heated floors. He’s such a success now.
I will ask to borrow a jumper from him later, when we go out. And later, at the beach, in his sweater, I will feel tears again, and my hair will fly in the wind and caress my forehead and obscure my view—and I love that. I will ask to hold his hand. “Are you ‘right?” He will ask. “No, not really” I will reply, and I will lay my head on his shoulder.
And later again after we have eaten scallops and prawns and he has told me the waitress has been admiring me and I have told him he is gorgeous, we will come back home and he will invite me to his bed. Neither of us will make a move, but we will both be longing to. Neither of us sleep. He has a young Brazilian woman returning to him and I’m grieving. Neither of us want to offend the other. He talks in his sleep, “I’m good, are you good?” “I’m good. I’m good.”
But for now, I am sitting at his kitchen table. He throws on some music. It’s homegrown Aussie something or another. How many ways will I get sideswiped? I can’t tell the difference between nostalgia and fresh longing; between the opening of old wounds and the creation of new ones; between forward and backward. I down the coffee, ask for another and another and another. Let’s walk.
We walk. The place is achingly beautiful, as it always was, yet now not oppressive. The trees are inspiring in height; invigorating in astringency; romantic in shape. “Wow, look at that! That tree needs a name.” “Look, you can see the curve of the earth. The sky looks like a blue plate, like something in a Magritte.” I’m no longer beaten down by this careless slap of beauty; I’m stung alert and grateful.
There’s more green than I remember. I remember it as browner and more dead looking. We walk across playing field after playing field; an embarrassment of space to this New Yorker. I breathe out shame and breathe in generosity.
Gabe buys me a metro ticket. I flew down here cocky and flush for the funeral and now I’ve lost my wallet, my driver’s license, my bearings. He pays for everything, like my father did for my mother. And I like it. I want to fall into his arms at the end of every day on his buttery white leather couch.
END OF DAYS
I make my kids a movie each day and email it. I show them the lawns and the pools and the sunshine. I’ll be back with them, soon, in the heady steady mess of New York City. The land of milk and commerce. I’ll slip back into my deliciously scheduled routine, welcome the comfort of sirens, and try not to yearn for the eucalyptus on the sea air.