The night before Sydney’s world-famous Mardi Gras parade (“I think it is the largest gay parade in the world,” a young German woman would shout behind me at the actual event, as if her sequined cowboy hat didn’t explain it all), I’m in a three-level bar in Darlinghurst. Which, as the name suggests, is an absolute darling of a hurst. It’s also where the gay people who want to live in the gayest part of Sydney live.
I’m a few hours off the airplane. I’m having a good time. But the crowd, even squeezed in shoulder-to-shoulder, comes off a little chilly. By the time I’ve had a couple drinks and the Justin Bieber song “Beauty and a Beat” comes on—which, to my surprise, and delight, sends at least several of the hundred or so men around me into a celebratory sing-along—it dawns on me how out of place I may actually appear. The men, though they surely must have flocked here from all corners for Mardi Gras, are clean-cut to a personne, reeking of meal replacement powder and Romanian deadlifts. Meanwhile I’m sporting a beard born of two months’ neglect, a pair of sneakers that I may as well have grabbed from the top of the nearest Sri Lankan landfill judging from the looks they’re getting, and whichever of my sad ensembles of neutral rags wasn’t crying out for a beautiful laundrette at the dressing hour. I look like a suburban dad who stopped shaving after an unexpected lay-off and wandered out of his house in the middle of a nervous breakdown.
In any case, it seems to be putting people off. The whole night I move from one floor to another, trying to cruise to music that sounds like it was produced inside of a crystal meth molecule, trying to decide which floor is right for me when clearly none of the floors are right for me. Not one to dwell, being thirty now and basically on a high-speed honeymoon with myself, I set my discomfort aside and get to dancing up on that third floor. Just as I’m getting into a splendid imitation of a gay man having fun in a club, some young thing wearing a T-shirt with more graphic design information on it than I can process tugs at my beard with both hands and screams, “Is this real?”
A question for the ages, barely heard over Ke$ha’s “Die Young” played at tinnitus-inducing volume.
It’s raining when I get to town the previous afternoon. I’m staying, to my own gut-tightening shame (great for the abs; ask anyone in Darlinghurst), at a youth hostel. I’m no longer a youth, even though I still command the salary of one, and I’m only doing this so that I can spring for more line-reducing face belts and fresh air masks when I finally land in Asia. I make a quick dash out to George Street in Haymarket (which, as the name suggests, is an established locality) and into a nearby Vietnamese restaurant for some enlivening beef pho. Business is brisk, so I’m seated at a longer table where strangers can eat side by side.
Indeed, there’s space enough for another person to sit down beside me in hair-raising singlehood when a little wizard of a man enters, stage left, and sits down directly across from me. We say nothing, both of us now unable to look straight ahead lest we make harrowing, face-to-face eye contact. I’m disturbed by his outfit, which is a lot like the one I’ve pulled from my own colorless closet—slacks, a collared shirt, an aura of vague dread. He’s also wearing a white palm hat with a black band. Months ago, in an attempt to branch out, I bought a nice white palm hat with a black band in a seaside town in New Zealand. I’ve been reluctant to wear it.
I left the hat sitting on my bed back at the youth hostel, but I know this fifty-something man has head-to-toe sartorial taste unnervingly similar to my own, and I’m wondering whether that and our both dining out alone reveals something unpleasant about who I’m going to become. I like to think that I would never sit down and maintain total silence directly opposite a stranger dining alone given the option to sit side by side. Then again, the window in which it would be precedent-setting for me to say something to him is closing fast, and I haven’t made a peep. Maybe by the time I’m nearly twice the age I am now, I’ll think nothing of doing what he’s doing, and will even bring my hat.
After lying down in my bed at the youth hostel to recover from the Mardi Gras Parade (during which time I overhear the English girl sleeping in the bed above mine ask her friend, “Do you like what I’ve done with my pony,” meaning her ponytail, and the reply: “I love what you’ve done with your pony”), I rally and head to Moore Park for an ambitious afterparty called Mardigrasland. The promotional literature for Mardigrasland promises an intimate gathering of just seventeen thousand people—seventeen thousand people in seven sensational party spaces.
