seventeen. boy crazy

Can’t settle. Prowling.
Hunting for a way in.
Like trying to find an Advil gel cap dropped on the kitchen floor in the middle of the night.
Did that last night.
Didn’t want to turn on the light because it would be a confession
You’re not sleeping
Refusing to look at the clock
Refusing to put on the specs that will tempt you to look at the red digital light on the microwave that will tell you
You should be asleep now.
On hands and knees, palm floating above the kitchen floor, hovering over the mental image of the Advil gel cap that fell from its plastic and foil nest onto the vast linoleum expanse.
Contact
It rolls
Somewhere
Use the force, Luke
If anyone saw you now they would laugh
Stark naked hair askew on hands and knees in the dead of night
Cow position on the kitchen floor
Using The Force to find a pill that
Dances across the linoleum away from your weathered hand.
But no one’s looking.
No one’s looked for a while now.
And certainly not in the dead of night
In the semi-rural neighbourhood you call home.
If you can find it, night-blind,
Maybe that will be an omen
A sign
A promise
That you will also find a way to write this thing you need to say
But don’t want to confess.

***

So here’s the thing. I keep trying to tell the story of being an actor, but it seems that all my memories are about relationships.

Sigh.

So let’s get on with it. Spit it out. Let’s move on.

Shakespeare, season one. The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado About Nothing. Much ado about nothing indeed. I flirt with Claudio. I flirt with Lorenzo. A married man takes advantage of my vanity and ignorance. I sing and party and skinny dip in the moonlight. The season ends. I am unemployed with no prospects. I get depressed. I see a drop-in counsellor on Robson Street. You’re not depressed, you’re unemployed. Get a job. I get a job. Retail, extra staff at the Body Shop hired for the Christmas rush. Giving back massages to business men queued up to buy stocking-stuffers for their wives. No really, I don’t work on commission. My assistant manager makes me do this because she’s crazy. I quit on Christmas Eve before they have a chance to sack me. The manager asks me to reconsider. When we said we had to get rid of extra staff we didn’t mean you. Not if it means working with Crazy anymore. I go back to Australia. I get a faxed an offer from the Shakespeare festival offering me a second season. I tell them I’ll come back if they buy the credits that will make me a union member. It’s a struggle but they eventually agree.

Shakespeare, season two. Love’s Labours Lost and The Winter’s Tale. The Princess of France and Perdita. I crash at the new boyfriend’s sister’s place in New West while I hunt for a place of my own. I find a room in a flea-infested boarding house in Kitsilano. I leave my electric blue trench coat, the best second-hand score I ever made, at the boyfriend’s sister’s place. The boyfriend goes on tour and has a fling with his stage manager. The end. I’m more sad about the coat.

I see a play on Granville Island. One of the actors looks like Yul Brynner. Smoky eyed and dangerous. My new friend, the assistant stage manager at the Shakespeare Festival, knows him. She lets slip that he’s been asking about me. He saw me playing the Princess of France. She organizes a girls’ night out. He comes along to play the role of surrogate boyfriend in case of emergency. It’s all a ruse. An excuse for us to meet. A chumper approaches our table and shows an interest in me. I take Yul Brynner’s hand. It fits perfectly. That was eighteen years ago. We don’t hold hands as often as we did then, but when we do his hand still fits. Perfectly.

There. That wasn’t so hard, was it? What’s the big confession? You were boy crazy. Big deal. You don’t have to hate men to be a feminist.

Do you?

nine. an interlude

Lucy is my daughter. Tonight she was dressed as a punk rocker. Apparently she was surrounded by nine year old boys when she got to the birthday party. The parents of a child I have never met threw a disco for their daughter’s ninth birthday, complete with renting the local hall and hiring a DJ. The kids were meant to come as their favourite pop stars. The mum of Lucy’s best mate and I decided they should be punks because I had a leftover can of red hair spray and she had some cheap gel. When John got home, he advised that toothpaste is the secret to a really good mohawk. He drew a pretty good Dead Kennedys tattoo on her arm too. He was more punk than I realised. Apparently, my daughter was the only girl not dressed up like Elsa in Frozen. The only girl not in a dress with a pretty hair-do. She had black lipstick, black eyeliner, winkle pickers, a smiley face t-shirt, and a huge safety pin stuck through her mohawk.

