suburban love letter

I am sitting in the lounge-room of my childhood home as the rest of my family rolls out of bed and begins readying themselves for the day ahead. The news of the terror attacks in Paris has just come through. The man delivering this televisual update continues to consistently mention Australia, continually re-iterating that “all Australians are accounted for,” and I can’t help thinking that it seems a little cruel; like seeing a man in a wheelchair and letting everyone around you know that it’s okay, you can still walk, run, jump, kick, dance.

Later, when it’s confirmed that at least one Australian has in fact been injured, this is treated with all the gravitas of the recent Sydney siege, as if nobody watching could possibly identify or sympathise with any of the victims unless said victim is a white Australian.

The world is burning, and my parents have just bought a selfie stick.

Years earlier, when I was twenty or twenty-one, one of my first plays was self-produced and performed at what was then The Owl and the Pussycat Theatre in Richmond. The play’s name was Acidtongue and Dollface, and it was a thinly veiled piece of attempted autobiography melded with an improbable plot that featured, among other things, the weight of parental expectation, arson, and bloody murder.

Its reception was mixed, to say the least. The two or three good reviews it received were from young people like myself; and the two or three bad reviews – really bad, almost excitingly, quotably bad – were from confused and personally offended adults. In a way, this played exactly into my twenty-year-old hands. The adults, like those strange and unintelligible creatures from the cartoon version Schulz’s Peanuts, just didn’t understand. The youngsters, however, very much did. Suburban life was as suffocating to them as it was to me.

I was always a bookish child, and at age 12 was granted early access to the Upper School section of my school library – because I was a step ahead in my reading capabilities, I was allowed to pick whichever novel I’d like to read without any fear of librarian retribution; it had been decided that my mind wouldn’t be too badly warped by the adult concepts and graphic passages rife in this restricted section. Perhaps as an unconscious test of this claim – more likely because I just liked scary things and had heard wondrous things about this Stephen King fellow – one morning I picked up and loaned out a fat book with a pitch-black dust jacket and the letters slashed in blood red across its cover: IT.

While IT didn’t warp my mind, it did give birth to my first wholehearted experimentation with fan-fiction as I wondered: what would happen to me and my friends should the mysterious and terrifying creature known as IT begin to haunt us? (Also, what if the similarly mysterious and terrifying Freddy Krueger had joined forces with IT, and what if we possessed the ability to morph into fire breathing dinosaurs, too?)

King’s novel was something that stuck with me: not for the antics of Pennywise the Dancing (and murderous) Clown, but for the idea of seven ordinary children thrust out of the doldrums of normalcy, and – as a particularly fat child – the idea that an obese childhood wouldn’t define your adulthood.

These same obsessions – being thin, being special and Not Being Normal – were probably why when I played ‘doctor’ with my next-door neighbours I was always the patient, and always spun an elaborate backstory about round-the-world travelling, excess, and fame.

I stand outside in the heat and oppression of late December 2013 and stare at the monstrosity before me. A mobile home with particular emphasis on the ‘home’ side of things, and less on the ‘mobile’: my parents have discovered their current car doesn’t have the mechanical strength to tow their caravan, so it sits out front of their house – it is too tall to fit underneath their carport without breaking something in the process. The answer, apparently, is simple:

“We’ll just need to buy a four wheel drive,” my mother says, and I can picture already the ‘Toorak tractor’ they’ll need to make this several tonnes of caravan mobile.

God. I hope I never become like that, I think with a petulant stab at my surroundings. Then:

You hope you never have enough money to casually decide to purchase a car?

It is March of 2008, and I am – after a long process of gap-years and course transfers – about to begin the first lecture of my Journalism degree at Monash University; encouraged by my family to seek a job that “involves writing, but also involves getting a job.” The excited chatter of fresh students falls immediately to silence as our lecturer stalks into the room; seemingly glaring at every face before her.

Excruciating silence for what feels like an eternity (but would’ve only been ten seconds, max), then:

“Who here wants to be a journalist?”

My arm is slower to rise than the others; the final tortoise to finish the race as a hundred Tracy Grimshaws around it sprint full bore ahead.

