MEMOIR: ME VERSUS GIRLS
Her name was Lynette, and she was the dreamiest girl in grade six. She was blonde and otherworldly. She, like me, was only eleven, but that was enough. It would do. I think we may have touched hands once, clammy and warm, soft and fleeting—but I can’t be sure that this piece of memory, this touch of hand, goes with Lynette.
But I do remember her, or an impression of her, and that was her name, and she was “my” girl, the first girl who ever mattered to me, who made my heart all nervous-bird fluttery. She was neat and special and I liked her so much I would never tell my parents about her. Because they would fuss. It would be excruciating.
Lynette never knew, or even suspected, that she moved my world. That I lay awake at night thinking about her. That I sat in class between morning recess and lunchtime, wondering if I’d see her. Wondering if I’d have the nerve even to mumble an awkward hello.
Lynette was the first girl I ever had anything resembling “feelings” about. And yet I knew nothing about her. I knew nothing about books she liked, TV shows she liked, music she liked, her favourite meals, where she lived, nothing. She was mysterious. I loved her the way, I suppose, you might love a painting with a velvet rope in front of it. You stand at a distance, admiring it, unable to touch it, but wishing you could. I think Grade Six Adrian wanted to touch Lynette’s brushwork, or at least get close enough to see it. But he only ever saw her, in passing, at school, from a distance—but like a fine painting she was a vision, and that vision sustained me, and got me through bad days.
I still think fondly of Lynette because I never learned anything about her to spoil the image I always had. She never became a real, complex, flawed, mixed-up collage of a person. She was all surface, no substance. She was glamour, made of reflected light and magic. I have no doubt that she was as lovely a person as she appeared, but we were never introduced.
This was the hurly-burly world of grade six, after all. Life moved fast.
Next thing, we were suddenly all in grade seven, and while on one hand we had at last become kings of the school, we were all preoccupied–and shit-scared. Because while it was marvellous to have at last clawed our way to the summit of the shit-heap at primary school—we are grade seven! fear us!—the sad fact was that the very next year we were all getting packed off to high school, and that meant a very snakes-and-ladders reversal of fortune for us as we would be lowly first-years, lowly grubs at the bottom of the academic and social heap! The humiliation of it! We would have to make sure we enjoyed grade seven.
In the end, as fickle fate would have it, Lynette and I were not to be: at the end of grade seven, she went to a different high school from the one I went to. We never saw each other again. Then again, I don’t know if we ever saw each other. I saw her; I doubt she ever saw me.
High school was like a new geological epoch. Things were different now. The air was different, the light was different. Everything was brighter, more fraught, more intense, more terrifying. The stakes were higher. Everything mattered now in a way it had not mattered previously.
And as everything was changing, we were changing, too. Puberty was erupting in all of us. Some it rendered monstrous (sticks hand up); some it rendered impossibly gorgeous, handsome and sexy. It was astonishing. You could almost smell the boiling hormones surging through everyone as you walked around. Some kids seemed to revel in it, enjoying it, playing up their newfound sexual feelings; others, like me, felt confused and bashful, blushing and sweating profusely. My mum commented that I was constantly growing out of my clothes as fast as bought them.
High school seemed much less about academic education, and much more about some other sort of education instead. There was a throbbing undercurrent beneath everything that even lumps like me could feel. You knew who was with whom. You knew who was popular. You knew some girls seemed to have a waiting list. You wondered how to get on those waiting lists. You knew some really vile guys (often the sort of guys who would help bullies, or otherwise clap and cheer bullies in their projects) who had no problems getting girlfriends, and you wondered how the hell they did that? What did the girls see in guys like that?
Some couples at lunchtime would lie around on blankets on the lawns and make out as if all alone, no doubt relishing the public display they were making. Teachers and admin frowned on such behaviour, but it never stopped anyone. The only thing I never saw was actual sex. Nobody dared go that far on the lawn outside the Manual Arts Block. But then you heard through the school grapevine that there were kids having actual sex out by the back fence of the school grounds, and using recycled plastic lunch-wrap and rubber-bands as makeshift prophylactics. The boys involved were said to be absolute legends, and the girls were slack molls, or worse.
There were always rumours surrounding such stories of accidental pregnancy from the Glad Wrap breaking, but I never heard or saw proof. I did hear stories of teenage pregnancy involving girls from other nearby high schools. There were inter-school rivalries, and one nearby school was considered a real hole, and it was no surprise that the boys there would use the sort of contraceptive sandwich wrap that would break. Only the boy geniuses at my school knew to use proper Glad Wrap as God intended.
About these boys. They regarded themselves and their mates as legends. Men among men. Heroes. They chased girls, flirted, chatted them up, groped when they could, laid on the bad boy charm, harassed—and ultimately won them, used them, and dumped them, Glad Wrap or no.
