fifteen. vangroovy

Toronto in April is grey, cold, flat and hard.  Vancouver in April is green, blue, pink and delicious. You’re going to love Vancouver, one of my classmates promises.   It’s so you.

It’s opening night of The Matchmaker. We’re in the dressing room getting ready when I ask the Mistress of Speech and Dialects if I may borrow her John Barton videos for the week. I want to brush up on my Shakespeare before heading to Vancouver. She coolly refuses me.  Wow, she really doesn’t like you, says the actor playing Dolly, eyes wide.

It’s closing night. Our last performance as student actors. As we take our final bow I notice a tear sail from my eye, catching the light as it arcs into the audience.  It’s relief, not sentiment.  Get stuffed.  I made it through.

At the after-party, the Poet asks if he can write once I get settled.  He says he is going to miss me. He tells me there is a lot he needs to say.

Four days after finishing theatre school I pack my life into a duffle bag. What’s left fits into a few boxes that will squat indefinitely in my dad’s storage locker.  I decide to leave all my music behind. An experiment: new life, new tunes.  But I pack ten postcards that connect me to the past. I’ve been collecting them since high school, favourite paintings from the NSW Art Gallery.  Sydney Long’s Pan, a few from the Heidelberg School, a Brett Whiteley landscape of Sydney Harbour.  They can decorate wherever I end up living.  It’s still up for grabs.  The Grandfather has wangled me a one-way ticket to Vancouver as part of my contract, but accommodation is my responsibility.

I am picked up at the airport by the sister of a friend of my dad.  Her daughter has just bought a new condo in Surrey, and needs a roommate. My eyes pop as we drive from the airport past lush pine trees and rolling green meadows. This is Vancouver, my dad’s friend’s sister says smugly. We try to keep it a secret.  The air is sweet and warm.  I can feel my sap running.  Springtime comes to Vancouver weeks earlier than it does to Toronto. It hasn’t been blanketed in slush and frozen, dirty snow for months – a lumbering cold carrying depression on its back.  Vancouver has slept in damp, chilly darkness, but always holds the promise of green.  March tulips nudging the moist earth are the first hint of spring in Vancouver.  Thawing dog turds are its herald in Toronto.

I stick my postcards up in my empty bedroom, careful not to mar the fresh paint. It’s my first experience of condo living. The whole building smells like new carpet and silicone sealant.  I attempt a trial run of getting into to town for work. A forty minute walk to the Skytrain station, and another forty five minutes into Vancouver.  I can shave fifteen minutes off the walk if I cut through a large, wooded plot of undeveloped land.  I only have to do it once to realise that Surrey is a tough town. Going off the beaten track might not be a good idea.  I’ll be rehearsing six days a week and then performing till eleven at night.  I need to find a place to live in the city, fast.

One of my classmates from theatre school has moved to Vancouver as well.  She doesn’t have a gig, but the weed in Lotusland is cheap and plentiful. My postcards come down and I decamp to her couch in Kitsilano. After my first day of rehearsal, I walk across the Burrard Street Bridge and marvel at my good fortune.  It’s a miniature version of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  I claim it as my own. Cyclists whizz past me through the warm sweet night.  Sail boats babble softly in their sleep.  Oil tankers glitter on the horizon under the diamonds sparks of North Van.  My own mini harbour bridge.  This city is all mine.  I have no relatives, no friends, no knowledge of this place.  But I have a job acting Shakespeare for the next five months.

