Juice swirls through my mouth, as I push it into the spaces between cheeks and teeth. Some hits the fleshy roof, numbing. Hair leaps to attention on my upper arms.
Mango: fruity and familiar. Twenty bucks a box back home, bought from the roadside as you swim through humid air. Or if you’re lucky, completely free from neighbours trying to offload from their heavily weighted trees. A present, they say desperately, forcing the over-ripe fruit into your hands. The taunting threat of flying foxes hovers at the back of their minds. Here, three thousand kilometres away from the tropics, it’s a fruit of luxury. A ‘special’, marked in bold yellow, means two mangoes for five dollars. What’s that per kilo?
The green tea taste is also unmistakable. The Internet tells me it tastes like grass. That doesn’t quite fit. I take another sip. It tastes green. I think of leaves, rubbing against my tongue. The seasonable warmth of the ramen shop across town where I buy it cold and unsweetened, spooning thick noodles between drinks. An uncomfortable experience. I can’t use chopsticks, and I’m too embarrassed to ask for a fork. Instead I sip and struggle and smile across the table at my more accomplished friends, trapped in my pretend.
It’s a strange combination of flavours. Green tea and mango. An accidental combination. The words fumbled at the counter. Mango mmhmm, I said, inarticulate. I couldn’t correct the girl when she translated me. Yes, I nodded, you’re correct. Mango mantra. I cast a regretful look at the menu and the words mango magic as I tapped my card.
The food hall is a constant hum of noise, punctuated by an occasional adolescent scream. School must be out, because pleated skirts and polo-clad bodies fill the seats. Some wear lettered jumpers despite the heat, revelling in the privilege of being the eldest. “2016” marks the end of their education. As boys tower over slender, seated girls who flick their hair and laugh, it seems impossible that we belong to the same species, let alone that we are separated by such a small gap in age. I was mistaken for a vulnerable first year at university today. “Do you know where that is?” the woman in blue asked anxiously, ready to hand over a campus map. Perhaps I’m too put together; too try-hard. The knee length polka dot dress, the backpack, the carefully filled-in auburn brows. The flood of undergraduates are dressed the same. Soon they will lose momentum and trade dresses for active wear.
She’s wrong, though. I’m twenty-three. A post-graduate. A PhD candidate, who can’t even pronounce candidature. Already trapped in the insecure cycle of wondering whether I’m good enough, old enough. Talented. I tell myself I’m capable, but this confidence is quickly smashed by the myopic redhead in the writers club I join, who informs me that poetry would expand my world. I don’t bother to try and understand his words. They’re unimportant except for the fact they make my gut clench with inadequacy. They’re unimportant because it’s really the look on his face that tears me down.
I long to be one of the school-aged teenagers, with their glossy hair and cool eyes and loud voices. They shout over each other, but the words are indistinct. They are indistinct, in their navys and greens. Same shoes, same backpacks. Identities erased. I can’t remember how that feels anymore – it’s been six years since I left the faceless ranks. The pressure to say something is constant now – to that guy in the writers club, to academic staff, to people who politely enquire about my future job prospects. Answers, compulsory. Flippancy is no longer accepted.
I thought that adulthood would bring confidence but here I am, still obsessing over cruel words hours after the fact. Still left scrambling for comebacks I inevitably fail to find until far too late. There were a hundred responses to the poetry lover, but none to say to his face. I’ll rage over Facebook chat, tell my friends about the injustices, but provide no direct defence. There’s only lingering indignation. (Another word I can’t say aloud. I type “pronounce indignation” into my search bar. I listen to recordings of American voices. I still struggle.)
Two matching teens sit at a table near mine. One boy, one girl. A couple. They hold hands. She’s pretty and petite, the type you see walking down the mall in micro-tops and miniskirts, surrounded by identikit friends. I wonder when she’ll hit puberty. Was it only my generation who were cursed with pimples and fat hips and awkward youth? I’m still in that stage, waiting patiently for it to pass. The boy is the same. Hair carefully styled; shorter on the sides, long at the top. A pompadour? Slick, untouchable. A careful amount of stubble, similar to that currently sported by my legs. Already he looks like he hits the gym hard, sleek muscles visible under the regulation shirt. Together they’re the kind of beautiful you don’t expect to see in real life, just in lingerie adverts and music videos and movies. I stare, unabashed. In my notebook I write down their individual features, but fail to capture their essence. Who are they, I write. I stare some more.
The boy looks up and meets my eyes. His are green, the green of my bitter tea-juice. He raises one eyebrow in a way supposedly made sexy by romance novels but which just comes across as sleazy in real life, and gives me a knowing smile. It’s the smile of a thousand boys before him, conscious of their power. In that one moment he knows me in ways I don’t know myself. I force myself to glance away, to swallow, to take another sip of my drink. I can feel his eyes still on me.
I wait until I can’t feel him anymore. Then I rise and leave, dropping the mango mantra, now warm, in the bin on my way past.
Emily Francine Palmer is a creative writing PhD candidate at Adelaide university. She writes about gender, young adult fiction and bad-ass female protagonists.