What struck me most about the man standing ahead of me wasn’t his apparent affinity for steampunk regalia, it was the casual nature with which he held out the gray rat perched in his gloved hand. I myself had taken two tabs of acid, and so when he asked me if I wanted to pet his rat, I, naturally and truthfully, said that I did. Honestly, I would have wanted to pet the rat regardless of the acid, so politely squirreled away it was in his hand, a resplendent and sparkling antithesis to every New York City rat interaction I’ve had. (I have lived, folks, I have seen a little squirrel eating a human-face-sized slice of Koronet’s pizza up in a tree, so don’t tell me pizza rat doesn’t happen.) But this was far away from Ratropolis in a place with its own vectors of disease, a city made of both quaint and dire and occasionally semi-rural suburbs strung together to form the vague shape of Sydney.
And here I was in one of those suburbs, wanting to pet this god damned thing and being dragged away by a then-partner who was, perhaps understandably, trying to keep me from touching a creepy man’s rat while tripping balls. We had of our own accord wandered straight into a part of Marrickville that even sober we referred to as “Bat Country”— semi-ironically in order to maintain distance from how much the shopping center where a man had once brought a tommy gun (a tommy gun, for god’s sake) scared us. (You’d be surprised how quickly you get used to living in a country without guns.)
We wandered into an enraged fluorescence, a mini-mall teeming with grotesque children eating burgers from Maccas flanked by contorted mannequins painted the color of raw scallops. A Big W (the W stands for Walmart) sign flickered in the distance, beckoning families to its abandoned, scuffed floors. I got in line for a coffee and tried a sample of some muffin-adjacent monstrosity that crumbled and withered in my useless mouth, the teeth of which had forgotten entirely how to chew.
We veered past the discount haircutters and the discount donut stand and the discount butchers and out into the sun, unprepared with over-dilated pupils. Two junkies—summertime in Australia is so hot that people don’t even bother dressing to cover track marks—turned around as we walked past before deciding we weren’t a threat and returning to fiddling with the bike lock they were trying to undo. We looked at each other like we were glad to be in our own bodies. We walked to the local park and watched the silvered ripples of sun drip through tree branches for what felt like days.
When we came home, our roommate was masturbating in the living room.
We rode up the coast for hours in a beat up ’94 Ford Fiesta with an oil problem that made it churn and lurch whenever the clutch was treated with the slightest bit of disrespect by my automatic-only feet. I watched out the window in the passenger seat for part of the way—long stretches of farmland trimmed with eucalyptus giving way to the dusty kangaroo-covered plains that I’d seen in the movies—and drove the rest with halting inaccuracy, sliding between small town stop signs into an inelegant deceleration and the hope that no one would be driving perpendicular to the way I was.
The American-style roadside motel we pulled up to had a pool out front, but it was wintertime empty, shining personless in weather that anywhere else would’ve merited a dip. But instead we scuttled straight into the reception of this motel out in the rural town of Lismore, a locale sizable enough to have nighttime sex workers peeking their heads out of the doorway to the town’s pub/hotel looking to see if any drivers of triple-car road trains were trying to spend their money on something other than methamphetamines.
The front desk had brochures full of euphemistic plans for excursions around the one town in Australia where cannabis use, possession and cultivation was for all intents and purposes permitted. Roughly 30 kilometers north of our motel, Nimbin is prime farm country overlooked by the mountains making up the Bundjalung Nation’s version of Mount Sinai, the mount from which the area’s seer, its Nyimbunji, descended with rules and law. Out of a soft landscape, one so calm and solitary that cows are given free reign to cross unattended between pastures, emerge three hulking rocks, splintered overseers of a long-ago quieted volcanic land.
The town overlooked by these rocks is run by its own independent code of unspoken rules, operating within the limits of an uneasy truce between locals and the area’s police. Tensions flare every few years in a show of impotent force by cops on the town’s few-hundred stoners, sometimes in reaction to the 4/20 parade and sometimes for no apparent reason at all. Cannabis sales are essentially sanctioned, but police tend to patrol the main street looking for dealers—not smokers, who are plentiful in the town’s cafes. Something about the place, despite its severe rurality, seemed almost cosmopolitan: Bohemian archetypal hippie women swaddled babies against their chests while their toddlers cooed to the barista, whom they called an aunt. Bearded old men smoked joints and drank cappuccinos under an awning to avoid the burning late-morning sun; wholesome graffiti about love flanked the buildings in the town’s center, which stretches out for a few blocks from the parking lot to where all dealing had been moved to just past the Hemp Museum.