I find a basement apartment just north of Broadway.  The young couple who own the house have converted the basement into an illegal flat to help cover their mortgage.  I’m on a non-Equity contract and extremely conscious of the fact that I’m on my own. There isn’t anyone here to bail me out.  The flat is the cheapest place I can find.  They seem like a nice couple – very eager to have me live beneath them.  It’s not until I move in that I realise that the kitchen they have constructed lacks a sink.  I have to do all my washing in the laundry basin tucked behind the monstrous furnace.  Instead of an oven, there’s a hotplate. The second-hand fridge leaks coolant, contaminating my first load of groceries.   My landlady is rake thin.  She’s just given birth to their first baby.  She is a long-distance runner, but she ignored her doctor’s advice to stop training in the last stage of her pregnancy.  While going for a jog in her thirty-sixth week, the baby’s skull cracked her pelvis. She has to use a rolling office chair to move around the house while her bones knit together again.  I lie on my air mattress listening to her roll back and forth above me on my days off.  They have a huge German Shepherd that likes to paw the basement door open and crouch in the doorway, watching me silently with huge, glittering eyes.  I break the lease after three weeks and demand they return my bond, threatening to report them for operating an illegal suite.  I have discovered self-righteousness.  They give me my money back, shame-faced and abashed.

My postcards come down again. I find another apartment in the back of a huge old boarding house off Denman Street.  All my worldly goods fit into the boot of a taxi-cab.  The driver arrives at my new home, but won’t let me have my belongings.  He wants to take photos of me first.  He pulls out a camera with a telephoto lens and demands that I pose for him in front of his cab.  I refuse.  He has all my stuff.  I don’t know what to do.  A man in his early thirties with a goatee and bright blue eyes approaches. Is there a problem here?  Yeah, this asshole won’t give me my stuff.  His blue eyes go very hard as he stares at the driver. A twinkle of crazy behind them.  Give the lady her stuff, pal.  I’ve been rescued.  The man helps me carry my bags to the tiny furnished apartment at the back of the building.  He’s an actor who lives in the garret of the same boarding house. An American who has moved to Vancouver because the film industry is booming.  Big fish in a friendly Canadian pond.  He’s writing a screenplay and shlocking another film he has already written, produced and starred in.  Rescued by an actor who makes a living playing crazy bad guys. Welcome to Vancouver.

My apartment is so small that I can carry my telephone on its extension cord from the bedroom, through the kitchen and into my bathroom.  I could talk in the bath tub, if I had anyone to call.  I paint one wall salmon pink because the apartment is mine, all mine, and way out my budget but I love it.  I become friends with a squirrel who leaves nuts for me on the windowsill.   I feel like Cinderella until he starts wandering into the kitchen when I leave my door open.  He’s cute when he’s outside, but indoors, he starts to look like a really big rat.  My postcards are up, and I even have a little TV that came with the furnished apartment, but I realise that leaving my music behind was a big mistake.  I have never thought of myself as a muso, but suddenly realise that familiar tunes can make anywhere feel a little more like home.  I am lonely.  I have never lived on my own before.  I didn’t know there were so many hours of silence available to a person.  I buy a cheap guitar and that helps.  I write my first song.

Ode to Joni Mitchell

I’m not a writer,

But I wish I were.

To be quite honest,

I’m more of an editor.

I could tell you I’m a painter,

But I’m afraid you’d scoff.

I can do a nice liking

But it won’t be to your liking, cuz

I’m no Van Gogh.

Do you think you could love me?

There’s not much to see.

I try to be so enigmatic and pretend that I’m an addict, but,

It’s just not me.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my share of troubles too.

But they’re not anything that could make a record like ‘Blue’.

I’ve never given up a baby

I’ve never even had one

But you know when you’re sensible and sexually responsible,

It’s just not done.

 

I’m a product of the 90’s

I’m really so PC

The only thing left to fight for

Is saving the CBC

 

Do you think you could love me?

