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An obituary for Melbourne in 2020

WORDS BY GENEVIEVE PHELAN

Here lies the year that could have been.

I’d like to preface these musings with a disclaimer that should really go without saying. This is selfish and indulgent and whiny. This isn’t about the economical obliteration or physical suffering or serious turmoils that I’m aware a lot of us are enduring. But I just need to get this all off my chest.

Here lies an obituary (of sorts) for the year 2020, from the entitled perspective of a middle-class South-East Melburnian semi-adult female. For just a few minutes, I don’t want to be all silver linings and squats. I want to talk about futility. 

I want to talk about guilt-riddled daytime darts after going on 5km runs and hollow moments in the middle of the night and only finding joy in Episode One of Gossip Girl Season Four (the Parisian one). I’ve tried bandaids of bad TV and bakery bread and conversing with boys, but the dull, bloody pain of ‘what could have been’ is just so profuse right now.

I’m sitting here watching it gush out from an open vein. Apply pressure if you want. Fight it if you can. But while we’re all here, let’s just take a moment to acknowledge the superficial things we’re missing out on as Melbourne 20-somethings. That way, it’s here for us as an immortalised reminder of how bleak things were so we’ll make the most of everything when it’s time to again.

Zoom is torturous. I think it is the antithesis to human joy. I swear I look better in real life. I’m funnier. I make better inputs in the real world. I love my friends, yet I have a visceral dislike for them via the glitchy hologram of reality that is Zoom. Can we just pick up the phone? Why do you want to see me in my bedroom with a grainy blue light reminiscent of insidious sleepovers spent ‘playing’ Omegle? I can’t do it anymore. I quit Zoom.

I find more happiness in stumbling upon Spoonville congregations than virtual drinks. On this morning’s stroll, I located a new bedraggled village of barely-clad spoons that had me reliving festival junkets gone by. This particular spoon island featured an architecturally impressive pink tent structure and many dishevelled avatars that bittersweetly reminded me of old escapades. Oh, to be sweaty and free and inebriated and impervious to deadlines and press conferences and casual sidewalk abuse again. 

I think of my first shoulder ride to ‘Sweet Disposition’ by Temper Trap at St Kilda on a rogue, hot night. Or evenings of aggressive lipgloss reapplication at The Esplanade. What about the unrivalled thrill of embarking on a blind date, or running into a long-lost acquaintance on public transport, derailing the entire pre-planned course of your Friday night.

Or maybe the sheer rampage you embark on after an underwhelming first date at College Lawn. It’s the one where he orders a parma but doesn’t ask if you’ve eaten yet and proceeds to not even offer you a singular beer-battered chip, so you rally some troops to meet you at Tyranny of Distance (if you know, you know) and triumphantly reclaim the night.

I want the nirvana of the NGV on a spring evening, when you dress up and listen to Lana Del Ray or something soul-stirring on the train ride into Flinders. Maybe an obnoxiously loved-up couple has just asked you to take their photo out the front of that bloody water wall. You internally moan and begrudgingly oblige. But you’re part of something. Upon stepping foot inside the NGV (or any gallery), there’s a sense that life has some greater, profound meaning.

The art sort of instantly seeps into you, even though many of us have no idea of its true significance. I used to stand there idly, absolutely transfixed by those little metal placards of magnificent prose that tell the stories of meticulously hung canvases. Then I’d take some try-hard pictures and make stupid observations about the artworks with a girlfriend. My absolute favourite thing to do was eavesdrop on fellow gallery-goers pompous conversations. It all fuelled my unrelenting nosiness about everything and everyone.

I longingly gaze through my stupidly excessive camera roll. Nights spent sitting in the frow of the MCG, draped in plastic ponchos and licking the Red Rooster chips’ salt off my frostbitten fingers as we watch muddy men kick a ball. Where would the night take us? The spontaneity of it all was magnetic and terrifying. You could saunter into the Swan, compromise your weekly earnings and profess your love to a coven of newfound, drunken confidantes in a grotty bathroom, exchanging stories of heartbreak and NARS lipsticks.

