Somehow we both knew it as Calacoci’s milk bar. It’s a Starbucks now, typical. Nothing stays the same – probably just as well.
Three o’clock for a coffee and if it works out maybe a drink and … dinner? The drink and dinner part wasn’t talked about between us, but it’s sort of implied. At least I think it is – standard internet dating protocols. Coffee for starters in a very public place, then, take it from there.
Seven miles from the city, a thousand miles from care. Get off at the wharf and if you’re lucky, Dad, especially if he and Mum are treating themselves to a Javana Sling, will shout us kids a milk shake at Burt’s. Cold as, in those tall aluminium cups. I remember feeling all grown up when I had grown tall enough to be able to peer over the ruby red laminex counter top and see into the stainless steel milk tub. Always a mystery before that. Where are they dipping those ladles to get the icy cold milk from? I would wonder, but never ask. Might get a clip over the ear if you were too curious, asking too many questions.
Sometimes we’d swim in the harbour enclosure. It was massive, with a walkway all around its perimeter. The bigger boys and men would dive in, showing off. I remember one day seeing a man dive outside of the enclosure, into the harbour itself. I fretted for him. Thought he’d get eaten by a shark for sure. They even had a shark in a pool on the wharf. I saw that one day. The whole set up was like a carnival side-show. Actually, it was a carnival side-show. And then there was the proper aquarium. A big brick cylinder attached to a harbour headland. I never got to go in there, too expensive. Especially after bus tickets, ferry tickets and milkshakes. Be grateful, we were told.
Nineteen seventy four, if my memory serves me correctly. We lived in another suburb then, this time out on the fringe of the city. We saw the storm and devastation on the black and white television that us kids hoped would cark it, real soon. We wanted a colour one like what the pommys who lived down the road had. Mum reckoned she’d rather us eat proper and not baked beans every night like they did. It was, she reasoned, how they afforded such an expensive and unnecessary piece of furniture. You’ll thank me one day, she said. The harbour swimming enclosure had been ripped away by a relentless ocean. I thought the heads protected the harbour beaches. “Ask your bloody smart arse teacher,” said Dad when he couldn’t explain how all that timber and iron and the floating pontoon just disappeared.
They never rebuilt it. Burt’s Milk Bar is gone too. A lot of water under the bridge, as they say. The iconic pine trees along the ocean beach are hanging in there. Once they were threatened by detergent, of all things. It would get into the onshore salt spray and burn the foliage, or something like that. It’s not an issue now, they pump the city’s shit, and detergent, several kilometres further out. Everything sorted, if you believe that.
It can make things look better. I see a women walking towards Calacoci’s. OK, Starbucks. It could be Helen. I’ve only seen a head shot of my internet date, and in that she’s wearing sunglasses and her hair is blowing around. She told me on the phone that the photo was taken on a boat at a friend’s wedding reception. It could be Helen, hair colour’s about right. I hope it is her, from this distance she looks good.
Helen and I did about twenty emails back and forth; all the usual information was exchanged. Family. Education. Work. Interests. Overseas countries visited. Age of youngest child. Once a certain number of fears were allayed, on both sides, and a level of trust was established, again both sides, we exchanged phone numbers.
Her voice was OK, not what I expected. It sounded perhaps a bit too cultured, but thankfully not screechy. Anyway, I wasn’t going to judge a person by their voice. Well, I think not. I liked her laugh, which she readily elicited. She didn’t take things too seriously. I picked that up from her profile before I had any contact with her at all. She wrote that she was allergic to long walks on the beach, that live music aggravated her tinnitus, and that the mere thought of curling up on the lounge in front of the fire with a nice red wine induced vertigo. I got the joke immediately. I poked her.
That’s not Helen coming. Helen said she’d be wearing black jeans and her trusty Doc Marten boots. This woman has black gabardine slacks and sensible flats. And she’s veering towards the pub on the other corner. Looks like she’s got a shift at the bar, or the bistro. And up closer she’s not that good looking. Distance can be kind.
I say that I’m not after a good looking woman, how I’ve tried that a few times and let testosterone cloud rational judgement. And I claim to have grown out of the need to prove my manliness with spunky-chick-pulling-ability. I’m fifty next year, all grown up I kid myself. The woman in the slacks and work shoes could be my perfect match. But deep down I know there is no attraction. I’ve had the snip and my youngest is in his twenties, so why do I still get steered by a biological urge to procreate with a fine physical specimen. Don’t I want a meeting of like minds? A soul connection?
There was a storm in 2012. It didn’t wash away the coast or consume any harbourside infrastructure. It did shipwreck me though. The signs had been building up for years and I ignored them; pushed on into the headwinds, fooling myself that things would abate. If you ask me now I’ll sum it all up by saying something like, “How can anyone be expected to choose the right life partner at twenty?” I’m wondering if I can do it at forty-nine. When I was twenty though, I thought I knew everything I needed to know about men and women and parenthood. Thought my father had shown me exactly what not to do, that I would never be so stupid, so weak, so fucking authoritarian. I would show him.
I don’t want to be alone. Though, the five years living by myself has been good for me.
Some internet dates want sex upfront, or at least on date number two. I don’t go there. Black on yellow SLIPPERY WHEN WET signs flash into my mind. I do want a meeting of minds first and foremost. I’ve learnt that much.
It’s three twenty five. She’s not coming. Her phone is switched off. Her name might not even be Helen. Her fantasy, with me at least, is over. Ten dollars on the nose, she is still married and the children are still at home, and she is too full of fear, or religion, or family tradition, to escape from her misery. She’ll be back online with a new name and a new unrecognisable head shot. She’ll justify it to herself as harmless fun. Better than breaking up, like a ship on a reef.
I’m not hurt. This has happened before. Pretty disappointed in the Starbucks coffee, though. Would have much preferred a gelato from Calacoci’s milk bar. Think I’ll take a walk up to the headland and look at the old seminary that’s become a catering college.
Nothing stays the same. Just as well.