The one that got away

2 August 2016

Running his own plastering business meant that six days a week David left the house we shared early in the morning and didn’t return until five at night. His hands were permanently covered in a mountain range of hardened callouses and dried out cuts, and even after his nightly shower, tiny specks of white plaster could always be found under his nails, in his ears and up his nose.

“What am I doing?” I tore my gaze from the carpet in the international departure lounge to look into David’s face. “What the hell am I doing?” “I don’t know.  I just don’t know.” His expression was pained but his eyes were bone dry. “Those guys” didn’t cry, and David Patterson could certainly have been classified as one of “those guys”; an actual “guy”; a real man’s man.

The year was 1994 and I was about to board a plane for a three-month visit to New York. David and I had been going out since we were fifteen and neither of us had ever ventured far from our safe and familiar life in a western suburb of Melbourne. In fact, apart from the occasional visit to a city nightspot with our group of friends, we had seen very little beyond the boundaries of our working class town.

When I announced to David one warm December night that I’d decided to go to New York to do some acting classes, I may as well have told him that I was going to have a sex change, call myself Bruce and spend the rest of my life driving trucks.

David held very definite ideas for the way his life – our life – should pan out.

1. Get married

2. Buy house (swapping order of 1. and 2. optional)

3.  Pay off mortgage slowly but consistently

4.  Produce two….maybe five children

5.  Allow room in budget for one holiday a year because it’s nice to do something spontaneous.

On top of my consistently feeble excuses for postponing life plans Numbers One and Two, I’d suddenly thrown a giant-sized spanner into David’s carefully thought out strategy with a frivolous “soul-searching” trip to New York.  Adventures and spontaneity should ideally wait until David had slotted them into the blueprint of our lives. David had always, begrudgingly, accepted my interest in “wanky acting crap” and even come along to a few of my amateur theatre productions. However, to invest actual money and time away from him on such a useless expedition seemed utterly pointless and downright annoying.

“Why do you have to go there to do it? They do that stuff at Williamstown Theatre don’t they?

“I’ll be back before you know it and then we can start looking for a house.”  This made him feel better.  A little.  As did my promise to give in to his request to open a joint bank account when I returned.


“Yep,” I said.  “We can start looking at those brochures for the new housing estate the day I get back.”

“Yeah, alright. But then you’ve gotta stop wasting time on this acting bullshit, OK? You’re twenty-three now. Gotta start being serious about life.”

When I met David I was fifteen and my knowledge of the male of the species was limited to my Dad, his crude cricket buddies and my two idiotic and annoying younger brothers. Apart from my father, whom I adored, none of the aforementioned males were particularly dazzling specimens, which led me to the assumption that all males must be equally as uninteresting, immature and irritating. As fate would have it, this was around this time my mother insisted that I find a part time job and a friend of the family set me up with a Friday weekend job in a nearby marketplace. My only other co-worker, besides our supervisor, was fifteen-year-old David Patterson and we hit it off immediately. Actually, the first thing that attracted me to David was his ability to make me laugh; even if it was at my expense a lot of the time. I think I understood, even at that young age, that being a teenage guy made it impossible for him to express his feelings for me in any way that didn’t involve making fun of me. When we finally hooked up at the local bluelight disco soon afterwards, I was ecstatic.

During our time together, David and I had faced and survived all of the monumental milestones of adolescence, and although for much of that time there had been a nagging sensation gnawing away at me that there was something not quite right – that some vital part of who I may really have been was being overlooked and gradually phased out entirely – I loved David, who made me feel safe and protected. I also loved our tight-knit gang of friends and felt relieved to belong to any group at all since my earlier years of embarrassment and persecution.

For eight years our lives had revolved around school, then work – plastering for him and accounts payable for me – and piss-ups at the local footy club on Friday and Saturday nights. But the balance in our sizeable group had shifted of late. One of the natives was restless, and my obvious discontentment was sending disruptive and unwelcome waves of tension throughout the group. The announcement that I was heading to the other side of the world, for no plausible reason, was received with the inevitable shock and disapproval I had expected.

I had always been slightly different from the rest of my peers. Although I was raised by parents who loved the game of AFL football almost as much as they loved their own children, and although I had gone through the correct rituals of young girls in my town – playing netball every Saturday morning, heading down to “the van” at Ocean Grove every summer and favouring a secure (a.k.a. boring) job over a university degree – this tried and true path hadn’t quite moulded and shaped me the way it was intended to.

Standing at the international departure gate that momentous morning, I turned to my beloved David and wrapped my arms tightly around his neck. His embrace almost crushed the air out of my lungs, but when I pulled back to kiss him he refused to look me in the eye. I kissed him again, told him I loved him and that I would be back soon.

I meant it.

Two months later, I called David to say I “suddenly knew” that I wanted to stay on in New York indefinitely. Actually, three days after arriving in a city where no one was ever going to judge me for, or stop me from doing anything I wanted to do I had instantly realised that my old life never had, and never would, fit me. I had gone on deluding myself until it was too cruel to keep up the charade of missing David, and my life back home, over the phone for one second longer.

“Mum will pick up all my stuff,” My heart was pounding so loud I’m sure he could hear it. “I’m so, so sorry. I hope you understand that this is something I need to do…for me.”

He didn’t understand, of course. How could he?

“For you?! What about me?!” he yelled down the phone, his voice cracking and a sob escaping before he could stop it, “I wanted to marry you, for fuck’s sake!” and slammed down the phone.

I stood in the noisy New York hostel hallway, clutching the phone in my hand and staring at the wall. As guilt and shame constricted my throat, stung my eyes and slowly engulfed my body and mind, one thought rang out above all others; “those guys” do cry after all.





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