In Which We Cannot Remember Any One Way We Felt

To celebrate the release of Nathan Jolly’s new collection, Sydney for Strangers, we republish one of his classic TR pieces. Enjoy, and buy Sydney for Strangers here.

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My Name Is A Secret

by NATHAN JOLLY

I was about to hurt a person I could have grown to love. It wasn’t like ripping off a band-aid, and it wasn’t self-preservation, and it wasn’t her, it was most definitely me. It was just cold and cruel and necessary. I was wearing a red woolly Cobain jumper that I knew she hated, as if that would be the comfortable crash-mat that softened the fall. My hair was an unwashed nest, my eyes were blurry from the coffee that had kept me up most of the night and exacerbated my anxiety, and I had swallowed so much Extra chewing gum to counteract my coffee-mouth that I was afraid the warnings on the packet of a laxative-type effect would be realised on the 423 bus that was slowly steering me towards the sad scenario I had sketched for myself.

In the sunlight, when her eyes squint and those faint lines crease in that way that always sends me stupid, maybe when she laughs at one of my dumb fucking jokes with her entire body, and accidentally whips me with her hair while doing so, maybe then I will realise this isn’t what I want, and that I actually am happy with Mickey, and that it is just the rest of my life that isn’t sitting quite right. Maybe if we go to that café near the train station and I eat something not meaty and not bready that sits right in my churning, burning stomach, maybe everything will finally be in place, and I will be able to see that I need Mickey, that I love Mickey, that I don’t need to watch her face crumple, her eyes well up, and her voice quiver.

Once I watched a couple break up in a crowded café courtyard, and I was stunned by the callous cruelty of it all. The ingenuity of breaking up in a neutral zone to avoid the lengthy, lumbering, desperate debate was whitewashed by the awful humiliation; this strange girl’s quiet resolve, and this strange guy’s stung anger was impossible to watch without wanting to weigh in, but of course this wasn’t a movie and therefore we weren’t allowed to watch, comment, or judge — at least not openly. This is why I was traveling to Mickey’s place and not a shaded courtyard, taking a bus the eight or so blocks that separates us in order to limit the amount of time I could to and fro inside my head before having to face up to the decision I had long ago made, and was about to finally play out.

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Life isn’t so bad these days, I often decide during the brief moments I can think about it softly. I am writing at a rate that I can finally be proud of, and I’m placing insignificant articles in significant publications. I’m quickly tucking away a few pieces each month that I am happy enough about now to feel they won’t slay me when I revisit them at a later date, like an old photo taken at a party where I seemed happy and had incredible hair for a split, stolen second. I have always been aware I’m just collecting memories to be studied and missed at a later date. I’m forever envious of those people who seem so thoroughly in the moment that they aren’t even aware that these are the times they will miss. I have had these moments, I’m sure, but I recognize them too quickly, and in one quick shot, all is ruined. I file and catalogue and study and store. I miss the way things are now.

This is Mickey’s bus stop, so I swing around the businessman standing unceremoniously in front of the door, the kind of guy who will tread on toes and block doorways because he is arrogantly unaware of the space he occupies and where his body is at any given time. Those guys are worse than tourists digging sharp, lumpy backpacks into strangers on a crowded train, swinging and hitting some poor old woman as they talk with their entire bodies. I am outside of Mickey’s house now; she isn’t aware that I am coming around but I know that she is home, because she is an analogue clock I learned to read months ago.

Mickey likes clean-shaven, buzzcut, buttoned-up boys who study law but have no sense of justice, who watch cricket because it is on, who travel in packs, and hold their girlfriends like accessories. I have never gotten over the shock that Mickey was interested in me, and have been waiting for her to realise that not only am I not the one, I’m not even in the correct bracket of ones. There are guys built for her, and she should let one find her. I studied my appearance in the rearview mirror of a scooter parked out the front of her apartment, and decided I looked sufficiently not-the-one. I did feel a strange buzz looking in the mirror of that scooter, but decided to shelve that particular feeling for my inevitable mid-life crisis. It’s sometimes nice to know what lies ahead, even if it is tired and well-traced and ultimately embarrassing.

It was too late to lean on gin, I was too close to leave now. I held my breath, clenched my stomach muscles and knocked on her door, for the final time.

