“Certain places seem to exist mainly because someone has written about them. Kilimanjaro belongs to Ernest Hemingway. Oxford, Mississippi, belongs to William Faulkner … A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.”
(Joan Didion, “In the Islands”)
AS A CHILD, Brisbane meant many things. It meant an hour in the car, driving past the very straight trees in the very straight lines that lined one side of the highway, trying to spot a single crooked tree that would defy the uniformity. It meant a shopping centre that I imagined to be the size of the entire city, only with more chances of getting lost and utterly exhausted. It meant going to a place where people presumably had more money than we had, for the houses of the families that we knew in Brisbane all had high ceilings and windows with thick, frosted glass and gardens where the grass was never not a brilliant shade of green.
When I was in my final year of high school, Brisbane meant an escape from the coastal-lifestyle boredom. My friend and I would picture the sharehouse we would rent with the sagging couches on the front porch, the windows that wouldn’t quite open the whole way, and the garden that would remain untamed because we had better things to do and we kind of liked it that way, anyway.
Brisbane was the ideal: we could hop aboard a train that would take us away from strict parental supervision and towards late nights and too much vodka. The same sickly sweet heat of summer would remain, just minus the smell of the sea breeze.
‘The fucking city, man,’ we would swear under our breath. ‘Everything will be better when we’re in the fucking city.’
But dreams in the present never quite seem the same in the future. It was February 2010, and I had just awoken with my first hangover.
“I never get hangovers!” I had proudly shouted the previous night, slamming down shots of Sambuca with my uncles.
It was on this day in February, head thumping and eyes glazed, that I arrived in Brisbane at last. In the fucking city at last. But instead of walking up the garden path towards a charming but leaning Queenslander, I was walking up three flights of stairs to a concrete box. I would spend the next 10 months living in a residential college. Fighting off the hangover and the heat and a growing sense of dread, I was in no pleasant mood and, after exchanging snipes with my mother, she stormed off to the car in tears. At the time I was mad that she would cast such a shadow over an already unpleasant day. Now I realise that this meant she was going to miss me.
I didn’t spend much time in this room. Watching the fog roll across the grassy oval outside my window on a winter’s morning is the most affectionate memory I hold, and even then I was annoyed at being awake so early for work.
Most days I would mount a bike too large for me and cautiously weave my way through the university campus: across the bridge and up the hill and past the cemetery, hooking a quick left and hoping that today was not the day I had taken too big a risk with my life, and that my eulogy would not read ‘squashed flat by a semi-trailer in Fairfield’. And then I would be there, at my boyfriend’s front door that was always unlocked because it was a household of boys, and someone was always awake at any point of the day or night.
It was here that the rumble of freight trains permeated my dreams, as my boyfriend and I sweated under the sheets in the summer and suffered from frozen toes in the otherwise mild winter. It was here in this driveway that I cried big tears of what I thought was real, adult sadness after consuming a six-pack of Barcadi Breezers. It was here on this front porch that I ducked under the webs of orb spiders the size of dinner plates, where the couches always smelt wet because of the constant thunderstorms, and where I asserted my dominance of the Rainbow Road circuit in Mario Kart.
And then, in November, I was forced to leave Brisbane behind and spend two months back in my childhood home, staring languidly at my bedroom ceiling as the next-door neighbour’s dogs barked incessantly out of boredom. Everything here seemed boring.
Only temporary, I would remind myself. The whole thing will only be temporary. For during those ten months of wandering around the university campus and crossing bridges to the southern suburbs and nervously catching buses around the Western suburbs and avoiding the CBD because I am terrible at navigating and nearly getting stabbed in South Bank by a gang of pre-teens on rollerblades and sitting on hills just to admire the view… during those ten months I had fallen in love with this humid, river-dwindling, thunderstorm-riddled city. And for the last four years I have been able to call this city home, and hope to continue to do so for at least a few more.