As an adolescent I was exiled for unspecified crimes to a deeply unfashionable Australian suburb and I never really got over it. This suburb orbited metropolitan Sydney like a lightless, joyless lump of rock grimly hanging on somewhere in the outer reaches of the solar system. Just about the only reason for its grimy existence, as far as I could tell, was to serve as an artery pumping industrial traffic to and from the city. No young person in his right mind would have wanted to live there. All the sane teenagers gazed longingly north to suburbs where the salt-tanged sea breezes blew and surf culture ruled supreme. The working class, the low-paid, the new migrants, we were stuck out west, twenty miles from surf, sand and teenage popularity.
There was a nursing home in my suburb that I visited a few times with a church fellowship group. We were supposed to entertain confused old people who were pretty much past all entertainment. We would line them up on the porch that faced out on to the main road where the semi-trailers, trucks, and vans roared up and down all day; the theory was that we were magnanimously giving them something to stare at apart from walls and ceilings. I don’t know if it did them any good. Mostly they gazed open-mouthed at the cavalcade of noise and fumes thundering westwards; at the time it seemed kind of funny the way their heads moved in unison from left to right, following the traffic, like plaster clown heads in a carnival side-show, crying out for a few well-aimed rubber balls to stop up those sad, toothless maws. That sounds heartless, doesn’t it? And yet, it accurately reflects my state of mind at the time. I just couldn’t see the point of old people.
However, one old fellow drew my attention. For a start, there weren’t too many men in the nursing home, given the brisk turnover in males after a certain age. But this old guy, he had beaten the odds and here he was, reaping the rewards, ensconced within his very own cognitively impaired, wrinkly-assed harem. But the other reason he caught my eye was that he spent the entire time hugging and kissing one particular emaciated old woman. He was positively obsessed with her. Difficult to say to what degree the affection was reciprocated. She didn’t resist or appear to be distressed by his extravagant caresses but, who knows, perhaps she was merely indulging this geriatric lothario.
I did a little research with the nursing home staff and found out that the old lady was not his wife. In fact, they were both widowed; she had buried two husbands in her time, he had but recently seen off his only wife. So then, I guess you could say they were kind of recent sweethearts. How quaint, you might be thinking, but actually it had the opposite effect on me.
There was too much of the touching going on for it to be considered truly touching, if you see what I mean. The nurses seemed reasonably confident it was a mutual attraction, as far as one can tell of these things with a couple who literally did a lot of drooling over each other but not exactly in a romantic kind of a way. At sixteen, this really played with my head. I mean, what was going on here? Were they just a pair of senile, old fools mindlessly aping a romantic attachment? Without much in the way of mental engagement or even conversation, could this still be called love? Maybe love was just a fancy romanticized word for the skin-on-skin contact sought by our particular species of gregarious hairless apes? And what of the bittersweet irony should they truly be in love, having discovered each other whilst teetering over the precipice of mortality? When one of them died the survivor would lose everything that had made life almost bearable, all the hugging, kissing and God knows what else they got up to when the nurses weren’t around to prise them apart.
The thing that disturbed me most about them was the core insight they had forced upon me; here I was at the beginning of life, aching for love and romance and physical affection; and there they were at the end of it all, a road map to the final destination. A seed was sown. I learned of a thing I could never erase because you can’t unlearn a memory – I learned that love has a way of decaying with time just like everything else in this world and that it must end sadly with a parting one way or another because, of course, there is one final existential parting that we can delay for years and years but never ever deny.
Summer, 1970. In my mind I am walking again through the streets of my suburb, like a ghost. It is midday and the sun is deep-frying the shoppers; mostly they are weather-beaten, middle-aged women and old ladies with blue-rinse perms. There are no old males in my suburb. Or, if there were, I can’t remember them. I think that, as with certain species in the insect world, their female mates devour them when they can no longer take out the garbage and/or change the odd light bulb. It is important to be useful. Men who forget how to be useful soon forget how to get up in the morning and from there it is but a short transition to forgetting how to breathe. Or so men are taught to believe.
Besides the steps that lead up to the railway station there is a fruit shop. It lurks like an exotic organic trap for unwary train commuters who are drawn in by sweet, pungent smells and tropical hues; strangely, not once have I seen anyone actually come out; perhaps they disappear within its cool, shadowy recesses never to be seen again. I too am drawn to this shop almost daily but not exactly for the fruit. On closer inspection the fruits on display appear sticky with oozing juices, as does Mrs. Manoli behind the cash register. Her husband bustles around emptying boxes, arranging fruit, whistling energetically and making loud small talk interspersed with poor jokes. It is unclear whether he truly thinks he’s funny or feels it is incumbent upon every fruit shop owner to at least try to be. Either way, his repartee is awful.
