Adelaide. It's weird how it makes me feel completely at home, yet completely alienated as well.
My dad now lives in the suburb where I grew up, where we lived until I was 14. Since he moved there, earlier this year, I feel a deeper connection to the place. Walking the streets, I feel like I belong. Memories I can often sense more than shape, embedded deep under my skin, tweak at my consciousness as I tread old paths. Like it or not, this is my foundation.
Yet I don't fit.
People ask what I do and I keep my answer as brief as possible, watching their gaze skip away. Books and bookshops are not, generally, seen as very interesting. Freelance work sounds flighty. They are a bit embarrassed for me. It's as if I haven't grown up and got a real job. Or, I'm a bit of a nerd.
Last year, my sister offered to pick me and F up on her way to my mum's house. We were at the library, opposite the local Westfield shopping centre. It was late December.
"Oh," she said when I told her where we were.
"So, we'll wait out the front and you can drive past and pick us up."
"Is that a problem?"
"We-ell ... can you go across the road and we'll meet you at the Plaza?"
It seemed odd - choosing a full carpark over a half-empty one. Later, she confirmed the suspicion I’d thought far-fetched when she told mum, "I couldn't be SEEN at the LIBRARY."
My sister is a cheerleader. She schedules regular appointments for applications of spray tans and squared plastic fingernails adorned with diamantes. She was a professional nightclub dancer, but her fiancé has asked her to stop - even though they met working at the same nightclub, her as a door bitch/dancer, him as the bouncer. These days, she is back working as a retail manager. We're all pleased, as she and her fiancé were the only two staff at the nightclub (which was owned by bikies) without a drug problem.
My brother lives around the corner from dad, opposite the same creek we lived opposite as children. His baby daughter will probably go to our old primary school, eventually. I can't get over these facts. And I can't decide if I'm envious, or horrified at the smallness of it. To be honest, I have both (conflicting) emotions - though they are both overridden by feeling pleased for him. It's what he wants, and I can see that it suits him.
He loves Coopers beer and Nirvana and AC/DC and Smashing Pumpkins. He loves his boat and his cars (the new 4WD and the old one he's hotting up) and his motorbike and his Foxtel, which plays all day as background noise on his big screen LCD television. More than these things, he loves his partner and his new baby, three months old. And he works astonishingly hard in a bank to pay for all their toys. He is paid astonishingly well and is set for a promotion and a pay rise, which will enable him to fulfil his dream of doubling his house in size.
We (my siblings and I) are almost used to the bank job. It still makes all of us - and him - smile, at odds with the preceding decade that he spent ingesting colossal quantities of drugs and drifting from odd job (Hungry Jacks), to Centrelink, to odder job (door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman).
I moved to Melbourne when I was 21. Not because I was dying to escape. My flatmate, who had recently split with his girlfriend (my former best friend) said to me one day, "I'm really sorry Ariel, but I'm thinking of moving to Melbourne. Just for a change of scene, you know."
"I'd love to do that!" I sighed. We'd visited Melbourne for a couple of long weekends and I had been captivated by its possibilities. The bohemian splendour of Fitzroy: its elegant Victorian terraces and the throngs of interesting-looking people crowding its pubs and cafes. The sticky floors and cavernous interiors of the Punter's Club. An array of multi-storied city nightclubs with gothic upper floors, tucked away in laneways. The way the buildings cast a shadow over the city streets. A choice of publishers to aspire to, instead of one adult's and one children's.
My flatmate invited me to come, so I did. I found a job first, pulling a sick day to attend my job interview in Melbourne. He was a chef, and assured me he'd get a job when he arrived. ("It'll be too easy," he assured me. "It'll take me a couple of days. Best wait ‘til I get there, or I'll have to leave early.") His dad, a truck driver, drove all our furniture and meagre belongings over, free of charge. My flatmate and I followed him by bus. On the long twelve-hour ride, too excited to sleep, we talked all night. He told me about all the female friends of mine he'd had a crush on (most of them). "I'd never feel that like about you though," he said. "No offence, but you're just not my type. You're like my sister." I wasn't offended, or so I thought - though I remembered it. I think it was partly because I was so surprised at some of his selections. They were girls he'd always played at being wearily repulsed by.
