memoir: the summer of leaving ghosts
I lie awake, eyes wide beneath the lacing of moonlight filtering through unfamiliar curtains, listening to the distant wail of trams. The pub up the street is pumping out a bassy whump-whump and bursts of raucous laughter. A coil in the mattress feels like a knuckle in my spine. The thoughts in my mind feel unspeakably strange, at once tasting of grief and realisation, excitement, loneliness, and a slow thrill uncurling: you are far from what you know. This city is your home now.
Home had never felt too small until I relinquished the wrong parts of myself to the wrong people, who, at the wrong time, left me without what I needed most. I was floundering in the space that comes after a sudden, shocking end of a relationship, and working two jobs in aged care and music teaching, both of which I increasingly resented. I was struggling with intense periods of anxiety and sleeplessness. Up until the hot, summer morning that found me pushing boxes into the back seat and doing the last of my dishes, I didn’t truly believe that I’d made the decision to move from Adelaide to Melbourne, taking only what would fit in my car.
The yellow morning that I left was ripe with the cries of magpies and the lazy thrum of cicadas. I folded myself into my car, amongst boxes of books, bags of clothes, blankets, fairy lights, shoes, a bag of apples, and a map. It was a terrible day to drive – I could feel beads of perspiration trickling from behind my knees in the sticky heat. Hours passed. Silent homestead, rusted windmill, wheat silos like sentinels. In my lunch bag, my cheese began to sweat, and I tried to hold it up before the struggling air conditioning vent. More hours passed. I worked out a way to stretch one leg up on the dashboard while still driving. I crossed off towns on a piece of paper – Kaniva, Nhill, Horsham. As shadows started to stretch down distant hills, I tried not to think.
I resigned at both of my jobs the afternoon after I started dividing my possessions into piles. I started looking for a housemate to replace me. I cut my hair, went on a few dates. The new year rolled in and I spent its first morning at the funeral of a dear friend. Standing under a tree with watermelon juice dripping down my wrists, I sang songs of goodbye, and the leaves overhead seemed to be whispering words of farewell and change that I thought were meant for me as well.
I threw a third of my possessions away. What I would take with me sat in a pile, reminding me at every turn that if I wished, I could make a new life for myself. There were shirts in the back of my drawer belonging to someone whose name I could barely bring myself to say. I packed them into bags and sent them to his family. The rest of my belongings went into storage boxes. My last weekend was spent at a beach house with friends, a sacred summer ritual that started a few years earlier. We dug prickles from our sand-scorched feet, baked ourselves on the empty beaches and talked about sex, our careers, our childhoods. By night we swam naked in the surf under the moon, slept in one room in great tangles under the rattling fan, limbs sprawled and saturated in an exhausted embrace of love and the magic of our enchanted reality. The whole time I thought this is what I’m leaving, this is what I’m leaving, and I didn’t know why I was going.
The hours of driving left me limp with tired sweat and cramped legs. Melbourne was molten gold in the fading day, humming quietly in the heat. Leaving my car, I walked, my feet sweltering in their long socks, my sunglasses sweating on the bridge of my nose. Each street mouth yawned with red pubs, bottle-green cafes, secret shop windows. I passed Nicholson, Brunswick, Smith, and every square of pavement felt like a piece of new adventure. I stepped into a cave resplendent with shaggy gold coats, fluorescent beads on strings, glasses, platform boots, velvet vests. I wanted to touch everything, to have its glitter rub off onto my skin.
As twilight bled into the streets, I found a park bench, took off my shoes, took out my journal. The dried stubs of grass seemed to spike my bare feet with an astonishing ferocity. I noticed the crisp smell of the old wood bench, and that of the stringy gum behind it. The small biting insects brushing at my skin were exquisite pinpoints of sensation. This new place demanded that I take note of my body. It demanded a state of raw being I had almost forgotten.
Beyond the curtains, the night deepens, the moonlight changes, and the pub quietens. I listen to the trams. They whistle around the corner like ghosts, moaning on their wires. I will grow to love that sound more than most things in the city that takes me in with quiet arms. I will pierce my skin, dye my hair, walk more than I have in my life. I will be lost but not frightened, find old friends, fight with new. Wander apple orchards wreathed in wood smoke, drink dizzying cocktails, be mistaken for my mother. On this night I lie still, and wondrous, and a little bit afraid. I know this dark. I feel everything. I wonder where I will fit.