My first question to him at six-thirty this morning was, ‘Have you taken your antibiotics?’
His first question to me was, ‘When I take money out of the ATM in Japan do I choose yen or Australian dollars?’
Today my firstborn, Dom, and I ran through another of the many crepe paper banners, of parenting for me, and being an adult for him.
I didn’t sleep much. I wasn’t sure if Dom was expecting me to wake him, I assumed not. He was 19 after all, and getting up is something Dom has never had trouble with. The only time I’ve ever had to wake him was when we had to get up at 1.30 am for our recent trip to Europe.
At about five I relented, in an attempt to get a little more sleep, and set my alarm for half an hour after he said he’d be getting up, just in case he slept in or his alarm didn’t go off. I still didn’t sleep. I lay in bed excited for him. At six I heard his door swing open, his flat Fred Flintstone feet thump to the kitchen, followed by the sound of Archie the dog jumping off his bed and the pitter patter of four little paws. Archie’s claws hitting the floorboards make him sound like a tap dancer. His tags jingling around his neck sound like he has a pocket full of change.
I lay in the dark under my velvet quilt listening as Dom pottered about. He’s a clock and a snail, that kid-guy. You can set your watch by him and his routine. He loves his house and his room. In a perfect world he’d carry his house on his back.
For most of his life I’d know it was 7.00 am because I’d hear him in the kitchen clanging around for a bowl, poking about for a spoon and thumping the bowl down on the table. He’d then bang around in the pantry to find the Weetbix and when I’d hear the fridge exhale that would be the sign he had his milk and the day had begun. When he was really little I would know it was 7.00 am because he’d be standing next to my bed asking me what was for dinner.
Now it’s the sound of him grinding the beans for the coffee that lets me know it’s 7.00 am. One of the many advantages to kids. They make you coffee.
When we were away a few years ago and he was home solo for a few weeks, he ran out of coffee beans. He rustled around in the cupboard and found a dusty old jar of instant freeze-dried coffee and put in the Bialetti. You reckon that’s hilarious, he ground the coffee first. He didn’t even know what instant coffee was. Coffee was coffee. After we laughed about it he said, ‘But it did the job …’
I have always valued travel over almost everything else and was keen to expose my children to it as much as possible with no guarantees it would ‘take’. I have always told my sons, ‘Everything I have needed to know I have learned from travel, living with people and working in hospitality.’ We travelled extensively in Asia with the boys when they were young and it was cheap and their dad and I were together. We haven’t travelled together as much recently beyond Australia, apart from our recent month-long family European holiday we returned from three weeks ago. My kids, their dad, our partners and our partners’ kids. We’re not a blended family, we’re a splendid family.
So he’s off to Japan for a month. But this time on his own. He’s not meeting anyone. He’s booked some Airbnbs and he’s just going to live there. He has two plans: first, to get as close as he can to finish writing his novel (he’s very close but the writing is very dense); and second, to make peace with Japan, that infuriating, intoxicating minx of a country.
Dom knocked on the door at six-thirty and he was ready. We did one last check of his list. Weetbix? Portable fan? Passport? Books? Coffee? Coffee maker? Camel slice? Tick, tick. He’s half-man, half-Weetbix, that kid.
I sprinkled some lavender oil on the pillow and blanket he had packed and slipped two books into his bag I’d bought at Readings for him a few days earlier, Phillip Pullman’s new novel and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I thought the latter was perfect for a man-guy who often gets stoned with his mates and with whom he reads Noam Chomsky.
Earlier in the week I’d asked what he wanted for dinner the night before he left. ‘Schnitzel, coleslaw and is there any chance you can make a camel slice?’
‘Sure!’ I said.
Camel slice is what the boy-man who called Federation Square ‘Fair and Square’ calls caramel slice. I made a double batch so I had enough to pack him a container full to take in his case to BaCham. When he was little he called Japan BaCham.
Dom has always been fascinated by Asia. As a three-year-old he loved the statues, the food, the languages, the culture, the myths, the landscape, the stories and the people. When he was five he saved up and bought an ornamental Chinese dagger in a sheath from that place Art China on Sydney Road next to the sex shop and over the road from Savers. These days he burns incense, wafts around in a kimono, has posters of Asian art all over his room and eats a lot of rice, noodles and dumplings. Last year he was heartbroken he missed the Buddhist throat singers but he did manage to catch some opera-ballet performance from China.
When he was 15, he decided to go on exchange to Japan and I was delighted. Not only had I always been encouraging of travel and had lived in Tokyo in my twenties, but I was also thrilled to wave off a just-turned 16-year-old for six months.
We filled in piles of forms, jumped through endless hoops and had to stage a few photos until eventually they found him a family in Nagoya. O happy day. He was very disappointed he could only go for six months. ‘Mum, you do know I want to be Japanese, don’t you, Mum? I want to never come back.’
He took off and I was elated. Things began to crumble very soon. Suffice to say the trip was a disaster and one of the most stressful things I have ever been through.
He came back early. I could be diplomatic and say the family and he were not a good fit but the truth is the family were abusive. It was heartbreaking. It took me a year to recover.
