Pulling a piece of string between my thumb and forefinger I will always search for a knot or snag, somewhere to stop, a blight to measure the rest of the smooth string against. No matter how much string I have to play with – long, uninterrupted lengths – my fingers will always find that knot.
‘Would you date a guy with a really camp voice?’ I ask as we pass a tall, smartly dressed young man speaking to his friends with certain flair. ‘Ummmmm, would I date myself, you mean?’ he answers with a sly sideways glance, ‘why yes, yes I would.’ I try to protest that he doesn’t sound that effeminate but I’m cut off. ‘Sometimes on the phone people think I’m a woman, you know. Like, they’ll ask my name and when I tell them they say, “oh, that’s an interesting name for a woman”’. I howl with laughter on the fourth floor of Westfield, tripping over my penny loafers with glee.
We grew up together. We hid under the kitchen table and ate slice after slice of buttered bread together. We collected tadpoles from the pond and watched them grow into frogs together. We drew endless sketches of dream wedding dresses with Disney Princess puffy sleeves and full skirts together. We swung round and round on the Hills Hoist together. We got in trouble for swinging on the Hills Hoist together. We played Peaches in Super Mario 2 together. We mastered Sonic the Hedgehog together. We turned seven years old together. We went to primary school together and sometimes ate lunch together. We hung out after school together and on the weekends we lived together. We turned our noses up at the tentacles lurking in exotic seafood soup together and gorged on Tiny Teddies together. We went to slumber parties together. We played characters from Beverly Hills 90210 in annual home movies together. We took fistfuls of after dinner mints from the Black Stump restaurant together. We played wonky piano duets together. We turned ten together. We went out in matching outfits together. We learned all the words to The Little Mermaid soundtrack and belted them out together. We fasted the 40 Hour Famine then refueled with her mum’s sublime Filipino cooking together. We wandered through the crowds at our parents’ parties together. We dreamed of being Belle and Ariel and Princess Jasmine together. We became obsessed with Michael Jackson together. We went to high school together. We took a photography class and spooled film in a dark room together. We turned 21 together. We worked together and when we hated our jobs we rallied together. We held each other close at her father’s wake and we cried together.
I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Or the next day. Or any of the days allocated to me until my time is up. But no one does, right? No one can count on love to last, or their ship to come in, or on their next breath. I may never stand in the icy wind staring up at the Moais on Easter Island, or feel the growl of Tom Waits as he paces across a stage like a caged lion. I may never hear my own baby bellow as it’s forced out into the uncertain world.
Ah Christmas. Easily summed up in a burst of ‘F’ words: Family. Friends. Festive! Fun. Food. Full. Flatulence. Fights. Fatigue. But mostly, if you’re lucky, food. Every year, as the 20s of December approach, my food memory thrills.
I discovered envy early. Santa had some kind of over-worked, over-tired single parent mix up with the lists and on Christmas morning my brother received the new bike I’d requested, while I unwrapped the Crocodile Mile waterslide he’d asked for. I scrunched up my face, stamped on the spot and flung my arms like noodles before moping around the backyard, muttering about injustice. Eight year old me watched my brother ride circles around the Hills Hoist with a belly full of envy, before making do by gleefully hurling myself down the slippery plastic runway into the jaws of the croc.
“WE WERE IN LOVE! We were so in love I was terrified. He was my best friend; it was this, like, soul mate connection. I can’t explain it.” The tipsy girl mines her emotion memory and details the inexplicable to three rapt friends and everyone else within yelling distance. “Are you gonna go to the earlier acting class? Cause if you go to the earlier class I’ll go to $5 yoga.” With the slumped posture of the dejected, two thespians discuss the motivation for their busy day ahead, in the chipper tones of the blindly optimistic.