They would sit around in groups, these boys, teenagers, during idle moments, waiting at the beginning of a class for a maths teacher to turn up, or a bus driver to get back from a toilet break, and they would talk about these girls they chased and seduced and dropped. They would gossip about the girls in the class generally. They had the greatest, most horrifying contempt for them. Such loathing. Such vileness. They were all fat ugly molls. But it was all good fun. It was just joking, of, course. Boys being boys, and you know what they’re like, there’s nothing to it. Just blowing off steam.
(Boys being boys. This phrase, when I hear it now, in middle-age, and I’ve been hearing it all my life, used always vile and reprehensible behaviour, makes me gag.)
I was often in those groups of boys, back then. It was difficult not to be. I sat there, ears and face burning red, sick inside, feeling angry, confused, frightened, all at once. I hated these boys. I hated being there, but I didn’t know what to do. I did not feel like one of them. When the greatest, funniest jokes were about the huge size and slackness of a specific girl’s vagina (significantly, a girl from a poor background, a girl with a parent on welfare), and everyone is rolling around laughing, killing themselves laughing, I felt a profound sense of shame and wrongness. What this called for was something like the Superman I read about in comics. Superman with his blazing sense of justice, who instilled in me that same blazing sense of justice, who would swoop in and pound the living shit out of these boys—or, better yet, Wonder Woman!
This was teenage me. Child me. Reaching for a comic-book hero to serve up justice because even at this age I knew that real world justice would let me down here. Everything was in their favour, not mine. And as I’ve grown older, I’ve encountered this sort of behaviour countless times, everywhere. It’s unbelievable. Everything I ever needed to know about men I learned in school, in situations like these. Listening to arseholes laughing about the slackness of a sweet shy girl’s vagina because she was fucking so incredibly much, and wasn’t it just the most hilarious thing!
I hated those bastards. I’ve always been suspicious of boys and men ever since. When women complain about systemic misogyny, about patriarchy, about whole global systems of oppression operating across centuries and millennia, when they talk about bastards like Harvey Weinstein, and about middle managers threatening jobs ordinary women desperately need, etc etc—I believe everything, and every one. I understand.
Because I was raised a boy. I was raised a man. I groped a woman at a convention when I was 17 and clueless and I was deeply wrong, and I have always felt ashamed and sorry. I once kissed a girl without specific permission, because I believed she had given me signals welcoming the gesture. She did not. She ran away, upset, and I felt gutted. We never spoke again. Much later I heard that she had died in mysterious circumstances, her car found abandoned in churning surf at a beach. It haunts me.
I carry these experiences and others with me all the time, burning rocks in the pit of my gut, hot and painful, never letting me rest. In different times nobody would ever even blink about such incidents. But now we know that consent is the most important thing of all. I know that now. But teenage me? University me? I was an idiot, but that is no excuse. My conduct is my responsibility. I treated people, the ones I mention here and others, very poorly indeed, and I am ashamed.
But I’ve gotten away with it because (a) the times were different, and (b) I was a white male.
When I say I’m suspicious of boys and men, I am one of them. I am an offender, too.
Since those days, I have worked hard to do better. It’s a work in progress.
High School Adrian, a creature so deep into his own murky interiority that he was like something fished up from a deep abyssal ocean trench, all weird body and shambolic appearance, liked girls very much, and was very interested in them, but they didn’t much like him.
I don’t blame them, to be honest. I was a hopeless case, and knew it. I had no idea how to interact with girls. Standard advice like, “just be yourself” was no use because I had no idea how to even begin just being myself. At the time I was a kid who wrote terrible science fiction stories all the time and wanted to work up to writing novels. I also read every science fiction novel I could get my hands on. My bedroom was covered, wall to wall, in sf artwork. I also had a 4.5-inch reflector telescope. On cold, still, late nights after the street lights were turned off (after 1:30am) I would take the clanky, cumbersome thing and its tripod out to the backyard and spend a chilly couple of hours staring in bliss at stars, planets, and anything else I could find that looked interesting. This is who I was when I was home. This was me being myself. I was a deeply “interior” kind of person. There were not many hooks where a notional girl might attach herself. Unless she was also a geek, into astronomy and science fiction. These days that would not be a problem. But back in the 1970s it seemed unimaginable. I felt I had a big brand across my forehead: UNDATEABLE.
I was lonely. I wanted someone who would look at the shambles of me and not immediately throw up. Who would smile, and extend her hand.
There were a few girls in high school who were nice to me. It wasn’t all bad. The problem I had was largely with me, and how I saw myself, the extent to which I bought into what the bullies had been telling me every day for years. Most girls, as I say, avoided me. I was ill-mannered, had no conversational skills, didn’t know how to chat, share a joke, just get along like a regular person.
(To some extent, even now, sometimes I struggle with meeting people.)
Plus I was always sweating, because I was a hormone fountain. The endocrine gods were fickle. Some people they transformed into gods and goddesses; others they turned into cave trolls and toads. I would have given my right arm to have been even a cave troll.
Hospital, D20, August 1979. The Time Traveller standing in a ground floor corridor, leaning on a white-painted wall, when an office door opens, and a boy shuffles out, followed by a middle-aged female doctor with a bag and a bundle of documents. She looks concerned for the boy. The boy looks like a dead person, as if his living spirit has just been blasted right out of his body. He’s moving slowly. He believes his life is over. He’s been told he’s psychotic.