My daughter is cooler than I have ever been. She can’t help but groove when good music comes on. She’s got the moves already. Actually, she’s had the moves since she was about five. My daughter is awesome. Even if she is already sassing me, sitting on the kitchen counter sucking a lollipop when I’ve asked her to clean up the fallen feijoas in the backyard. She tells me that when I’m in pain it’s just my imagination, and I should sing about pink fuzzy unicorns dancing on rainbows whenever I feel like complaining about my sore back. She hasn’t felt real pain yet. I wish that she would never have to. I know that’s not the way life works. Nonetheless, I feel – solid – in the knowledge that I have seen her this happy, this sassy, this independent and generous and joyful and quirky for the first nine years. And something in my gut tells me that she’s gonna be fine.

six. we’re going on a bear hunt

Less than a day after arriving in Canada we cross the US border and drive through the night to reach Charlotte. The furniture salesman’s mother is dying. We pass into the northern part of the southern states, an entirely new world to me. My companion pounds giant bottles of Mountain Dew to push through his grief and exhaustion. As we head further south, the caffeine-rich soft drink starts to be advertised as ‘soda’ and is casually displayed on gas station shelves next to whisky and beer. We wind through the black forests of Virginia in the pre-dawn light. The next time we stop I hear a truck driver joking with an attendant, and the twang in his voice suddenly transports me to Australia. Then my brain makes a shift and I recognise the drawl as ‘Southern’. Toto, we’re not in Oz anymore.

After a ten hour drive that should have taken twelve we arrive in Charlotte. It’s the first time I’ve met his family. His parents live in a sprawling, comfortable home inside a forest. It’s exactly how I imagine a successful American family in the furniture-making business would live. A huge family portrait over a massive stone fireplace. Oversized furniture. Overstuffed pantry. In my jet-lagged, exiled state it feels like I’ve drifted into a Disney movie of the week.

They are all so happy to meet me. His mother’s hands and smile are soft. Her voice is gentle, and fuzzy with morphine. His father is gracious and welcoming even through his grief. Prayers pepper the daily conversation. His sister is fiercely protective of her little brother. I feel her sizing me up with sharp, evaluative glances. His brother is a survivalist. He has wire-rimmed Lenin-glasses and a ginger beard that reaches the middle of his chest. On our second day we visit his home. He invites me into his basement and proudly shows me his cache of food and weapons. I hear the piping voice of his tow-headed daughter float above us in the backyard. That afternoon the brothers take me hunting on the family compound. They only manage to bring down a squirrel. They skin and barbecue it, a modest contribution to the evening’s family feast. I force myself to watch the entire process of skinning, cleaning and preparing the tiny body. It’s the first kill I’ve seen.

His mother has risen from her sickbed for the occasion. There is a mountain of soft white dinner rolls, a huge jug of red Kool Aid, a pyramid of corn on the cob doused with margarine. The survivalist has confided to me that he is convinced the food dye and margarine are what gave his mother cancer. He flinches when they are placed on the table.

The squirrel takes pride of place. Its tiny, naked limbs seem even smaller, severed and presented on an oversized white platter. The meat is easier to swallow when I tell myself it tastes like lamb. Sister shrieks “Give her the best bit! Give her the best bit!” They chuckle with shared anticipation. My long-haired companion offers me a plate. On it is a single Salada cracker. On the cracker is the squirrel’s brain. The smiles on their faces all match. His mother has forgotten her pain. His sister’s eyes glitter. I know this is a test. I lift the cracker, open my mouth, put it on my tongue, close my lips. Make my jaw go up and down. Feel saliva come to my aid. Chew and swallow. Exhale. Lift the corners of my mouth in a smile. They erupt in laughter and applause.

I’m in.

five. teeth, or the removal of wisdom(s)

This is the story of how determined I was to go to theatre school.

The six months are up. It’s time to head back to my real life in Australia. Back to a uni course I hate, and a second stab at NIDA I guess, but my heart’s just not in it. I’ve had a glorious summer in Toronto. Making theatre. Learning to like coffee. Falling in, out and back into what seems like love. I’ve met a long-haired Southern Baptist who wants to be an actor but makes a living as a furniture salesman for his family firm back in Charlotte, North Carolina.  I direct him in a play at TSP.  He’s a gentle bear of a man who introduces me to home-grown vegetables, smudging ceremonies and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.

I think want to stay in Canada.

