My heart stopped when I read the words.
Not in the literal sense, of course—I am not dead.
My heart stopped in the clichéd way of words: I inhaled as if I were an elderly, chronic chain-smoker testing out new, nicotine-free lungs—drawing the air in like I hadn’t tasted its purity since before-puberty. The expansion in my chest reached my fingertips; my entire body suspended in a single breath, I guess—utterly oblivious that another would soon follow. When I read the words I was caught in the wonder of what it felt like to breathe … to really fucking breathe. And in one long, I am reborn again exhale that same body, which somehow belonged to me, forced out a heaviness of having held my breath for most of my life.
It was a stale, phlegmy realisation, that—and when released the fucker strangled my esophagus on its way out, smothering my airways until I choked on my own air before the exhale was complete.
“Oh my God!” I spluttered to no one, my arm hairs saluting the roof of my empty bedroom, an open book lying on my lap, the last sentence read as if it was one I had written.
I felt like I had been found.
I reread it after I read it. Then I reread it again. I traced the stale ink on the page with my finger just to make sure the words were really there.
I felt like I had been found.
“She stole my words!” I remember thinking.
Then I collapsed, quite literally, into the book. My nose squished in the fold of its open spine, paper and printed text pressed against my cheeks. And there, in such a dignified position, I cried. The type of crying generally reserved for people who are being repeatedly stabbed or those who are saying goodbye for the very last time. I cried my now-rapidly-beating heart out until my bedroom disappeared to nothing but dust and the author’s own truth poured mine out in tears.
She felt like she had been found.
At the time, the author was my writing teacher, Sian Prior. A gorgeous thing with killer legs, eyes like Kate Moss (I know) and a presence that radiates sophistication-meets-intelligence-meets-intimidating-woman-walking.
Every Tuesday afternoon when her Nonfiction class was well underway, I’d sit, with a water bottle and either a diet coke or a take-away coffee on my desk, half-listening to the woman harp on about us ‘being organised’, ‘coming to class’ or ‘completing the set homework’ (all spoken in a vocabulary that required a dictionary to dissect but, nonetheless, stemmed from a straightforward way of thinking)—and wonder to myself what steps I needed to take in my life to turn out as equally fabulous, clever and altogether as Sian.
Not simply because she literally looks like an older, Australian version of Miss Moss, mind you. The fact that she is a working writer who shared her insights—both the glamorous and the grinding truth of the craft—added a genuine layer of admiration to the whole affair.
So when Sian announced to us one afternoon in a ‘Hey look what I’ve done!’ meets ‘Oh dear God what have I done!’ type of tone that her memoir, Shy, was now in—you go girl—bookstores it was obvious that Yours Truly would be investing in and reading her book, like, ASAP. (Specifically: when my next Centrelink payment materialized from the digital realms into online banking.)
Quite clearly, I was unaware that on page 87 of Shy I would end up face-planted in Sian’s book, bawling like a newborn infant traumatised by the strange, shocking world she sees and praying for a miracle that just might reinsert her into her mother’s womb so her human heart would stop, please stop, aching.
In other words: pre eighty-seven pages, and even in our class discussions about it, I sure-as-shit wasn’t aware of how real Sian’s words would feel—too much like my own—or that the inevitable little fuckers would cause me to have a full-blown, twenty-four-year-old-bitch-be-breaking-down-on-her-bed-and-in-a-book meltdown.
*PS: Thanks Sian. You spoke to my soul and, however unintentionally, shared this soul’s secret. A secret I hadn’t fully realised was causing all the shame.
*PPS: Yes. You ripped my heart out and smeared the damn thing all over your beautiful, beautiful book. So thank you, you bitch. You hurt me in exactly the right place.
I felt like I had been found.
It is just a sentence, isn’t it? Just a single one. Seven words. Nothing too fancy, either. You might even view it as a slight cliché if you’re that way inclined.
Yet, it stopped my heart. It affected every cell underneath my skin.
As a walking psychology textbook and a perpetual over-thinker, there are many ways I could answer this question.
But I will give you one—just the one—and the obvious one, no doubt:
I have always felt lost. So unbearably, shamefully lost.
*Excluding the rare time in my life when I didn’t, of course. The time I felt like I had been found.
But in due time—when I’m less likely to slide into irreversible emotional insanity—we will get to that.
lost |lôst, läst|
past and past participle of lose.
1 unable to find one’s way; not knowing one’s whereabouts
- unable to be found
- (of a person) very confused or insecure or in great difficulties
2 denoting something that has been taken away or cannot be recovered
- (of time or an opportunity) not used advantageously; wasted
- having perished or been destroyed
3 (of a game or contest) in which a defeat has been sustained
I’ve always been shit with directions.
