At the winter dance I won a prize for Best American Accent, though mine was the only one in the room. Being hammered on Passion Pop, a sickeningly sweet drink I luckily could not find when I returned to the US, added showers of confetti and glitter to the memory I’m sure were not there.
The prize was a gift certificate for a clothing shop in town catering to women over 70 or anyone in need of obscenely large packages of tube socks. Someone called it a “dag” shop and I figured out what that meant without google, which had not been invented anyway. You could buy lace trimmed handkerchiefs and bobbie pins or those slippery, translucent scarves to cover hair curlers, but I had a dickens of a time finding something, anything, to buy with my major award.
Dag was an affectionately insulting term I learned while living in Australia. It refers to someone or something that is unapologetically unfashionable and is maybe the American equivalent of Dork, though it derives from Daglock, or the dung-cake lock of wool around the hindquarters of a sheep, which we call Dingleberry over here, though not often. Language is heady, complicated business.
I fell in with a crowd that may have been described as dags, mild misfits less concerned about social status than I was accustomed to. I was recruited by the leader in the restroom in a case of mistaken identity (naturally). My doppelganger lives in Australia, you see, and the leader splashed sink water over the stall door thinking I was her and then recoiled in horror when she realized I was the new exchange student. And so she apologized and we became fast friends and she invited me to sit with her and her friends at lunch. Come to think of it, I also met my best friend from elementary school in eerily similar circumstances, so restrooms might just be where I make meaningful connections.
I spent the next six months feeling loved and accepted by a group of three girls and two boys. Sleepovers were always co-ed and we stayed up late watching Friday night videos, a novelty since I had grown up with MTV and took them for granted. They took me to my first concert in Sydney – Roxcette – though I didn’t care one way or another about the music. I remember my Australian friends as fresh faced and funny, innocent in many ways my American friends and I were not. I was tight lipped about my own past because it felt good to start over and be someone I should have been all along.
Although it had been sweltering July when I left the US, the east coast of Australia was in its own mild state of winter. I remember boarding the plane in a sweater and jeans and not believing they would be necessary. Everything was a mild shock to the system once I got off that plane.The house where I lived smelled like the strange, sweet oils and soaps my host mother used. A new cat curled up on my bed every night. Just beyond the house was a quaint town center with a cricket pitch and of course the dag shop and a chemist where I was forced to choose from an unfamiliar, exciting array of shampoos. The first time I ordered a hamburger I wasn’t sure I would like it with fried egg and beets, but oh I did. I took tea with my milk and sugar instead of coffee. My world had turned upside down and I fell madly in love.
What I probably fell in love with was my old self in new surroundings. As an American, I was a curiosity to others, a novelty, but to myself I was the only familiar thing around. I became my own source of comfort and expanded to become gregarious and chaste and found these traits suited me. When I returned to the US, I wondered for a long time if I wasn’t born on the wrong side of the planet. Had my doppelganger been unhappy in Australia? I found myself wishing I’d thought to ask her. We could have worked something out before my visa expired.
In recovery speak, they call that pulling a geographic. It’s when you hit the reset button by fleeing your current surroundings and it’s not supposed to work, but it did for me that one time. Of course, it didn’t really because I had to return home. The other kind of reset is much harder and takes time, often decades, and sometimes tedious effort. Many, many years later I feel it from sobriety and middle age, a deepening comfort and sense that all we really need to do is click our heels to come home.