We’d been glancing at each other across a crowded room for five years. Doris was a receptionist at a suburban Melbourne joinery where I was a glazier. I found her attractive and our one brief chat at the Christmas party revealed we had something in common: we’d both just bought David Bowie’s new album, Heroes. But my flicker of interest was doused by her long-term relationship with the firm’s truckie, a gormless petrol head whose car held some record at the local drag strip.
Doris was never going to be my type. We were opposites in too many ways: I was an analytical, resolutely cynical university dropout; thin, pale, long-haired and lanky. And I had a slow, daggy car. Doris was spontaneous and cheerful, shapely, olive-skinned and petite. She had left school at 17 for a job at the factory in the same street as her family home.
I longed for an earthy girl, ideally from the country, so we could retreat there, grow vegetables and be hippies together.
But a year later, at the next Christmas bash, with the truckie gone, the flicker between us kindled when she played footsies with me under a pub table. Then she not only accepted my offer of a lift home, in preference to our flashy head salesman, but gave me a peck on the cheek and a coy smile before leaving my car.
I still wasn’t sure a month later, when our chain-smoking office matriarch Val pointedly remarked that there was a girl in the office and that no one was taking her out.
So I did, to meet my weekend friends in Fitzroy and Carlton, who all had degrees and worked in finance, insurance or IT. They haughtily dismissed Doris as unsuitable. She was shy and found them intimidating. The women baited her by flirting with me, which they’d never done before. Someone humiliated her by hiding her shoes. I began to feel unsuitable too.
My family’s welcome was subdued – in contrast to Doris’s clan’s effusive acceptance of me. My mother confessed she was initially dismayed when I brought her home (before later declaring her “a gem”). I knew why. It wasn’t her family’s migrant status, directly. But Doris was so reserved and sometimes, having only spoken Maltese as a child, tongue-tied. She came from the factory, a place my parents saw as a dead end for me. Blame my father, who after I flunked uni had nudged me to get a job, any job, in the same week as a vacancy at the joinery appeared in the local paper.
My hippy mate Alan was more open-minded. He invited us to dinner in Prahran, where he was house-sitting a back yard dope crop for friends trekking in Tibet. Doris was more interested in their apricot tree.
She was at ease with herself that night. She wore a blue calf-length singlet dress that revealed her tanned, toned shoulders. The outfit was demure but drew me in, just like the woman who chose it. Alan asked Doris how she knew when apricots were ripe and we were both startled when she laughed and replied: “When the birds do.”
I glanced at Alan. Duh. I climbed the tree and picked the fruit the birds had marked, then watched her avidly consume them, her eyes sparkling above a sticky grin. Later that night, when we kissed, she tasted of apricots.
I saw my so-called uni friends one more time and decided I preferred Doris because of the ways she was unlike them: not worldly and cynical or promiscuous and miserable, but innately happy, self-sufficient and skilled. She enjoyed cooking, sewing and gardening, and was somehow both earthy and elegant, modest and vivacious, sensible yet passionate. What more could I want?
All doubts vanished when I went skiing for a week and found myself at bars and parties mired in misery. I couldn’t bear to be without her. After three days away I drove the five hours back to Melbourne, determined to spend the rest of my life with her, without really understanding why.
But then, we can’t ever really know why we yearn to spend our life with someone, for that question takes a lifetime to answer. And after 43 years together, I’m beginning to have a pretty good idea.