It’s noon already as I leave the house. Yesterday I woke at two and had to call the whole thing off — am I avoiding this? This, this; I don’t even know what this really is. And I certainly don’t know how to do it, whatever it might be.
I walk through the car park and across the footy oval toward the bus, and for a few moments everything is okay. Better than okay. Sunshine, blue skies, light breeze. Trees still full and green; autumn t-shirt weather. As I leave the oval and cross the street I glance up at the second-storey window of the converted warehouse on the corner, for no particular reason. A flat bronze sculpture like a paper cut-out catches the sunlight, winking down at me. She is nearly life-size, a warrior. Shield in one hand, dagger in the other, sword sheathed at her back. Has she always been there? Instinctively, I pull out my phone and take a photo.
More avatars appear as I make my way down Webb Street: silent, dark-haired women emerging from the strata of Fitzroy’s anarchic streets. One looks out from the side of a green postal box, her pensive gaze on the middle distance as a tear rolls down her cheek. Scrawled below her, possibly by a different hand: Born II. The next is younger, a stick-up in sci-fi blues, ambiguously armed with a futuristic weapon or prosthetic — possibly it’s both. Her face half in shadow, she looks back over her shoulder into this world; into my eyes. Her message is clear: follow me. Or maybe: go away. I encounter her again several times before I reach Smith Street.
Other signals crackle through on textual frequencies: Snuf; Knock; This is what I looked like before. Hope you like our art!
At Smith Street the signals fade out, but when I return home in the evening and transfer my photos to my laptop I will discover another image; a final avatar. Inexplicably wedged between my last encounter with the shadowy cyborg and my first photo upon arriving in Elwood is a snapshot taken several months before, of an Akemi Ito stencil that I loved so much I made it my Facebook profile picture. Not a woman yet, this one, but a girl of maybe nine. In black paint on a white wall she sits, the suggestion of a broken doll before her, looking stricken and slightly surprised. She has wings, still lifted as if maybe she has just landed. As I write this, I notice that she also has a prosthetic leg. On the map created by this otherwise chronological trail of photos, she is in exactly the spot where I first found her.
By the time I reach Hoddle Street I’m hot and distracted, wishing I had traded boots for sandals when I dashed back upstairs to grab my sunnies. I board the 246 and my thoughts are nowhere and everywhere at once; we rattle through Collingwood and Richmond and over the river into South Yarra and I stare out the big plate glass window but see nothing. It’s not until we reach St Kilda that the shock of return snaps me out of it — or rather, into it: oncoming traffic reflects in the window, layered over then under then over the landscape once so familiar, and I am hypnotised. It is autumn of 2008 and I have barely finished unpacking.
The brakes hiss and we shudder to a stop at the canal. My stop. Not our stop — you cycled everywhere like a machine; undoubtedly still do. The bus pulls away. When there’s a break in the traffic I cross over. The footpath, the wooden bridge, that distinctive seaside light. How alien it felt when I first arrived — a diffuse glare, almost blinding. How can the light be so different north of the river?
I can’t believe I’m really here. I can’t believe I’m doing this.
Oh god. Pretty sure I just walked past H, bent over browsing veggies outside the little organic green grocer. Did he see me? Was it even him? What if I hadn’t gone down the wrong laneway just before, trying to find the back gate to his place. Would I have missed him altogether? Or would we have walked straight past each other, forced to decide what to make of that moment? My hair is long again — surely he would recognise me.
i get so tuned in to talking with you that i start to sync with your timezone and feel strangely jetlagged afterwards. it’s weird.
i don’t think i’ve ever met anyone i could talk for hours with like i can with you.
i’ve never loved anyone the way i love you.
saying i love you is somehow an inadequate way to describe how i feel. it’s more than love. it’s everything.
you can absolutely trust me 100%. i can’t see how anything negative could ever come out of a foundation such as what we have built.
i can absolutely promise you that i will never consciously do anything to hurt you.
