That night I dreamed of the Outback. It called to me and, almost as if it were instinctual, I answered the call. I was an eagle soaring high and free above the hot, red land; the land my dream-self called home. I flew over Uluru, dove down to let the tips of my talons brush the waters of the Katherine, let the wind catch me beneath my wings to lift me back up into the clear, sapphire sky. It was exhilarating. I didn’t want to wake up. I wanted to keep dreaming this dream forever. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option. I woke early, as always, and headed downstairs to make Simon’s breakfast. He would be expecting to have it all prepared and ready for him when he awoke. The dream stayed vivid in my mind all day, an endless reel playing on repeat, making it difficult to ignore. I rushed through my chores for the day and before Simon arrived home from work, I organized my flights and accommodation. I had a small amount of money saved from the time before Simon, when I’d had a job as a waitress at a dingy little café.
Three days later, Simon left for his two-week business trip. As soon as his car was out of sight I went into action. I packed everything up that I wouldn’t be taking with me to the Outback and took them to a storage facility. I didn’t have a lot of stuff so it didn’t take long. I sold all my expensive jewelry and clothes, even the car I used. Suddenly, I had a lot of money and the means to go wherever I wanted. You would think I’d be happy, but I’d never been more terrified in my life. When the day came for me to leave, I almost didn’t. A torrent of thoughts came flooding through my mind like a tidal wave. What was I thinking? This wasn’t me. I wasn’t rash or bold or brave. This is a mistake. The little old lady’s words came back to me, as did the dream and a great sense of peace. No, I corrected, this was right. In fact, it was high past time that I did this. With renewed determination, I called a taxi and headed for the airport, never once looking back.
After a short, three-hour flight from Sydney, I arrived at the Ayers Rock airport a little after 4:00pm, local time. From there it had been a brief drive to my accommodation in Yulara. I was staying in the Desert Explorers Inn. I hadn’t wanted anything fancy. If there was a comfortable bed, showers and a flushing toilet, I was happy. I would be sharing the room with three others. They had not arrived yet so I dumped my luggage in the room, not bothering to unpack, and headed straight outdoors to explore.
Now, here I stood. The immensity of what I had done still hadn’t quite sunk in yet. It was all a blur. I’d been running on pure adrenaline, constantly glancing over my shoulder in case Simon should give chase. Here, in the peace and tranquility, it all became very real. I’d done it. Go me! A soft breeze blew loose tendrils of my long, dark hair across my face. Absently, I tucked them behind my ear. I should feel proud of myself, and I was, but the uneasiness and trepidation still had not dissipated. I had hoped those feelings would be gone once I arrived yet they lingered on. A sound of wheels on gravel made me jump and brought me out of my reverie. Turning, I saw a woman around my own twenty-nine years climbing nimbly out of a taxi, pulling a red bag behind her. I breathed a sigh of relief as she brought another red bag out of the boot. It was just another guest. With a bag in each hand she headed towards check in. I should offer to help, I thought. That would mean talking and conversation; another two things that had become foreign to me. No one was ever interested in what I had to say and if they were, it was only to refute, mock or chastise. I learned it was better if I only spoke when spoken to or not at all. It was time to break that habit. Pushing down the butterflies that had suddenly taken wing in my chest and stomach, I turned my face into what I hoped was a friendly smile and walked towards her.
“Hi.” Nowhere near loud enough. Come on, I coaxed myself. You can do it. I tried again.
“Hey,” she replied.
“Um, would you like some help?” I asked.
“Oh, that would be great.” She passed one of the bags to me. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” Now that the initial contact had been made, I had no idea what to say next. Introduce yourself, my brain nudged.
“Um, I’m Erin by the way.” Oh, this was so awkward. I was regretting ever having spoken to begin with.
The woman smiled at me, holding out a hand. It took me a moment to remember what that meant. Right, she wanted to shake hands.
“Nice to meet you, Erin. I’m Jacqueline but I prefer Jacqui.” She made a face. “Jacqueline is such a mouthful.”
I laughed, startling myself as I shook her hand. “Nice to meet you too, Jacqui. And I think Jacqueline is a nice name.”
Now Jacqui laughed. “So did my parents, or someone, apparently.” She checked in and we carted her bags off to her room, discovering that she would be one of my room mates.
“Oh cool, we get to be roomies.” Jacqui exclaimed. “Which bed have you claimed?”
I pointed. “Bottom bunk of that one.”
“Mind if I take the top? I’ve met you and you seem ok so far.” She chuckled. “Don’t want to take my chances on our other roommates.”
“Go for it.”
“Sweet. Thanks.” She shoved her bags aside and jumped up to the top bunk to test the mattress.
Despite being quite short, she managed to get up with little effort. “Hmm, not too bad. So, where you from, Erin?”
Leaning over the railing, she looked at me with large, dark eyes. She was a beautiful woman – unusual, but beautiful with her short, purple hair, full lips and skin that looked like it had seen a lot of sun. She seemed friendly, too. I decided I liked her. Maybe this would be my first new friend. Better not get ahead of myself though. One step at a time, Erin.
“I’m from out Sydney way. How about you?”
“Melbourne now but I was actually born here, in the outback.”
“Oh wow. Why did you leave?” I asked then cringed, realizing too late that I was prying. Jacqui didn’t seem to mind but her answer was vague.
“Oh, various reasons. But I always end up back here. It’s like there is a cord attached to me and I can only go so far before it pulls me back. I can’t escape.” Jacqui sighed. “It’s frustrating but comfortable at the same time. How’s that for a paradox?”
Her sudden melancholy made me feel guilty. “I’m sorry. I should not have pried like that. I’m, well, I’m not really used to conversation and making small talk. It’s going to take some time to relearn the do’s and don’ts.”
