Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ten years since - a 'sliding doors' moment

A little over ten years ago, on a sunny January afternoon, I was bullied into a decision that shaped the decade that followed like no other moment.

Starting out at Monash University, I showed up at enrolment day having been warned by a friend, Brad, about the overly enthusiastic students running the Host Scheme orientation camp who would do everything they could to get me along.

I wasn’t keen. I don’t make friends easily and back then particularly, had a cosy comfort zone, that I was – regrettably – determined not to step out of. Brad had managed to slip through their clutches, but was happy to come along if I got pressured into signing up.

Pressure was right. They seemed to be there at every turn, waiting to ambush me as I navigated the unusually quiet, ghostly campus. But I was on my game, staying a step ahead and out-manoeuvring the hippy socialites and their guerrilla tactics, as I found my way to the appropriate buildings and enrolled and nominated my first semester subjects – chosen a few hours earlier upon the shock discovery that was the primary purpose of the day.

As I strode with relief and satisfaction towards the final enrolment checkpoint and the exit behind it I spotted them. I had no way of passing this bunch.

I could have said ‘no’, but if the only thing that would put me out of my comfort zone in that moment more than the idea of spending a weekend with strangers – many of them undoubtedly far cooler than I – it was engaging in the conversation that would follow my negative response. So I took the courageous decision to attend one of the camps and ‘put myself out there’ – it would be good for me and a great way to make new friends after all. Of course, I put Brad in it as well.

Oh, if I’d known then how much of the next ten years could be traced back to that moment. Sure, I could trace back further to my decision to actually attend Monash or something before that, but I like to choose this event because I resisted it and I think that makes it even more significant. You never know where opportunities will come from or where they will lead you.

I’d be somewhere else now, quite literally, if I had strolled out of that building smiling with relief at not having to spend a weekend forcing myself out of my shell, engaging in small talk and social hell.

Incidentally, at 18 and having never had a girlfriend, I had made ‘getting one’ a goal for that summer of 2000/01 – as if they were fish and I just had to play the sport right. There was a girl I worked with at McDonald’s – commonly known to me and my friends as ‘Hotcakes’, no need to explain – that I was trying to build up the courage to ask out. The camp was held just before Valentines Day, when I was scheduled to work with her and, I told myself at least, was going to ask her out.

On 9 February 2001, at Uni camp, I met Helen; a talkative and lively, yet somewhat shy – her nerves just pushed words out of her mouth, while mine kept them in – blonde girl. She took a liking to me, and I took a liking to female attention from a reasonably attractive, fun girl. Brad told me I should make a move. On 10 February, after a few drinks, we kissed. My first real kiss. One of the student organisers slipped a condom into my pocket. ‘Not tonight,’ said Helen. Well, part of me was a little relieved I guess – I’d only just gotten the hang of kissing.

I slept for about a day when I got home, woken by dad eventually to take a phone call from Helen. ‘Who’s Helen?’ he asked. No one he needed to know about, I figured. As much as I’d loved having her sit close next to me, falling asleep on my shoulder, on the bus on the way home from camp, I wasn’t sure I had strong enough feelings for her. A few days later she met my friends, one of whom I told that the relationship wouldn’t last the week.

It did though. It lasted six years.

And 18-24 were six of the most formative years of my life. I learnt a great deal from her, she influenced my outlook on life, perspective on politics and appreciation of arts. She had strained relations with many of my friends at times, especially Brad, but I never withdrew from the group at all as a result.

Yet, the relationship itself was not the only significant imprint left on my life’s journey; the ripple affect can still be seen in my daily life in many ways.

With both of us keen for me to move on from working at McDonald’s while I was at uni, Helen found an ad for work at Dan Murphy’s. It was still retail, it would be a pay cut, but it was a change. There I made some fantastic friends, had lots of fun and developed socially.

Five years after quitting Dans, I continue to see friends from I made there. Through one of them, Jack, I scored a room a couple of years ago in a great house in Richmond living with his then-girlfriend, Lee – the best housemate I’ve ever had. At the time I was living in hellish share-house in Brunswick and desperate to get out.

Through both Jack and Lee in particular, I’ve made a bunch of good friends, and through the Dan Murphy’s group I fatefully met a girl last year called Emily. We struck up a quick, intense, turbulent and unfortunately short-lived friendship. She herself has left in indelible mark on my life. No one else has ever exposed me too so much culturally and philosophically in such a short timeframe, and she inspired me at a time when I felt like my life was stalling. But that’s a different post entirely.

Helen also supported me through the toughest period of my life, when anxiety issues I’d carried for over ten years deteriorated to a critical point. I couldn’t face it by myself; I couldn’t even tell her outright, dropping hints and comments for a few weeks until she twigged. There was no one else I could have opened up to then.

Despite my uncertainty, I did grow fond of Helen, though I’m still not sure I ever fell in love with her in the way I needed to. It ended amicably and I hoped to remain friends, but it didn’t work out that way. I’ll always love her in a way and appreciate the influence she had on my life.

If I’d not gone on that camp … Would I have asked Hotcakes out? Would I have found a girlfriend during those six years? Would I have dealt with my depression differently? Where would I be living now? Who would my friends be? I’ll never know the answers to any of those questions, and some I don’t want to know.

I would have been exposed to many different people and experiences, and I could be a somewhat different person.

Of course, it’s not all circumstantial. I made my own decisions along the way; Today, ten years later, I’m remembering her and the positive things she brought to my life; I’d like to think she had a passing reflection of that time and appreciates the memory, but it’s okay if she didn’t. I chose to engage in all these developments – applying for and accepting the Dan Murphy’s job, making friends with various people, moving in with Lee. But a single, seemingly innocuous moment opened up all those opportunities – putting my name on a sheet to attend one of five Monash University Host Scheme Orientation Camps.

You never know what’s around the corner, or how the small choices you make now open up opportunities for the future.

As Paul Kelly sang, ‘from little things, big things grow’.

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