It is Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras night in Sydney. I am meant to meet the others at our friend’s apartment to drink and watch the floats, but it is on the other side of the Anzac Parade, and even though it is still light, the floats have begun, and now it is impossible to cross the road.
All I can see are feathers, skin and glitter. People push and pull in the crowds and men tease at their wigs. I ask the policeman at the barricades where we can cross. A few other people come over to ask the same question. There is a couple dressed in polyvinyl bondage clothes – the woman is holding a whip. And there is a lively, handsome Italian man wearing a small backpack. The policeman shakes his head and points down the Parade and tells us we’ll have to keep walking.
I skip along with the Italian man who is fun and funny and everyone is in a flirty, giggling mood, and we weave laughing through the crowd to find the crossover point. The couple teases us and asks us if we want to be whipped.
I remember coming to Mardi Gras a couple of years ago, late at night, when the crowd was thinning and everyone was so drunk they were beginning to sober up again. My friend started walking up to strangers, begging to be spanked. She leant over in the middle of the road and pulled up her dress, giggling. We sat in the gutter to wait for her, amongst used bottles and ribbons. Finally, a giant man in a leather mask with chains hit her with a paddle over and over, and as we all laughed and whooped, I saw a strange look came over her face; she was quietly crying.
The woman cracks her whip hard against the bitumen and the Italian man swears in surprise, and then laughs and grabs my hand to run away.
We don’t tell each other our names or why we’re here or what we do. Instead we talk about the best ways to wash off glitter and who is more gay, Putin or Berlusconi. We try to remember if it’s weed then beer that makes you freak out, or the other way around.
“Beer and grass you’re on your ass, grass and beer…,” I sing, but I can’t remember the rest.
We pass the Captain Cook Hotel on the corner, packed with people cheering and dancing inside. We still have a long way to go until the road forks so we look at each other and squeeze into the bar to buy a bottles of vodka and tonic. I swipe a couple of plastic cups lying on the counter and we squeeze back out, mixing our concoction and toasting our cups to the sky, which is darkening.
All around us are oiled-up rippling muscles. I tell the Italian he is wearing too many clothes and he should take his t-shirt off. He tells me I don’t wear the right shoes for my personality.
“They are too clunky,” he says. “You’re lighter and strappier than you believe.”
I look down at my feet and I’m not sure whether to be offended or flattered. So I fill our cups with more vodka.
We pass a huge Moreton Bay fig tree leaning out from Centennial Park.
“Let’s go climbing,” I shout.
We run over the grass towards the tree. He helps push me up the lower branches and then neatly pulls himself up with just one athletic arm. I clap for him. We sit with our feet hanging down, sipping our drinks. It is quiet and dark. The parkland stretches out in front of us, and we hear a bird cry somewhere in the distance.
My friend started walking up to strangers, begging to be spanked. She leant over in the middle of the road and pulled up her dress, giggling.
In the growing silence, he tells me his name, and where in the north of Italy he comes from, and why he moved to Australia, and how his father doesn’t approve, and how, sometimes, he finds it lonely, but he is saving to start his own business here if his visa comes through. He leans over, softly pulls my face towards him, and kisses me. I lean into him and then pull back.
“But you’re gay,” I splutter.
“Well I am.” And he looks at his hands. “But I think I like both. I don’t know anymore.”
I don’t know what to say. I look down at my clunky shoes. I suggest we go back to the float. But as we walk amongst the crowd again something has shifted.
I look around at the Gay Pride banners, and the dykes on bikes, and the silver spandex hot pants, and I want to be back in that bubble. This is the night where we all dress up and use hair spray and wear glittered masks and pretend to be the best versions of ourselves, without troubles or concerns. This is the night the city pretends to be someone else. And I think about why my friend cried that night, years ago in the middle of the road when her own mask slipped off and her truth was revealed in front of everyone.
The fork in the road comes up. Confetti is being pumped out of power guns and pieces of gold fall into our hair. The Italian lingers for a moment. And then he turns, and I watch him disappear with his small backpack into the sparkly crowd.
Kavita Bedford is an award-winning Australian-Indian writer with a background working in journalism, anthropology and publishing. She is the current recipient of the Walkley Foundation for Journalism Women in Media Mentorship and a Westwords Writers’ Fellow. She is currently developing a series of literary non-fiction episodes on Sydney.