My lacklustre high school career is most memorable for the mornings I’d turn up, say hi to my friends and have them silently turn their backs to me. Bitches. Defeated, I’d retrace my steps, catching two buses home and taking to my room. Away from it all I found comfort in books and a bigoted eating plan. It started with orange foods only, then white foods only, frozen peas, pineapple rings, then the next thing, and the next – always with the same narrow focus. I was lonely and isolated, but at my own hand, which felt like a victory. Half my life later I have no time for bitches and bristle at the suggestion of food restrictions. Half my life later and my world started to tip on its axis again; all the good pooling on the low side and me stuck clinging to the high side, unable to let go. But this time my friends didn’t turn away from me and I embraced an equal opportunity, all-inclusive, enthusiastically excessive approach to eating. After work one night, over a redemptive bowl of Pho, I met a girl who orbited just a couple of degrees outside my social sphere. She had blonde hair, a big grin, a tiny, determined dog and before I even realised we were friends, she was calling me on a Saturday morning to invite me to breakfast. Hip to both my reluctance to leave bed and habitual avoidance of social situations she’d cleverly make the call from outside my house, leaving little room for me to wriggle free with an excuse. She also fast understood the intense lure of breakfast. She knew when to push me and at exactly what point I’d pull away – we became firm friends. Then she moved to New York, on the side of my world where all the good was pooling. We were reunited when I visited her new city, where she gave up her life/work/friends/babes/running/sleep to hunt down hot dogs, ramen, burgers, bagels, amusement parks, cookies and squirrels with me. Mid-way through my stay, snazzy in our Sunday best and with a humid breeze at our backs, we wait on the street for a table at Tartine. The shoebox-sized bistro, cuddled by a corner in the West Village, knocks out home-style French fare from its matchbox-sized kitchen. We order French green lentil salad with feta, roasted red pepper, crispy shallots and lemon dressing ($10), that is tangy, cool and mealy, and has us scraping the plate with duelling forks. My pal rules that the spicy chicken with guacamole and French fries ($18) is ‘fucking incredible, dude’ and my grilled sirloin steak with red wine Bordelaise sauce and French fries ($24) is heart-red rare, rich and bang on. The room is small enough to enjoy snippets of NYC dinner conversation, sing Happy Birthday with the next table over and eat from your friend’s plate while she watches the world go by. We pay the bill (cash only) and walk home past the darkened, quiet shops on Bleecker, through the ghostly, night-still parks with their sleepy hydrangeas and across the vast city blocks, sometimes chatting and sometimes not. She lives on the other side of the world now, a life that is full and wild and spirited and young and not at all convenient for breakfast on the weekend. Still, even from all the way over there, in the haze of her fun, she’ll send me regular messages to make sure I’m ok. And even if I’m not ok at the time, those messages make me so.
At my eighth birthday party I hid in a tree after a girl mocked me because my nostrils flared when I laughed. At my tenth birthday party my friends had to be collected early when I broke out in hives because I was overwhelmed. At my eleventh birthday party the wafer fence on my Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Book swimming pool cake was too close to the candles and set on fire, so I ran away and hid. At my fifteenth birthday party the pig piñata I made out of a papier-mâché covered balloon, to impress my fifteen year old friends, was kicked to smithereens on the floor. On my sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth birthdays I sat waiting by the phone for a call that never came. For my twenty-sixth birthday, I went for dinner at Bodega. We sat in the window and ate pumpkin empanadas, corn tamale, fried cauliflower, silverbeet and chickpea salad, and the banana split. The service was genuine, the food was glorious and the night ended in contentment and stretchy pants. And no visit to Bodega ever falls short; being made to feel welcome, taken care of and part of the family, then leaving stuffed to the gills. I’ve sat outside on the street two hot days before Christmas, sharing a cheese platter that smelled of feet and toasting the season with friends, escaped from a boring party to hang out, eat and talk shit about the boring party, celebrated with old friends and minded my manners with new friends – all in the company of that glorious food. At Bodega’s seventh birthday, on an icy August night, they presented eleven of their iconic dishes: morcilla with apple and radish salad (2006); bacalao stuffed piquillo peppers with salsa verde (2006); steamed milk bun, BBQ tongue, crab and salsa golf (2012 – 13); hiramasa fish fingers on charred toast, cuttlesfish ceviche and mojama (2007 – 13); scallops and morcilla with braised cabbage, pickled cauliflower and tahini sandwich (2009 – 13); buttermilk pancake, salt cod, 62˚ egg and smoked maple butter (2012 – 13); pork and sweetbread cabbage rolls with verjus, muscat grapes and olives (2008); fried cauliflower, silverbeet and chickpea salad (2006 – 2012); Suffolk lamb, eggplant and “Kenjisan” roasted miso paste (2009); chocolate yogo, Earl Grey tea ice cream and Dulce de Leche (2007); the banana split (2007 – 13). The service is still genuine, the food still glorious and the night ended with a lady relieving herself on the floor outside the bathroom – proof that even the best birthday party can end badly, but you’ll always leave Bodega contented.