I discuss the matter with a loon floating on Little Clam Lake.  It’s an Indian summer, and my folks have taken me to their annual cottage getaway in the Muskokas. I spend hours propelling myself about the lake in a tiny borrowed rowboat.  Drinking in the stillness of the glassy, sweet water.  So different from the churning salt-foam of Sydney’s beaches.  I explore Little Clam’s coves, watch the clouds and pine trees mirror themselves in the lake’s surface, press my nose to the sun-baked canvas of the lifejackets, a smell that reminds me of a childhood memory so old that both my parents are in it.  Sticky pine needles and faded orange canvas. The puk-puk sound of lake waves kissing the edge of the boat. This is a part of me, this place.  This is a landscape I forgot I knew.  Flashes of memory, or images from baby pictures from when I was the only child, which means they must have still been married.  Maybe still happy, though I don’t remember anything other than the smell of hot pine needles and life jackets. Oh my god, this is my home too. This was my home, first.

Jesus. This was meant to be a funny story.  A description, triggering a memory, triggering an epiphany:  I didn’t want to stay because I wanted to be an actor. I wanted stay because Canada was home.

So I talk to the loon about it as I float in the middle of Little Clam Lake.  What to do, what to do?  How do I tell my mother that I want to make a life 13, 000 miles away?  She’s going to freak. Think of the positives. Imagine how excited Dad will be.  The daughter he has missed for so long – seen for a grand total of 27 weeks over the last nine years – wants to stay!  Wants to move in with him and his wife! Only – now this is awkward. This is delicate, how I approach this memory and not hurt anyone.  Because I really don’t want to hurt anyone. But it’s part of the story and I have to at least acknowledge what happened, because it triggered stuff that won’t make sense otherwise.  Bonehead decisions that I made.  Serious ramifications barely dodged.  Stuff that shaped the ensuing years.  The deal was six months – I would stay with them for six months.  It never crossed my mind that it would be a problem if I wanted to extend the invitation.  Of course now, older, my toes curl in embarrassment at the arrogance of that assumption.  It was my stepmother’s apartment.  Dad had moved in with her when they got married, but it had been her space for years already.  To have a nineteen year old girl suddenly take up residence in the second bedroom, eating their food, living her life, often getting home in the wee hours of the morning, occasionally not getting home at all…I get it now.  That wasn’t part of the deal.  But at the time, it was completely unexpected that I wouldn’t be wanted.

I have to be delicate here because the last thing I want to do is hurt anyone’s feelings. I am infinitely grateful to my stepmother for marrying my dad.  She’s the best thing that ever happened to him.  My nightmares about him trapped in his bachelor apartment during a blizzard went away when they got married.  And I wasn’t angry when he told me the news.  Definitely surprised. Hurt, I guess – but hurt mainly at how torn he was.  Divided loyalties.  Awkward.  I don’t want to be the cause of this. I go back to Australia, but I’m already hatching Plan B.

The long-haired furniture salesman.  I’ll stay with him, just till I get on my feet.  Find a job, get a place, apply for theatre schools.  He’s more than happy to let me crash at his pad.  I’m in Australia for six weeks, on the dole, packing up my life and avoiding my mother’s tearful gaze when my long-haired lover calls long-distance.  Hysterical over the phone.  His mother has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. My jaw aches.  My gums are flaring.  I’ve been gargling with hydrogen peroxide for weeks to stave off infection in my impacted molars.  They have to come out.  My mother and stepfather are sympathetic, but I’m nineteen now and no longer under their health-care package. If I want to have my teeth removed I’ll just have to spend my airline ticket money.  Canada isn’t going anywhere – maybe after you finish your degree you can think about going back.  Forget it. If you won’t support me I’ll figure it out on my own.  Getting used to that now.

The School of Dentistry in Haymarket offers free services if you’re prepared to be a guinea pig for the students.  I wait for hours in the dusty corridors.  They’ve been offering “modern and efficient treatment for the impoverished” since 1940. I don’t think much has changed. Migrants and irritable mothers with packs of runny-nosed children are my companions. When I am finally ushered into the theatre I smile brightly at half a dozen wide-eyed students, all about my age.  “You lot look even more scared than I me!” I joke, attempting to break the ice.  When no-one cracks a smile I know I’m fucked.

All I remember is the lecturing dentist’s voice bellowing over the buzz of the saw as it carves into my jaw:  “GO DEEPER!  GO DEEPER!”