What doesn’t kill you … But not Dom. He arrived home, hit the ground running and began to write his book, in part inspired by his trip but certainly motivated by it. So now, three years later, he’s gone back to Japan to make peace with it and to see if he can find his Japan, the one that matched what was in his head, in his heart and in the spirit of his book.
We climbed in the car and as we rattled along towards Tullamarine in the banged up bongo van we talked drugs, camel slice and Bladerunner. ‘Being here in the car now driving towards the airport makes sitting in my Airbnb in Japan eating camel slice and making coffee seem so far away, so much to do, all that way, all those connections and directions …’
‘And then in a blink of an eye it will all be memories and you’ll be back in your bed with the dog asleep next to you.’
I can’t tell you how many times I had dreamed of this moment, dropping a kid off at the airport on their own adventure that they have paid for with their own money and planned with their very own heart.
When the boys were little and required more than they do now I would sometimes long for an empty house, some silence, a break from the noise, chatter, questions and requests. I would get some perspective by knowing life is short, it goes very fast and before I knew it I’d be driving them to the airport and have no idea for weeks or months what they were wearing, what they were eating and what time they were going to bed or getting up.
Last night as I cleaned up after dinner I was excited for him. It felt a little like Christmas. Nineteen and off on his own. I did quite a bit of travel on my own but not until my mid twenties. And I was never alone long. I am socially promiscuous and a bit of a people magnet. Dom is a very different character. He’s like a quiet black labrador.
I packed the camel slice uncharacteristically carefully, precision slicing, the knife sluiced with boiling water and wiped clean with a tea towel between each incision, and laid baking paper between each layer. As I clipped on the lid I thought, the next time this box will be opened is in Japan.
One of my bestie’s sons Lex finished VCE exams yesterday and I was planning to drop over with a bottle of bubbles to mark the incredible occasion. They’d been out for dinner and were tired so we decided to catch up over the weekend. It was amazing to think this time last year Dom was finishing his Year 12 exams and now he was off alone on his own adventure. An adventure, an odyssey, a pilgrimage, a writing retreat. We were jokingly calling it the Dominic Deveny-Borg Self-Funded Writing Fellowship.
I parked the car, we unloaded the case, I made a joke about the parking at the airport being more expensive than his flight and he found the check-in desk while I grabbed coffee. Lucky him. Things won’t all go to plan but this is how you become an adult. As I joined him in the queue and we drank our coffee nudging his case along in increments, I said, ‘Mate, what an amazing gap year you have had, Europe, Japan, a book, and in yourself you have made so much progress. So impressive.’
A couple of days earlier I’d asked him if he’d given any thought to the subjects he wanted to study at uni next year. ‘Yeah, I think philosophy and maybe anthropology.’ Then he made a self-deprecating comment about them being airy-fairy, having no useful application, or being typical cliché arts degree subjects.
‘No Dom, I think they are fantastic subjects for a writer. Extremely useful. I majored in cinema studies and drama and I have built a career on that.’
I took some cheeky photos of Dom as he checked in and got ready to walk through the Doors of no Return. He hates having his photo taken. He has no interest in being the brightest object in the room. When he was about three I remember him crying in the back of the car for no apparent reason. ‘What’s wrong?’ I asked. He responded, ‘I want to be an expert.’ When I was three I wanted to be Carol Burnett.
I left for Tokyo when I was 24. I was alone and had no idea what I was doing. It was an astonishingly brilliant time. Japan captivated and frustrated me with its contradictions and constant surprises. Dom grew up listening to my stories of living in the Far East. But his love affair with Nippon has nothing to do with my time there. I was up for an adventure, and Japan, I was told, was where it would be easiest to find work.
Dom’s pull to Japan is about Japan. He fetishised it and built a full-scale model of what he thought Japan would be. When he went across as an excited, nervous schoolboy he met with an unsavoury experience that would have left most with a nasty taste in their mouth. But not Dom. He’s a philosophical and relentless bloke, hence his decision to return to integrate his Japan with his experience of Japan.
The afternoon before he left I told him to check through the tin of odd foreign currency. There he found a 5000-yen note and a handful of coins. ‘Take it, Dommy, do something fabulous with it,’ I said as I marvelled that I had arrived back with the random yen from my adventures more than 20 years ago, and here he was taking it back to Tokyo where it came from. Could I ever have imagined it?
As a little boy he wanted to be a marine biologist, then a cosmologist. He would ask people, ‘Would you prefer to live underwater or in space?’ Then he developed an obsession with Japan. He no longer wanted to live in space or underwater but on land. But in a magical country.
I have often wondered whether this is his attempt to make sense of his mother’s unflappable optimism and his father’s pathological pessimism. It’s hard to work out realistic expectations of life with two parents who have such different outlooks.
We hugged and he thanked me. And thanked me again. ‘See you on the other side, brother.’ And with that he disappeared. I walked to my car feeling very similar to when I dropped my youngest child off to school for the first time.
All I could think was, Ki o tsukete ne Dommy san: take care, Dommy.
Catherine Deveny is a writer and comedian. Born and bred in Melbourne, she’s a keen cyclist, atheist and feminist. Her ninth book, Mental, will be published by Black Inc. this year.