November was a busy month filled with late nights on caffeine, a lot of killing my keyboard with Ctrl+S, a good amount of procrastination, intermittent bargain hunting (with Black Friday and Cyber Monday happening), surprises, faces from the past, and a few dining adventures.
It was an odd sort of a month characterised by a running theme of reconnecting with things, people, and my sense of self. I’m confident this was in my weekly horoscopes. They’re never wrong.
Between train rides, retail therapy sessions, groan-inducing puns, and the discovery of my new favourite biscuit which I’ve been snacking on like crazy—McVitie’s Club Mints—here’s one thing that happened on Friday (well, in ways!)
I sat across from an old mate sipping a ginger beer.
We had crossed paths a few weeks ago when to our mutual surprise, we had each appeared on the other’s train ride. We had travelled the same train route for yonks.
We were past the last metres of the tunnel and on to the high-speed, on-land cruise over the Swan River.
Charles—Charlie as I call him—was standing across from me, leant against the yellow handrail, silhouetted by the 5.30pm evening sun. Dark, sunken orbits around his eyes, a brown messenger bag on his shoulder, and a white-collar worker’s uniform, were signs the once carefree boy wasn’t. He took a call and motioned it was work.
Staring out at the cloudless, November sky, I was in disbelief.
Here, after ten years—Charlie?
The afternoon coffee, a triple-shot to redeem a few loyalty credits, had point blank marinated my grey matter.
I was wandering off course, wondering of course.
Lives, mine and his, ran parallel, like train tracks. The crossroads, chance-meets, unrealised all this time. My many journeys done for none other than to satisfy the demands of a tumultuous love-hate relationship with the 8am.
The strangers were not-stangers to someone. Their lives, hopes, desires, and dreams were in train, invaluable cargo. The announcement not to leave valuables unattended was a message on belonging, and about the importance of inclusion and belonging?
Passengers would be here today, and tomorrow, and the day after next until destiny, lady luck, mother nature, or father time called.
Or until another ‘scheduled maintenance outtage’.
In common, that we were all just travelling, somewhere. There’d be a final train ride, someday.
Our chance ‘hello’ could have been a trip down memory lane. The reality was a trainwreck of a conversation.
Two-stops was too long a journey for a ‘hi and bye’, too short a journey to get comfortable. Too much for two strangers with a history.
I’d disappeared into the abyss years ago, done an unintentional Houdini act to do that thing called growing up.
Change and distance happened.
Before, we’d exchange what seemed a bazillion nudges on MSN to lock in a movie or a visit to McDonalds. They went from often to few and far between, and then suddenly non-existent.
It was a coming of age. Things took their turn the way things took their turn.
I’d needed space and time, many moons and many Mars bars, to climb out of a black hole I’d fallen into. I needed to recognise myself as a part of the universe that, quite possibly, mattered.
Alienated from my sense of self, I loathed the way I chameleon-ed my way through situations, changing the colour of my beliefs and opinions on a whim to suit the reigning flavour of the moment.
Ostensibly, I wanted vanilla everything over chocolate, when vanilla was in. Ostensibly, when chocolate was in, I was die-hard chocolate. Over vanilla. Over long-repressed desires for pistachio, or liquorice, or bubblegum ice-cream.
It would fall apart at the self-checkout with the heated stares of impatient liner-upperers. ‘Cream me for indecision,’ I’d cow by way of an icy stare back, hoping my telepathic counter would be received, ‘This hold-up is Mickey Mouse compared to the meltdown happening in the aisle with the screaming kid and a pile of previously in-the-trolley lollies.’
In others, I was a consciously-insular lion with a plastic smile, a pride problem, and obvious seeing difficulties.
I coloured my world in zebra print. It was hue-bris on my part. Actual zebra-printed things were scarce. Identifying the zebras was akin to a daily game of ‘Where’s Wally?’ One brush stroke couldn’t paint every situation. Wilful blindness stole the light and shade from my world. The spectrum of blended, wonderful, prismic colour was lost to monochrome.
