As an adult, I have always had this firm feeling of being on the periphery. It doesn’t matter where I go, I always feel like I’m a bit on the outer.
Some of this is to do with the fact that I’m gay. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. Some of it is the fact that I moved schools many times as a kid. I went to two primary schools and four different high schools – which may not seem all that many, but it was enough to make me unsettled.
When I was 14, my parents moved us from Brisbane to Bundaberg, and then back to Brisbane the year after high school. It was a disruptive move, one that was definitely not made better by the fact that I hadn’t lived there my entire life.
I felt like a Dorito in a plain packet of chips, which is less fun than it sounds……
Have you ever been in a place so small that everyone knows one another, but big enough that the connections between them form knotted threads that pull together so tightly that you’re always a secret away from tying yourself in a trap you can’t get out of? It is a weird purgatory of populace. People always muse about this odd familiarity with small-ish places, they talk about it romantically as if having the whole town’s social network connected by the milkman is a good thing. I am certain that realtors capitalise on such a thing for mid-life crisis folks seeking the simple life, I am certain of it. I can always visualise it in my mind:
“Oh, YES, Susan! With a population of 45,000 spread out over a large expanse away from the hustle and bustle, you can be certain that you’ll find a place in THIS community…”
Personally, I find myself amazed at the power people have to find things out. They create twisted narratives that traverse the town quicker than a greased marble rolling down a trap, playing to an audience too afraid to question them. I realised early on that it was advisable to remain enigmatic if you were to keep your soul in a tight postcode. The only problem I keep running into is that everyone thinks I’m an impersonal city slicker and I never fit in. But – I figure I’m not going to anyway, what did it matter? I keep a tight persona.
My usual barista flashes me a grin as a steady plume of steam emanates from the coffee machine, but she knows my usual isn’t a hot drink – it is an iced coffee with cream, sprinkles, and most importantly, marshmallows. Hopefully, no less than three and all white ones. There was no point looking at a menu when I knew damn well that I was going to drink the same old thing every time.
“Just the usual, luv?” her chipper face reaches me eye to eye as she places her hands on the counter, ready to make my drink. Her sweaty, blonde hair was off her fifty-in-the-shade face and the whole shop smells pleasantly of coffee beans and chocolate sprinkles. Delicious.
“Yup.” I reply, looking forward to the sugar hit. She turns to the ice blender and pours cold drips of coffee into it, whistling merrily as she works on the drink at hand.
There were upsides to life in this small-ish, back-to-front place. All the shop assistants know my orders and living in a house that was walking distance to a beach had its perks, but you could never avoid people. These ones talk to any old stranger in the street, and because I’m not one for unsolicited conversation, everyone here thinks I’m anti-social. Perhaps I would be more social if I was enjoying myself. You can’t even loiter here to deal with the intense boredom, all the shops close at midday on a Saturday and they don’t open on a Sunday.
The guts of this city are held together by a messy, yet weirdly specific six degrees of separation. The connections are tight and they run deep. Two girls I go to school with have fathers who have worked together in the sugar cane farming industry since the edge of the 1990s, before the Macarena came out as an A-side cassette, and they were born in the same hospital, on the same day.
Before the womb, baby.
All these kids play for the same hockey team and have the same collection of friends, most of whom have lived in Bundaberg for their entire lives. Their lives are playing out in old Queenslander houses with slightly-peeling-paint, all round the corner from each other. My grade at school is filled with people just like this. Not only are they all best friends, but their younger siblings are similar ages, so they hang out like one big family, calling each other’s parents ‘aunty’ and ‘uncle.’ It’s a perfect upbringing and in many ways I find myself jealous of it. Their entrenched, though artificial siblinghood was something I would never have because I just couldn’t stay fixed in a place without messing it all up.
I am an outsider.
Imagine trying to keep a secret in this tightly-woven net of association, or trying to penetrate a crowd that had known each other so well, for so long. Although the people of Bundaberg found all of this endearing and grounding, I knew that these links and ties were enough to hang me in the knot of my biggest secret – the fact that I am a big, fat lesbian.
To be continued.