eighteen. post-natal audition

Act One

– Congratulations!
– Thanks, Christopher.
– What a performance!
– …just a lovely audience…
– You’re a marvellous Helena, darling.
– Thanks Christopher. Thanks for the gig.
– Of course! You’re part of the family!

– Speaking of families…funny you should say that…
– You’re not…oh darling…is that why you’re drinking —
– Soda? Yes. We wanted to wait twelve weeks till we…
– Yes, yes I understand. Well. Isn’t this exciting news.

– I don’t think the costumes will need altering…
– This will change your life you know.
(Laughing) Yes, all the fathers are warning…
– This will ruin your career.

– What did you say?
– Acting and motherhood — It won’t work.

Act Two

– Hi my name’s Tiffany, I’m represented by LLA, and these are my profiles.

She turns to her right. Turns to her left. Back to camera.

– Thanks darling, and can you just drop the robe now please?

She hesitates for a millisecond, then lets her bathrobe fall. Underneath she is wearing a one-piece bathing suit.

– Okay, so you’re in the back yard and your gorgeous children are playing with your gorgeous husband in the pool, and you’re smiling at them and feeling like everything’s right in the world. That’s it. Happier. A little happier please. Super. And now you notice to camera right – no, camera right – that a jaguar has wandered into the backyard. No no, you’re not scared, you’re just a little perplexed. That’s right. It’s a beautiful creature. Look at its lithe body. Look at those spots as it stalks through your backyard, past your children, past your husband, past the drinks table, past the barbecue. And it’s gone off camera left. You think about it for a second. That’s right. And then you say….

– Honey, I think we should buy that Jag!

– Cut. Great. Thank you.

She gathers her robe up and presses it to her chest, hard. Exits to the foyer. She weaves through the other women standing around in bathrobes waiting for their auditions. Grabs her bag from under the seats, apologising to another actor who has taken her empty spot.

– Excuse me could I just grab my…
– Oh! Sorry about that. How was he?
– Fine, fine. Easy. In and out.
– God why’s it taking so long then? I have another audition across town at three..
– Dunno. Sorry, I’ve got to dash. Good luck with it.

She slides on her thongs, motors to the bathroom as fast as she can without running. Locks herself into a stall and perches on the toilet. When she drops her robe, it is evident that her breasts have been leaking milk. She pulls out and awkwardly assembles a portable breast pump. Pulls the strap of her bathing suit down from her right shoulder. The milk squirts and foams into the container. She sighs with relief.

Act Three

– HI I’M HOME! How is he?
– He’s fine.

She snatches a six week old baby from her husband, nestling him again her body. Her shoulders drop. Her breath settles.

– Hey buddy. How you doing? Did you have a good time with your dad?
– How was the audition?
– The usual. Running late. One take. I nearly sprayed all over the camera, though. That was a new experience. How’s everything here?
– Fine.
– Did he take the bottle?
– You bet. He’s a champ. Aren’t you, buddy?
– How many diapers?
– Didn’t count. You weren’t away that long.
– Really? It felt like forever. I was mentally prepared to be away till two thirty. The minute the clock ticked over I was jonesing for him.
– We were fine.
– I know you were. It’s just. It’s kind of like having one of your internal organs floating around in the world in the care of a stranger.
– I’m not a stranger.
– I know you’re not. That’s not what I mean.
– I know. I have to split.
– Really?
– If I’m going to catch the bus…
– Oh just take the car.
– No you’re right. The parking’s killing us.
– But it takes so much longer. And you’re tired. Aren’t you.
– I’ll be fine. See you little buddy.
– I miss you.
– I miss you too. Take it easy. I’ll see you tonight.

He is gone. She looks at her baby.

-Hello stranger.

thirteen. but whatever happened to mr furniture?

Grey Wolf is my dad’s best friend.  She’s the sister he never had.  He met Grey Wolf through her ex-husband, Big Daddy.  There’s a picture of Big Daddy holding me when I was a newborn.  I’m almost invisible, wrapped in his meaty forearms.  His legs are splayed to make room for his beer belly, and he has a double chin because he is smiling down at me. He is pretending to nurse me from a bottle of gin.  Big Daddy is an engineer. Sometimes, we visit Big Daddy and Grey Wolf on our Dad-weekends.  They have a flea market, and I always get a little toy when we visit. One time I get red, knee-high plastic boots for my Wonder Woman Barbie.  Big Daddy and Grey Wolf have a dog named Mukluk.  Mukluk is more wolf than dog. He is so big that when he stalks by me he accidentally knocks me over with his thick woolly tail. He doesn’t even know that I’m there.  He is very big, but I am also very small.  My favourite thing at Big Daddy’s house isn’t the flea market.  It isn’t Grey Wolf’s ancient babushka dolls that she lets me play with as long as I’m very careful not to lose the baby one. It isn’t even the tractors that we get to ride, perched on Big Daddy’s lap.  My favourite thing is the bubble baths.  Grey Wolf always lets me have a bubble bath in her big pink tub. It’s Our Thing. And even though she always makes the water a bit too cool, and the water so shallow that it hardly reaches my belly button, bubble baths are my favourite thing because of the way she sells it.  “Dahhling,” she asks in her husky, posh, cigarette-soaked British accent.  “How would you like a bubble baaaath?” The way the words pour out of her mouth and her eyes twinkle into mine make a bubble bath sound like the most exotic adventure possible.

