I looked at the forecast for the next month along the central coast. Nothing but rain.
In the winter of 2013 I took a camping trip up the coast. I timed the adventure to the wettest possible time of year, and it was a success. Across my 16 day trip, it rained for 12 of them and I loved it. The sound of rain on a canvas tent is a natural serenity. I make recordings as white noise to help me fall asleep. It was May, and up the coast it wasn’t quite yet so cold as to be uncomfortable, even if it made lighting fires difficult among the damp.
It was four years before I’d started hormones, and so camping in the winter was still a possibility. Today, the idea of it is unthinkable. These days I fear that I’ll freeze and shatter like the T1000 from Terminator 2 just by sitting on a toilet seat in the middle of the night.
My camping trip began at Umina Beach, at the Ocean Beach Holiday Park – one of my favourite destinations. In the off-season, you can get a powered tent site overlooking the ocean for a meagre $22 a night after discounts.
I had snuck a bit of contraband into the park. Two huge bags of weed and my faithful bong – which I had dubbed Queen Elizabeth the Second – and spent my days pulling smoke through her bubbling Majesty. It explained my peculiar instructions during check-in.
“I’d like a site as far away from anyone as possible,” I said, looking at the site map. “How about here?”
The woman checking me in furrowed her brow.
“It’s got the best view of the beach, but this time of year it gets the headland winds, it’s not ideal for tents.”
“Wind? It’s perfect,” I said, as I imagined it blasting away wisps of my crime.
And yet I had snuck something else in which I was far more worried about. I could handle getting caught with cannabis, it was pretty harmless. But this other thing, if I was caught with it, spelled doom. Tucked deep among my luggage in a sock inside a sock, like a paranoid nesting doll, was a red bikini.
I had bought it years earlier and would wear it sometimes in private, sometimes in the shower, to simulate its water wear. It was an ochre red with golden dots and stripes, giving it the subtle appeal of a forged Aboriginal mural.
I had a wonderful holiday.
Every morning I would get up in my enormous 8-person Coleman instant-up tent, wake and bake, and then head for a soggy sunrise trek up the beach. I’d walk into town and get some pastries for breakfast, some meat for the site BBQs, and plenty of snacks, then head back to get higher and fatter and content upon the wet golden sands.
A week later I would regret my secluded camping spot.
I was laying on my airbed, high as a kite, listening to the patter of the rain on canvas, when I heard a voice from beyond the tent.
“Sir? Sir are you there?”
Shit! Fuck! Unexpected confrontation. My glazed eyes slid around like arthritic ball joints, I froze, pretended to play possum.
“Sir, it’s Rose from reception. We’re just letting you know we’ve had a grazier’s warning for strong winds, you might want to move your tent tonight.”
I pretended to be waking up.
“Sorry, I was just having a crap – a nap, it the – sleeping,” perfect. Nothing suss.
“You might want to move your tent.”
“I’ll be right.”
Smash cut to…
The following morning I was sitting in my tent, having just woken up. I was packing a bong. A gust of wind rippled my canvas, though it was nothing to be worried about. Confident that I’d outsmarted the weathermen, I pulled said bong and leaned back, put my feet up on the air bed, blew the smoke into the vented roof and watched it disappear beyond the flapping fly.
On my trip, I had a decision to make. I’d put off thinking about it for a week, knowing that it had the potential to ruin my mood to land one way or another on the subject. If it was a no, I’d simply enjoy my holiday and head home. If it was a yes, I would stop by at my friend Mel’s house in Singleton on the drive home, and tell her the conclusion I had arrived at.
The question was – do I tell someone that I want to be a girl?
My tent trembled, the click-together shelves by the entry flap swayed. The outer fly of the tent rose and fell like the breathing of a frenzied behemoth. Suddenly a powerful gust came through and the frame of my tent squeezed and bent. I ignored it.
I began to weigh the pros and cons of telling Mel. Pro: I’d finally be able to talk to someone else about something which had plagued me since teenagehood. Con: it might end our friendship. Pro: I’d be able to get and share girl tips. Con: one of those tips might be I was a freak.
I just wished… I wished the universe would send me some sort of sign – should I tell Mel?
And then all hell broke loose.
The wind screamed and my tent buckled under its ferocity. The knuckles of its frame snapped, broke free and hit me in the back of the head. Her Majesty went tumbling, spilling dirty, smelly filtered water everywhere. I blinked out of consciousness.
I came to moments later, confused and drowning in sheeted debris. Moments ago I’d been in a tent… I was sure of it. Now I was laying flat on the ground in a mess of flapping canvas and water. The airbed had deflated, the clicky shelves had collapsed and bananas and jersey caramels were spilt beside me. My tent had no form, it was just a splat on the wind.