Other times, self-consciousness would take my hand. I was a frightened kitten in a storm wishing to be saved. By a firefighter. Or a not-a-firefighter person. Or a kind Shepherd, a gentle, an off-duty German fur pal. A benevolent, land-dwelling shark, in the alternative. Did such a thing exist? Whiskers away from a catastrophe, the sun came out one day and six-feet of unoriginal, flavoured ice-cream began to melt away.
Out with pretence and sickly sweet unsatisfying substitutes, the flavours I needed were resilience and mind over matter. Intestinal fortitude demanded I start appreciating and exposing myself to flavours as unique as my own gut bacteria.
I began rediscovery, my past, and things about ice-cream flavours.
I had neglected situations, refusing to say or do anything, out of the fear that I’d not know how to deal with hypothetical imperfect outcomes. I’d predicated a perfect present on a past of pretence. I’d been fundamentally flawed in my fleshed out, fear-driven feelings, the fodder of a flavourless future.
Candour not perfection. That’s what I should have valued. For so long I had it the wrong way.
In heated internal thought sometimes, mostly when I’m running a hot shower, it comes to mind that hot water is a great invention. The adding of heat to water, I mean. It also comes to mind that every one can do things better with the knowledge of hindsight and a cure for burnt cupcakes—a time machine that is—would be a nice thing to have.
Apart from the Seiko watch I got as a birthday gift three years ago, I’m not in possession of any time machines. Least of all one that’s light-years ahead the timepieces I’m watching on eBay.
It was a Friday afternoon. I had reached out to Charlie a week ago. I wanted to reconnect. That train ride couldn’t be it.
It had occurred to me that the number of people in life I will ever come into contact with is an arbitrary but definite number. Strangers, sometimes the same strangers, will sit next to me on the train. We’ll hold but a one- to three-second meeting via eye-contact. Then, we’ll keep on with staying strangers.
It would be nice if in this finite number of path-crossers are good people. People with whom there is a reciprocal liking or that might share with me a conversation, an interaction, a bubble tea—something meaningful indicating a common humanness in a vast universe.
Before we’d gone off on our journeys, for what seemed like an eternity, Charlie and I had laughed and dreamt on green grass, excited about the future, dreams and spirits intact.
People had walked in and out of my life. It was time the kid from two streets South and one turn right was back in mine.
We were thirty-five minutes in. We were back to old times. It was going better than that train ride.
He was making conversation, asking about the type of music I was into, rattling off a few names and referencing stuff on the radio. ‘What’s on your playlist?’ he asked.
‘I’m not into most pop radio or, you know, recent stuff,’ I mumbled through a potato chip.
‘Like, which bands?’ he pressed, toying with a piece of onion that had strayed from his beef burger. Glorious grillege drew my gaze.
‘These ones.’ I slid the phone towards him.
He laughed, ‘Where to buy medieval magic wands?’ Dammit, I’d fat-fingered the screen and opened my browser instead. ‘Er! Um, no. Give me a sec,’ I fumbled, relieved that he had glimpsed only this recent search.
Better this than a search on the other wildly inappropriate things I was into on weekends. Like videos on Excel. In the dark. Contemplating a lifetime of staring at involved, super spreadsheets. Visualising aching aspirations to be everyone’s friendly neighbourhood Excelwoman. Shouting ‘excelliarmus!’ battling finicky formulae, eliminating evil inefficiences, and programming peace into chaotic realms with my wizardry. (Still working out how to sell it.) Unspeakable weekend fare.
‘Now you know what I do in my spare time!’ I announced. ‘These ones,’ I said, passing him the phone.
‘You listen to some odd stuff.’
‘How about the one that goes,’ I said, before singing a few lines. He shook his head. ‘Unsurprising,’ I said. This was no point of commonality. ‘Guess I didn’t do the singing justice.’ I pointed to my voicebox, ‘No warm up, obviously. You’d have known the song I was thinking of, for sure, if I had the backing track.’
‘I wouldn’t have known the song. I don’t know any of your songs. I don’t know you—which is why we’re catching up,’ he said flatly.
‘Right. No worries.’ I said forcing a laugh, that came out like a language CD with badly done onomatopoeia examples and overdone individual ‘ha’s’.
Something in his voice suggested there was more than music at play; I couldn’t be sure.
