MEMOIR: GIRLS AND BOYS (BIG REWRITE)

 

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.

XXX

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.

XXX

When I was in high school, life was difficult and confusing. The bullying all the time was bad, as I’ve said. But what was worse was just being a boy, being male.

I learned many things in high school. I learned about different sorts of triangles (so handy!), and I learned that boys will be boys.

Boys in groups. Boys sitting around, waiting for a class to start, or on a school bus, smoking, on the way home. Anywhere, really. What mattered was the group. Groups of boys. Talking, having a laugh. Just mates together. Regular, ordinary boys, too; by no means “bad” boys, or “troubled” kids, nothing like that. Ordinary kids. They weren’t every boy; they were any boy. Any boy at all.

And God, how they laughed!

I’ve carried these memories all my life. They are some of the most difficult memories I’ve had to deal with in this entire project. I’ve gone over this chapter countless times. Right now this might be about the twelfth draft, because I’m trying to get this right. To tell the difficult truth about boys, and these boys, and me, the boy I was.

The thing I remember most, the thing that sticks, is this: it was a few minutes of downtime before a maths class. The teacher was late. I was sitting somewhere around the centre of the room. In the back corner was a group of boys, gossiping about girls they knew, girls with sexual reputations. One girl, a girl in this same class who had not arrived yet, who was quiet and shy, they said was so promiscuous, was such a slut, such a whore, that her vagina was huge and incredibly slack, that it hung loose between her legs.

They laughed themselves to the point of breathlessness, saying all this. They went over and over it. This girl’s grotesque genitals were the talk of the school. Everybody, it seemed, knew about it. And it was hilarious!

I remember that laughter. The hatred in that laughter. The contempt. Sure, they were just joking around, it was just idle banter, no harm intended. Just some boys blowing off steam. Nothing was meant by it. It was just some boys being boys, and can’t you take a joke?

I’ve been hearing these exact words all my life. I’m pretty sure I’m sick of hearing these words now. Because under cover of these words and this joke is every form of abuse, violence, misogyny that women (and many men) experience every day. It is a joke where the punch line can give you a broken jaw.

But it’s just boys being boys. It’s blowing off steam. Nothing is ever meant by it. You’re taking his words out of context. He never said that. It’s just a bit of fun. Can’t you take a joke?

I was often in or near those groups of boys, back then. It was difficult not to be. I sat there, in that room, 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!

Time Traveller Me watches all of this with a certain cold disdain—both for the laughing boys, and for my younger self, wishing for Superman to come and dish out some mighty fantasy justice. My teenage, bullied, cowed self was given to this kind of thinking. He was always imagining himself in situations where he had such superpowers, where he could smash his bullies about.

But here, in this situation, and the situations like it that I have encountered all my life since, superheroes wouldn’t help. These creeps here are weak. They have nothing going on. They don’t think. Why are they making jokes about a girl they know, about her most intimate parts? Mainly because they can. Because nobody tells them they can’t or shouldn’t. Because they’re boys. Boys have filthy minds. We all do. I do, you do, we all do.

What should my younger self have done here? I would love to say that teenage me should have shown some gumption and stood up and said, “That’s enough. You know that girl. You know she’s a decent girl. Don’t talk about her like that.” Or something.

I should have done that. In an ideal, perfect world I would have done that. They’d laugh at me, mock me, and I’d have to persist, to keep making the point. In the end, though, they would smash me to pieces, like a piece of cheap furniture you break up to burn in a fire. Because they are many, and I am just one doofus. But that’s what is called for here. Someone to speak for that girl, and for all their girls. Because the point about you being right and them being violent is this: they can hit you and knock you down, and even kill you—but you are still right.

You have to speak up. Because just as boys will be boys, it is also true that boys will be boys.

And as I’ve grown older I have seen that this only gets more and more true. It’s unbelievable. Everything I ever needed to know about men I learned in school, in situations like these.

But I don’t know, in a realpolitik sort of way, if this sort of noble protest, this principled stand against braying beasts, would achieve anything other than further destruction. It would be good for the protestor’s own soul and conscience, but that would be thin comfort when lying in your hospital bed recovering from the beating of your life. You’re up against prevailing, deeply embedded male culture here. The patriarchy. The Empire. The Reich. You’ve encountered a group of Hitler Youth joking about the girls they chase but secretly hate. What do you think will happen if you protest to them?

But what do you think will happen if you don’t? I’ll tell you. You’ll die inside, little by little. You’ll be torn. You’ll struggle. What do you do about power when it’s used like this? What do you do about boys and power? What is the right thing to do? How should you live?

I’ll tell you one thing for sure: speaking from where I sit now, in this young man’s far future, in a world that’s gone to hell and shows no sign of coming back any time soon—those braying bastards, those young men laughing about that girl’s genitals, should never in any scenario, be allowed to win. You can disappear up your own philosophy-studying arsehole, thinking about “what is the right thing to do?” But bastards like these laughing and joking about this girl and her alleged extreme promiscuity and her genitals? Get yourself a cricket bat, and get stuck into them. They will crush you, most likely, but go down swinging.

(But wait, I know some readers would be dying to interject, #NotAllMen are like those boys. Some men are decent. Some are allies. Some have never trafficked in that kind of humour, have never been in those sorts of groups, etc. Well, yay for you, bro. But it doesn’t need to be #AllMen. It only needs to be a majority to create a culture of acceptable abuse of women. Where a group of schoolboys can sit around waiting for maths class to start, laughing about a fellow student’s enormous slack genitals, because she’s such a disgusting slut. It doesn’t require all men to be pigs to create a culture where behaviour like that is okay. It probably doesn’t even need to be a majority. It just needs boys to be boys.)

I hated—and to this day still hate—those bastards. I’ve been suspicious of boys and men ever since. It has made me deeply uncomfortable about my own maleness.

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.

XXX

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, 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.

XXX

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. He looks like a dead person, as if his living spirit has 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.

No kidding.

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.

XXX

By 1982, I was 19 years old, still troubled 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 apart by what I’d been through, and lonely. I’d missed out on Kelly, I believed, 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, and wish I were not, that I were blank. 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.

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