I felt the edges of the canvas until I found the entry flap, unzipped it and birthed myself out into some of the fiercest winds I’d ever seen. They blasted the skin on my face. Opening the tent had created an opportunity for the wind to rip inside and the tent inflated like a balloon. Without my enormous weight inside it, it lifted and tore away from the guy ropes, tumbling off through the holiday park like a runaway plastic bag.
For the next hour I gathered my scattered stuff from around the park. A spatula here, a pillow there. It took another hour to gather my tent. It could no longer be tented, it was just fabric and broken frame. I scooped it into a tenty ball like it was last year’s Christmas lights and shoved it into the boot of my car.
I walked into the park’s reception, all exploded hair and damp clothes and a windy scowl.
“Bit windy out there,” said Rose at reception.
And I booked a motel room for the night.
The next day, I bought another tent and headed up the coast.
My final campsite on the trip was at the national park further up the coast at Seal Rocks. I spent a little over half a week there. It was warmer than at Umina, and it rained constantly. There were few conveniences at the site – no BBQs, no showers, just a couple of pit dunnies which smelled like expired coffin cloth. I heated water bottles on a butane stove to have a warm shower, fighting the internal condensation which gathered like -and among- fungus on the roof of my tent.
One of the highlights of the experience was repairing my air bed. It had been damaged by the wind and wouldn’t stay inflated. As it turned out, the puncture in the bed was tiny, so it took hours to find and repair. There was something primal and urgent about the task. The whole point of my camping holiday was to return to simplicity. No phone calls, no internet, no clients and the problems of clients. Just solitude and nature. Spending that time finding & repairing the bed was cathartic as it was so necessary in an obvious way, in a way in which I could feel the benefit of my labour directly. This wasn’t fighting against the invisible hand of capitalism, keeping the cogs of the great machine turning, this was a simple need – ensuring a comfortable bed for the night.
I still hadn’t been able to make the important decision on whether to tell Mel.
On the second to last day at Seal Rocks, I grabbed a 1 litre bottle of rum and 2 litres of Coke, a quarter ounce bag of weed, a couple of bananas and a bag of homebrand jersey caramels and headed on a long trek up the beach.
I also took something else with me – my padded red bikini.
The sea at Seal Rocks was violent. It had left its mark upon the shore, which had uneven and broken mounds of sand which didn’t so much gradiate into the ocean as they fell into it. It looked as though the ocean were devouring the land.
There were millions of tiny seashells lining the beach. They were mostly all shattered and bleached, and they stuck into my thongs like bindies as I trekked along it. I looked out for pretty ones to collect but there were none – they were all brittle, broken things muted of colour. Sharp oceanic dandruff.
My goal was to get as far away from people as I could, to fulfill a long time dream slash personal dare which required absolute privacy. I walked for many kilometres along the shore until I was convinced I was away from anything civilized. Then I climbed up the steep sand dunes and made a nest for myself in their peak. Behind me was and endless mangrove of national park. Before me was an angry ocean, with a crop of islands in the distance. The islands took a strange form from my vantage point – they looked like a woman bathing in the ocean, which I found ironic given the decision I was to make there that day.
I drank the rum and smoked much of the weed. The skies above me broke in and out of fits of rain as I lay in my decadence, weighing up the pros and cons of telling Mel… I wanted to be, and had always felt I was, a girl. I’d thought for so many years about telling her.
I had previously laid the ground work with a few of my friends, explaining to them that I had gynecomastia – male breast development. This was true, but it was also being aided at the time by a litany of plant-based phytoestrogenic pills I was taking and liquids and creams I was using to try to develop further breast growth. I was, in essence, self medicating on dangerous plant based hormones.
My day became a low resolution blur as I lay on the peaks of the sand dunes, drunk and stoned. I started crying. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t tell her. She’d hate me and worse – it would get out and my world would collapse, no-one would ever take me seriously again and I would fulfill the vision of the freak I had always suspected I was.
Fine. It’s done. Fuck it. I’m a man. I’ll always be a man.
I scooped up the spent banana peels and remaining jersey caramels and bound them inside the bikini, tied them into a knot and stumbled down the sand dunes. I slipped and slid and tumbled, my enormous weight melting me into the fine grind like a quick sand. When I reached the beach proper, I buried the bikini banana bundle deep in the sand. At the time I considered it a kind of pseudo-ceremony. I was consciously ridding myself of a silly totem which bound me to girly madness. It was done.
I also buried the remaining bag of weed in the sand, one of many occasions I’d attempted to give it up by deliberately ridding myself of it, only to find my way back to it soon after. It would take another 3 years before I finally gave it up, though I did give up alcohol that day on the beach. I was never much of a drinker though I had certainly developed a cannabis habit – it was an excellent escape from reality, a way of self medicating a painful existence into a comfortable numb.
