Home Part 2
I wake up in the place I don’t want to be. These rough midnight blue sheets, draped around my being, they’re dappled with lined, white leaves. These heaps and mounds of clothing just before my bed, part of the mess of unwanted and unused stuff that crowds me. These plywood cupboards that hold books and clothes frosted with dust, drawers stuffed with crushed receipts. Relics from long forgotten times. Lying face down just by the door is a chrome blue travel bag holding things that I do use. That chrome blue travel bag, it holds fresh memories of a nicer place, a place I want to be.
It is the day before. Monday, the queen’s birthday. The last day I spend in this place. The winter’s breeze brushes past me as I walk ahead of my dad, my smartphone directing me towards the service apartment.
Skipping in front is my sister, brandishing this Chinese take-out like container. Honey Malteser Mcflurry from McDonalds. How cool is that? And if that’s not your kind of thing, we’ve got M&M Mcflurries and Kit Kat Mcflurries!
Now we’re at the day before that. Sunday. I spend most this day being overwhelmed by the charm of the Queen Victoria Market. Here, there’s so much to see, so much to do, and then some more. Perhaps it’s just me, this ignorant boy, born and bred on a city-island his whole life, whose travels were mostly restricted to places as far as two to three in flight films. Like a house pup set loose in a carnival.
Having visited the meat and fish hall earlier on, I move past it, past the tables and chairs seating people having their morning cuppa, past the cafes that serve single origin Brazilian Coffee brewed from a pour over. The end of the stretch is reached, and I turn the corner. By the sidewalk, just in front of me, a sign, dark like a chalkboard, with squiggly letters of different colors, like Comic Sans, it greets me. It reads: EURO UNION — Done ya noodle, lucked out on Laksa and San Choi Bao’d out? Get unified at our European Street Food Festival.
Cool air trickles and tickles my face and I think the weather is just perfect. Where I’m from, mornings are a hot, sweaty and humid ordeal. I enter this huge, sheltered area filled with organic vegetables, fruits and roots for sale. Vendors declaim the deals of the day to patrons and passersby. The spotless produce, it gleams as if polished. The land is good.
I push forward till I reach a table that brims with rows of wines. My dad’s the wine connoisseur, not me. Earlier this week, we visited Yappa Valley for wine tasting (wine drinking for me), and he bought a whole case of wine. De Bortoli Noble One. Women like this kind of wine! To me, alcohol is alcohol. I walk past and I double back.
“Mead? You sell mead?” I ask.
The wine seller, he has a white bandit moustache and white eyebrows.
“Why yes we do! Would you like a taste?” he says.
“Yes please.” I reply
Dark gloves grip a slim glass bottle with the words HONEY LIQUER printed on it. He uncaps the bottle and its clear, gold contents spill into a mini plastic cup and he offers me the cup. I drink from it. It tastes like what I expect, sweet honey with alcohol. It’s good, but I’m not sure how good. All the time, I’m thinking, mead, as in, mead that Wednesday drinks with Shadow. I decide that it’s lovely and that I will buy two bottles.
Paper cards with names and numbers handwritten are taped onto the first wine of every row. I recognise them for the most part.
“What is Tokay wine?” I ask, handing him the mini cup.
He tells me what it’s all about, but it’s all just words that go in one ear and come out of the other. I ask him if it’s a dessert wine and he says not exactly, and he says something else I don’t remember.
“Can I have a sip?”
“Sure!” he picks up the bottle filled with topaz liquid, pours it into a new mini-cup and hands it over.
I taste it and it’s amazing. It’s sweet like grape flavoured candy.
“What else would you recommend?” I ask.
“The Pinot Noir. Here, let me get you a glasses.”
On a table behind him rested a plastic crate covered by a large sheet of cloth. He pulled the cloth back, revealing wine glasses, and he picks on up.
“Let me warm this up for you. It’s a cold day isn’t it?”
He bends over and pulls out a portable electric kettle, and he pours steaming hot water onto frosted glass.
“Wait, now it’s too hot.”
He turns to the pillar right beside the table and right by his hip, a copper tap sticks out. With a twist, water runs over the wine glass. A minute or so passes, and he stops the tap, pours out the remaining tap-water, and he pours me a glass of Pinot Noir. I drink it. The wine trickles down my throat and I think, this is light. Then this overwhelming, warm, spicy, aroma creeps up my throat, right up into my nostrils.
“What do you think?” he asks
I’m just covering my nose, holding back a sneeze.
“Yeah this is good, this is good.”
Still, my mind is made and I want the mead.
“I think I’ll have two bottles of the mead,” I say.
“Oh sure, sure. Let me get a bag for you.”