He moved the bucket of sweet potato chips to the side of our table. I noted he had mastered the eat-talk-eat balance. His burger had inconspicuously made a clean disappearance off his plate. My burger, on the other hand looked been at by ’gulls.
‘So, back the “music” you’re into,’ he said amidst a gesticulation of inverted commas.
Was there something wrong with my music? Was he playing mind games, refusing to say it, wanting me a witness to humour him, waiting for my growing music embarrassment to break me. Uncool and weird. Stuck listening to songs from decades past. Music of the parents’ generation. The parents’ parents’ generation. How had we even hung out?
I think I was overthinking it.
He said nothing. I took a swig of ginger beer. He threw me a funny look. This conversation was clearly going nowhere.
He put an end to the silence and delved into pop music trivia.
I couldn’t name a current Taylor Swift song. My head was a blank space where names were concerned. He followed with Ed Sheeran. I admitted to being clueless about his music, but not Ed, ‘I know he has red hair—’
‘Of course, he has red hair. But, you don’t know an Ed Sheeran song?’
No brownie points for the trite hair fun fact. Didn’t matter. I had been meaning to bake a batch of brownies when I got home.
He was picking at the chips. The sweet potato chips on the share plate were dwindling slowly, in line with the unspoken rule where the eating starts at a good pace and slows right down to match the level of enthusiasm.
He returned to the menu with a sigh. With so much burger to go I decided to make adorable mini kebabs of the eating, forking a bit of meat, veg, and bun at a time.
He shook his head. Maybe it wasn’t about the music?
‘This,’ he gestured to us collectively, ‘This needs dessert. Also, you can’t just ask me to dinner and not get me a third course.’ He motioned for the waiter to grab the dessert menu.
‘Sure. Order whatever,’ I muttered.
‘There’s no whatever on the menu,’ he shot back grinning.
‘Hah!’ I snorted. Big mistake. The little gulp was a race car driver that hurtled into the wrong lane: my windpipe. For the better part of two minutes, I was the weirdo in the burger joint making a racket. Half-choking, coughing up residual bits of ‘Chef’s special’, spluttering soda, and frantically going at the serviettes.
He went to get water. The worst had passed. I had made it abundantly clear that I was every bit out of sync.
He reached into his backpack and handed me a towel. ‘Don’t look at me like that: it’s a clean towel.’
‘Why do you have a towel?’
‘Gym was going to be after. I guess, not.’
‘Right, thanks,’ I managed, gratefully mopping up, ‘Do you still want dessert?’
‘As long as you cough up,’ he said, locking eyes with me. ‘Sorry.’
‘Fair enough. Get this back on track shall we? Just not Taylor Swift style back on track.’
He rolled his eyes. I had no idea what he was on about.
We walked across to the bar and bistro he had chosen, a place I hadn’t been to. The building had a modern, black glass exterior and a life-sized chalk picture of a very stylised, winking sailor girl at the entrance. She was spruiking something called the ‘devil meets chocolate cocktail’.
‘The Green Room does a heap of things. Including overpriced, extravagant desserts,’ he supplied. ‘The desserts are worth trying though—’
‘The funeral of my wallet is in two weeks. Be there or be square.’
‘Knew it!’ he laughed.
We sat close to the bar. He was flicking through the dessert menu, trying to elicit meaning from a bunch of convoluted descriptions.
‘We need ice-cream,’ he said, ‘Do you think we should go the freeze-dried lemon imbued compressed cream churned with black pepper and freshly spiced chai scented tea leaves sourced from some place I’ve never heard of which may as well be Mars? They have this so wrong. I need to try this.’
‘Please. Go bananas.’
I felt a tap on my shoulder.
‘Sometimes library buddy? It is you! How are you going?’ Dark hair, an angular jawline, and olive-brown skin; it was the guy who was never seen out of a suit from law school, all those years ago. The crisp grey suit and coffee-coloured shoes said it all.
An oh-so-sure-of-himself law man had walked into the bar and seated himself next to an ubercool engineer and an awkward accountant.
This had to be the start of a bad joke.
I couldn’t help but smile.
One thing was certain: this Friday was a little different. And, at least, the ice-cream wasn’t vanilla.