Letter to a Mysterious Stranger
Originally read at Women of Letters, 27 April 2014.
I’d managed to run straight out of class to the early bus that got me home at 3.50pm. 3.50pm! A whole new world awaited me from 3.50 onwards; mainly a world that involved peanut butter sandwiches and couch time before dinner. It was just a normal school day, so it was like totally weird that mum was so excited to see me home.
Apparently, mum had also decided that 3.50pm was the “perfect time” for me to get home. I mean, it wasn’t anyone’s birthday and we didn’t have pressing dinner plans, so her enthusiasm at my regular, everyday homecoming unnerved me.
Coveting that sandwich, I said my hellos and apprehensively entered the kitchen. Mum hovered with an eager-to-please face that me suspicious. When she giddily told me that she’d met someone during the day, I was really confused.
I mean, Mum had a partner for a number of years and while they didn’t live together, I didn’t know she was on the look out for, um, I don’t know, fresh meat?
Anyway, I finished making my meatless snack and, getting the obligatory smear of spread on my uniform, mum mentioned I should probably change out of my now dirty clothes. Because he’d be here any minute.
Wait, what? Who? I poked my head up from my beloved bread feast with a look that only teenage girls and the evil hyenas from The Lion King can give. Without words and a mouthful of food, I demanded an explanation.
Earlier that day, mum had been at home, doing her awesome mum stuff, when there was a knock at the door. She answered and saw a cute young man who politely offered her some great deals for her phone service and line rental and other telecommunication guff. The door-to-door salesman – let’s call him Willy Loman Jr. – was incredibly charming and offered such a bargain that mum invited him in for a cup of tea and a chat. As you do with complete strangers who turn up on your doorstep with ulterior motives.
Willy Loman Jr was from Ireland and my mum was from the UK, so they hit it off. Mum’s also super amiable and hospitable, so they shared a few biscuits and chinwag about, I don’t know, the motherland, cucumber sandwiches and the IRA? I’ve got no idea, I wasn’t there. But at some point during their tea party, Willy Jr. noticed a photo in our lounge room.
Now our lounge was quite small. For every square metre, there were about seven photos. Big and small, they were hung on walls, propped on stereo speakers and beside indoor plants. Photos even blocked the view of our fishtank – who needs to see those guys when you can look at cute Stephanie and Paul (my brother) when they used to like each other. Or the “post-divorce-three-person-family-pride” photo where we all stood, side on in a row, pleasingly displaying my tween flat chest for my teenage friends to mock. And don’t forget the picture in the entranceway, the one with the forced smiles at the overly enthusiastic Pixie Photos woman that exposed my pre-dentist, pre-retainer gapped teeth and underbite; that pic greeted all visitors with a lisp.
But the photo that Willy Jr fancied was my headshot from my deb.
Just quickly, this story is awkward enough without us focusing on the fact that yes, like many before me and Marissa Cooper after, I partook in a debutante ball. But let’s not fall down the rabbit hole of teenage regrets shall we, one embarrassing story at a time.
The photos from the deb were taken by the school photographer and purchased by mum to proudly display in her One Hour Photo-style room of adoration. It’s not exactly a glamour shot, it’s nothing special: I wore a little tiara, some sparkly earrings and got my hair and make-up did professionally (that said, I went home and removed most of the make up before heading to the function because it felt “heavy on my face.” Totally normal.). And hiding the chip on my shoulder with a shawl, I’m laughing. That’s it.
Anyway, the moral of the story ladies – or should I say girls, probably girls – is that all you gotta do to get a door-to-door salesman’s attention is go to your deb, get a photo taken then get him invited into your home to gaze upon it with your mother. Because Willy LJ, in his lilting Irish accent, said I was beautiful and asked who I was, which made my mum swoon.
Firstly, it’s not exactly rocket science buddy – I look a lot like my mum and the fact my-face is wallpapered around the room probably gives you a hint. But mum was (and remains) kinder than me, so she stuck to the facts, and proudly beamed: that’s my daughter, she’s sixteen and currently at school.