We stayed in a caravan park in the inner west while we looked for somewhere to live. It was on a main road that throbbed dully with trucks and cars, next door to a 7/11 and opposite a McDonalds. He had the double bed; I slept under a quilt on one of the padded bench seats that bordered the laminate table where we ate our meals. At the end of a fortnight, in which he didn't find a job and we didn't find a house, he told me that he was moving back to Adelaide. The next day. He drove me to a backpackers' hostel first - on Nicholson Street, opposite the Exhibition Gardens. I started work at my publishing job using the hostel as my base, sharing a dorm with mostly English backpackers, who I got smashed with each evening. I swore never to live in the area where the hated caravan park had been. An ugly suburb, entirely without merit, just a thoroughfare for traffic with a sad string of drab Vietnamese-run shops nearby. (It was Yarraville, where I’ve now lived for five years. And the shopping strip that had so horrified me was Footscray.)
Twelve years later, my experience of Adelaide can be as disjointed as my first encounter with the Melbourne suburb I now call home. It's a patchwork of the familiar and the alien. On Rundle Street, Big Star, where I bought CDs in the period of my life when I was obsessed with music, is a familiar beacon amidst garish clothing and outdoor shops. Alfresco's, the first place where I discovered the joys of lingering with a coffee and people-watching with friends, is still there, comfortingly dowdy, though many of the cafes are new - and have nothing to do with me or my memories.
Shopping in the city with F this week, we are twice hailed by admirers of his AC/DC tee shirt. This doesn't tend to happen in Melbourne - certainly not twice in two hours. The first is a father who stands companionably beside me as we watch our sons bond over the Ben 10 toys in Target.
"I've got this one," says the boy.
"Me too!" says F, proudly. "I've got the Ominatrix, too."
The man chuckles and shakes his head fondly. He is wearing a black tee shirt and jeans; he has a ruddy face and a thick goatee. As he takes his son's hand and moves ahead, F's top catches his eye.
"Hey!" he waves broadly over his shoulder. "Great tee shirt!"
F beams. The man nudges his son and points back. "Look!" The boy grins and gives F the thumbs-up. He looks four or five years old.
"Thanks!" says F.
"Start 'em young, hey?" I say. I find myself saying things like that in Adelaide, even altering my voice to sound less polished, drawing out my words in a laconic half-drawl. The Husband (who, incidentally, went to one of Melbourne's leading private schools) has commented on it. It's something I know I did in my high school days. Then it was conscious. Now, it's a habit I slip into, like walking a worn path.
One of my sisters lives in my dad's granny flat, saving money to buy a house. She is the identical twin of the cheerleader and she is studying to be a primary school teacher. She is forever destined by people who know both my sisters to be "the quiet one". Like me, she doesn't drive and has no wish to. This means she has to walk 20 minutes to the Westfield to do her grocery shopping. I buy a black shopping cart from Coles and tell her that she can use it whenever she wants. Her eyes brush over me.
"I don't think so."
We've talked about this before. She says it would be too embarrassing and everyone would stare at her. “Who cares what people think?” I tell her. Surely it's not that strange. I have figured that she'll look at this nondescript black cart (which they sell at the local Coles - someone here must be buying them) and agree it's not so bad after all. But her disdainful expression says otherwise. For some reason, I am hurt and annoyed. Generally, these days, I take a kind of pride in inspiring eye rolls at my zaniness (shopping carts! buying interstate newspapers! Birkenstocks!), but for some reason not today.
"You know why I moved to Melbourne?" I sigh, trying to sound amused. "Here, you think I'm odd. In Melbourne, I'm normal."
"Ha!" says my sister, actually rolling her eyes now, hand on diminutive hip. "You ARE odd. You just are."
In Coles, earlier that evening, I'd noticed an old school acquaintance a few aisles over, paying at a checkout parallel to mine. I ducked my head quickly to avoid eye contact, glancing back to take in her white blond hair, pulled back in a puffy ear-level ponytail. Her face was puffy, too: pink and white and oddly swollen, as if she'd been recently stung. I remembered that she’d always looked like this, if perhaps a bit thinner. That she’d always talked down to me, always flirted ridiculously with the boys in our group - none of whom were very attractive, all of whom were slightly infatuated with her, as she'd intended. I did a snap assessment and decided I've survived the years better. Acting on impulse, I took off my glasses and shoved them hurriedly into my bag. The world softened, blurred at the edges. Even as I did it, I felt ashamed at my competitiveness with a girl I don't even like and don't particularly care about, someone I haven't thought about for years.
After I'd paid and left, I put my glasses back on. And reflected that if any of the boys we once knew were with us, at that very moment, they would have chosen her again, without even thinking about it.