you can go home again, while you can

It’s been nearly a year, I realised. Somewhere around the halfway mark, I was scrolling through podcasts and checking cruise control and I thought, It’s almost December. It had taken me twice as long as I’d planned to return home, and even then, I wasn’t really returning home, because my parents had sold home and found another building with a driveway and a garden and a deck and named that “home” back in April. I’d only seen photos. Heard stories about the wildlife in the paddock next door. Listened as my mother explained plans for renovating, and failed to comprehend the scope. But I hadn’t seen it. Which made me the minority in my family.

It’s always a spontaneous decision. Never premeditated. I spend an evening considering the drive, calculating the cost of fuel and the time involved – totally non-committal, no particular reason – and the next morning I can’t not do it. It’s all I want. Like I’m a wind-up toy, something in me unfurling so slowly I don’t notice until it isn’t, can’t feel it until it stops. And that’s it. I pack a bag, bring the washing in, fuel up and go. It takes half an hour, if that. I remember my charger, razor, slippers. I’ve done it too many times to leave anything behind.

I pull a jumper out of storage and find a coat I haven’t worn in months. I think about packing my Rossi’s, but didn’t. (I regret that now. I knew I would). I wonder if it will rain as I drove into town. It does that with such consistency – starts a downpour, however slight, the moment I pass the airport some ten minutes before city limits – that I’m convinced I could arrive in January and break a drought by doing so.

I’d forgotten just how long, how dull, how frustratingly necessary the actual journey itself is. Waiting for overtaking lanes and wondering when 110km/h started to feel insufficient. Driving past a series of signs advertising road works and speed limit reductions, and getting pissed off at clueless tourists who actually obey, not realising the road works are long finished and the signs just unclaimed relics whose only remaining purpose is to torture regular commuters with their redundancy.

I’d also forgotten the feeling. At first, it’s anxiety, pure and simple. This weird, small, isolated seaside hometown has never inspired anything less than a complicated reaction from me. I’ve claimed to hate it. I’ve claimed to love it. Mostly, I fluctuate between the two, and I know I will never quite decide, no matter how much a definitive ruling would put me at ease. But the more distance I put between myself and my adored, thriving metropolis (so-called by me, at least), the more this bizarre, calm feeling moves in on anxiety’s territory. It’s so damn vast out here. It’s just paddocks and trees and shrubs and gravel and a thin strip of bitumen splitting it all in two. And sky. You can’t forget the sky even if you wanted to. It’s two-thirds of anything you look at. There’s something reassuring about it. Something constant.

But the anxiety circles back soon enough, and it’s not so much for the place as it is for my place within it. Every time I leave I am changed and every time I return I am different again. I can’t help knowing this. I’m a fucking writer, the most self-aware of the self-aware, second perhaps only to actors, bless them. Growing up here I was painfully shy, totally void of the confidence post-schooling life permits us when we stop trying to define ourselves by using our equally uncertain peers as yardsticks. I catch myself regressing into this person at a speed directly proportional to my proximity to the offensive, colourful cinema that sits on the outskirts of town. I’m aware so many of those peers still live in this place. That my odds of running into any one of them on the street are high. Very high. That I don’t know how to tell them I’m not the same person I was at school. That I don’t know why I care whether they know that or don’t.

And then the airport passes on my left and a thick forest on my right and the temperature is low and the sky is dark and there it is. It starts to rain. Right on cue. Just like I thought it might. Just like I knew it would. And the only thing more predictable than that, more reliable than this ridiculous, contrary, infuriating, loveable rogue of a place that keeps bringing me back no matter how many times I swear to never make the trip again, is my reaction to it. My eyes go watery. I feel like an idiot, but I’ve known this place for too long, spent too much time with it, that I can’t help but prescribe some greater meaning to everything it does, deserving or not. And I can’t mistake the rain for anything other than what I know it to be, deep down. I want to ignore it because I feel like I don’t deserve it, but I can’t. I’m being welcomed home in the same way my mother will welcome me in a few more minutes. With the knowledge that I won’t stay, but I can go, because it won’t mind, and when I fail to come back when I said I would, it will wait, and when I’m ready, it will be exactly where I left it, patient, warm and overjoyed to see me return, as if I never left at all.

On the main street, I see my old geography teacher – who walks with a stilted limp, courtesy of a motorcycle accident many years earlier – crossing the road. I watch my old boss enter the building I used to have a desk in (he’s still there, of course), pass the restaurant where I got my first payslip (different owners, now), and when we arrive at dinner, I recognise one of the bartenders. We worked together at another restaurant, years ago. He moved to Perth, I thought, became an accountant. But he’s back, too. It seems this place has a way of doing that.

