The Distance

20191014_051439We moved to our neighbourhood mid-year 2019, five months before the first case of COVID-19 occurred. It was a quiet, residential area surrounded by bushland, hills, and walking parks. We introduced ourselves to the neighbours in our cul-de-sac when we moved in, but after that, we never engaged in conversation. Most of them were aging, though, and we made a habit to smile and wave when they are out tending their lawns or feeding birds. We learned early on, from our morning dog walks and afternoon strolls, where the dogs lived and whom owned cats allowed to roam free.

Less than a block from our front door, there’s the entrance to a one kilometre walking park where we let the dogs out on full-leash so they can sniff the grass and wee on the trees. Sometimes, they spot a kangaroo or wallaby before we do, leaving us puffed as we try to wrangle them to our sides.

But mostly, we learned that no matter the time of day we enjoyed a walk, we rarely came into contact with any other people. Evening walks at 4-5-6pm showed us that as people returned home from their jobs, they locked up and stayed indoors. The dynamics of middle-class life were the same: work-home-tv-sleep. Despite our differences, we were the same.

As we entered week four of social distancing, we challenged ourselves to 10,000 steps every day. It seemed unachievable. There was no walking from a car park, or train, into the office anymore. There were no incidental trips to the grocery store or to get coffee with the boss. Routines that we weren’t even aware we had were gone.

Late Monday, when the best I could muster was 7,000 steps from taking the dogs for a walk and pacing my living room during telecons, I suggested we go for a walk, like we used to. We left the house, expecting the same lack of people as before, forgetting that the world wasn’t the same since the last time we took an evening stroll.

As we entered the walking park, we noticed several couples and families on the paths. For the first time since moving into the area, we saw how culturally diverse our neighbourhood is. It seemed oddly heartwarming. But it didn’t stop there.

Every couple and group were observing proper social distancing. If there was an intersection, one couple would slow down while the other would speed up so they would not be in danger of coming into contact. Families chatted from across streets as one small group would cross the street rather than risk coming into physical contact. We followed a similar path, walking onto the grass when we noticed a dog and his owner coming our way.

As dusk sent the world in shades of pink and amber and orange, I realised we were all the same. Isolation has driven us from our homes but made us socially conscious for the first time. And that’s weirdly comforting.

It may not be the same everywhere, but here, in my little suburb, distancing has brought us a little closer together.

The Routine

IMG_20171007_174725.jpgI pull out two blue cardboard boxes from my medicine cabinet and blink at my reflection in the mirror. This is it. The routine is near completion. Once I do this I am past the point of no return. Last chance to flake out of training, but I see my thin neck and smile. That’s why I can’t skip this.

As I grew out, I took my big pants to the seamstress. “The hems,” I told her, “- they’re too high.”

But, in reality, my thighs were too thick. My pants bunched up from crotch to knee. I should probably have just bought new ones, but there was a tiny part of me that was still in denial. I’m not fat.

I slide the first contact over my right eye. Always the right one first. I wonder why. Is it because I’m right-handed? Or is it because I always have the right contact box on top of the left? Hard to know. Why am I thinking about this anyway? Just get on with the routine. I blink three times, willing the contact into place.

“It’s my PCOS. I read about it. It causes weight gain,” I told a dietician. “There’s the IBS too.”

No, silly. It’s because you eat crap. Just admit it. But I couldn’t. Not out loud. If I were to admit it, I wouldn’t be allowed cakes, chocolates, or cookies. How could I possibly live without my double fudge chocolate chip cookies?

I press the next contact on over my left eye and blink. I can’t turn back now. These little contacts cost too much to waste them. Now I have to go to boot camp.

In the past six months, the routine has been the same. Come home from work, get dressed, put on my contacts (because I hate sweat dripping onto my glasses), lace up my ankle strap, and slide my shoes on. Once done, the act of getting into the car and driving to the park has already been decided.

“You don’t have to hate food that’s good for you,” the health coach said. “We’ll find the plan that’s just right for you.”

I doubted it, but I paid money so I wasn’t going to be accused of not trying. I will come to their training sessions and eat the meal plans they suggested. What have I got to lose?

I slide my running shoes over my feet and leave for boot camp. The ritual complete for the third time this week. With pride, I strut out of the house with a gym towel over my shoulder. I have beat the lazy-beast for another day, and I’m much happier for it.

I returned to the seamstress. “My pants need hemming again. I lost all this weight.”

Midnight Dreamer

IMG_20170522_054502Awake. Again. At midnight.

Tears cover my pillow. I wipe my nose, not daring to sniff in fear of waking someone.

Why don’t you like me? I’m fifteen. Shouldn’t I have a boyfriend by now?