+<

Sydney, you are a wonderful lover. I’m swaggering up lanes that belong only to me. My red-tinged sunglasses — bought for $7 at a discount store that sells postcards of the harbour, dubious drug paraphernalia, and long-expired lollies I haven’t seen or thought of since primary school — are painting everything with a Polaroid-perfect tinge, and I am taking photos, shaking photos and putting them in my jacket pocket to look at when I am old and no longer broken. I have freed myself from the only relationship that had ever caused me to stay up at night out of fear that I was circling too close to the sun, only I never felt in danger of being burnt, only of melting into her until I was wandering glass-eyed through farmer’s markets and nurseries, picking baby-names from books, and designer fruit from identical designer buckets. I was destined to be poor Charlie Brown, never quite getting to kick the football.

Now, I was walking back to the bookstores and dimly-lit second-hand shops which hold all that I love about this town. You know the feeling when you exit the cinema and are pierced by the blinding sunshine? That’s how I am feeling at the moment, and in a quick flash I decide that today, on this beautiful September afternoon, with the church bells singing a melody too perfect for religion, the streets sliding like a travelator under my feet, and everything bathed in a $7 red haze, that the deep depths of second book stores, the sad history and discontinued board-games no longer drew me in. Today was a day to sit in the dog park overlooking the courtyard of my favourite inner-West pub and squint into the sun. Today was a day to look forward.

Mickey would bounce back soon — of this I was sure. We were tourists at a colonial-style amusement park, getting our photos taken behind those old-timey wooden characters with the face-holes cut out. This wasn’t a whippable offensive. Nobody was drawn and quartered. If someone else was in the photo, Mickey would still put it on her fridge, and it would look perfect, like a family you would want to be in. I am happy for us to remain undeveloped, one of a host of blurry memories living in a film canister in a sock drawer.

I wanted to call Penelope — the girl I should have been with — to share the news: that we could start our new lives together, assuming of course that her block-headed boyfriend slept with a face-painted babe he met at one of the loud, sweaty clubs I assume he goes to on a Saturday night, with lines of fake tan and fake everything snaked around the block and two burly bouncers letting in one guy for every six girls. Obviously, I can’t call Penelope. Sunday afternoons are for boyfriends and road-trips to cousin’s backyard BBQs, and plonking on lounges to watch films that intersect those few commonly shared interests that most mismatched couples cling to. They weren’t for phone calls from people she’d never had to explain, and I knew this, and she knew this, and everywhere I looked this afternoon there were girls that I could start an entirely new life with right this moment. I could crawl into their townhouses, and meet their housemates, and flick eagerly through their book collections and DVD shelves, and stacks of street press I had written for months ago that hadn’t been thrown out yet, because the little hidden ledge under the coffee table is as good as thrown out anyway. I could wear her jeans, and try on her t-shirts, and drink beer with her in the morning because that’s the quickest way to get to know someone, and I always wanted to know everything right now — so eager to catch up, like a television show I had discovered when the sixth season was winding to an end.

But all these women seemed to cruelly pass me by today, with their dogs and their men, and their Sunday shopping lists, and their mobile phones. Sydney is a great lover, but it is also an ocean, which either propels you towards the shore, or drags you out to die. It lifts you, and dumps you, and fills your lungs when all you want to do is paddle. It blocks your sonar with seaweed and blinds you with saltwater. It is hard to see somebody in the ocean, and harder still to get to them before they have been scuttled across the shoreline, or dragged below the surface. In Sydney, when two people get together quickly, one of them is always being rescued.

+

Does love get in the way of life, or does life get in the way of love? I have spent months comatose and nesting, letting life whir by in the background like a carnival scene from a teen movie I’ve only ever seen posters for. Inside the rollercoaster capsule, there are only two to a seat, the background is blurry, and we seem motionless in the midst of it all: not scared, not screaming, and happy to stay where we are — until the ride kicks us off, and we are propelled back into the carnival, squinting into the sun, looking around like lost tourists.

After the type of breakup that makes me want to stay indoors alone, I often find that instead of locking myself away, I fling into the world, searching for a purpose that isn’t attached to a girl and her smile. I work more, I write lists and buy diaries, and plot and plan. I get things done. Free of the numbing calm that a relationship can provide, I am alone and against the world. I find myself ignited with a flame that burns so brightly it distracts me from the fact that I am on fire.