She followed that with the other fact that if he wanted to meet me, I’d be home at roughly 4pm.
I stopped chewing my peanut butter sandwich. I had to get my head around this. Mum had spent the day playing creepy cupid with a stranger and this stranger was coming around for some kind of arranged marriage meet up at 4pm.
I glanced at my watch. Yep. By now it was 4pm. And of course Willy was punctual, he rang doorbells for a living.
I was in no way prepared for this strange ambush. I could hardly speak to guys at school, let alone potential future husbands from Ireland. I was furious and embarrassed and sick to my stomach – I’m sure I was either as white as my school polo shirt or as red as I am now. The thought of meeting a stranger on my domestic turf was too much. If our tiny three-bedroom house was a mansion it sill wouldn’t have been big enough to contain my shame.
Mum went to let old mate Willy in, because, bless her, she was excited. Optimistic? I don’t know.
But I couldn’t face it. I fled to my bedroom and panicked; it was a 3 x 3 metre coffin and I was sure this was my death.
I may have done my deb but this wasn’t an Austen novel; I wasn’t wandering into lounge room society to be judged by a man in want of a wife…or whatever he was in want of.
So I ran. Out of my bedroom, past the blur of a mystery man (aka my future love), out the front door and down the street to my friend Molly Wright’s house.
Now, Willy may well have been my Mr Darcy sans riches; he could have been the sweetest door-to-door Irishman in all the lands. He could have been cute like mum claimed and we could have lived happily ever after, earning riches from selling our forced meet-cute story to New Idea: “When love came a-knocking,” the headline would read. I mean, Real Teen Brides of Telstra certain has a ring to it, amirite.
But because I live in reality, Willy was more likely just some random-arse guy who turned up on our doorstep trying to pay his rent and saw a kind and lonely single-mum who served nice tea and a daughter he liked the look of.
Now, I should issue a disclaimer: I recently asked mum whether she remembered this happening and she completely disagrees in that “I never said that” way families do. Given mum’s inclinations and my neuroses, her penchant for denial and mine for clinging to trauma, I’m certain the real story sits somewhere between both truths.
In mum’s defence, she comes from another time and place and definitely wants what’s best for me. We just have different opinions and views on what “best” means. I didn’t have a high school boyfriend because, as I’d told her previously, I didn’t like the boys at school – they were dicks. And I was (and perhaps remain) that terrible contradictory mix of too much pride and zero self-worth.
Maybe she was trying give me a confidence boost and in her own strange way teach me that not all guys were jerks because I was very much going through the misanthropic teen-feminist man-hating stage. But it didn’t take a scientist to work out that that was just my DNA – because at that time DNA stood for Dad’s Not Accessible.
Mum also ran a frugal single-parent household like a boss. So perhaps this was a savvy marriage of business convenience – this was a time when “phone” still referred to landlines and international calls cost as much as international flights do now. I mean, my mum loves Skype now. I can’t even with how much she loves it. So the fact she tried to sell off her first born and only daughter to a telesales fella for some kind of 25cent per minute deal in 2001, I can’t imagine what she would have done if the Nordic folk who created Skype had knocked on our door.
Any which way I’ve tried to rationalise the situation – while I’m sure it was well meaning – the odds that these perceived concerns could be solved by my very own Prince Charming turning up on my doorstep with plans to install a phone line straight to my heart were pretty slim.
I do know that if Molly Wright she didn’t have four kids and we were still friends, she could vouch for me. But I don’t think I even want that. Because this whole thing is a strange, upsetting mystery that makes me feel sad and vulnerable and I revert into that small, red-faced teen suffering from an undiagnosed anxiety condition. I know love is a drug, but mum that was the wrong dose.
There’s no surprise I remain a serial single now with an aversion to meeting new people and some serious intimacy issues. But I’m working on it. So if anyone knows of any good single guys, let me know in advance and I’ll think about letting them pop round for a peanut butter sandwich.