You’re more than free to conclude that’s why I’ve been lost, lead astray, seemingly stuck in a foreign place.
You are, in a very real way, correct.
As proof of this, on a recent road trip to Ballarat to visit my sister—I’m by no means proud to admit—I told Mum, the darling driver not quite sure how to get there, my helpful version:
“I think it’s straight after you get somewhere, Mumma Dee.” The directional advice sounded much more convincing in my head, I swear.
Then there was that one time—like, in Ireland—when I was nineteen, I tried to find my way back to my girlfriends’ overseas abode after a night out in their new town and—by a feat that is only possible when you’re drunk, disorderly and emma dee—I ended up at a hospital; a whole three suburbs away and almost-entirely in the opposite direction of the house I assumed I was heading.
When I waltzed into the Emergency ward of this foreign hospital—my tits like rocks, thanks to the European winter and my body an unformed angry bruise, thanks to the European winter’s slippery ice situation—and announced in a no-longer slurred, but completely chattering urgency, ‘I think I’m lost and it’s freezing out there—seriously, I’ve never been this cold in my life and I’m almost-definitely lost—do you know where my friends live!’ to any medical-personnel-slash-patient in ear shot radius … I will agree that it was a royal mistake to have trusted my nonexistent bearings in the first place. Particularly when I was initially boozy. Particularly when I was in a strange country. Particularly when I was young and lonely.
Even now, I struggle to work out if I am the red or blue bubble on Google maps. Don’t even ask how it’s possible get this wrong more than once—just trust me that it is.
Still—as you’ve by now figured out, thanks to my sarcastic trip down memory which-lane-am-I-in—I’m not talking about ‘being lost’ in the literal sense. God no. That would take a whole book—and perhaps the sacrifice of having friends—to confess.
What I mean is feeling lost. A whole different kind of oh dear. The shocking I-can’t-even-make-it-funny kind. The shameful, scary kind. The kind I kindly wish would fuck right off and leave me alone.
- (of a person) very confused or insecure or in great difficulties
Is it possible to have been very confused, insecure and in ‘great’ difficulties from the moment you meet your world?
“Do you think Mum and Dad are aliens?” I whispered to the silhouette on the single bed across from mine.
I could only vaguely see Kelly roll onto her side to face me, her dolphin donna, I imagine, snuggled up to her neck; her favourite sea animals hugging her before she slept.
“Yes! I’ve never wanted to say it out loud!”
Until I was about ten, I shared a room with my sister, Kelly.
Like most kids, the arrangement suited us just fine; we knew no different, it was Mum and Dad’s decision and that was that. Young siblings ‘shared’ their space, their sacred haven of toys and bedtime stories, together.
Unlike most siblings, though, Kel and I are twins.
Born on March 23rd 1990, seven minutes apart, un-identical (it’s always the first question) and true BFFs since way-back-womb, we were partners in crime before we were even people. So sharing our space was a lot like breathing: it required little effort from Mum and Dad and for us it was instinctive, it was life.
*Excluding the time when Kelly, quite literally, tried to kick me out of Mum’s vagina.
I was welcomed into the world with, what I call, a ‘hospital vacuum cleaner’ attached to my head after The Darling Sister (in breach position) gave me a good kick up the bum for prolonging her uterus-stay. Jerked from my perfectly aligned birthing position, I was pinned against Mum’s ‘wall’ on an angle that made natural, non-suction entrance into the world impossible.
Naturally, I can’t be certain if Kel had had enough of me or was far too eager to meet her new world. Either that, or I decided too late that the ‘human experience’ thing simply wasn’t for me.
Note: I have since forgiven her for my welcome-to-the-world introduction. Most of my infant-head was on ‘earth’ so it was too late for me to back on in—plus, considering the circumstances, it was likely Kelly was unaware of her actions. Idiot.
(To this day, we still joke that in the process of being sucked out of Mum, vital mental functions—including, but not limited to: spatial-awareness neurotransmitters, socially-acceptable channels and commonsense pathways—were severely altered/squeezed from my marshmellow-ish undeveloped brain. We also admit the accidental, outlandish introduction to my life might have been an early warning sign of things to come.)
I like to think that the unsightly red suction mark staining my scalp for the first few days of my existence merely distinguished me as the angelic one—please, it was a halo.
Oh, and—even in Mum’s minge—Kel prompts me to be seen and is always right behind me, encouraging me, urging me on even if I am frightened, uncomfortable or, you know, stuck.
Being the cute child couple we were, Kel and I created delightful little discussions in our shared bedroom every night as glow-in-the-dark-stars lit up the ceiling and served as a fairy-tale backdrop to the infinite sky of our imagination.