Of the seven sensational party spaces, I spend most of my time in one, dancing through some mild back and hip pain that had started to bother me at the parade. A couple of hours in, I’m cutting loose with a handsome bearded man from Australia who lives in London and who seems to be around my age—the age of thirty—and his consort, a lithe blonde woman in a cheetah costume that covers everything but her face. We’re having a good time, dancing and smiling and having the hair cells in our inner ears razed by the deejay. Now and then my new friend pinches the bridge of his nose, or rubs the heels of his hands over his eyes.
“Are you high?” I shout.
“Yes,” he shouts. “Are you?”
Later we’re outside, sitting on the sidelines smoking, and I realize just how chemically transported the woman in the cheetah suit is. It seems she can’t help but bare and grit her teeth, jaw clenched. When she speaks or listens, she leans in, and her eyes become wide as specimens of the inexplicably large Australian fifty-cent piece.
When I tell old grizzly that I’ve been in New Zealand working, he makes an exaggerated yawning motion. “So dull,” he says. “New Zealand is rubbish.”
The cheetah woman leans close to me, her eyes straining to escape their ocular cavities. “I think you’re a very handsome man,” she says, taking my hand.
The conversation turns, somehow, to France, and I admit that though I’ve spent months in France, I’ve never set foot in Paris.
“Paris is full of cunts anyway,” says he.
About now I’m wishing I had taken the half-pill he had offered me earlier, this half-pill of ecstasy that makes you hate Paris. It would probably have soothed my aching back. Then again, there’s the cheetah woman, about whom he now adds, “She calls her parents ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy.’”
“Shut up!” she says. She drags hard on her cigarette, peepers bulging anew.
“It’s true,” he says, “she’s posh.”
Before long, I excuse myself to catch a live set by Australian superchanteuse Delta Goodrem. Kissing the feline femme fatale’s hand, I promise to come find them again, to return to the sensational party space where we first met.
By the time I’m ready to leave Mardigrasland, so many empty beer cans and plastic water bottles cover the floors of the seven sensational party spaces that we’re all basically boogying down on a raft of crushed recyclables. I’ve lost the clenched-jawed cheetah woman and the hater of Paris in the sea of seventeen thousand, and not for lack of trying. I leave Mardigrasland alone, just before dawn.
The next day, I rest at the hostel. As true youths swirl around me in raptures over their ponytails and, in one case, over how her date was six hours late to meet her but it was okay because he took her to a posh club above a casino, I fear I’m turning into one of those unsavory characters that my own friends and I have shuddered over in the past: the man who shows up at the gym every day to lazily rotate his legs on the elliptical machine while reading German for Dummies, the man with the bushy white mustache who attends lectures at a university where he’s not enrolled, using a ruler to take perfectly level hand-written notes. Aging, solitary men imposing themselves on questionable venues, hungry to improve themselves in public. And there I was, stretched out on an unmade bottom bunk in a youth hostel, elevating my legs because I had exacerbated an old lower back injury by standing too long at the Mardi Gras parade and dancing too long at Mardigrasland, eating gummi worms out of a ripped-open plastic package resting on my stomach, creepily writing about the twenty-year-olds with whom I was sharing a room.
The sun comes out in Sydney, though, the day before I leave. A pleasant stroll through the city, with several stop-ins at bookshops and cafés and art exhibitions, restores me. In front of a video installation at an exhibition called “We Used to Talk About Love,” an adolescent boy in school uniform says to his pals, “It’s not healthy,” and one adds, “I’m a little scared.” I spend a half hour taking photos for and with a chummy Peruvian tourist outside the Sydney Opera House. When he asks me, after asking me if I’m married, why I’m not married, I tell him that I move around too much.
Later that night, back at the youth hostel, I awake to the sound of the English girl in the bed above mine frantically falling out of her nest and staggering to the corner of the room. I open my eyes in time to witness her grip both sides of the tall, grey plastic garbage can, stick her head halfway into it, and retch. I pull out my earplugs in case anyone needs the advice of a thirty-year-old, and remind myself that tomorrow I’ll be in Ubud, in what is said to be the beating heart of Balinese culture.
Evan James is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Sun, and elsewhere. He is writing a novel. He is also on Twitter.