I miss sitting in a fancy blow bar and unleashing my failed romantic escapades of the month on a perfect stranger. I yearn for swift interstate dalliances and Sydney stints. A few days spent moored in Byron Bay, followed by some soul-searching in some rogue coastal shire town like Cronulla or a girls’ weekend at some swanky winery in Adelaide. I even think about mornings spent dragging my heavy sack of bones into university tutorials and staring blankly at my tutors, or checking my sweat patches in grey jumpers before big pitch presentations. 

I ordered a vibrator to replace human touch. But I miss the more mundane, abrasive moments of touch; being throttled by an abrupt tram stop, or the all-sensory experience of being accidentally soaked with a pale ale. How good was getting out there and being collateral damage in the throng of it all?

At events on the media and work circuit, I could be placed next to a journalist 30 years my senior (and their child), forced to engage in buffering conversations with total strangers about Melbourne’s hospitality legacy and lineage. At first, I wanted to scream I’m a celebrity, get me out of here, and run off into the night or teleport home to bed. Now, I’d do unholy things to have my ear talked off by anyone over a plate of artfully curated food. Narration and storytelling and unbelievable coincidences are the things that truly sustain life. They keep the spirit jiving.

I invite everybody in on my morning coffee run. Do you have a dog? Great. Let it come to me and I will ignite a conversation with you about its life and yours, and then mine. Is your dog on prescription medication? Mine is. I gave him half a Xanax wrapped in salami last week to calm him down before a big day of online shopping deliveries arriving at our door. My young postman is oddly cute but my dog hates him. Maybe he’s not cute and this is just the iso goggles coming into full effect. Can’t be sure. 

God, I just want to step foot into a bookstore. Intelligence feels permeable as if stories are seeping into your skin from simply being there. I want to touch spines of books and linger and caress their pages for as long as I please without my internal monologue reminding me I should really be sanitising my hands before doing that.

I’ve applied for a reality TV show and been auditioned and accepted and then I’ve declined. This is how desperately I am seeking an out to all of this. I was on the precipice of sacrificing my entire life, existence, network and career to be transported to a contrived reality and live the rest of my 2020 days like Truman. Then, at the psychological testing phase, I thought, “Hmmm, better not”.

Some nights, I just want to be anywhere but home. I’ve given up and surrendered to the abyss that is sleep. In a deep slumber, there is a reprieve from all of this. When my bedside table is littered with technicolour books and various streaming platforms taunt me with their copious unwatched series of the zeitgeist, I think that I better just shut off so as not to test my attention span too much.

I want to wake up somewhere and question how I got there over brunch with an exorbitant array of sides. I’d like to wake up and contemplate KFC before noon as a stampede of morning-after-anxieties rage through my temporal lobe. I’d sit there for long enough to justify innumerable lattes. Maybe some will be iced and others hot. It’s fine. There’s plenty of time. The world is your oyster, after all.

Despite all of this, the mornings are my favourite. They are clean slates, every day. When you wake up in bed each day, it could be like waking up in any year of your life. They all start more or less the same, with my mood sitting on the happy end of the swooping pendulum swing. I think the one thing getting us 20-somethings (and everyone else) through this strange purgatory is the utopic prospect of doing things for the very first time again. It’s the only panacea to the pando mood. 

We’re all reliving the memories and drunken mishaps and international sojourns with heavy hearts. But there’s something special about the chance we’ll be given to do these things all over again for a different kind of ‘first time’. I wish I had something more uplifting or definitive to leave you with.

But there’s only this: on the hard days, romanticise the shit out of the better ones to come. Plan your outfits. Hone your storytelling skills. Make space in your camera roll. Prepare for the brilliant anecdotal mileage. Master tying a glacé cherry stem with your tongue. The after-party is going to be good. 

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