There’s not much to see

I try to be so enigmatic and pretend that I’m an addict but

It’s just not me.

four. invisibility

Thinking, as I wander through the happy, buzzing city of Adelaide in my 42 year-old body, about invisibility and anonymity. The complaint expressed by so many women once they reach ‘a certain age’ that they become invisible. I’ve noticed it myself since…when? Since becoming a mother? Is it since I got older, or became a teacher? Or to be more precise, when I let go of being an actor? My fingers itch to shave all my hair off, to let it grow back its natural colour. To see what salt and pepper would look like. To commemorate the transition from actor to PhD candidate. To say get stuffed to society’s insistence that youth is beauty. Bald is in. People would probably assume I’m doing chemo. I could raise money for charity: they have head-shaving fundraisers these days. But I can’t quite bring myself to pull the clippers out from under the sink. I tell myself I it’s because I won’t get work in the odd commercial I seem to book every ten months or so, which, while they don’t remotely satisfy as an artist, sure help pay the bills. I don’t do it because my nine year old daughter’s eyes fill with tears every time I threaten it. I remember that childhood fear so well. A parent who changes is no longer immortal. I give myself these excuses, but really, is it just because I’m too vain? I’d do it for a show…give me the chance to play Queen Elizabeth or a cancer patient and I’d be all over it. But simply to overcome some personal vanity…I’m just not brave enough.
Self-worth is enmeshed with visibility for vast swathes of our lives. And yet there is such freedom in not being noticed. The little girl I watched while the kids were at their swimming lesson: she was about nine, and danced with complete abandon to the pop music pumping through the PA system. Effortlessly graceful, moving just for the pleasure of discovering what her birdlike little body could do. Children assume their invisibility. It’s only when we begin to equate value with being seen that beauty starts to matter.

a scene.
phone rings
– Hello?
– How does it feel to be the most beautiful woman on the Canadian stage?
– Why thank you, sir. You’re pretty gorgeous yourself…
– No, no – that’s what it says in the paper this morning. Haven’t you seen it?
– Sorry?
– Honey pass me the paper… here it is. “Newcomer Tiffany Knight, one of the most beautiful women on the Canadian stage–”

– Your wife’s there?
– Why wouldn’t she be? Hey li’l buddy, get off the table. Eat your banana…

– I have to go.
– Aren’t you excited? You’re the most beautiful –
– Sure thing. I’ll see you later.

A few weeks ago I was noticed, after a show I’d seen at the Bakehouse. I was walking back to my car down a quiet road off Hutt Street. A knot of drunken men emerged out of the parklands and began weaving towards me. You know that feeling of foreboding when you suddenly go on high alert? The feeling of your guts suddenly going very cold?
I can tell I’m going to have to pass them to get to my car. I haven’t felt this kind of dread for a long time. These days I’m not often alone in the city after dark. I can tell when they spot me. Their drunken veering takes on purpose: a school of fish thinking as a single organism. One starts howling “Lady in Red” at the top of his lungs. I casually readjust my keys inside the pocket of my red trench coat. My arm stays relaxed, but at its end is now a spiked fist; the only piece of self-defence I’ve picked up. That, and making myself invisible, an old trick I developed walking home from theatre school in Toronto past the drunks on Queen St East. A technique refined after rehearsals at the Firehall, walking to the bus stop past the junkies and panhandlers on Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. Fix your gaze into the middle distance. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t flinch, even when someone lurches across your path. Don’t respond to catcalls or requests for spare change. Make yourself look busy, alert – on a mission – but never run. Never show fear.
As I get to my car the one of the drunks lunges at me. “Lady in reeeed…..daaancing with me….cheek to cheek…” A girl on a bicycle glides past. She stops. “Are you alright?” Bless her. Solidarity with a twenty-something. A girl on a street bike, wearing shorts and a t-shirt, coming to my defence. One guy detaches himself from the clutch and pulls his mate back. “Sorry love…he’s really drunk…c’mon mate…” I push the button on my keychain that unlocks the car. The hazard lights wink cheerily. “I’m fine. Thanks”. The girl cycles into the night. I sit in my car and shake. Furious with them. Furious that my favourite red coat just turned me into a target. Furious with myself because I used to feel that kind of fear more often – but as a younger woman, would have simply accepted it. All those moments of bittersweet nostalgia, of feeling invisible to men because I’m older, a mother, not-an-actor; and suddenly I crave invisibility again.

one. in which the narrator introduces herself

Dear Lucy.  Dear Holly.  Dear Ashton.  Dear all the young women who are in the process of becoming actors.

