When I was in my late teens, I went to Sydney to search for the person I loved. I had had my heart broken and I cradled its pieces in my carry-on luggage and we went to look for a new start together.
In the first weeks I was there, I shared a bedroom with a friend of a friend, in his parents’ house. It was a ways up the North Shore, and I slept on the train in a way I hoped was adorable and would attract suitable men or women. In the evenings I bought a bit of deep-fried chicken and bacon in pastry, and once a week we went to the RSL for dinner and trivia. I was never certain whether we were romantically involved, but I slept on his floor and he didn’t wear a shirt to bed, and after three weeks he bought me a necklace.
After I had used up my welcome with his mother, I lived in a sunny little flat just north of the bridge in Neutral Bay. Two or three days a week, my dad would come up from Melbourne for work and we would eat dinner together in the noodle shop on Military Road, and I would tell him nothing about my life and he would tell me nothing about his life. I was displaced and moody and glad to be away from the dramas of home.
I realised I wasn’t romantically attached to said friend after he introduced me to his new girlfriend. But I latched on to another of the friends’ friends: a handsome Christian fellow who liked to touch my shoulder and tell me I had the spark. “Anna,” he would say, “there’s just something about you,” and he was so doe-eyed and hard-stomached that it was easy to ignore his sloppy boys’ school personality. We sat by a lighthouse on the central coast and drank tequila from the bottle and I might have brushed my hand against his erection but I never felt the warm comfort of affection. I willed myself to love him, or the tall one, or the one with the car, but I was also vain and, although expert at blowjobs and boot-wearing and being perkily top-heavy, I was irritating company and soon alienated myself from the pool of suitors.
I had my one beautiful friend Dan, and we smoked spliffs on his couch and drifted in and out of Fawlty Towers episodes and I wondered if it was really chips and gravy that I loved. We crammed six people into his shitty old car and drove into Kings Cross and paid $8 for a vodka and lemonade that came with a free striptease, and I cried into someone else’s g-string because I had been in Sydney for two months and I wasn’t in love at all.
I got a job at a bank on George Street, and in the mornings I walked into North Sydney to catch the train. I liked North Sydney station partly because it had extraordinarily long escalators, but also because of its built-in shopping centre, which meant I could buy new clothes on my way to work. Helpful in the (frequent) event that I had not been home the night before, and also in the (frequent) event that I had thrown my clothes out instead of washing them. Sometimes I bought peanuts from a man in a kiosk.
I was never in a hurry to get anywhere. If anything, I would have liked to avoid the twenty-seventh floor of the National Australia Bank building for as long as possible. Some days I would stand at the entrance and talk to the man with the coffee cart about his muffins and wonder, in that heady teenaged way, about running away with him. But he didn’t notice me any more than he noticed the next person, even when an old man brought around a basket of roses for Valentine’s Day and I fluttered around him, full of cleavage.
I fell in love every day at work. I was the receptionist for a whole floor of money traders — hugely wealthy and massively stressed. They were all married, of course, but I poured myself into white pants (I wish this were a lie) and they took me out for platonic drinks and I passed out in cabs with my face in their laps. A fellow called Andrew brought me apple juice every day, and I was grateful if not only because it stopped me cracking my head open when I fell asleep at my desk.
The other receptionist was a woman who called me Mick and taught me to read tarot. We sat on rooftops at The Rocks, eating heavily salted wedges from tiny bowls and drinking pints of dark ale under webs of fairy lights. She was older than me, well-read and articulate and beautiful, with hair cut short but longer around her eyes, and she wore clothes other people had loved and forgotten. Enraptured, I offered to follow her to the ends of the earth, but she drew the Ten of Swords and moved to England without me.
Once a week, at lunchtime, I walked across Hyde Park and did opera training with a gleaming tenor, who told me my body was fine but my face needed work. Deflated, I started an internet dating account, and made a time to meet a guitarist at an underground bar on a Monday night. I wore the hottest thing I could find that didn’t have food stains, but his face visibly dropped when I walked in and when I tried to make another date to have noodles in Chinatown, he came down with a mysterious illness and had to leave. I drowned my sorrows so ferociously that I slept through work the next day and was asked, in no uncertain terms, to please never return.
So, after eight months, I found myself unemployed, alone and in love with a bag of Maltesers, watching Oprah and reading on a square-metre balcony, from which I could see the water but not see the water. The day the call came — my mother had left and was not coming home — though she did, three days later — I put some clean undies in my carry-on bag and walked, as always, to North Sydney station, where I bought a black t-shirt and a bag of salted cashews and waited for the train that would take me to the airport. And though I looked in the newsagents and the Australis sections and the duty free stores, I did not find the person I loved, and boarded my plane to Adelaide on my own.
I never went back to Sydney, beautiful though that sparkling harbour was. When dad later cleared out the apartment, he called to ask where he should send the four vibrators I had left behind.