But the trumpet player doesn’t like me that way. Instead, he looks right past me. His gaze falls on my friends. Their perfect hair, perfect skin, and perfect breasts are as far from me as can be. I’m so cool, though. He tells me so. I play games with him, watch movies, talk about all the things he likes. It’s gotta be the way I look – my acne-riddled face, my big nose, my tiny mouth, and my ridiculously small boobs. That’s why no guy wants me, least of all him.

I close my eyes.

Across a crowded room, he enters.

His blue eyes search and fall on me.

His mouth widens in a smile.

Ignoring all else, he comes to me.

“Hey.” “Hey.” We say.

He leans in.

Noses touch.

Lips touch.

*****

Awake. Again. At midnight.

My pillow and mattress are damp with sweat. I stare at the ceiling as rivers trickle down from my eyes to my ears.

Why do I like him? I’m eighteen. I’m running out of time to find a boyfriend.

But just as before, the theatre major doesn’t look at me that way. His hazel eyes graze mine. He’s the first boy to look at me, not through me. We talk and laugh while we work. The days go by so much quicker when he’s there. But he’s not available. His girlfriend frequently shows up to brighten his day. I hate that I wish they would break up.

His head is on my lap.

I run my fingers through his hair.

We pretend to watch TV. But…

We are content to stare at each other.

His hazel eyes hold all the secrets.

*****

Awake. Again. At midnight.

My pillow is over my head, stifling what would be a full-on sob by now.

Why doesn’t he love me? I’m 22. I’m out of time to find a boyfriend.

But just as every time before, the roommate doesn’t look at me that way. His brown eyes are closed in the room next to mine – closed to me. He looks above me, scared to meet my gaze. We talk, we laugh, we play games together and watch movies together. On the days that he’s happy, everything is awesome. But on the days he’s not, all the weed in the world won’t help me forget.

He’s available. He doesn’t look at my girlfriends. He must like me. Why doesn’t he like me like that?

Black lingerie on, I step down the stairs.

His eyes fall on me.

Without words, he says, “Come here.”

I don’t.

I lay down on the couch.

Show him my curves.

He doesn’t wait long.

He crosses the room.

*****

Awake. Again. At midnight.

My neck pillow is no help. Tears of joy stream down my face as I stare at the tiny monitor in the seat in front of me and watch Mrs. Henderson Presents.

Why does he love me? I’m 25. I thought I didn’t need a boyfriend anymore.

But I found him. He found me.

His blue eyes stare back at me through a webcam. He talks to me, never at me, and for hours, we discuss everything from our day to our past and future.

I’m nervous excited about finally meeting him in person. In a few hours, I will start my life with him.

It only took ten years to have a partner. I hope I don’t screw it up.

No dream tonight.

In fact, I never have to dream again.

 

Dear Daddy

Dear Daddy,

It’ll be ten years next week since you went home. Life is moving on without you, though, and there’s been so much I want to say to you. And so much I wish you could say to me, but for now, this letter will have to do.

I left eleven years ago for Australia – for Wayne. In that time, I’ve changed from the mousy girl, to a fierce, albeit sometimes aggressive, woman. I’m a staunch liberal, I never go to church, and I’m a reforming racist. I’m sure if you were still here you’d see how much I’ve changed. You might even comment on it in the same ferocious tone you used when you told me how disappointed you were in my choice to move away.

As long as I’m being honest with you, though, some days, when my mind wanders, I think maybe your sobriety ended because of me.

Mostly, I just wonder if you are proud of the woman I’ve become. Would it surprise you to know how much I’ve drifted from the ultra conservative, fundamentalist Baptist girl you raised? Or that I don’t watch every movie at the theatres anymore? I don’t read as much as you used to read to me? How much of the girl you knew is still there? Would you still be clinging to the memory of extinct young Mel? Or embracing the change?

I married Wayne; did you know that? I love him. I never had a chance to say that to you. Though I’m sure you knew it. I hate that you never got a chance to meet him or even talk to him. The year between my leaving and your passing was such a short period of time but such a long one too. I regret not forcing you on the phone more when I called. I regret not putting Wayne on the phone to talk to you. I always planned to visit with him at my side. I think you would have liked him.

We did end up visiting, but not for the reasons any of us liked. I still get teary when I realize that the only time Wayne ever saw you in person was staring down at your open casket in that church. By the time we were there, the man I saw looked nothing like the man I hugged good-bye at the airport in May 2006.