That day, I had intended on fulfilling a strange dare slash promise to myself. If I had decided to speak to Mel, I would don the bikini and wear it in the ocean, for the first time in my life wearing a bikini in the surf. And if not, I would confront another fear – I would run naked into the ocean.
I do not do naked.
Aesthetics are not a kindness of my form. Certainly not there, on a public beach, a nearly 200kg hairy blob of a man. I went to enormous lengths throughout my life to ensure that people did not see me without my shirt on. Since my early teens I had been ashamed of my chest. I could never figure out if it was because of my man-boobs or because they weren’t proper girl boobs. Either way, I had an allergy to shirtlessness.
I successfully negotiated six years of high school swimming carnivals without ever once having to participate in the single compulsory event – the 50metre freestyle everyone was expected to participate in. I would either be sick, or mysteriously absent, or involved in event marshalling, or dressed in elaborate costumes at the time of my event. In year 12, I went to the carnival as Osama-Ben-Laden, merely months after September 11, in an elaborate costume I convinced my teachers couldn’t get wet (the infidels!).
In high school when friends went on weekend camping trips to lakes around Mudgee, to get drunk and splash about, I would tell them I was coming, but wouldn’t show up. At school after the weekend I would listen to stories they shared and begin to tell them second hand; borrowed experience, stolen tales. The hazy drunken memories of my friends would fill in the blanks and they began to assume I’d been there for the festivities – though I never once went camping with them by the water. It was a way for me to feel safely included, without having to confront one of my greatest fears, even as it strengthened my feeling of existential invalidation.
In the nearly 20 years since my puberty began, only one single person who wasn’t a doctor had ever seen me without my shirt on. A friend who’d allowed me to crawl into her bed after a drunken slam on cheap port. I’d so convincingly wrecked my liver that evening that I still remain banned from the Forest Lodge hotel in Surry Hills, after spewing across and over and down the bar. I was thrown out into the alleyway and crawled to nap in a pile of rubbish. My friend scooped me up and dragged me home. She laid garbage bags across her mattress, took my shirt off, and pulled me into bed with pity, the sole person to see my naked chest in two decades.
There I stood.
Shirtless by the surf.
Bikiniless by the surf.
My plodge of a belly hanging down in a perpetual handshake to gravity, my back and tummy and chest covered in man-fur. I looked like a lactating gorilla reveling in escape.
I ran into the surf.
The sea was dangerous that day. It felt like it wanted to claim me, it pulled at me as I tumbled in and out of rips in the shadow of the floating girl islands. Part of me wanted to let it take me away, dispose of me. I was sick of existing as a perpetual man. But I fought against the relentless churn to yank myself free of its grasp, and I trudged, drunk, stoned, exhausted and naked through the foam…
… and then I saw them.
Standing on the beach watching me in my burly, hairy naked atrocity was an older tourist couple.
“Hello,” the woman said in a British accent, and they both gave a friendly wave. Then she took a camera from her beach bag and it flashed.
I dove back down into the surf, tried to bury myself like a pippy in the wet sand. The couple turned and walked back the way they’d come and I watched them disappear between sand dunes. As it turned out, in my effort to walk as far from civilization as possible, I had accidentally walked within a couple of hundred metres to the next entrance to the beach.
I emerged from the ocean like a leviathan, dripping with sand and sea and daggy man hair. I gathered my clothes, put on my shirt (vowing to never take it off again), drank the last of the bottle of rum and stumbled up the beach and back to my campsite.
The next day I returned to collect the remnants of the bag of weed I’d left buried in the sand. I stopped in my tracks as a brown snake slithered right past my feet. I looked up the sand dunes and saw three more of them.
There were fucking snakes in the sand dunes?!
There was also a family of dingoes. One of them was growling at a snake down by the water. Another had dug up my bikini banana bundle, no doubt sniffing out the human food beneath the sand. I shooed them away, kept wide birth of the snakes, and picked up my bikini. It was scrappy and tattered and torn by the dingo en route to the banana peels.
I grabbed my bag of weed -relieved the dingoes weren’t pot heads- and dropped my decimated bikini, more disappointed in myself than the dingoes. They had never worn it in the shower.
As I disappeared up the beach I watched the dingoes return to my bikini burial site. They fought over the tattered fabric, a banana flavoured human prize. One of the smaller ones grabbed it in its maw and ran away, its mates followed in pursuit. The dingoes ran along the surf, my secret red bikini flapping from a doggy jaw in the salty breeze.
She sat on the bed, pulled on her pyjama top. She grabbed my waist, pulled me into her and rested her head against my tummy.
“My Cady girl,” she said.
Then she let me go, climbed under the blanket, pulling it up to her nose. She looked back at me with her gorgeous colour-changing eyes. Today, they were blue with golden rings.
“Absolutely,” I said.
And then I took off my shirt.