Last May, I caught a bad case of tonsillitis. The day I stayed home from work wallowing in my pain, I felt useless and claustrophobic in our cramped, two-bedroom apartment in Melbourne. I felt the cold breeze of the imminent winter through the crack in our balcony as I scrolled through Facebook photos of my friends back in the US. They were going to graduation parties and picnics by the lake. They had warmth and friends, everything that at the time I didn’t have. There is nothing like several hours alone in a windowless room to make one question why she’s temporarily living in another country, working a minimum-wage job entirely unrelated to her career or life goals.
That evening, my roommates started coming home one by one. Peter, the German photographer, who spent his days listening to screamo music while editing photos, brought me a bowl of pineapple. He sat next to me while we both laid around and he entertained me with his weird animal videos. When he noticed I was on Facebook, he sent me messages saying “hey…” just to make me laugh. Peter and I slept, literally, two feet away from each other on twin-sized cots on a stained carpet. The other room in our apartment housed two girls from India and a bed stood covered by a shower curtain in the kitchen, the Korean lived there.
The five of us lived in a shiny high rise on La Trobe Street, just on the edge of the Central Business District (CBD) in the Docklands. The building itself gave off an air of elegance: it had huge glass walls, automatic sliding doors, and even the ground floor entrance had a few small businesses, making me feel as if I was important enough to have everything at my footsteps.
“Ah, I really want baked apples but I don’t have any cinnamon,” I said to Peter. “Let’s ask Priya to get us some on her way home!”
We started texting her. Priya had a master’s degree in biochemistry, but worked at a steakhouse in Southbank. Peter suddenly had a craving for schnitzel, and at $2.50 a schnitzel at Coles, he couldn’t argue. A quick text put him on the right track to eating one soon.
We waited for our cinnamon and schnitzel as Peter innocently made fun of Su-Jeong, the Korean. “Princess has no calls today?” he asked me in a low voice. Su-Jeong usually began, filled, and ended her days with Skype calls, which we all overheard because she lived in the kitchen. We assumed the calls were to her long-distance Colombian boyfriend because she always spoke in a high-pitched, almost sensual voice, which made us feel like we were interrupting something we shouldn’t have been. It wasn’t until we continually heard her asking him how the weather was and correcting his grammar that we found out she was actually teaching online English classes. One day when I walked into our apartment, Peter raised his eyebrows, motioning to Su-Jeong’s living space and whispered,
“She is teaching English classes!”
“What?!” I said, “So she’s not talking to her boyfriend?”
I closed the door to our room and we tried to muffle our laughter so she couldn’t hear. We were in shock; for weeks we we were convinced we were an unsolicited third party to her relationship. We were relieved, but still we felt stupid for not realizing she taught English.
Su-Jeong studied Japanese and something else like history, but she really just wanted to travel. She too worked jobs in Melbourne that she didn’t care for and often stayed home on weekends, probably aimlessly browsing social media like the rest of us. Our apartment didn’t overlook the sunsets, the boats, or the pedestrians sauntering around the harbor, but instead faced the concrete back wall of Eithad Stadium. Through the glass wall of the neighboring building, we had a great view of a girl jumping on her trampoline in the apartment building across from ours.
When my sister came to visit me, she remarked, “this place has the potential to be nice.” What she expressed later in the week was less optimistic,
“This is a shit hole. Why is it so dirty? Why doesn’t your oven work? And why is there a girl living in the kitchen?”
She was right. Physically, it was atrocious. It smelled like mold, the trash always overflowed, and if you turned on the oven, our apartment filled with black smoke. No one did their dishes and I kept wiping long black hairs out of my coffee cups.
Around 10:00pm we heard the buzzer go off, announcing Priya’s arrival. Because we were all living there illegally there were only four entrance cards to share among us. Our buzzer, like everything else in our apartment, was broken, so one of us had to go down to let her up the elevator.
Unlike us, most of the Docklands residents struck me as people on their way to seal a new CBD development deal. A few feet away from our apartment stood the NAB bank building, I walked passed it on my way to work at a fast food salad and spud eatery. I usually saw several women who looked uncannily similar to Gisele Bündchen. They wore four-inch heels and dresses that perfectly complemented their tanned and toned bodies, while I wore the same black sweatpants, a permanently stained white shirt, and greasy hair slicked back into a ponytail. I had to wear a visor at work so my hair didn’t fall into a customer’s spud with melted cheese and bacon. Their attire made them look powerful, but I felt powerless. They told people what to do, while in my job people told me what to do.
The people around us were corporate and flashy, and the word established always seemed to come to mind. When the “Gisele Bündchens” passed me, I felt inadequate and out of place: those types of people belonged in that environment. But again, most of us in our apartment building must have felt out of place. Aside from two or three families most of the residents looked just like us: young, foreign, and in disarray. In the elevator I heard many languages: German, Arabic, Spanish, Korean, Mandarin, Hindi, and others.
“Schnitzel, schnitzel, schnitzel!” we chanted as Priya walked through the door. We cheered and clapped as she took the cinnamon and schnitzel out of her Coles bag. Suddenly, I felt so much less alone.
Sonya came out of her room; she and Priya began their nightly routine of cooking onions, chickpeas, and tomato sauce, while Peter fried his schnitzel on the other burner, and I put my cinnamon apples in the microwave. We had a small side table near Su-Jeong’s bed that we crowded around as ate. Priya insisted that she make me warm milk with turmeric, promising me it could soothe any ailment.
The German, the Indians, the Korean, and I were all in Melbourne chasing some inexplicable desire for something, and none of us knew what that “something” would be for us. Professionally qualified and well-traveled, it was clear we had all had easier times back in our home countries.
Many young foreigners in Melbourne are economic migrants or political refugees. We were just five twenty-somethings who could somehow justify working poorly paid jobs, in fields that we didn’t care about. In what little free time we had, we dreamed of one day “making it” in our personal and professional dreams. We were never best friends, nor were we particularly close, but something in our shared angst gave us comfort.
Some of us openly shared our stresses daily: Priya mentioned wishing she was a character on the Mindy Project, Peter unsuccessfully sent emails to famous bands offering to photograph their concerts, and I just wondered aloud how I would ever move forward in life when volunteer positions in Melbourne didn’t even want me.
That night we crammed into our closet-sized kitchen; taking selfies, eating side-by-side, and laughing as the girl in the next building did her nightly trampoline exercises. We were immune to our aimless lives, at least for a few moments. We were five young people from completely different backgrounds and places, who all had one thing in common: our uncertainty.
Peter thought I felt better because of the pineapple, but I knew it was really from the sense of togetherness I felt that evening.
Photos by Author
Allison is a devout Latin America enthusiast, who loves a lot of things, but mostly a good cup a tea and loud personalities. You can find her on Twitter: @AllisonBYates and Instagram: @allisonyateswrites