Despite all the negatives, I will always be Daddy’s little girl. I still think back with fondness all those hours watching movies on the couch together or the early Saturday mornings before the rest of the house was awake when I’d play Nintendo and yell-whisper at you about my high score. I enjoyed the sound of your voice when you read Tolkien and Heinlein to me. I loved our trips to the donut shop together to buy the yummiest and least nutritional breakfasts for the family. I still talk about your keyboard and all the hours spent with you singing together. I miss being able to call you randomly to sing a song to you to find out who was the artist and the song.

I always knew I was your favorite, even when parents aren’t meant to have favorites.

I knew when I left, it would be you I’d missed most. I just didn’t realize it was because you would be gone forever. I don’t regret leaving. I will never regret that. It’s landed me a healthy life with Wayne, a real career, but most of all, a smile when I get up to face the day. I know despite everything, that’s all you wanted for me.

A month after you left us, I had a dream. You were driving me around Paris, TX, one last time. The buildings were derelict and the streets were barren, but there was a certain calmness to it. You parked us outside an office building, and we went inside for me to get ready for an interview or something. We walked into an almost vacant office and sat to talk for a while. The office window looked out into downtown Paris. I could see the blue sky and the sun breaking through a solitary cloud.

You told me how I would some day ride a horse. I’d get married and feel loved. And that I’d find out who your actual family was, a question you never had the courage to ask.

When you seemed content that everything you wanted to say was said, I started to hum, not understanding what it was at first, but eventually, the music took me away and the words just came out, “At the crossing. Of the Jordan. Why should I be afraid? There’ll be someone there who loves me. To guide me. Across the river. To endless joys above..”

I sniffed and swallowed the growing moisture. Your footsteps were silent, but your gentle pat on my head gave me comfort. I smiled and watched the cloud move across the sun’s face.

“Why did you have to go?” I asked, turning to face you.

But you were gone.

I know it sounds silly, but a part of me wants to believe that was your way of saying good-bye – a part of me needs it to be true.

Love always,

Melly Belly

The Run

I look at my phone for the hundredth time in the last hour. Five a.m! Damn. The day won’t even begin for hours yet. Restless. Alone. I can’t just sit here and wait.

I step out the hotel doors and wrap my arms across my chest. The cool Melbourne wind bites my hands and my face – the only spots of exposed skin. Tiny drops of mist leave sprinkles across my glasses. It’s cold, but I’ll be warm soon enough. I slide my hood over my head and set a slow pace as punk queen Gwen sings about running.

Travelling for work isn’t so bad. Your days are all but decided for you, but it’s the night, the early morning – when you’re brain dead or brain preparing – that’s the worst. You dine alone, you try to fill your time with shopping or walking, but most of the time, you read in bed until you fall asleep. Only to then toss in bed because you can’t quite find that right spot or if the sheets should be on or off.

The streets are quiet but not vacant at this hour. The sun isn’t quite up, and the streetlights let out a dim glow as if preparing for it to rise at any moment. I have the volume turned down on my phone and take in the sounds of my surroundings – the clatter of the trams, the buzzing of the power transformers, the chatter of people. There’s something beautiful about a city that is still sleeping.

Sleeping bags and big wooly blankets line the sidewalk in front of the shops. Some of the mounds are moving, but most remain still. Not awake, not asleep. Just existing.

I wonder at the resilience of man. That drive to keep going is certainly not unique but is inspiring all the same. This mind-wander continues until I round a corner and a man shuffles past me. His face and hands are dirty, his hair unruly. I smile at him. Smiles cost nothing, after all. He returns the smile with a big toothy grin.

“Run, run, run. You’re doing great,” he says with a raspy laugh in his voice.

I laugh with him.

He follows me, smiling and jogging alongside me for a hundred meters. I grin from ear-to-ear. I sense no malice, just joy. Maybe it’s only mine. Maybe not.

Later that day, a colleague will tell me how frightful that experience sounds, but nothing in my tone or telling of the story will show I am scared for my safety. She will go on to tell me that a woman should not go out alone in the dark. That I should protect myself – be more careful. 

For now, though, I enjoy the moment; I revel in it.

He stops, and I wave at him as I cross the street to continue this forward momentum.

When the moment passes, I let the next take over and then the next. 

I love every second of the run. I love the river and the way the water ripples with the light rain. I love the flat dirt track around the Botanical Gardens and the way it felt separate but still a part of this city. I love the fountain surrounded by golden leaves and a muted glow. 

I lose track of time and distance, traveling 7km before I realize I need to get back to my room.

The sun rises past the buildings, and first light lands on me just as I reach the hotel. I let out a happy intonation before I walk inside and lower my hood. Contentment never diminishes from lobby to shower.

I decide later that day that I won’t go out and do it again.

Still. I regret nothing.

Had I not gone out, I would have missed all those beautiful moments, and that would have been the true loss.