“Do you think Mum and Dad are aliens?” I had whispered one night while tightly-tucked in bed, having been obliged to go there when the credits of Home and Away were still rolling, before the Cadbury block of chocolate or sweet biscuits appeared from the secret shelf in the pantry unreachable to little girls’ fingers, moments after Dad had thrown—literally thrown—Kel and I onto our individual beds, having tucked the sheets in where we landed, lifting the mattress and elevating our laughter in the process, until we were paralyzed in position, and I could no longer feel Dad’s kiss on my forehead anymore.
I remember being so nervous to ask her. What if my best friend had never thought she was living in a wrong world, too? What if it was just me?
“Yes! I never wanted to say it out loud!” Piped the now-animated shadow, visibly struggling to maneuver around her stiff, suffocating sheets.
“Me too!” I breathed, patting the foot of my teddy bear, my Little Ted, needing his soft, well-traced fur to comfort the shocking confirmation I’d just received. So it was true.
“I really think they’re aliens, Kel.”
The next ten minutes or so unfolded themselves in private confessions and unspoken fantasies in the darkness, speculating about the greenness of Mum and Dad’s alien skin once they took off their ‘human face’ and whether or not they even went to bed like they said they did, or if they flew back to their own planet in their own spaceship to tell their own alien family all about us.
“Emma and Kelly … GO TO SLEEP!” Dad’s voice followed three bangs on our bedroom wall. The official sign that tonight, like every other night, we hadn’t been as quiet as we thought we had.
“Aliens.” We both whispered in unison, staring into our opposite shadow, acknowledging the girl we couldn’t see, but knowing wholeheartedly she saw, and shared, our truth.
A truce of small silhouettes formed in the silent darkness.
We gave up on the idea that our parents were aliens pretty quick.
It seemed a theory too … difficult to maintain.
But for a week there—a lifetime in a child’s eyes—Kel and I wandered about the house, hand in hand, squinting at the now-unfamiliar toys in the playroom, the swings in the front yard of the farm, the two boys with loud voices who we called our brothers, the dirt and grass stained overalls on the man we called our dad and the floral-apron wearing lady we called our mum making pink-sprinkle-topped cupcakes who let us lick a spoon each, with the suspicion and finesse of spies.
It became a game of hide and seek, except no one knew they were playing, and Kel and I were the sole ringmasters hunting out the suspects, watching out for telltale signs of alien existence these weirdo kidnappers had overlooked.
“See that ring on Mum’s finger?” Kel said as she sat, propped up on a stool at the kitchen bench, pointing at the lady with the long brown hair, kind eyes and hands a lot like mine washing a yolk-soiled fork, “It’s probably fake!”
“I bet her and Dad aren’t even married!” I chirped, my mind a mess with all the scandalous possibilities, a slight twang in my chest as I said it.
“We shouldn’t call them Mum and Dad anymore.” Kel whispered in my ear, strays of greasy, sun-touched hair falling on my face, her little hand in mine clammy.
“Oh. Well … what do we call them then?”
Eventually, as you know, we grew bored of it. Plus we both agreed that the hurt in our heart had something to do with the whole ‘our parents are aliens’ thing.
I don’t really know why Kel went along with it. Or if she even ‘went along with it’ at all—a part of me knows, both then and now, that she was as convinced as I was that the likelihood of Mum and Dad being extraterrestrial beings was factual. But, even then, I suppose I wondered if our reasons for it might have been different.
Let’s face it: we were two kids likely annoyed that we were the youngest and forced to deal with the perceived unfairness of it; i.e. being sent to bed before EVERYONE else, missing out on TREATS even our brothers, Joel and Kane, were allowed, and simply seeking an outlet for the outright-unjustness we felt.
We were—by no bloody means—unloved, nor were we completely ungrateful little shits … we loved our parents immensely and were your typical ‘good kids’—but we had this thing called imagination; a friend of ours that allowed abandonment in age to be felt, together.
Still, I must admit my own reasons for it. And explain to you, as best as I can—as a naïve girl and the woman I am now—why I came up with the oddball conclusion that my parents were—good Lord Emma—aliens.
You know that feeling you get when you’re walking alone at night and a tingling sensation sweeps across your skin, your heart rate quickens slightly and the urge to look behind you seems to flood your cells? When you’re possessed ‘just to check’ that someone isn’t following you, tracing your footsteps, only to peek into the silent distance at your back and see that nothing is there? Then a leaf—or a twig or some other unthreatening piece of nature—makes a sound, however insignificantly, and you jump; the jump of trying to escape your skin? As the involuntary action happens though, you curse and notice you’re a bit sweaty, but your attention isn’t on the imaginary perpetrator quite-possibly stalking you anymore, it’s turned itself inward. Here you play a little conversation in your head like, ‘It was just a fucking leaf, you idiot. So chill out, you’re being bloody irrational. And I hope no one saw you do that because no one is here BUT YOU, so you look like a dick. PULL IT TOGETHER.’
