Photo by JENNY FRASER
Gillard and guacamole
I see him in the art theory section of Powell's Books and look away, surprised that I’m a little nervous. He’s holding a children’s storybook, and I wonder what his family is like, imagining he’s in rush to get home. I start to turn, but he catches my gaze. We hardly spoke over the weekend, but regularly found ourselves sitting next to each other at the social practice gathering his MFA students organized. We start talking; I ask him about his lecture and explain that I’m looking for books by Julie Ault and other community artists. He takes me to another aisle, and we chat easily.
‘I think you’ll like What We Made. It’s one of the better books about art and social practice, I’ll find it for you.’
‘Thanks, I work in urban planning but I’m interested in public art projects so the workshops at the gathering were really interesting.’
‘How did you find out about it?’
‘Just through Facebook, a friend knew I was in Portland and posted something. I’m actually here for a planning conference on health and the built environment that starts tomorrow. I’m worried that it’s going to be shit in comparison.’
‘No, you’ll get something from it.’
‘Hopefully, either way it’s been great to check out a city I’ve heard so much about.’
There is something reassuring and familiar as he finds the book, and the nervousness I felt earlier leaves. He asks if I have time to catch up before I go, and I assume he’s being polite, part of the infinite friendliness all Americans seem to have. We say goodbye, and I walk back to my Airbnb in the Northwest, not expecting to hear from him but feeling lighter. Later that evening he emails wanting to know if I would like to meet sometime during the week. I reply quickly, relieved I’ll get a break from the corporate types at the conference and suddenly aware of the disappointment I would have felt if I’d never heard from him.
I arrive at Por Que No Taqueria early, and he’s already there. We’re offered margaritas as we wait for a table amongst the antiques and kitsch religious items that cluster the orange walls. He’s wearing a blue shirt, slightly better dressed than when we met on the weekend. A spot becomes available, and as we sit conversation takes over seamlessly moving from gun laws, race and his work with Miranda July. Then somehow we start talking about Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female Prime Minister, and I notice a speck of avocado on the side of his face. I want to brush it off with my fingers, then hesitate, knowing it’s too intimate for a dinner that might not be a date. We keep talking and after a while he removes the small green blob with a serviette, and I wish I had known him long enough to wipe it away.
‘How much longer are you in Portland?’
‘Just a week, I’ve started a new job so I couldn’t get much time off. I’d like to stay longer, it reminds me of Berkeley, creative and intellectual but low key at the same time. Did you grow up here?’
‘No, I’m from California. I came here to do a collaborative video project and ended up staying when I was asked to run the MFA program at PSU. I have a daughter now, her name is Betty. She’s seven, so I’m definitely here for at least another eleven years.’
I smile, liking how eager he is to talk about his daughter and realizing why I’m attracted to older men. There’s a softness that’s always absent when I’m with someone my own age. He asks me if I have time to go back to his place. I say yes casually, pretending I had other plans. We get our bikes and ride down quiet streets talking about the TV show Redfern Now. I’m surprised he’s seen it. We both like the episode where Joel refuses to sing the Australian National Anthem at his private school. His scholarship is threatened, but he won’t sing a song that celebrates the British and overlooks the massacre of his people. He tells me that his daughter is Native American and he worries about her education too.
‘There’s a Native American program at Betty’s school. But they don’t get it. My ex-wife is always frustrated that it’s taught in this generalized way, as if all Native Americans are the same. Betty’s Crow and we want her to engage with her culture.’
‘It’s the same in Australia. I know I don’t look it, but my mum is Aboriginal and our language group is Ballardong Noongar. In Melbourne people still assume I’m Koorie, they don’t get that there’s over 300 language groups and we’re not all the same.’
‘I know, Betty goes through it all the time. I didn’t think you were Anglo.’
His words are reassuring, and I don’t have to prove who I am. On the other side of the world I feel safe. Tensions about identity ease, free from the Andrew Bolt like questioning that persists in Australia.
It’s still light when we get to his place, so we sit on his back porch facing his unruly garden full of perennials and self-seeding plants. We drink organic vodka from a farmers market, and he tells me that his garden is in a state of un-realization but there is always something out there to harvest and eat. When we head inside I wonder if he’ll touch me, embarrassed that it probably wasn’t a date after all. He shows me another book and says I can keep it. I try to stay interested as tiredness takes over.
I start thinking about the long ride back and wondering whether I should ask if I could sleep on his couch. Conversation dwindles, and I apologize for keeping him up so late. For a moment I think about putting my hand on his knee, but I know I should leave.
‘I think I’m going to start heading back.’
‘I’d like you to stay, if you want to.’
‘Would you mind if I kissed you?’
There’s a trace of anxiety in his voice, which reassures me, and I’m relieved I can touch him. He kisses me as I start to undo the buttons on his shirt.
In bed our bodies already know each other, and it’s strange to think we’ve just met. We sleep restlessly, intrigued by new possibilities and the feel of skin. In the morning he leaves early and tells me to let myself out when I’m ready. When I get up, his house feels like a gallery, white walls and simple furniture warmly interrupted by Betty’s orange gumboots, dolls and colored crayons sprawled across the table. There are pictures of her on his fridge and little drawings she’s done in school. In one image he is holding her as a baby with an uncertain look in his eyes. I realise it’s a poster advertising an exhibition he did in France. I stay longer than I need, exploring his books, paintings and the piano he bought for Betty. And leave; feeling like it’s the start of something.
I skip the conference and hang out in the Northeast. It’s different to the west, homes that look like dolls’ houses line the leafy streets, cars give way to bikes and hipsters in faded denim congregate outside food trucks. I rummage through vintage stores along Mississippi Avenue, then find a café. Languid conversations about gentrification and Shamanic healing drift through the space, and eventually he emails asking me to come over after nine. Betty will be home, but she’ll be asleep. I head back to my Airbnb, planning to at least look through the conference schedule. I shower and change, not sure if I should tell my friends what I’m doing. Later that night I ride back across town thinking how much I like it, even as homeless people roll out their sleeping bags, jarring the image I started to construct during the day.