Surely he would recognise me.
I’m still shaking as I turn the corner into his laneway — my laneway, our laneway, the wine shop over the road; oh no, please don’t cry — and suddenly everything is a confusion of iridescence. Soap bubbles fill the air, landing on my face and my bare arms like unwelcome kisses. They’re coming from a bubble machine in the doorway of a toy shop that was never there before, and without thinking I duck in. The place is barely bigger than a closet and filled with whitebread whimsy: fairy wings, magic wands, gilt-edged storybooks. Are you right behind me, coming down the laneway with ingredients for dinner? Did you stop off and get a bottle of sauv blanc? And am I hiding in here because I want to find out, or because I don’t? Both. Both. I buy myself a bracelet made of rainbow-coloured wooden beads and slip it on before stepping back into the laneway.
I don’t see you again, if I saw you at all. Standing outside your back gate I am empty. The bins have nothing to say and the hard rubbish that has been strewn about denies this place as home. I take a photo because I feel like I should, which makes me feel like a stalker, which makes me feel sick and hollow and utterly alone. I stumble away toward the foreshore, blinded as much by tears as by the glare of alien light.
I need to sit down and write before all of this is gone. But where? Elwood is not built for introspection; it offers no refuge for hiding in plain sight. I cross Beach Road and head for the safest place I can find: a playground, empty and enormous. Also new. For some unfathomable reason I haven’t brought a notebook, so I curl up on a wooden platform and start tapping out notes on my phone.
A family arrives. I leave, relocating to a bench along the beach path. It’s cold and windy here and I feel out of place, dressed up in city clothes. I used to walk this path, in my runners and my old soccer shorts. Did I fit in then? Was I happy? I try to bring myself back but I can’t. I’m too cold to remember; too uncomfortable to let myself care. Still, I force myself to stay. I haven’t been here long enough to go.
Every once in a while, in my life, a stranger walks past who captures my attention. Not for any particular or consistent reason. A glimmer of curiosity: what is her world, this 60-something blonde with the tasteful trackies and the distant gaze? What is she going home to? When was the last time she cried? She moves out of my field of vision, and soon after that out of my mind.
There’s something to be said for just sitting with a thing that’s uncomfortable — which my phone has perversely tried to make “unchangeable”. Maybe it’s not unchangeable, maybe it is. Maybe sitting with it isn’t about trying to change it or get comfortable with it; maybe it’s just about acceptance.
Also getting okay with taking up space. Allowing myself to be here, to stretch out my legs, to let the people walking past just walk past. Even the ones who stare. Watching the sailboats, watching the windsurfers, wondering if he might be out there. Being okay with the wondering because maybe this isn’t about him; about us. The us that never really was.
That couple down at the water’s edge — is that him? Would it matter if it was?
Seven years. Seven years. Seven years. The wind is still cold, but the sun is also warm.
Leaving is unexpected agony, and yet there’s no reason to stay. H is everywhere here; he is nowhere. It doesn’t matter where he is. I don’t want to see him. What would I say? The whole project would come undone if I tried to explain what I was doing.
And I know it’s time to go. As I walk back along the canal I’m so knotted up with anguish that I can barely breathe — Why have I put myself through this all over again? But then comes a flicker of concern about Saturday timetables: the 246 sailing past, irretrievable for another 20 minutes. The knot slackens and I pick up my pace.
I thought I would stay longer. This feels like giving up; like I would have found some sort of resolution if only I had stuck it out, looked deeper, tried harder. But in the end I was just drifting, void. Metaphorical but true.
I step out of the lift at home and I’m greeted by the most improbable thing: bubbles. Blanketing the beige industrial carpet, swirling in the drafty air. There is nobody else around. For a moment I stand and watch as one floats up toward me, then dances away on some invisible current. The air goes still and it drifts down, catching slants of early evening light. Before it comes to rest I turn and walk away.