Well that feeling—commonly known in psychology as the ‘Fight or Flight Response’ (an automatic response triggered by a perceived or very real threat to one’s existence and prepares the body to be a brutal bitch fighter or an I-can-run-faster-than-Usain-Bolt fleeter), followed by the self-judgement (aka embarrassment) of an irrational one—has lingered in my skin since … always.
Now I don’t want this confession to upset you, startle you or confuse you. In fact: I will add here that I would much rather you believe I am bullshitting you than have my words tuck themselves in any place that hurts you. You must know that this feeling, generally, has never been an overwhelming, I-simply-cannot-function one. It has never been an overtaking anxiety that assumes I’ve been a walking nutcase since day-dot. No: the feeling has simply been there. Has been here, you know, hiding in my heart, forever.
Sensitive. Shy. Smart.
The three ‘S’ words that described me as a child. The three personality traits I was given when my sister was given girly, naughty and social-butterfly. The three labels, which I can see now, were likely nice ones, humble ones, approving ones.
To the child me they felt like tiny insults each time they were handed out, generously given to the girl who didn’t want to receive them.
They distinguished me as different when all I ever wanted was to be the same as everyone else.
Have you ever had the feeling that you’re living but, at the same time, you’re watching yourself living?
Have you ever had the feeling that your life is a movie, and you know that you’re the main character in this movie, but—for a reason that doesn’t quite make sense—you also think you might just be playing the part of the leading role?
Have you ever had the feeling that you are more than what you are—that you are something else too; something greater but not the greatest thing of all—only you have no clue what this other thing is, aside from feeling that somewhere, in a place you cannot reach, this wonderful, all-knowing, other thing exists?
Have you ever felt so different, utterly isolated, because of these thoughts you feel; of somehow ‘knowing’ what isn’t humanly possible to know; of the muted inkling that keeps you on your toes, silently reciting, ‘You’re not seeing all of it, my dear’—and it forces you to feel that the life you’re living might not necessarily be all there is … that it might not be yours to live at all?
That something is terribly, scarily wrong here?
“My little Froggy!” Dad cooed, tickling my protruding tummy as he said it.
I am five or six, maybe. The lounge room looks so big to me; the bay windows to my left are double my height and so wide I would have to fly to the other side of the room if I wanted to reach them quickly. If I look through them I can see ivy, lots of grass and cows in the distance. I can hear the birds laughing, my dad’s hungry belly grumbling near my bum and my own childish giggling. I can smell pita breads cooking and the dirt and lawn mower smell of my dad. I am spread out across him, but mostly in his lap, my little arms reaching up to be around his neck. All of my senses are home and I am happy.
“Da-aad!” I chuckle, trying to move myself so I can poke him in that soft, noisy belly, half-pretending to be annoyed at this funny man who always tickles me even though I tell him it hurts. He stops not long after I give in to laughing though, just like he promises will happen, and cuddles me instead.
“Fro-ooggy!” He imitates whining, those blue eyes laughing as he says, “You’ve just got to laugh Em!”
He scruffs my head then, his hands like heaters as he plays with the curls in my hair; I can feel him unfolding the ringlets out and watching as they bounce back into place.
“I just like the cuddles Dad.” I rest my head on his chest, listening to the thing that beats inside there, nestling my nose in the crinkles of his top, wanting to stay in this spot forever.
“I know you do Froggy,” he says, “and that makes me very, very happy.”
We stay like this for a little while, the sound of home, and safety, still.
“Do you know why your mum and I call you Froggy?” He asks, lifting my chin up to face him.
I shake my head.
“You never wanted to be cuddled when you were first a baby. Not like this. Every time I went to hold you, you would pull your whole body away from me. Your head and chest would stretch out as far as they could go, like you were scared or something. And these little legs,” he pats my legs, “They would dart out and lift up like you were a frog. A little frog that didn’t like to be cuddled!” He smiles at me, lost in a memory that seems to belong to someone else, “I had to teach you how to let me cuddle you, Em. Gently, I would move your head to my chest, telling you it was okay, it was okay, until I could feel your body relax. You let me cuddle you after a while. You let yourself be cuddled. And I was so proud.” He scruffs my head again and says, “You never lost your frog legs though! But I was so happy to hold my Froggy … and now look at you!”
I smile up at the man beaming at me—my big strong dad—chuffed his daughter could cuddle. I stroke the creases in the corner of his eyes, seeing my finger quiver; the stillness in my chest, stalling, falling, feeling what it knows.
“Thank you for teaching me, Dad.”
Have you ever felt like you were an adult even though you were a child?
Have you ever felt like a child even though you are an adult?
Have you ever felt life like I have felt it?