I bought a fluffy 1/8th from two kids in the parking lot while bucolic sets of white chickens and brown roosters circumnavigated and intersected lanes of cars, slipping through pulled-away panes of chain-link fences separating townies from the non-poultry. What we’d been sold was a nice change from the “bush weed” we were used to getting in Sydney, plants that would be sowed in a canopied part of the coastal tropical forest and then left for the whole grow cycle in the hopes that patrols guided by helicopters looking for just this sort of thing wouldn’t rip the whole crop out. Neglected by its growers, the usual skunk had the sort of astringent ass-stench that you always catch whiff of on Manhattan streets, but the contents of this little Nimbin bag at least had clearly had some care given to its terpenes, its cola sizes, its trimming—something, anything.
I have to admit that I was swept up in the atmosphere of the place, dreaming wildly of my own green-tipped farmland with goats tilling the soil beneath their hooves. Especially in the midst of a country ramping up its policing to fight its own War on Drugs, it was an escape from daily raids and drug dogs sniffing up and down the public transit. Even though there were barely any people around I reveled in swimming in a feeling of anonymity, something I did not know that I had been taking for granted on the U.S.’s overpopulated East Coast.
The weed lasted us an unprecedented couple of weeks—a Hanukkah miracle—after we’d driven the last three hours north to the pastoral farming “city” we’d been aiming for. One thick and musty Queensland day, we made our way out to the shed, the small television blaring in the background. As I ground up some nugs in one of those little plastic disc grinders that I still swear serve no true purpose, a calm blonde meteorologist came onto the screen, motioned to a detailed graphic of the country’s entire eastern seaboard, and gave the following report before immediately turning back over to the news anchors: “The weather… is fine.”
After neurotically scanning the bench swing for spiders and snakes, I settled in to watch the sun wane. The neighbor, a nosey old man with thick glasses that gave him the name Coke Bottles, would occasionally pass by on his tractor—not necessarily to catch us smoking out of the brass two-hitter, but because he had little else to do when he wasn’t bundling his one or two bales of hay per day. We took big hits from the little pipe and blew it in his direction as he drove by, his tractor muttering across the field in concert with the squeaking swing.
III. Molly (maybe?)
I swirled the pill around in my hand, its loose blue crystal contents staring back at me with intensity similar, I imagine, to that I was directing its way. I considered that it might not be Molly but meth. “Ice,” as Australians call it, was growing increasingly popular in a country essentially devoid of all opioids except codeine and which seemed to have little of the Look at These People’s Fucking Faces bred into them that we’d had during D.A.R.E. (A statuesque redheaded friend, whom I had once watched sniff ketamine off a small silver spoon at her Bowling/Laser Tag combination birthday, mentioned casually that she’d tried meth at a party, and I went immediately into Dad Mode telling her of meth’s ills while offering her a joint outside the Sydney zine shop we worked at.)
The last time I had tried to do Molly, in college, it had tested as something else on the night of the concert, some amphetamine, but even once we saw the results, my friends and I thought well, what? Were we meant to just stay sober for New Years? We were kids of the suburbs, used to being so bored and oppositional in the smallest of ways that we’d skip school just to hop on the train to New York City and buy a pack of cigarettes—nothing was going to stop us from what was meant to be an exciting night dancing.
And here too, on the other side of the Earth and years away from New York, I was not going to let the unknown stop me. I took the pill and went to some downtown club with my English roommates and their friend who was already too high and drunk in the backseat of the Uber. After an unprecedentedly rousing dance to “Bitch Better Have My Money,” I too vomited in the street.