“No, it’s ok. Really. It’s good to talk to someone about it. I don’t really have a lot of people I can talk to.”
“We have that in common then.” Seeing as she had shared something personal I felt I should as well. “I haven’t been in the best of situations lately and, well, I feel I’ve sort of lost myself, you know? People tried to tell me who I was but, I think they were just trying to force me to be someone they wanted me to be. That’s why I came here, to find myself again.” I stopped and took a deep breath. That was the most words I had spoken all at once for a long time.
Jacqui studied me for a moment before speaking. “Seems like we have a few things in common.” She smiled. “I have a feeling we are going to be great friends.”
I liked her even more. We stayed up talking well into the night. I learned she had come from a broken home here in the Northern Territory. Her mother had been a junkie and she never knew her father.
“I think he may have been Aboriginal. I’ve been told I look half and half. Some local kids used to call me half cast.” She made a face. “I didn’t even know what it meant back then.”
I frowned and shook my head. Kids could be so cruel sometimes. Though I’m sure it was more a reflection on the parents and their lack of parenting rather than the actual child.
“When I was born, I was a heroin baby. They had to ween me off it. They were going to adopt me out there and then but mum promised she would sober up and quit. She kept her word, for a few years at least anyway. As soon as I was old enough to go to school, she fell back into old habits. I learned early on how to take care of myself.”
Eyes wide, I sat on the edge of the bed waiting for her to continue. She went on to say that, finally, when she was ten, someone had reported her situation and the child protection workers came to take her away. That was how she had ended up in Melbourne; as a foster child. She had bounced around several homes until she was in her teens. At fifteen, she moved in with her first boyfriend until he started getting abusive. She ran away and from there, the streets became her home for a while.
“It was tough. I managed to get in with another group of kids and we all looked out for each other. I’d be lying if I said they were a nice bunch of people but at the time, they were what I needed. The streets are dangerous for a young girl, especially one on her own. I learned that the hard way.”
Tears flowed down my cheeks as she told me about the first time she was raped. The fear, the anger, the pain, the demoralization, the humiliation, the guilt, the feeling that something precious had been stolen from you that you would never get back; I knew it all. Simon was great at it and he was great at convincing me that it was my fault, that he was doing this because I had made him. Hearing Jacqui’s story however, I was thankful that I had only experienced rape from one person and that he hadn’t been a stranger. Although, I think in some ways it’s worse when it’s someone you know, someone you once trusted and held in high regard. Either way, Jacqui’s experience was far worse. It had happened to her more times than she could count and most of those times had been by one of her foster fathers when she was just 13. He did it to all the girls they looked after, a different one each day. How his wife never knew was beyond Jacqui. The next year, a group of men in their twenties followed her home one night. Unaware of the danger lurking behind her, she had crossed into the park. There they grabbed her, dragged her into some bushes and each had their turn. She thought she was going to die there and then and would have welcomed it. Just at that moment, while she was waiting for death’s cold embrace, a woman suddenly appeared, looking down at her with compassion and concern. She helped Jacqui up and half walked, half carried her to her foster home. When they got to the door, Jacqui had turned to say thank you, but the woman was nowhere to be seen.
“I really have no idea where she went. One minute she was there, the next she was just gone. I ran back down the steps and looked in every direction. Nothing. Like she had vanished into thin air. I remember getting goose bumps. I don’t believe in God or angels but if I did, she would have been one.”
Goosebumps broke out over my arms also. It reminded me of the old woman at the supermarket. The two events were remarkably similar. Was it mere coincidence, orndivine intervention? If it was divine intervention, why hadn’t it happened before? And why hasn’t it happened again?
The last time Jacqui got raped happened not long after she had been out on the streets. She’d gone for a meal at a homeless shelter and another homeless man had followed her under the bridge where she’d made her bed. See, I thought, where was the divine intervention then?
“My opinion on life wasn’t a great one. If it hadn’t been for Deb and Rick, I don’t know what would have happened to me. They caught me one day trying to steal food from a grocery store. Instead of turning me in, they asked if they could help. I mouthed off at them of course, being the brat that I was, telling them I was no charity case and didn’t need any help from their rich asses. They just looked at me, all full of compassion and offered to buy me a meal. I was suspicious warily let them lead me to the food court where they asked me what I wanted. I couldn’t believe it, thought surely it was too good to be true. So, I decided to test them. I picked the fanciest place I could see. They didn’t even bat an eye lid; just walked right on in to this restaurant, asked for a table and sat me down. Everything sounded amazing. Still not believing them, I ordered the most expensive thing on the menu. It wasn’t until the food came out and they started eating – like it was the most natural thing in the world to be in a fancy restaurant with a homeless girl – that I realized this was for real. That’s when the dam walls broke. I don’t know how long we sat in that restaurant but I’d never cried or spoken so much in my whole life. They took me in and a couple months later I was legally adopted.” Jacqui shrugged as she concluded her story.
I wanted to hug her but I wasn’t quite there yet. Instead, for the first time, I shared my story. I told her all about growing up with parents who hadn’t wanted me. I told her all about Simon and my recent ‘great escape.” It seemed appropriate to call it that. She cried too. And she hugged me. It was nice. For a long moment, we just held each other tight, connected by our plights, connected simply by the raw need to feel human contact. We held each other until the last racking sobs had subsided and we both felt empty, light, as though we had just dropped something incredibly heavy. With a final sniff, Jacqui let me go. She wiped her eyes and gave a dry chuckle.
“And here I was expecting a simple holiday, keeping to myself, doing my own thing. Instead I find a soul mate.”
Tentatively I reached out and squeezed her hand. “So did I.”
We both slept solidly and soundly. It was the best sleep I had ever had.