Words by: Ilanda Tran Art by: John Paul Macatol
December 2019. I’ve made plans with my friend, Tom, for a very late celebration of my 18th birthday. 18 doesn’t feel all that different from 17 — I am pleased with the prospect of being able to drink, but a little disappointed that I will no longer be able to scream the lyrics to ‘Dancing Queen’ with as much personal conviction.
Perhaps I’ve always been too preoccupied with the smaller details in life, to a point that creeps slightly beyond ‘organised’ and into the realm of ‘obsessed’. Despite a firm disbelief in astrology, I find it amusing how perfectly I fit into the Virgo stereotype — I’m only half joking every time I say that “if I lose my diary, my life will basically fall apart”. Combine this perfectionism with a good dose of self-consciousness and you get a girl trying very hard to relax and being generally unsuccessful.
We meet at the shopping centre near my house and are pleasantly surprised by the presence of a sizeable pop-up carnival set up in the square outside. All my dreams of winning an enormous plush animal to add to my collection spring to mind immediately. At Tom’s encouragement, we play what is certain to be a slightly rigged basketball game, with my heart set on the giant sloth and panda plushies stacked at the back of the tent.
Tom is the opposite of this delightful cocktail of anxieties; with two around-the-world trips under his belt and the confidence to go backpacking wherever he pleases on a whim, we frankly couldn’t be any more dissimilar when it comes to our thoughts on spontaneity.
We’ve definitely spent enough money playing this game to buy the plush three times over in a regular store.
“If you get just two out of the five on your next go,” says the game attendant, “you can have one of the big ones.”
Tom looks at me, conspiring. I avoid the expectant gaze of the attendant and whisper in his ear, “we don’t have to; we already spent so much—”
He interrupts me, unashamedly loud. “We’re getting the panda.”
Somehow, walking around later clutching the enormous panda to my chest provides nothing more than joy despite the double takes of passersby.
If my friends start doing something even barely edging towards inadvisable, I have to fight down the urge to pull them back into my little comfort zone. ‘Control freak’ is a term I sometimes grudgingly use for myself, but ‘killjoy’ feels sour on my tongue. These mum-friend tendencies don’t really help the situation at all, with my internal monologue sounding something akin to “we have that at home!” every time I think about going on an unexpected adventure or splashing out on some fun trinket or experience. Whenever my heart gets achy for something fresh, I feel that inevitable draw back to the safety of my desk chair and computer screen. No surprises here, no sir!
We catch sight of a dodgem cars arena; Tom buys us tickets before I can protest (“We just spent like forty bucks on a panda!”). My panda fits into the passenger’s seat, barely squeezing into place. The attendant raises an eyebrow; I reach around my panda to click his seatbelt in. The moment of embarrassment when my hat flies off after a particularly spectacular collision is fleeting.
It’s caused issues before, my excessive caution weighing out the adventurousness of my friends. This strain I was placing on my relationships — and frankly, myself — made me rethink my stance on doing things ‘perfectly’. The fact that I could never do anything perfectly enough was causing me strife too often for it to be logical for me to hang onto the desire.
Tom turns to me as we walk, shaking off adrenaline, and offers to treat me to sorbet.
“I know a great place,” he says. “But it’s in Williamstown. Is that okay?”
Three train lines and nearly an hour of travel for sorbet? There’s a moment where I scoff at the thought.
I juggle the weight of the panda in my arms. My hat is slightly crooked on my head.
“If we go now, we might make the next train,” I say.
If I’m being honest, I haven’t changed all that much — still over-reliant on a perfectly set-out diary, still a bit too conscious of the lingering gaze of strangers. However, a few years of being cooped up out of necessity rather than choice has definitely given me an appreciation for a little less thinking and a bit more doing.
Carrying the panda on the train gets me even more odd looks but I rest my chin on its shoulder as we chat the ride away, running into a friend of Tom’s during the journey and recounting our successful day. When we arrive, Williamstown is quiet. The sorbet is worth the long trip — we get two flavours each and dig into each other’s cups to critique our choices. A little girl stares wide-eyed at the panda that I’ve seated on the park bench beside us. I smile and wave at her, and she waves hesitantly back.
When I came home from the trip, I dubbed that panda Simon. He sits on top of my wardrobe, slightly squashed by the low ceiling.
When we finish our sorbet, we walk down to the pier and look out at the gloomy sky as we talk. I sit on the edge of the pier and think about what might happen if I were to jump in, what people would think, whether it would be beautiful or reckless or absurd. I often think about jumping in.