I ran into an old University buddy of mine yesterday, a brilliant writer who gave up her dream of becoming a successful novelist due to pressure from her family. She became a lawyer instead. I’ve tracked her progress for many years, watching in awe as she went from junior associate to senior partner in what seemed the blink of an eye; sitting on boards for this, and acting as President of that. The only way to describe her career in law is stellar, her talent is remarkable.
I run into Annette every few years. We chat like we only saw each other the day before, there is an ease between us, yet I always feel like the poor, ugly sister whom no one invites to the prom while she dazzles in her two hundred dollar haircut and Prada coordinates. She doesn’t intend to make me feel bad – I am sure of it – it is my own sense of failure that paints me in watered-down hues.
Each time I have seen her I have had not more than twenty dollars in my pocket. She pays for our lunch with a wad of fifties, perfectly manicured nails redder than the strawberry coulis that is drizzled on her chocolate and pistachio pudding. My nails are broken and chipped, short as a child’s from planting hyacinth bulbs in the garden. I sit on them as Annette charms the waiter, a tourist from Palermo named Giacomo. He gives her a complimentary serve of dried figs in the sweetest little timber box. “They are organic,” he says, rolling out the ‘r’ so it sounds like an endearment. Annette laughs. It is the way I imagined a princess would laugh when I was four. Crystal chimes stirred gently by a mistral wind.
Giacomo compliments her on her outfit – bellissima – lightly touches her arm. I notice that I have a stain on my skirt, it looks like barbecue sauce, and that my hem is coming down slightly. Annette indicates that we should leave and I bang against the table, knocking over the salt shaker. The flowers on the table tremble in their vase, spraying miniscule sprigs of pollen on the tablecloth. Giacomo frowns, raising one eyebrow as if I am a recalcitrant child.
“Let’s get out of here,” says Annette. “I am sick of this shit.”
“What do you mean?” I ask. “The food was good, wasn’t it?”
“I don’t mean this place specifically – I mean everything, this city, this place. I am sick of it. All of it. All it stands for. All it is.”
What Annette didn’t tell me over lunch is that she is giving up her job, a job that pays her half a million a year, selling her house and moving to the south coast. She has bought a house on the beach. “It is made of wood,” she says. “It has a blue gate and window boxes full of petunias. I have two acres of land and my own water tank. I am going to grow my own vegies, get a dog and write a novel. I’m tired of doing what everyone expects me to do. I’ve worked hard all of my life, and yes, I’ve been successful, I’m well-respected in my field, but I’m alone. I have no husband, I have no children, I have nothing to show for all the years I’ve slogged away but things. Things that mean nothing in the end.”
In Chinatown we pause outside a shop with an enormous Hello Kitty display in the window. Two little girls have their faces pressed to the glass. “We love Kitty,” they say like children in a cult. Kitty’s image is as overwhelming as a Goodyear blimp crashing to earth. I imagine that beneath that cute little always-smiling mouth lie razor-sharp teeth waiting to nip and tear. The little girls run into the shop, squealing like they have seen a rock star, grabbing at Kitty accessories without restraint. Their mother runs after them, waving her arms around, crying :”No more Kitty, no more Kitty!”
It is a funny scene, reminiscent of my son’s obsession with Matchbox cars. He used to shoplift them when he was three, putting them in the gumboots he insisted on wearing even in the middle of summer. I realise now that the reason he wore the gumboots was because it made it easier to shoplift the cars!
Smirking, I catch sight of Annette’s face reflected in the window. She is glowering, pushing aside the afternoon light. “Those girls will end up like me if they’re not careful,” she says. “Rooms full of stuff they don’t need, objects gathering on shelves like dust.”
Annette’s house on the beach was cheap by Sydney standards. Two hundred thousand dollars. She has invested some money to live on and is giving the rest of her money to her nieces and nephews with the proviso that they use it to enjoy their lives. She is taking basic items of furniture with her and is donating the rest to a charity auction. Her computer will be going with her, her Blackberry won’t.
“At 3AM it rings,” she says. “I’ve just finished working a fifteen hour day and I’m expected to answer it. I can’t sleep for fear that I might not hear it ring. It’s too much. I have no life. Every room I walk into in my house is silent. I’m tired of cooking meals for one or settling for toast for three nights in a row because it’s too late to cook.”
An elderly couple emerge from a Chinese restaurant. They are discussing their meal. “I thought it was too spicy,” says the woman. “It was just right,” says the man. “I couldn’t taste anything there was so much spice,” says the woman. “It was just right,” says the man. They link arms and walk off, heads so close together they appear conjoined.
“See that,” cries Annette with a catch in her throat. “That’s what I want. Someone to grow old with and discuss whether or not I liked the Szechuan chicken. I’ll never get it while I’m married to the firm.”
Two months ago Annette awakened in the middle of the night unable to move. She thought she was dying. Then she became aware that what was pinning her to the bed was the realisation that her life had no meaning. “I woke up and wanted my life to change. It was as simple as that. I’d had enough.” She put her house on the market the next day.
We wait at the bus stop. Annette has sold her car. When she moves to the beach she will buy a Jeep. Pigeons scratch at our feet, someone has dropped a sandwich. One of the pigeons has purple tips on his wings. I wonder if this sets him apart in the pigeon world. Maybe he is something important, like a pigeon Lord Mayor.
Annette finishes work at the end of the month. She is giving her entire wardrobe to her cleaning lady and is never getting a manicure again. She shines with zeal, like her very skin has been freshly-laundered. As her bus pulls up she wraps me in a hug. I am surprised to see tears in her eyes.
“I knew the secret all along but I could never say it aloud,” she says.
“It’s only money.”
The bus moves off. Annette stands at the door, holding her hand, palm outward against the glass. It is a gesture of farewell but also of hope.
Jacaranda blossoms coat the footpath. A teenage boys slices through them on a skateboard. In a plume they land on the road, pale lilac stars. My bus arrives and a blossom is flung upward, landing on the windscreen. The busdriver touches it from the other side of the glass like it is a gift. And suddenly, with certainty, I know Annette will be alright, and that maybe, just for once, she will be able to truly live the life she dreams of.