Shelby Traynor on the unique emotionality of moving cities, and feeling it all.
Before I left home, I had to have an x-ray. I have a crick in between my ribs, on my left side. Every time I breathe I feel it there. All I wanted was for it to crack, the same way my spine does when I anchor myself on a doorframe and twist. I had to wear a gown and hug myself. Stare at the wall. Listen for the click. My doctor looks younger than he is, and bulk bills me no matter how many times I turn up in his office with questions. He tells me all my bones are where they should be, just one of those things—sit up straight, do some jumping jacks, maybe it will go away—and in passing notes the size of my heart. Small, he says. That’s a good thing.
This is all in an afternoon. The next time I go to the doctors it’s the width of the country away on Hercules St, which I walk down most days. Every time I pass the bakery right before the traffic lights, I look to my left and spot the donut with pink icing that’s always there, wondering when I’ll finally buy it and why. I’m always walking at a pace by then. No time for donuts. A few steps more and I pass a shop with fresh seafood, another with what I assume is duck hanging in the window. Let’s pretend it’s a weekend. I think I like myself better on weekends, when I belong to myself and not the world. I get to leave my street and forget that I’m seen, stuck in my own loop of thoughts instead: choruses, grocery lists, arguments. Mornings are spent with Nat Geo or the radio, a healthy dose of pretention after sunrise. I don’t have to pay attention to the headlines or Twitter. I get to walk down Hercules St, and from there I can go anywhere I like.
I was a stranger in the beginning. This city could have easily remained unfamiliar and mysterious to me, with alleys untraveled and shortcuts unknown. I chose instead to cut a path through the streets and learn how to be a human out in the open, alone in a city all to myself, with little to lose. Twiddling my thumbs on park benches, scanning through clothes racks, telling myself all the time in my head that It’s okay to just exist, no one is questioning your presence, and learning every day what it’s really like to live in an unknown space. It’s like turning a corner in the dark, or opening a wooden door, or missing the step on a staircase. Not knowing what’s right in front of you, and never, ever being prepared for what you’re stepping into.
I started with the cinemas on King St, where I’ve cried in the dark and laughed with two empty seats beside me so many times by now. I’m confident in my choice of popcorn size, and I ask for One Ticket To without fear. The Edge of Seventeen, Hidden Figures, 20th Century Women, Baby Driver. I’ve been through a lot alone in the dark. This is the past I’m talking about, spent looking out my bedroom window as the sun rose because sleeping felt too dangerous without a little natural light to give me some sort of hope, or sanity. I’m not sure which. The cinema is more crowded than those nights. There are characters there with me, and sentences to write down for later. Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to just being depressed, or, I’m so scared that the feeling is never gonna go away. Back home the closest cinema to me holds too many red-faced memories. I knew a boy behind the counter there who forgot to wish me happy birthday when I was fifteen, and who texted to apologise afterwards. I probably blushed and took a whole hour to respond. At the second-closest cinema to my childhood home, a similar situation. I outgrew boys at the cinema Candy Bar when I turned sixteen. Too late, if you ask me.
Crying in the dark at the cinema became crying in public too quick. I tell Mum, when I’m upset and hear your voice down the line I fall apart. I never mean to cry. Whenever I need to cry, I can’t, and whenever I need to be reasonable and mature, tears. It’s fine when I’m in my own room, leaning against my pillows, with one of my housemates cats there to nudge me for pats. Worse when my housemates are home. Worse still when sharing a train carriage with a handful of strangers, telling Mum like a sort of plea that this city isn’t for me. Days before I had told a friend that the people in this city are too comfortable in a crowd. Hours before I had overheard a mother on the light rail threaten to take an ex to court, angry, angry, angry, until she hung up, looked around, and realised the world was watching. The week before I had watched a stranger pass a tissue to a woman in tears for no apparent reason. I had witnessed a man eat chicken out of a plastic bag, a woman reapply her mascara and blush, a man rest his head on his girlfriend’s shoulder. After that night on the phone with Mum, rambling about a city I felt indifferent to, I started putting my feet on the seat in front of me and resting my eyes as the train passed a dozen stations, all stops to Homebush. Finally feeling free and comfortable in my new home.