While doing soul-crushing work for a ritzy North Shore conman who was bilking his U.S. Social Security without having paid taxes for 40 years (a tenure that prepared me somewhat for this presidential administration’s fickle nonsense), I was also writing casually for a very small Sydney-based LGBTQ blog, the sort of miscellaneous rantings that I was used to making on my own back home for no money and to no fanfare. I must admit that I felt emboldened alongside my natural state of New York City Metro Area hubris, and assumed that the Australian media landscape would differ little from the American one: There were newspapers and magazines and then, on a rung much lower and never discussed, there were blogs.
The problem was this: Australia has an unwritten social contract that essentially discourages people from growing into, as they call it, “tall poppies.” It’s completely counter to everything New York taught me, which was that if you must chew off a person’s forelimbs to get yours, you do it. Not only does New York have a culture of saying passionately what comes to mind, but it has so many people—twice, roughly, the amount of people living in 300 square miles of boroughs as there are in Sydney’s 4,700—all trying to say something and be heard, that any one voice gets drowned out by the 500 others.
I didn’t think about how that attitude would have to shift as an expat in this new space and plus, I figured, they watch so much American television that I’ll fit neatly into the pushy New Yorker stereotype.
I should’ve known better than to plow ahead at such a speed in a place with laws prohibiting “antisocial behavior” (including my favorite pastime, yelling in public), but having lived in the place for a year I assumed I’d correctly judged that Australians simply didn’t have the energy to bite.
My editor asked me to cover an excruciating op-ed in the Rupert Murdoch conservative rag The Daily Telegraph written by self-hating Britney Spears impersonator Caroline Marcus, whom I’m certain as I write this will be ferociously poking at her Google Alerts in a few days’ time. In America, Marcus would be unremarkable: another blonde Tomi Lahren-type, the sort that get produced daily from what I can only assume is a 3D printer in Murdoch’s tawdry sex dungeon/mountain-ensconced lair. In America, Marcus’ hate would be swallowed whole by the conservative echo chamber, a churning machine that recycles its interchangeable women with swift certainty.
But in Australia she was popular, especially with the older crowd who watched her on the Fox Problem Solvers-type show she would occasionally “report” for. It’s not even noteworthy to focus on what Marcus wrote; the short of it is that she decided to embroil me in some sort of strangely public feud the likes of which I am not famous enough to merit in America. In response to a whole three-blog paragraphs with a whopping zero comments, Marcus wrote an entire page, her cocked I’m a Sassy Blonde eyebrow beaming from a fuchsia background overlooking the centerfold. The piece, like most in the Daily Tele, wasn’t even online—I had to get a damn newspaper. In it, she referred to me semi-anonymously as someone from “one gay blog,” and frankly it was the cowardice and self-aggrandizement of her tone that made me hone in on a weakness to sink my teeth into. I responded furiously with some extended arguments of my own about Marcus—and since she’d called me a bigot, I responded with this:
Things then seemed to go quiet, and frankly, I wasn’t about to give Murdoch any money by buying his conserva-tabloid. So I let sleeping blondes lie and went about my business, covering some more “gay blog” stuff like Australia’s over-policing and refusal to let the public vote on gay marriage (still the case, by the way).
And look, I don’t know if Marcus was the reason I was made to leave the country under threat of deportation a few months later, though I have my suspicions since immigration is particularly keen on doing its internet research looking for scofflaws and (I guess) rant-prone leftist bloggers trying to invade the country with ideas.
On the day of my flight to LAX, I got to the airport a little early. I’d been given 30 days to shut down my store and tie up loose ends with clients and editors and my partner, and I wasn’t trying to think about the 14-hour flight ahead of me. So I went into the newspaper section and pawed through The Daily Telegraph, looking for a familiar face. There she was. I scanned the page, not about to read the actual thing under threat of feeling some emotion other than resigned, but there was a phrase that stuck out. It was an import, one Marcus herself certainly wouldn’t have used before we came into contact. In quotes, derisively: “internalized misogyny.”
I had done it. Somehow, in some way, even months after I’d written a couple of measly paragraphs about her, what I said was still turning around in her head. And to me, a loudmouthed rabble-rouser given 28 days to leave the politeness-obsessed country for which I was never able to find love anyway, the thought that I got under her skin so permanently was the best keepsake of all.