When I think about Mr. and Mrs. Manoli I can smell mangoes and the sickly odor of overripe pawpaw. It is a smell I will never forget, permanently bonded with a cycle of memories. Mr. Manoli likes to handle his fruit selections personally, rearranging displays, sensuously squeezing the firm round fruit. He does the same to Mrs. Manoli whenever he passes the front counter. She squirms under his touch but this doesn’t stop his groping.
How to describe Mrs. Manoli? Her gleaming hair is always pinned back; she has what you might call a prominent nose but I prefer to describe it as Roman and aristocratic; her eyebrows kind of arch up thanks to bold and imaginative plucking, something you don’t see that often in my suburb; her languid eyes regularly reduce me to speechlessness. She would be just about perfect if not for the dark mustache but I am prepared to live with minor imperfection the way one overlooks the detached arms on the Venus de Milo. In case you haven’t guessed by now I am madly, utterly, irreversibly in love with Mrs. Manoli, hirsute upper lip and all. The fact that I am sixteen and she is, I don’t know, a woman of a certain age, let’s say, matters not.
The disparity in our ages is not the problem here. Neither is the mustache. I can live with the mustache. I have a mustache just like it, so that gives us something in common, right? The real problem is Mr. Manoli. I despise him for his sleazy sexual handling of the lovely Venus (O.k., her name really wasn’t Venus but it should have been). The terrible thing about the situation is that I’m all too aware I’m not so different from her brute of a husband; I too am full of demeaning lust for this faintly furry goddess of fruit and vegetables. The troubling nexus between sex and guilt and lust and love is off to a roaring start and it will take me years to muddle through the mess and arrive at a morality I can live with. But the real twist of the knife into my heart occurs on this very day when I walk in and catch her ardently embracing her husband. She likes him. Good God, she may even love him despite the fact he is a low-life, sleazy Neanderthal; or, could it be, because of that very fact? And so I begin to see that love isn’t sane or fair or particularly romantic or noble and that we live in a topsy-turvy world in which Beauty can be unaccountably drawn to the Beast.
Let us flee from this disturbing Venus fruit-fly trap and make our way to the graffiti-covered bus shelter outside the bank, for this is the place I wanted to bring you, reader, our destination. I fell in love in this bus shelter. I fell hard and fast. It quite took my breath away. The French call it coup de foudre, the lightning strike that is love-at first-sight. Of course, the whole notion is ridiculous; of course it is entirely physical attraction, which in itself is basically the urge to copulate with a suitable mate. But that is just your brain speaking and who listens to your brain? Certainly not your heart that is racing to some crazy jazz beat syncopation, or your hormones that are leaping to the steps of a phallic fertility dance. Shut up, brain, the rest of you choruses in unison, and just let us get on with it.
She was waiting for a number 504 bus and I prayed so hard that no such bus would come that day, just to stretch out the perfection of the moment. Dear God, grant me only this, that the 504 bus might take a wrong turn and hurtle off a cliff; and if fifty or so hysterically screaming passengers have to go over that cliff along with the bus and its driver, well, so be it. Her name was Francesca Bugini. I always remember the surname because there was an Elton John song at the time containing the lyric, “blue jean baby, L.A. lady”, which synchronized in my mind with the sound of her surname and, well, you know how it is, the urge to romanticize anything remotely connected to one’s sweetheart even when the connection is so tenuous as to be in reality virtually non-existent. Lord, what fools these mortals be. Suffice to say I was smitten.
Once more The Bomb had dropped out of a clear suburban sky, blasting me to atoms. But this was not like my childish infatuation with Venus Manoli. Of course it wasn’t. This time, it was different. This time it was Real Love. Why do you smile condescendingly, reader? How can you be so cynical? Francesca Blue Jean Baby L.A. Lady Bugini smiled at me as well, that day. She smiled whilst I gawked at her in desperate yearning; she smiled at my pathetic attempts to initiate a conversation, she smiled when I asked for her phone number and she kept right on smiling when I asked her out for a drink. Looking back on it, that girl could really smile. She had long black shiny hair. Between the hair and the smile she looked like one of those cartoon heroines out of a Disney movie.
Let us now proceed to my first date with Francesca. In my suburb when you talked about going out for a drink you meant a milk shake at Dimitri’s Milk Bar. The ambience was unparalleled in its greasy burger joint authenticity, the cuisine reliable in that one could just about guarantee to locate a strand of suspiciously pubic-like hair in one’s burger. Francesca and I sat at my usual table close to the counter serenaded by the sizzle of frying fat and occasional banging of a basket of French fries to shake off excess oil after it had emerged from the vats.