He bags two bottles for me. I leave for the adjacent store. It’s the kind of store that sells organic, ethical, cruelty free produce. Large shelves and refrigerators line up to form its walls. Rows upon rows of Chia seeds and Roasted Almond Butter and Gluten Free Wheat are packaged neatly, and they sit on the shelves. The two towering fridges, they’re filled with half a gallon bottles of organic, un-homogenised milk. On the defunct iPad exclusive news-app, The Daily, they once ran an exclusive about the Amish folk smuggling raw milk into warehouses, and the people that purchase raw milk and smuggled it out. I wonder if this is just as good, but half a gallon of milk sounds like a lot of farts.
I push further, up the little hill that Queen Victoria Market resides on. On my left, past the sheltered area, past the street, there’s an asian grocer and pet stores and cafes and a chalked sign that welcomes me to the second floor for barbecue. I walk past the long queue that snakes from this white van with wide windows on every side so that you can see the people in white inside preparing HOT JAM DONUTS, like Santa’s little helpers.
Now, I reach the crest of the road and I’m in a huge carpark filled with people. Tents of blue, green, red and yellow fill up most of the space in the middle, and people throng the tents. The Euro Union. A large brick building on the left serves as a toilet and storage area. Right outside, people queuing, to use the ATM machine, to use the vending machines. With a large tomato painted on its door, Italian name on the bottom, a truck that contains what I assume is food supplies, rests besides this building. Guitar wielding, stool sitting, a band plays folk music in front of a music stand and the surrounding ring of people.
I stroll around the tents, observing, stomach rumbling. A sign points to a tent that sells KOREAN SPIRAL POTATO. Potato forced into a tornado slicer, pulled apart with a stick in the middle and dipped into bumbling lard. For me, topped off with powdered cheese. Disgusting and delicious. Clapping, swaying, smiling, a crowd is entertained by a dark skinned man dressed Rastafarian style, green, red and yellow beanie and all. He sings No Woman No Cry. Funny story, a friend gifted me tickets to a Wailers concert not just a month ago. I had no idea who they were and I thought there would be EDM with people sweating and grinding, but instead people were swaying, clapping, with their lighters in the air.
The tents teem with a profusion of European cuisines. Meat skewered, grilled or barbecued. On the opposite end of the Carpark is a stage with a row of people, old and young, chanting. The crowd stands in silence, unmoving at first blush, but their expressions show otherwise. I feel like an outsider, peeking through a window, clouds storming, rain hailing, bearing witness to something amazing. I wish I were a part of them, I wish I belonged.
A flea market lies behind the festivities. On the face of fold-tables are toys, trinkets, bags, clothes and gimmicks spread out for viewing. Jewellery proudly made in Australia! This reminds me of temple street in Hong Kong, save for the substantial amount of haggling. And hard selling. I give it a once over. Unimpressed.
I travel the outskirts of the flea market, rows of stores lining its sides. Falafel, authentic New York pizza, hardware stores, pet accessories, scoop shops. Next to the shop that sells hand bound notebooks, there’s this big umbrella in red and white covering an equally red and white pushcart with the words WWW.SPANISHGOURMET.COM.AU. A solid white bull is the logo. There’s this big pan of steaming orange rice dappled with peas, shrimps, mussels, chickens and cut lemons. This kind of food is alien to me, my diet limited to Chinese, Italian, meat and carbs and vegetables, and faux-french. The piping hot paella’s armorer wafts over. It piques me. I don’t want to be an observer anymore. This is my idea of doing something wild.
The cardboard bowl that brims with Paella, it reminds me of the paper boats that I used to fold and float in the bathtub as a kid. I gobble a spoonful and I’m ravished. I slouch on the plastic chair, staring into the blank surroundings, submerged in my thoughts. One day, these memories you have will all be lost. Because you don’t take pictures. Because you’re always alone.The stomach sinks and the heart yearns. I snap a picture with my bent and misshaped iPhone and I feel pathetic.
Monday. Dusk. Cold. The gust runs its bleak fingers through my hair, sending my hands into my pockets, and chills through my stark white hoodie dappled with baby milo prints of green, blue, red and yellow. In my pocket, a vibration. Pulling my head back, I savour the crisp air that I will no longer be able to enjoy for years to come. Years that will be spent serving.
What’s up, the phone reads.
Crummy mood I really want to see you.
Alcohol or no?
Too much this trip. Dessert.
I don’t know.
Well I don’t know either.
You live here.
Melbourne State Library. 15 minutes.
Yeah. What dessert?
McDonalds. We’ll see.
My sister trundles along in front, soft serve dribbling from the tips of her lips, eyes on anywhere but her surroundings. Behind, Mawmaw lags. Every step, deliberate. Every step, delicate. Red-rimmed eyes cast upon the distance. Turning to face my dad, I say, “I have to see a friend for a while.”
“She’s a friend studying in Melbourne Uni.”
“Singapore. She moved here not long ago,” I lie.
“Okay,” I feel his lingering gaze, silent, suspicious.
He says, “Don’t come back late.”