Big City Life: Things I’ve Learned

A couple of months ago, I moved.

I moved to a place that’s really, by almost anyone’s definition, not particularly exciting. It’s a place I bemoaned the existence of in the years prior to my moving here. I’ve been known to call it “the Dullsville capital of Australia” on multiple occasions, a slogan most would consider fit only for that last bastion of peculiar mediocrity, Radelaide. I thought it perpetually filled with utterly pointless roadworks, without identity or culture, incapable of progress, an exercise in painting with only several shades of beige.

Factor in a few things. The place I started in – and spent much all of my formative years in a tumultuous love-hate relationship with – is a place with not a single set of traffic lights to its name. It’s 400km from the nearest Big W and contains a population still loudly and vehemently bemoaning the demolition of a beloved pub going on ten years ago. But its people, in my experience, are a kind and special breed, its location world-class, and aside from the obligatory backward town planning there’s really only so many things a resident can complain about. Unless you’re somewhere between the ages of 16 and 30, perhaps, in which case you’re likely to bemoan the lack of things to do.

I hated those people. I always thought they were stupid, that they never opened their eyes and paid attention to the riches created when beautiful countryside and determined tourism industry combines, and then I realised I was, when it suited me, one of them. But at the point of realisation, I was less like them than I’d ever been, and that meant I had to get out.

Not because I hated it. Not because I saw no future there. Not because there’s only so long a person can live in a place with only two dedicated bookshops. Because I was getting comfortable. Too comfortable. Soon I would see the need to visit Target in the hope of finding that obscure book I’d been looking everywhere for not as a pointless Hail Mary but as a perfectly reasonable step in my search (I know. Crazy talk).

It’s because of The National, really, and what Matt Berninger said.

“If I stay here, I’ll never leave.”

And there has to be more to the world than a place with a Red Rooster that routinely runs out of chicken.

It took more than my little existential crisis to get me out, though. It took the job I’d been eyeing off for years falling into my lap (in that agonise-and-cross-fingers-for-weeks kind of way) and an apartment I didn’t even know I was looking for suddenly becoming available.

Sometimes the stars align right when you need them to, sure, but in my case it seems there was less timing and more waiting involved. It seems this is where I’m supposed to be, at least for now. I’m comfortable again, already, but it’s a different kind of comfort. If I were a sap I might call it contentment, but I won’t because it’s not and also because I’m a writer and we have no damn idea what that word means. There’s always a better get to be got and always another offer just around the corner we wish we could seize with both hands. For now I think I’m realising this is one of those offers, and I did seize it. I did the thing that had caused me to lose sleep countless times. The thing that scared the bejesus out of me in more ways than one. And now there’s like, 40 bookstores within a ten-kilometre radius of my house.

When I’m not counting bookstores I’m learning other things about this place I hated so vehemently until I moved here. I think, actually, that I arrived with the world’s most open mind. The city itself is almost entirely foreign to me and I am the brave exchange student who has taken the plunge and gapes, wide-eyed, at all this new and newer landscape has to offer. Every alleyway hides a coffee shop and every street corner holds a restaurant, and apparently Sunday trading is not a myth or a topic for debate but a liveable, tangible thing people engage with each week.

Here are some other things I’ve learned:

1. City lights at night are proof that, just occasionally, man-made things can be as beautiful as natural things.

2. Don’t believe Loreal. Paying $16 for two cans of Glen 20 and feeling ripped off is the first sign of ageing.

3. Silence doesn’t exist as a concept within a 300 kilometre radius of not just this city, but any city. Cities have cars, and construction, and people shouting across the road to each other for reasons good or bad and even though they’re not especially loud the sound echoes off everything fixed in place. And they have sirens. Lots of sirens.

4. Getting annoyed at the sirens, even though they generally mean a house is burning down, or someone’s livelihood has been broken into and ransacked, or a wife has found her husband slumped in a heap in the kitchen and doesn’t know what’s wrong with him – in spite of all these things, it’s important to remember: you are allowed to get shitty when the sirens wake you up at 2am. It doesn’t make you a bad person.

5. Having a McDonald’s outside a five-minute drive is the best thing for you.

6. When one of the two elevators in your building breaks, your chances of finally meeting your neighbours doubles.

7. Paying for parking is a ridiculous concept but it only takes three fines within the space of a week (I’m just guessing) for you to backpedal and wholeheartedly embrace the system.

8. Buy a bike. Buy a bike buy a bike buy a bike. Then bike.

9. There is a special place in hell reserved for drivers who don’t know how to merge.

10. There’s something to be said for following the logic of a song. I think I’ll do it again sometime.