My step-father picks me up afterwards, smiling sympathetically.  I can’t move my mouth to respond.

Two weeks later, although the pain has largely receded I still can’t completely open my mouth.  I wedge a mag-light between my teeth and peer into the bathroom mirror.  Mystery solved.  One of the students has accidentally sewn the inside of my mouth to my gum. I sterilize the manicure scissors over a Bic lighter and manage to cut the stiches free.  It’s lovely to be able to yawn again.

I make a compilation tape of the classical music I’ve grown up listening to, and play it for my mother the night before I leave.  We sob in each other’s arms to Dvorak’s New World Symphony.

My plane is stuck on the tarmac at Kingsford Smith for five hours.  My family are long-gone, back to their regular lives. I clutch a going-away present from my larrikin uncle, a wooden box with strict instructions emblazoned on its lid: do not open until in flight.  The minutes ooze. It feels like Australia is playing one last trick on me.  We’re not letting you go that easily, love.  We’re finally ordered off the plane so they can make unspecified repairs, and squat in a corridor for a spell.  One lad cracks open his duty-free grog and we tuck in.  A supercilious attendant warns us that if we keep it up we might not be let back on the plane.  When we finally take off I’m buzzed with Jack Daniels and tears. My seat companions are desperate to know what’s in the box.  I pry it open and find three baby crocodiles nestled in a bed of straw, grinning toothily at me.

When I arrive in Toronto thirty hours later I’m met by the long-haired furniture salesman. I don’t recognize him at first. His face is pasty. His hair is lank.  A spasm jolts through me: this is a huge mistake.

two. desperate measures

This is the story of what made me decide to become an actor.

I dropped out of university at the end of first year.  I was doing Communications at the University of Technology, Sydney.  I only did it because I didn’t get into NIDA, and I had to do something.  NIDA had seemed like a foregone conclusion.  I had won the Australian division of Sam Wanamaker’s inaugural Globe Shakespeare Theatre Competition in my final year of school. The great Australian Shakespearean actor, John Bell, and premier casting director, Liz Mullinar, adjudicated the competition.  I won a trip to London to participate in a workshop with Mark Rylance on the foundations of the yet-to-be-reconstructed Globe Theatre.  I had vowed to whatever God I could conceive of that if I won the competition, I would conclusively know I was good enough to be an actor, and leave it at that: no more pursuing the career that my parents advised would be lovely, but wouldn’t it be a good idea to have a degree in my back pocket just to be on the safe side?  I suppose a promise to a deity I wasn’t completely sure existed is a promise that can safely be broken. I promptly found myself filling out an application to audition for NIDA.  

NIDA was the be-all and end-all in theatre training as far as I was concerned.  Judy Davis had studied there, playing Juliet to Mel Gibson’s Romeo in her final year. Judy Davis’s performance as Sybylla Melville in My Brilliant Career had become my private touchstone. The film, directed by Jane Campion, was my education in the fact that Australia has a strong feminist history, and that an ugly duckling could transform into a beautiful, talented and independent swan.  It was through My Brilliant Career that I first felt a connection to the Australian landscape, and finally began to identify with Australia as home.   

But I didn’t get into NIDA.  Someone pulled me aside after the second round and advised me to ‘get some life experience’ before auditioning again. How odd it is to be the person who gives this same advice to eighteen year olds all these years later.  I wish there was some way I could express to them how well I understand that feeling of utter desolation. 

Communications at UTS was a prestige course: very popular, which had driven the entrance marks sky-high. Without a serious plan B, and not wanting to squander the perfect tertiary entrance rank I had earned, I decided to give it a whirl. If I couldn’t be an actor I could always be a journalist, which was the only way I could think of being able to earn a living through writing. (Always with the money, Tiffany!) It was immediately apparent to me that I was in the wrong program.  I found myself at an institution where my beloved Shakespeare had been chucked on the dust heap of Dead White Males, and deconstructionism held sway.  I learned two things that year: how to roll a joint, and that I was never going to be a journalist.

One afternoon I skived off classes and found myself at matinee screening of Henry and June, a film based on the diaries of erotica writer, Anaïs Nin. The world of 1930s bohemian France, filled with sexual experimentation, intellectual debate and modernist art, set my suburban existence in stark relief. I left the cinema inflamed (on multiples levels) and utterly determined to take charge of my own fate. A fate that bloody well better have some good sex in it.