I push away from my family, shophouse after shophouse. I walk past our service apartment. Intersection after intersection, I trundle across. Feet crunching macadam, eye-balling the green lights, head swivelling left and right, cars murmur out of reach. Just the way my dad taught me when I was a babe.
Melbourne city is like a big grid, I think. Tram tracks trail the thoroughfare, relegating the remainder of the road into two parts, to and fro. Shops line both sides, most closed, save for subway and some mini-marts. Thanks to Pen City across the street, my space pen will be rocking blue. Where I’m from, we only have black.
The State Library of Victoria looks exactly like the White House, is what I think. Except that it’s grey. Lush, green, grass lawns fill the forecourt, bordering the steps leading to the grand entrance of the library. On the bench overlooking the road, just by the right of the entrance, is the girl I’m looking for.
I ascend the steps, moving past the statue of some important judge, and I plop right beside her. Unspeaking. I touch her dark skinned hand, smooth as butter, and I rest my elbows on my knees and my head on my hands. A gale cruises by and I feel it in my ears.
“How’s life,” she asks, finally.
I lick my chapped lips and I say, “It sucks. I don’t want to leave and I hate it back there and I feel like a square peg and I feel like a square peg screwed and stuck in a round hole.”
“I don’t want you to leave either.”
I turn to her. Eye to eye. She looks away.
“Hey,” I say, “Hey.”
She looks back, stray strands of hair brush her chestnut brown eyes. I lick my lips and I close my eyes.
“I can’t,” soft finger pressing against my lips.
Eyes opening slowly. Silent.
“Say something. I hate it when you do that.”
You’re selfish and you’re cruel, I think.
“You’re leaving, and you can’t come back. You won’t come back,” she says.
“It’s not like it’s my fault. I didn’t choose this,” I say.
“You know I was doing so well when I came here. Things were going to be different. And you had to come here and fuck everything up.”
“It goes both ways you know, I won’t be able to see you too.”
“This is all a game to you isn’t it? Come to Australia, fuck a bunch of girls then leave them. This is my life you’re messing with.”
“It’s my life too. There are no other girls. And I won’t leave you. And how is this different for me. It’s my life too.”
“It’s not. You’re leaving. You’re going back home. I’m stuck here.”
You’re so fucking cruel, and you’re so fucking selfish and I sure do know how to pick them, I think to myself.
This is me. This is how my dates go. I make a girl go head over heels and I make her hate me. All in a span of three days really. Why does this kind of thing always happen.
Why can’t you just date a normal girl, the words of my dad itch in the back of my head.
He meant ethnicity and not emotional heath.
Through her smooth and silken hair, I run my fingers. Divested of her acerbic words and her caustic demeanour is a kind but damaged girl. I think. Or maybe she’s like one of those jawbreakers that’s hard and sour in the inside.
I cup my elbows as a wintry draft sails through, shivering.
“How’s the fiction piece going,” I ask.
“I have a thousand five hundred words more.”
“I haven’t started.”
This girl that majors in creative writing, she lives my dream and she’s the reason I’ve been wearing a turtleneck. She abhors writing fiction.
“I have to go soon. I can’t stay out late. I have to finish this.”
“Don’t uh huh me. It’s because of you that I haven’t started.”
I consider this and I rise and I feel the blood rush to my feet. Arms out in a great big stretch and yawning.
“Come, I’ll walk you home.”
So we walk, and we walk. On the pavement and on the tarmac. Past the bars and the minimarts and the Subways. Past gaggles of college students calling it a night. I want to be one of them.
I run my tongue over my lips and I say, “I have a story for you,” breaking the ice.
“A girl meets a guy in a bar. This guy is drop-dead gorgeous-” she rolls her eyes and I raise my index finger, “This girl is a stunner too. Of course. The girl fall in love, but everything the guys says, everything that the guy does, its just poo.”
“Makes sense, all men are assholes. All men want is to wheedle their way into your pants.”
“That might be true, but that’s not the point of the story. He may be smarmy and he may be seamy. Or he may be prince charming. But it really doesn’t matter, because the girl’s been hurt before you see. She can’t separate truth from lie because of her misandry.”
“Are you psycho-analyzing me?”
“Write what you know right? That’s a story you can take home from all of this. Our story.”
Loaded footsteps shuffle on tarmac. Words hushed. On the black, barren streets, shimmering street lamps pave the way home. Both of us brimming with wanting but saying nothing.
We arrive and we just stand there. Shoulder to shoulder.
“So this is it?” she says.
Trembling are her lips, damp are her eyes.
“You’ll be close in two weeks. You’ll visit right? That’s what you said.”
Yes she says, but she says this blinking and she looks away.
“Don’t go,” she says.
“I have to,” I say.
“I’m not going to say goodbye.”
“We’re seeing each other again,” I say this like a question.
She nods once. Behind her is a pot-bellied man with a ratty white beard and a tweed jacket and a cabbie cap spying on us.
“Good,” and I say, “Good.”
I peck her on the cheek, and I leave her.