Being in a big city makes you acutely aware that anything is possible, and not only possible but probable —big things are expected of you in a big city, and the more people swarming in and out of high rise buildings and warehouses that store indie musicians, the more sense you get that it’s all important, that all the photos and art exhibitions, and banks and big money, and boats on the harbour are all working in service of something bigger, and all you need to do is tap into this, and start stacking, start spreading the news —however quickly that news changes from day to day. Every new hour is both a fresh start, and an extension of this thing that will exist here long after you leave. It’s comforting when you are alone, and only depressing when you are lonely.

I moved into a new house in a new street in a white, blind rush a few weeks ago for reasons too tedious and technical to recount with any sense of artistry. The constant scaling down of my realty expectations and a previous, grueling ten-hour day of holding open heavy doors with legs and torsos, while arms tried to Tetris heavy boxes through security grates — back and forth and up and down — meant that this time I hired a removalist (and felt guilty for not helping out, despite the very good money I was paying him) and took the first house with hardwood floors (all the better to spill you with), a gas stove and a bathtub I could live in. The moving process was, for the first time, quick and painless. Of course this disregard for detail meant that in these past few weeks I had found many displeasing elements were alive and squeaking in my new home: hooks that bled down the walls whenever you hung anything heavier than a hope on them; scarcely scattered powerpoints seemingly placed by architects or electricians who had never owned more than four appliances at a time; sinks too small to wash your hair in; and all the rest which I will discover soon. Still, I am settled and content for what feels like the first time in years. Until this feeling passes, nobody can touch me. I am white light.

A few weeks earlier, lying on a mattress in my packed-up house, after deciding to leave both this sleepy street and my sleepy relationship, I realised I ultimately felt tied down by my possessions, and that all you need is a good book, a soft bed and a head full of hope. And a microwave. And housekeys. And did I really pack away my deodorant? I hoped my television remotes were in the same box as the television — in my haste I wasn't quite sure where I had packed anything at all. I hoped I hadn't left anything behind — some trinket or memory hiding in a high kitchen cupboard. I needed everything I had ever owned and I needed to know where everything was at all times, or I could not sleep.

I paced the empty house, seeing new shapes in carpet stains, old dust in the sunlight, letting my pupils dilate as I stare into the uninviting fluorescent kitchen light. The kitchen was always too cramped and impractical to be satisfactory to anyone but a divorced dad lovingly dividing Chinese food into three mismatched bowls on 'his weekend’. I would probably be that guy in ten or so years, I sighed inside my head, vowing never to have another one night stand, never to fall prematurely in love and be too lazy and in the moment to safeguard against such a scenario. I knew a daughter would probably be able to fix me, but I saw that particular movie all around me, in sad little kitchens like these, and I knew that it never ended the way anyone hopes it will. Fourteen boxes and a suitcase filled with papers — this was everything I had collected, all the things I hadn't yet forgotten why I’d kept. All the things that would define me if they found my body in this empty, sad house.

I cannot wait until the main thing I look forward each evening is a glass of red wine, the kids finally fast asleep in their Disney-painted bedrooms, and me and my girlfriend (never a wife, that word belongs with consumption, castles and kingdoms best left in the past) watching 60 Minutes and tutting at the state of the world: a world long left behind for the everyday reality of child-care centres and kindergartens and Spongebob band-aids and packed lunches and soccer games and all the banal brilliance that I fear may never be a part of my life, until of course on bin day, when it all comes spilling out into the street. Right now, the only way to form this cosy future is to soak myself in gin, go to the loosest bar in the inner West and indiscriminately fling myself at anyone who looks like they may one day love me. It’s five dollar drinks until dawn, it’s meals from vending machines, it’s unprotected everything; it’s cold and cruel, and necessary. All the promises to myself: quietly, quickly broken and shooed out of the room by her lips and her hips and what they could hold over me and my future just by being there and being available. It sure feels like being alive, but right now I cannot remember any one way I have felt, any former aches or joys. I gun my drink, check my hair in the reflection of my phone and look around. Hi, my name is a secret. Would you like to have a daughter with me?

You can purchase Sydney for Strangers here.

Nathan Jolly is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Sydney. He last wrote in these pages about the one. He tumbls here and twitters here.

Paintings by Isca Greenfield-Sanders

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