In the lull between slurping our milk shakes we entertained ourselves eavesdropping on the colourful conversation being conducted by Dimitri and his formerly lovely wife Sophia. I say formerly lovely because she had a front tooth missing and I don’t know about you but I think that missing front teeth tend to detract from overall loveliness. Mind you, Dimitri was no bed of roses either. He was one of those classic milk bar proprietors, now sadly rare in the industry, who somehow managed to combine a sort of avuncular baldness with the hairy-chested virility of a leering satyr; dirty old Uncle Dimitri; although I must say in his favor he was in possession of all his front teeth even if they were yellowed and crooked.
Dimitri and Sophia were speaking volubly and loudly in their native Greek tongue, so I had to translate for Francesca in furtive whispers, trying not to blow my cover. I had been coming to this milk bar for years and the proprietors had never suspected that the boy waiting for his burger and fries could understand every scalding, lacerating insult they lobbed back and forth like a game of derogatory tennis played with verbal grenades.
‘What’s she saying?” Francesca eagerly asked me.
“Well,” I said, “It’s a bit…kind of personal.”
Francesca rolled her enormous Disney animation eyes. “I know. That’s why I’m dying to hear it. What’s she saying?”
“She’s telling him he’s not a real man, he’s a…a whore who runs after his friends every night and does whatever they ask him to do whenever they ring up to go drinking or gambling…”
“Oh my God, “ Francesca gasped, “Dimitri is a homosexual prostitute.”
“No, I don’t think so,” I said hastily, “I think the whore bit was a metaphor. And, I mean, look at him, he’s not exactly the homosexual prostitute type, is he?”
“I see your point,” Francesca said, “now what’s she saying?”
“…I’m afraid I can’t quite follow…her accent’s hard to understand,” I said, blushing at the unrelenting tirade of obscene filth spewing out of the sewerage pipe mouth of the formerly lovely Sophia. That woman could certainly swear. Perhaps she had served a spell with the merchant marines or maybe a decade or so as a bartender in the rougher parts of the Piraeus district.
“I think it must have been one of those arranged marriages,” I said, sadly, “I suppose it’s hard to recapture that first fine careless rapture when you’re flipping burgers twelve hours a day.”
Francesca Blue Jean Baby L.A. Lady Bugini and I went on to enjoy a serious, long-term relationship that lasted eight weeks, after which she dumped me. I’m not sure what Francesca was thinking about over those eight glorious weeks but I spent much of the time wringing my hands, staring out of the window whilst listening to Leonard Cohen’s first album and asking myself questions about the nature of love. I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know how to nurture it; I didn’t know what you’re supposed to do with it once you had it. As a consequence I became moody and taciturn and generally tiresome to be around if you happened to be an adolescent female who uncannily resembled Snow White out of the Disney movie.
Francesca couldn’t understand the problem. Her idea was that we should keep things simple, show each other off to our circle of friends, indulge in impossibly prolonged sexual foreplay up to but never exceeding the point at which my testicles turned blue (always a warning sign) and let the big existential questions answer themselves in the fullness of time. In retrospect of course Francesca was absolutely right. I must have had rocks in my adolescent head. I blame Leonard Cohen. I was never the same after listening to that first self-absorbed, maudlin album.
Breaking up with Francesca Blue Jean Baby L.A. Lady Bugini proved to be devastating for me. Francesca, however, seemed to positively bloom at the end of the relationship. Somehow, by the act of rejecting a brooding neurotic like me she managed to imbue herself with new vigor and confidence. Kind of like those mate-devouring insect species, I guess. She was growing as a person and moving on in life, leaving me to wallow in self-pity and Leonard Cohen. The power of love had manifested itself and I was on the painful receiving end of the power nexus. And it really, really hurt.
Ten more years or so were to pass before it occurred to me that the attachment we call love varies from person to person as does its intensity and durability, that there never has been or ever will be a one-size definition that fits all of us. It’s a bit like our personalized perception of reality – in the same way that the observer affects every observation, so too is every experience of love uniquely interpreted by the individuals giving or receiving that love.
Maybe we are all looking at this emotional phenomenon way too analytically. Maybe when we look too closely this whole love thing melts away in our mouths like pretty, sweet cotton candy. Maybe love can’t be dissected forensically. Maybe when we wield the scalpel of the intellect we’re using the wrong instrument entirely. Some emotions don’t bear close examination; feelings are rarely rational. In which case, where does that leave us then? Right back where we started, of course. In a bus shelter praying that the 504 bus never ever comes to interrupt this sweetest of moments.
Nearly twenty years later I met Francesca Bugini again. She was walking out of McDonald’s looking harassed and clutching the hands of two whining children; I was walking into McDonald’s looking equally harassed and clutching the hands of two other whining children. I’d put on a few kilos and lost a lot of hair; she looked heavy-limbed and her beautiful long black hair had wound up on some hair salon floor. We stared at each for a moment but neither of us stopped to speak, what with the whining children and all. But I’m sure it was her.