This is to those of you who dream of being famous; or like me, simply long to be a part of the theatre. The ones who also think they might one day want to have a family. This is my story.  I tell it to you because when I trained to become an actor, none of my female teachers were parents.  When I entered the theatre professionally, there were only one or two women whom I admired as successes who also had children.  And it was complicated for them.

I was born in the early seventies.  My mother was a feminist.  I know this because she told me off when I was six years old for saying that sweeping was women’s work.  I also know it because she told me I could be anything I wanted­―provided that wasn’t a nurse or a teacher. I didn’t realise then how new feminism was.  My mother was a trailblazer in her own modest way. Women had only started fighting for equal rights in the workforce a decade or so before I was born.  We don’t have a sense of the past as children.  We assume that the way life is for us is the way it has always been.  I assumed, because my mother worked and told me that I could be anything, do anything, that women had successfully been doing that for generations.

How do you define success—as an actor, as a woman?  I wanted to become an actor because I wanted to be a part of a community that accepted me.  Because I saw Star Wars when I was five years old, and wanted to dissolve into the theme music I could hear swelling up through the floor boards of my bedroom from the stereo in the living room downstairs.  I wanted to be an actor because it was something more than stifling suburbia; more than terrifying Australian sports culture and tedious, bourgeois, good-girl-private-school studiousness.  Because Shakespeare was able to articulate all the huge emotions I was experiencing, and gave me the words to express them.  Because I was good at it. Because people praised me for it.  Because it was the first place, after being unwillingly transplanted from my home in Canada to a foreign land, where I felt I belonged.

I was born in Toronto to an Australian mother and Canadian father.  My mother had travelled to Canada after training as a nurse in Sydney. She married my father in 1970. They had two children, me and my younger brother, before divorcing seven years later.   I remember how my mother’s Australian accent set her apart from the Canadian mums; in comparison, her voice was beautiful, lilting, exotic.  When she spoke, I wasn’t a dual citizen, but a “jewel citizen”; something to be infinitely proud of.  She gave me a pair of duty-free pearl earrings when we moved to Australia in 1982.  My new step-father had successfully pursued work in Sydney because she longed to return home. Even at the age of nine the pearls felt like a bribe; compensation for being taken away from Canada and my real dad.  I thought duty-free was ‘Judy free’ because of her Australian accent. I didn’t know who Judy was, or why her pearls were free, but they were far too big for my little, perpetually-infected ear lobes.  My memory of leaving Canada is standing in the airport bathroom with tears streaming down my face as she forced the posts through my pus-encrusted lobes, promising me, “They’re Judy Free!  They’re cultured pearls!”  They eventually ended up in her jewellery box.

Australia wasn’t a happy place for a long, long time.  I didn’t fit.  The crows sounded like strangled babies. The hot dogs had red, leathery skins that squeaked between my teeth.  The ketchup was sauce. The children called me Yank.  My year five teacher would send me to the corner shop at lunch to buy his smokes, which he taught me to hide under my jumper on the journey back.  There were school uniforms, class captains, sports captains, assembling on the hot bitumen playground at ‘attention’ and ‘at ease’.   The sap from the gumtrees formed hard, sticky balls that would hurt when a boy threw at you. The spiders could kill you. People burned their garbage and the melting plastic smelled like vomit.  If you didn’t play cricket, footie or netball, you didn’t exist. Christmas was in the summer and the only way to have a real tree was to wire three scrawny saplings together.

But my class did a play in year six and I made people laugh. I felt like they saw past my crooked teeth, thick glasses and funny accent, my preposterous height and clumsiness.  By seeing me as someone else, for the first time they saw me.