When I arrive he tells me Betty has just gone to sleep, and we whisper so we don’t wake her up. I want to tell him that I love the way he loves his daughter. We hug for a long time, then head upstairs. He runs a bath, and as we take our cloths off he shows me a deep scar on his thigh, a casualty of early experiments in performance art. Our legs interweave in the water, and our bodies move gently, careful not to splash or talk too loudly. We move between sex and sharing stories that no one else knows.
As the warm water starts to wrinkle our skin, we go to the spare room downstairs. We relax into each other, and he tells me that whenever attractive women sleep with him it must be because he’s an artist. My stomach moves violently, and I can’t find any words. I immediately think of women who slept with Bukowski and other famous men, wondering if I’m just another groupie. I hold onto the feeling that we mean something to each other even as the sense of specialness fades.
He leaves me in the spare room and goes back to his bedroom. He needs to be there in case Betty wakes. It takes me a while to get to sleep as I think of the others who have slept here, questioning if I’m just another bedfellow impressed by his success. I thought we were two people who liked each other and desired sex. In the morning I can hear them eating breakfast upstairs while he gets ready to take her to school. Their American accents remind me of TV shows like Full House. He’s the single dad raising a daughter, and I begin to forget what he said.
Two more nights go by quickly, and we make plans we’re not sure we can keep. Our last morning is rushed. I sleep in, and we don’t have time to eat breakfast before my flight. In the car we talk as if I’m not leaving. And when we get to the airport I hug him briefly and don’t look back. Walking through customs I wonder what happens next, while trying not to expect anything. I arrive in San Francisco with a day before my flight home. I could check my email, but I hang out in the Mission distracting myself, not wanting to know.
For a month my inbox is flooded, and my days are structured around North American time zones waiting for our next call. But something changes, and the emails slowly dwindle. The last time we Skype hurts. He ends it abruptly, forgetting that a journalist is coming by to interview him. I get on the train to go work, drafting an email in my head, knowing he’ll never reply. And his absence starts to sting like a cut that won’t heal.
Weeks later I see the article online at work. Jealousy creeps in as I read her lengthy descriptions of how his mop of grey curls accentuates his blue eyes. She describes his bare feet as he answers the door, and I realise I’ll never go to his house again or understand why the emails stopped. But his book remains on my shelf, unable to be thrown away.
I head down Crossley Street, spit-like rain hitting my face, wondering what people who hate reading do to fill time. The Paperback Bookshop is just a few blocks away from the restaurant where I’m meeting the others. I’ll buy a book so I’m not too early. I walk into to the empty shop and ask for Foreign Soil. The woman behind the counter tells me they’re out of stock, and I get the sense she’s not in the mood to order a copy.
I notice Miranda July’s book displayed in the new release section. Its caustic black cover dominates the other titles. I’ve been meaning to buy it, hoping it’s as good as her short story collection. When I pick up a copy, it opens to the back page, and his name is there in her bio, mentioning the website they made together. I flinch, it’s been a year since Portland, and I wonder why I still think of someone who forgot me. I put it down and leave.
When I get to the restaurant, Linny is in the queue outside. She looks like she does in photos. I emailed her after I found her blog, Future Black. It was one of those strange moments when you realize someone else has already said everything you wanted to say. We head inside, happy to finally meet. It’s just a small group, Max, Ben, Jeff and Laz. We order dumplings and the conversation erupts, quickly turning to the ARM Portrait Building on Swanston Street.
‘It’s a caricature of Aboriginality; you can’t take a photo of an elder like William Barak and stick it on a building.’
‘You’re right. I don’t want to see him on a shitty residential building. I hate the thought of residents hanging out their laundry on balconies, like a sudden discharge of blemishes across his face.’
‘It’s disgusting and communities weren’t consulted properly.’
I sit quietly waiting to hear what Linny thinks.
‘It doesn’t surprise me. I’m used to white-washed versions of our culture. But it’s not architecture. It’s a pixelated mess trying to be cutting edge.’
Max offers another perspective somewhere in the middle.
‘I think it’s an awkward step in the right direction. At least there’s an Aboriginal presence in the city.’
Dazed by their words, I nod and agree. Thoughts run widely, but I can’t think of anything meaningful to say, and the delicate smell of dumplings and chili no longer seems appealing. It’s my first Indigenous Architects meeting, and I don’t know where I fit. I worry that I’m not political enough, too mainstream with nothing to show. I keep imagining they’ll somehow find out about the times I hid my identity.
I still remember being in a social policy class at university when a lecturer asked us to pretend we were Aboriginal. My skin burned, I couldn’t play the game but was too scared to explain who I was, afraid of their suspicious looks and scrutiny. So I just sat there watching the other thirty students pretend. A woman announced that she was doing her final essay on Indigenous housing. She wanted to research how mining companies benefit community. Her uncle married an Aboriginal woman from Alice Springs, so she had a real perspective on the issue. I tried to put my hand up again. I wanted to tell them that I didn’t need to pretend, but couldn’t.
After a while the discussion dies down, and Max asks the waiter for the bill. We leave and walk down Little Bourke Street, but I don’t say much. They’re discussing a previous meeting and who won the McCraith Scholarship in Architecture. We hit Swanston Street and say goodbye. Jeff says he’ll be in touch about another event, and Linny asks if I’ll have a look at a new post she’s writing for her blog. It’s about a group of architects who have started a collective using art for urban renewal. I start to feel a bit better; like I’m beginning again.