Grey Wolf had another name when she was married to Big Daddy, but then she left him and moved to a tiny island in Georgian Bay.  She moved there with one of the labourers who worked at the flea market.  They lived in a yellow school bus they had towed onto the island while they rebuilt an abandoned cabin.  It was their island.  No else could go on it without their permission, and in the winter, they had to cross country ski to the mainland for supplies. Once a bear tried to rip down their door to steal their food.  Sometimes they would have to eat beaver to make it through the winter.  My dad hated the new guy.  Once when we visited them the grownups got very, very drunk and my dad threw a chair and chased him out into a blizzard.  My brother and I were frightened that my dad would go to jail if he killed the new guy but Grey Wolf promised us it would all work out in the end.  She was right.  The new guy went away one summer and never came back.  But we did. The yellow school bus slowly disappeared into the bush while the cabin came to life. It got electricity, and running water, and the walls became lined with books.  Grey Wolf taught at the Indian school across the channel.  She was so loved by the community that she was given her new name.  She talked to God quite a lot, especially when she was drunk.  As I got older, we would stay up late and she would smoke cigarettes and we would talk about my hopes and dreams for the future. Every once in a while she would stop me mid-sentence because God was interrupting and she needed to have a brief discussion with him on a particular point.  Grey Wolf called me Black Wolf.  It was Our Thing.  In the summer, when school was out, she ran a marina from her island.  She would stand on her jetty in a leopard-skin bikini, a gin and tonic in one hand and a smoke in the other, and wave prospective yachts down.

One summer the furniture salesman came with us to visit Grey Wolf on her island.

Black Wolf.

– Yes, Grey Wolf?

– I think you should know.

– Know what?

– I had a chat with your fellow.

– You did?

– I did.

– Okay…

– I told him – I want you to know this darling – I told him that. If he ever hurts you. I will hunt him down. And I will kill him.

– Oh. Okay.

– I don’t need to leave the island to do it.

– I know you don’t.

– But I will do it. 

– Okay. Thanks. I think.

I found one of my journals from that summer.  There was an entry I had written about going to see his therapist with him. His dad was paying for the sessions.  He was having difficulty dealing with his mother’s death.  He told me that his therapist thought it would be a good idea for me to start attending the sessions too. I wrote that I was afraid to be alone with him afterwards.  That I was frightened of him, of how much he was drinking, how big he was. The things he expected of me.

I don’t remember writing any of that.

It’s autumn now.  Night-time in Toronto and I’m alone. The phone rings.

Hello?

– Hey baby. How’s it going? 

– Oh, fine. Still working on this costume history stuff.  How’s the convention?

– Lots of orders. Dad’s really pleased with all the leads I’ve brought in.

– That’s great.

– I sure miss you.

– Mm hm.

– Ten days is a long time to be apart.

– Sure is.

– So, what did you do today?

– Well…I went for a drive in the country.

– Who with?

– That guy from school.

– Which one?

– You know, the one who gave me the tape.

– Why?

-Because he wanted to show me the changing colours. The leaves, they’re are all changing colours. It’s beautiful up there. We should go when you get back.

– Are you attracted to him?

– I think so. Maybe. But nothing happened. Nothing’s going to happen. I’ve made a promise and I’m going to keep it.

The phone clicks off.

Three hours pass. It rings again.

 Hello?

– I’ve just talked to my therapist.

– It’s eleven o’clock at night. You called her at home?

– She says that we can stay together as long as you never see him again.

– But…he’s in my class.  What are you saying?

– That’s the deal.  You have to never see him again.  That’s the only way we can move on.

– But nothing happened.  I told you.  We need to figure this out – 

– THAT’S WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO! DO YOU HEAR ME? THAT’S WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO.

Eleven thirty. Another call.

Hello?

– Hi Dad.

– What’s the matter peanut?

– I’m…I don’t know what to do. I’ve screwed everything up.

– What’s happened.

– He’s so angry and I don’t know how to fix it.

– Get in a cab.

Four words that change everything.

I’m sleeping in the spare room again, just like the old days when Canada was a break from real life, not life itself.  Sleeping deeply for the first time in weeks. When I wake up, I wonder where I will sleep next.  Dad and I take a load of empty boxes to the loft so I can get my stuff before he gets back.  Fax paper pours from the machine into a puddle on the floor. He’s sorry.  He wants to work it out. He wants me to call. I realise what I must have put my mother through when I faxed her my big news a few months earlier.

I leave the ring on the counter. Try to buff the scratch off its surface one more time.  Slide the key under the front door.

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.