Despite believing my life was over, I met many wonderful girls and women in hospital, from all kinds of backgrounds and experiences. Some, who had been raped or survived childhood sexual abuse, were often blisteringly angry and that was hard to deal with for a sixteen-year-old boy. But on the whole everyone was splendid and I thrived.
One young woman, whom I’ll call Kelly, was my first great love. She was a fellow patient. I never quite found out what she was doing there but I have a feeling she might have been raped. She had a haunted look about her, and a sad sweetness, and freckles, that I liked. She and I got on well. We could talk. But I had no idea what to do. Once I began to realise I had proper, adult-scale feelings, I did not know how to deal with them, or how to proceed. I think she was a few years older, too, which didn’t help. But the main thing that got in the way was that we were both patients, with our respective histories. Relationships between patients were not encouraged. Such relationships generally contained far too much baggage to work in a healthy manner.
Nonetheless, I tried in my hopeless, clumsy way to woo her. I even told my parents about her. And, as I expected, they did indeed make a fuss. And it was excruciating.
Kelly and I never took off. We kind of just about achieved take-off speed, heading down the runway, but not enough. We ran out of runway. I was too young. She was too haunted. She did give me my very first kiss at a D20 Christmas party in 1981. It was quick and fleeting, but packed a lot of feeling in it. It lasted just a second, but I can still feel it, still feel my astonishment, my joy, my leaping over-full heart.
A year or so later she sent me a letter to tell me she was settling down with a guy in Bunbury, and there was a baby involved. I wrote back with my congratulations, but I felt hollowed out. It was awful. I was so sad. Many years later we met up again on Facebook. She said that when she got my reply letter that time, she could tell I was upset.
We corresponded for a while, but drifted apart. I think she was hoping the old magic might still be there, but I was long settled down. I wasn’t looking for anything new. She seemed lost, and I was sad for her, and wished I could help.
By 1982, I was 19 years old, haunted by the idea of being psychotic, haunted by my whole psychiatric experience, and imagining my life as before hospital and after hospital. I felt smashed by what I’d been through, and lonely. I’d missed out on Kelly, I understood, because I did not understand women. Had no idea, not one clue, nothing.
I also believed, in a very deep and fundamental way, that I would never be able to marry, because of my illness. I had thought I might just possibly be able to marry Kelly because she of all people would understand about my illness. A regular woman, I imagined, would never accept such “damaged goods”.
Then, one day, waiting at the doctor for an appointment, I picked up a copy of CLEO magazine and started reading it. From cover to cover it was articles about exactly the things I wondered about, written for and by women. It was startling. I made a point of reading every issue of CLEO I could get my hands on. I started reading COSMOPOLITAN, too. My brain was lighting up with powerful and helpful information.
Listen to women. Believe what they say. Don’t be a dick. Ten things women are looking for in a potential boyfriend. Don’t interrupt. Don’t leave the toilet seat up. And so much more besides, much of which I see reproduced these days on websites written by women for women. CLEO, I believe, has not survived, and that’s a shame, because it saved my life. It was not a perfect guide by any means. But it was a sound foundation on which to build an understanding. I could start with CLEO and go on from there. I could use tips and ideas from there and start talking to women that I met.
It changed my life.
It made it possible, when I chanced into meeting Michelle when I was 23, to talk to her, to become friends, to build a relationship, to not be a dick. To be a decent guy with her. On our first proper date in the city, though, I did sit her down, first thing, and told her about what I called “my sinister secret”, the whole psychotic, bipolar thing. I told her because she needed to know. If it was going to be a deal-breaking thing, better it happen at the beginning.
But it wasn’t, and it didn’t. She and my doctor at the time had a meeting, and talked all about it.
Meanwhile, for quite some time now the vast majority of my closest friends have been women. I treasure them, one and all. I feel as if I earned their friendship, in more ways than one. They are more interesting than men, have more to talk about, or at least I feel as if I have more in common with them. While I do have some good male friends, they are generally guys like me, who have been turned off by notions of traditional masculinity, of what blokes are supposed to be like—and what boys and men have always been like, the way I saw them in high school.
There are times I hate being male. There are times I’d love it if there was something like a Japanese onsen or health spa where you’d go in, for a fixed, limited time, and you’d take off your whole gender and sexual identity, your entire masculinity. Just take off the whole thing like a bathrobe and hang it on a hook. Because this would likely include your brain you’d hang that up, too. You’d be eyeballs on a stick. And for an hour or so you’d just take a break from all the bullshit tied up in being a man, the responsibilities, the obligations, the posing, the competition, the oneupmanship, the sexual anxieties, the worries about work and being a breadwinner, all of it. A break from being male. I think it would be lovely. Just eyes on a stick, and all the noise in your head gone.
This is why I like women. They’re not men. They’re more interesting. They’re funnier. More articulate. They’re allowed to have feelings. There’s no masculine bullshit. I can relax. Women are marvellous.