This is my time to be intense, I understand. Though I don’t have to be happy about it. I’ve got a long stretch of nothing ahead of me, on the train or before bed or sometimes at work on a Sunday night. I sit down and acclimatise to myself, letting my thoughts and feelings twist into a knot in my stomach. Different threads: friends, family, career, home, all tugging at once. I think of relationships mutating, my parents renovating our home, my future sitting there and not doing much at all, and everything tangles.
At the start of winter I went to a psychic for a tarot reading. I was tired and hungry and I could feel my eyes in my sockets, which I don’t think is a thing you’re supposed to feel so intensely for so long. I needed someone to tell me what I needed. The stairs to her office were carpeted, and they creaked as I followed behind her. The room was dimly lit and appropriately messy, with books and clutter I could tell had been collected rather than bought. We sat down with a table between us at knee height, three different decks in front of me. I regretted it all as soon as she started meditating in front of me, less so when she started to talk.
“I think you’re feeling a lot more deeply than you ever have before,” she told me, “and with that comes an awareness that this is a strange place to inhabit. There’s nothing light about this energy at all. But why does it need to be? Why does it have to be all woohoo, yay!”
What a relief to have someone else tell me who I am—just for that moment, for that day. Knowing at least until the sun goes down that the person she spoke about was me. I like this city best at night, despite the unknowns. Those buildings and their bright windows, up, up, up, almost make up for the lack of stars. I forget where I am, how odd and thrilling this place has the potential to be, until I’m walking the streets at night. There are moments I don’t feel like I live in the same world as everyone else, when I’m nothing more than an observer, watching on as you teeter too close to a busy road while walking with friends, as you sip cider from a half empty glass on a balcony. I guess I seek those moments out, and night time in a big city is as good a time as any.
It was midnight when my sister told me Dad was in the hospital. It was stress. His blood pressure had to be monitored. Now he takes tablets, and he’s okay. Dad and I are alike. I’m not sure he knows that. I overthink. I get frustrated by small things. I worry. I’m one of those. It hit hard at sixteen, spurred on by high school and boys and girls and me. Mum talked me through a panic attack one night, sitting on the edge of my bed. She taught me how to cup my hands over my mouth and nose to slow my breathing. Mum had a panic attack when she was in labour with me. They gave her drugs that made her heart beat fast, fast, fast. I’ve never found comfort in my own heartbeat, or someone else’s under my cheek while I’m trying to sleep. What I mean to say is, I dread the day my worrying leaves me hooked up to a monitor, listening to the sound of my heartbeat. I don’t like knowing there’s something inside me ticking along, keeping me going. It’s too simple a thing for me to trust.
Small. My doctor assured me a small heart is a good thing. I would do an internet search to back it up, to drum up facts about aortas or something, but the thought of it makes me wince. The sensation of a beating heart is almost unbearable to me, similar to the feeling I get when I think about all the big things in my life—that swelling in my chest when I think about now, the streets, the city, and whatever else there is for me out there. Or not. I get this hum of energy, like Myrtle Mae Simmons in Harvey telling her mother I’m going to lose myself in some strange city! or my little downstairs neighbour now, on her bike, telling her mother, I’m leaving! Full, full, full.
From the way movies talk, you would think big feelings were reserved for boys with good hair and nice teeth. There are plenty of other things that make my heart swell: friends touching base over messenger just to say hi, remembering how lucky you are, stood in front of a bookcase of some kind, or realising one day that you’re going to be missing people and places for the rest of your life, layers upon layers of missing, or yes, catching someone looking at you on the bus. All these feelings, and the only word I have for them is huge. They don’t have to be good or bad, just huge. So that my heart swells—doubles, triples, quadruples in size—cracks open my ribcage, forcing everything and everyone to make way, make room, and invades the space that I can’t.
Follow Shelby on Twitter: @ShelbyrTraynor