Saturday, January 4, 2020

Australia


I.
I don’t talk about Australia much because it hurts. Some periods in a person’s life are too painful to recall, and some are so joyful that they, too, become a type of burden.
Australia is the latter.
From an early age, I only had two goals: to escape Mississippi and become a successful writer. Everything else—marriage, kids, friends—took a backseat.
So it’s become a continual source of amusement to me that everything I put on the backburner would find me in my years Down Under.
It was in Melbourne where I met my best friend, Mercedes. Drunk on youth and beauty, wired by caffeine and nicotine, we’d skip our college classes to hunt for men and drink for twenty. We’d teach the guys from Supergrass how to shoot pool, dance until the floor melted, laugh until our sides hurt, and stir a boy’s entire paycheck into our drinks before wobbling back to her flat on Orrong Road just as the sun was coming up over Port Phillip Bay. We’d wake up under a large red gum tree, hungover with smoker’s coughs and creased clothes, laughing and hungry to start over again.
We’ve maintained our friendship over two decades and three continents.
I also met the man who would later be the father of my children. He was beautiful, brilliant, with ambition larger than life. We barely speak now, but for years, we were inseparable, and the residual energy of what we had still clings to me, revealing itself when I find the odd picture or letter tucked in the back of a book with pages browning at the corners.  
I found my fairy godmother too. Her name was Amanda. A “true blue Aussie,” she and her English husband Mark hosted me at their home in the outer western suburbs of Melbourne. The town of Melton was far enough from the city and so sparsely populated that it could practically be considered the outback. Warning signs of kangaroo crossings dotted the road every kilometer or so, tucked beside acacia and hakea bushes and occasionally accompanied by wedge-tailed eagles and skuas scavenging for roadkill. The city center was often vacant save for the burly, sunbaked men coming in from the bush, making their way to Mac’s Hotel on High Street for a round of Carlton Colds and to watch a game of footy on the telly (Melbournians, above all other Australians, love their footy. There are about 3,000 footy teams in Melbourne alone. The year I arrived, the Sydney Swans had won the whatever the Aussie Football equivalent of the Super Bowl was, and I thought there was going to be a civil war.)
Amanda lived in a Victorian home off a dirt street, just down the road from a famous retired Australian boxer. Her expansive house hosted a hodgepodge of everything—Amanda was a self-admitted shopaholic—and was rarely ever clean (“Houses should be lived in,” was her reasoning). My favorite room was the only room where I was not allowed entry—an elaborately furnished parlor just off the kitchen, hidden by a sliding stain glass door. It had an air of Miss Havisham about it, the way the dust and cobwebs coated the pink and cream Queen Ann chairs, the velvet Victorian settee and mahogany demilune tables, the clawfoot ottomans and Tiffany lamps.
Each morning Amanda’s four cats—Spit, Terror, Friendly Shorty, and Unfriendly Shorty—left trophies of their hunts from the night before at my bedroom door—usually rabbit guts (“shit bags” Amanda called them), but sometimes bird feathers and possum fur, and occasionally a snake, venomous and non-venomous.
I was accompanied to the bus stop each morning by flies as large as magpies and magpies as large as horses.
The only time I saw koalas was at the zoo; they tended to make themselves scarce, especially in Victoria, where the bush was being depleted at a rapid rate.
For much of the year, Melbourne weather felt like Seattle, drizzly and perpetually overcast, sometimes four seasons in one day. But for a few weeks each summer, the wind from the Great Victorian desert would breathe through the city, coating the pavement and buildings with a layer of dust. Under a cloudless sky, the sun intensified, its dilated orange pupil deadlocked on the lone country continent, weltering green to brown, boiling the streets, eating the air alive.
I think about those summers now the way I remember childbirth. I knew it was painful, I knew I didn’t want to experience it again, but to actually relive it is impossible.
And to think how it has only gotten worse…
II.
My adopted country.                                      
I can’t imagine what you are going through.
All your Odd. All your Unique. All your Indigenous. All your trees without shade, your flowers without scent, your birds with flightless wings, your beasts barely able to walk or walk not at all but hop on hooved feet. Your sleepy-eyed creatures in the trees who refuse to eat save for the food that slowly kills them. Your slithering ropes with enough venom to eradicate an empire with one extended fang. You are the holy vessel for the children of an adolescent god. He drew you on a napkin and molded you with paper and paste—his first attempt at scribbling life into existence. 

III.
I wish I had gone to Australia when I was older, when I wasn’t so ripe with selfish ambition, when I was mature enough to know that journeys were arrivals in their own right, and that the one-and-a-half hour train ride from Amanda’s house to the city was just as important as the hours I would spend in my urban destination, strapped to my narrow dreams.
Australia is the last unopened chamber of my heart. I never share her with people, not even Doug. I don’t even like sharing her with my present self. The Erin who writes this now is very much embedded in today—her work and kids, her home and cats and the scourge of current events that blaze through her timeline like a hot Australia sun.
But today, Australia is current events, and so I allow myself this moment—
I find Crowded House on Spotify. They are my favorite band, but I never listen to them because they remind me too much of the best years of my life. But they soundtrack my memories whenever I want to go back there, and today, I do. I want to go back to Australia…which is why I skip to “Now We’re Getting Somewhere” and forward to the 3-minute mark, just to hear Australia’s adopted son Neil Finn sing,
“When you took me to your room, I swear I said surrender
When you opened up your mouth
I saw the words fall out…”
And I’m there again, in my foster country. I’m on a Footscray train, squeezed between uniformed schoolchildren and working men in ratty Billabong sweatpants and gum boots, the kurrajong and waratah trees making way for great giants of concrete.
“…though nothing much has changed…”
I’m creeping into Amanda’s parlor, into the beautiful decay of a paradise abandoned. The cats scratch at the sliding door, but I refuse to admire their prey.  
“…I swear I will surrender…”
I’m at Lorne Beach with Mercedes. The salt stings my nostrils as we wade through tides, the Southern Cross watching from the distance of a million years ahead.
“…there is pain in my heart…”
It is a Southern Hemisphere spring and I am engulfed in my new love. He is picking me up at Flinders Street station in five minutes. I’m carrying a Les Murray book and I got a pen behind my ear because I’m going somewhere. My daughter and son are secrets in my knapsack, and I unknowingly carry them with me down the steps where Flinders Street and Swanston street meet, where throngs of tourists have lined up, their heads bent over maps. Some of them speak with American accents, but I don’t stop to help. I am not one of them now.
“…we can choose what we choose to believe…”
In a second I’ll stop remembering and I’ll finish this story. I’ll go online and donate to the young families of Geoffrey Keaton and Andrew O'Dwyer, and I’ll spread awareness on social media, But for this moment, this brief moment,Australia is alive within me and nothing is burning.
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