“Wonderful,” our lecturer smiles. “Now, I want ninety percent of you to put your hands down.”

Electricity courses through our collective silence. Is this a…?

“It’s not a trick,” she confirms. “And it doesn’t have to be exact, obviously, but I want about ninety percent of you to do me a favour and lower your hands. Go on.”

Slowly, cautiously, the room does so: all except for me – caught in stubborn refusal after my arm’s embarrassingly slow ascent – and about nine other young upstarts. She only speaks once the last hand has lowered.

“Now, look around you. This is about the collective success rate you’ll have as journalists. Possibly worse.” She pauses, dramatically. “Look at the person next to you. They’re your friend, right?”

Finally: “Wrong. They’re your competition.”

Quickly, unconsciously, my arm begins to lower.

As seems to be the rite of passage for all arts-oriented individuals in Melbourne, at the beginning of 2012 I picked up all my worldly possessions and trekked with friends across to the north side – a quaint little Burton-esque house just off Sydney Road, Brunswick, right near the hub of pubs, cafes, Savers, skinny jeans and the ever-shrinking gulf between “homeless” and “hipster” chic.

This’ll be great, I thought. I can smell the freedom already, and it smells like a quickly oxidizing long black.

When I was eight or nine, I’d used to spend my weekends with the girl next door; a young, sporty lass by the name of Jessica. Jessica and I would tick all the childhood boxes: we’d scrounge and save our spare change to purchase icy-poles together, we’d spend our days riding mountain bikes up and down the length of our street, and we would discuss, in grandiose terms, our plans for our futures.

I remember being utterly amazed by the state of her house: her mother was an interior designer (or something of that ilk) and as such, her house’s interior didn’t fit in with of any other house I’d been in: blood red feature walls in the kitchen, polished floorboards and marble benches, a stone tub at the centre of the bathroom like a sacrificial altar to cleanliness, and a centralized vacuum cleaner that drew all the dirt into the house’s very walls.

For me, this house was my Brunswick; just off-kilter enough to be intriguing and effortlessly “cool” without holding any kind of legitimate threat.

My grand move, years later, occurred around the same time that “privilege” slid into popular lexicon (as in, “check your”, “you’re so”, “I have no”, and “you don’t even think about”), and I can’t deny that this added a certain sheen to life on the north side: you weren’t buying into your privilege; you were roughing it in ethnically diverse suburbia, which was evidently immensely different.

Being 23 and caught inside a horror movie film set of a house, however, far away from the cushiness of suburbia, was a different matter altogether.

Heard on the train this morning:

“I’ve told him heaps of times, now, to be careful when climbing on the roof; and he’s almost died doing it; like, fallen off and snapped his neck, but he still really wants to. He won’t – would not – be swayed. If I’d known he hated leaves that much I wouldn’t have suggested we get the awnings with the Colour Bond gutters, now, would I?”

As I first began to realise, growing up, that maybe I didn’t want to (indeed, couldn’t) settle down and marry a girl, I began to shake off the expectations of both my family and society writ large and attempt to pave out something that was more conducive to the life I wanted to lead. In a sense this has led to my (initially violent) kick-back against a suburban lifestyle, but I seem to be coming back around again: it’s not something that I have a particular interest in, sure, but others do, and that’s okay.

In a recent episode of Josh Thomas’ Please Like Me, a homosexual character speaks about the confines of expectation and his sexuality; noting that as a child, when he realised he wasn’t ever going to do what was expected of him (i.e. marry and settle down with a wife, a house and two point five children) it essentially opened the idea of relationships and the world up to him.

Regardless of your opinion of Thomas or Please Like Me, I would argue that he has a point. In the long road it’s taken for me to finally accept that a career in the arts is something that both fulfills me and something that I want, I have repeatedly wished for a sudden fervour and propensity for mathematics or accounting. First wryly, as a joke – then, increasingly, less so. In many ways, it’d make everything a lot simpler if I held a hunger and a passion for taxes.

The world intermittently lights up with the force of explosive violence, and people around the world choose to live their lives however they want to regardless: maybe there’s more to worry about.

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