The Last Cigarette
Nothing ever changes where I’m from. It’s small-town forgotten suburbia where fuck all happens and everything stays the same. No one knows where they’re going – we just know we want out. We claw at the lip of the sewer lid, only to fall back in, left to sizzle out in a cesspit like a dropped cigarette soaking in a truck-stop urinal.
I thought I got out. Was one of the lucky ones, the chosen ones, one of Destiny’s Children blessed with the circumstances (read: a dead dad) to run as far and as long as I could and never look back.
But I’m back, clawing at the lip.
Money ran out, jobs didn’t work out. Visa problems, relationship problems. The road to destiny is paved with splintered wood, dark alleyways and wrong turns. No one ever tells you that.
I’ve been back for two months or so, sleeping on the couch in my ex-girlfriend’s parents’ living room, still looking for work, down to my last $200.
I didn’t want to come home. I was forced, pushed by the gusty winds of fate.
If you’re from where I’m from, then – when the inside of every pocket you have is turned inside-out in the middle of a Japanese subway station and you can only count 100 yen – the thought of throwing yourself in front of the next train can seem far more appealing than going home.
“Maybe it’d be good to go back,” I thought, trying to convince myself. “I’ll finally kick some life goals: get a job, a place to live, make a real push as a writer and creative professional, then eventually fuck off again… next time for real.”
But alas, this shithole has finally engulfed me, and now I am the cigarette, smothered out by some stranger’s piss on the side of the highway on their way outta here.
There’s nowhere quite like the racist, smeared-out suburbs of redneck Australia to re-establish yourself after three years of travel – a place of expired hometown conversations with people who lost grip years ago.
Now that I’m back, everyone keeps asking me how it is being home. People at the shops, people at the servo, people I don’t even know (do I?).
“Hey man, what are you doing here? Didn’t you get out?”
“Yeah, thought I’d escaped… but now I’m back.”
“Oh yeah. How was it?”
“How was what?”
“Not being here.”
I never really know what to say. It’s hard to answer a question loaded with spiritual confession and eternal mystery, and it’s fucking embarrassing to be confronted with the fact I’m eternally trapped in my hometown.
It never does it justice, but does the job.
I’ve learned that people don’t take trips; trips take people. Sometimes it’s like jumping off a cliff and scrambling to assemble your parachute on the way down. Other times, you enjoy the fall, see where you land, get up, jump again. Sometimes it’s like smoking a cigarette. Each puff makes you want another.
It’s hard to put that into an everyday conversation I’m having with a bloke I don’t recognise, someone who’s only feigning interest so he can plot his own way outta here someday, and maybe bum a cigarette in the meantime.
He doesn’t care for my stories, my secrets – all of which seem like dreams since being home: surreptitious and phantasmal tales deserving of a better telling (and a better audience) than an awkward encounter at the shops.
Home has always just been a pit stop for me. When I was young, my parents ran a business that saw us bounce between Australia, Southern California, France, New Zealand and England for around eight years. During one two-year stint, I developed an American accent, and even upon returning home, I still thought I was American. From then on, home was transferrable. Relative. How I felt, not where I was from.
Even after my parents’ divorce, and when my father died, and when I finished university, I kept moving. Travel was my graduation. It was my classroom; the world was my campus, an endless pack of smokes.
In my past life, I spent an overnight train ride tearing paint off the walls in a shaking squat toilet shitting remnants of bad spring rolls outta my arse like wisping darts, howling echoes of orgasmic relief through carriages crammed with live chickens and two-foot-stockpots of Thai curry. I remember an extrasensory conversation over sandwiches with the Dalia Lama in the middle of a station, and the time I was in jail with an American soldier fresh from service in Afghanistan, haunted with the cries of nuclear ghosts and tortured with riddles, eventually breaking out in a defiant cloud of patriotic showmanship.
Those kinds of things don’t happen in the day-to-day, small-town streets of Bogan Australia.
My past life seems like a distant, vivid dream, but being home is so surreal that this must be the dream. It has to be. The wandering existence of a vagrant bum is far too absolute, too divinely ambiguous and celestially aligned with reality for a curious-minded kid from a nowhere town desperately looking for the next cliff.
So what’s it really like being home?
I feel like the last cigarette in the packet, waiting to have the final bit of life sucked out of me.
Cover by A B E D K A Y A L I