There I was. Again. The only American in a gathering of Aussies. Good people, to be sure. An interesting bunch. Proper and rogue at the same time. Beach-combed and beer splattered. With their telltale accents, so frequently used in the telling of tales. In all, it promised to be another spirited get-together. Why then, did I feel so out of place?
Because I was.
Because I really couldn’t get excited about Vegemite, its signature sun-yellow label assuring those within striking range that all was well with the world, half a world away. For me, excitement would’ve been a slice of mushroom pizza from my favorite neighborhood pizzeria, all of two blocks away, glistening with oil, ready for the NYC ‘fold.’
Because my only use of the word ‘mate’ was accompanied by the prefixes ‘in,’ ‘play’ and ‘room.’
Because I couldn’t even begin to understand Uggs. If I’d wanted to wear cumulus clouds on my feet, I would’ve.
Because for the most part, I was happy with where I was on the planet, not chronically afflicted with the desire to be somewhere else (current location not included).
As all gathered for Facebook snaps, I felt particularly displaced. A surfer-free wave of melancholy descended. I did my best to muster a smile, knew that it would never read as genuine. I’d seen those insincere smiles of mine posted before; bottom line, I couldn’t put on a happy face because I wasn’t happy. I was completely, totally estranged. And from myself. All that well-intentioned Aussie outreach wasn’t working.
It didn’t even help that my Aussie wife — my conduit, the reason for my invite — was standing alongside me. If anything, her presence accentuated my discomfort. Here was someone I loved, whose own discomfort in her surroundings I could do little or nothing to remedy. Why did they flock here so determinedly, and in such numbers? Okay, the local flava was pretty savory, but it was just one spot in a well-spotted world.
Wifey clasped my hand in hers — a rare show of emotion. Fingers intertwined. Would our fates do the same, stay the course of coupledom? Could two hearts beat as one across such a vast expanse? If I couldn’t find enough common ground with her, how would I ever fit into this picture?
As one, the Aussies broke out their widest, camera-ready smiles, all smacking of sincerity. As if to say they’d successfully colonized another UK outpost, had spread their outlaw fairy dust among the most cynical, hard-boiled citizens anywhere. NYC had been taken, and not by those who’d been fomenting its downfall for decades. By those who challenged our assumptions about coffee, climate, work/life balance. While I was a welcome guest, I felt exactly like that — a guest. In my own hometown.
As our host fiddled with various camera settings, a thought occurred. It’s weird to belong, and not belong. What could I do about this discomfiting feeling — for once and for all present? And whose belonging-ness was really at issue?
Maybe I expected too much of them. I was, after all, the real host of this gathering. Instead of expecting them to grow towards the light/dark/nearest subway stop, maybe it was up to me to do the growing. While I wouldn’t be helming a tour bus anytime soon, I surely could be more engaging, take a more active interest in solving for their displacement.
Instead of meeting the AU contingent halfway — which did nobody any good — it was on me to meet them all the way. I had been almost disgracefully defensive — of that which needed no defending. My hometown would stand on its own strengths, fall on its own weaknesses.
CLICK, CLICK …
The moment was immortalized, and not because it would soon be all over social media. Because I knew just what to do.
I fled to my favorite neighborhood pizzeria, grabbing a mushroom pie to bring back to the AU contingent, where it was received with open arms – and cavernous mouths. Wifey, too, partook of a slice — and she had recently sworn off carbs.
Anything to be of one mind.
And of one “fold.”
I felt myself smiling, knew it was legit.
For the moment, I was with my people, and they were with me.
Daniel Weitzman writes in New York City, NY. His short story “Whooosh!” was featured in short story anthology My Dad’s a Punk, published by Kingfisher. A middle grade novel, The Unadventures of Oliver Ordinary, lives in the digital universe (trailer available on YouTube).