MEMOIR: ME VERSUS GIRLS
Her name was Lynette, and she was the dreamiest girl in grade six. She was blonde and otherworldly yet still somehow accessible, though I’m a little unsure how I knew that since she and I never just about never spoke, as far as I can remember. I think we may have touched hands once, clammy and warm and soft and fleeting, but I don’t know that that was her, exactly. I have only the briefest impression of her, less a small black a white photo in a box than a dim recollection of having once seen such a box, and seen her photo in that box. But I do remember her, and that was her name, and she was “my” girl, the first one 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. That I was attracted to her like a planet to a star.
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. Not only did I never even get to first base, I could not even find the change room. 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 person. She was, in a way, the first celebrity I ever encountered. 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. We were never introduced.
This was the hurly-burly world of grade six, after all. Life moved fast. Next thing it was grade seven, and while on one hand we had at last become kings of the school, we were all preoccupied–and shit-scared–at the terrifying prospect of what was happening next year. Just as we were finally starting to get the hang of primary school, we would suddenly find ourselves at the bottom of the heap as first-years in high school. Lynette went to a different high school from the one I went to. Alas, we were never meant to be.
High school changed everything. It was like the transition between geological epochs. 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 before. Primary school now seemed like clownish rehearsals for an amateur theatre production; high school seemed like opening night on the West End.
And as everything was changing, so were we. Puberty had arrived, erupting in all of us, but acting differently from person to person. Some it rendered monstrous (sticks hand up); some it rendered impossibly gorgeous, handsome and sexy. It was astonishing. You could just about smell the boiling hormones surging through everyone as you walked around. Some kids seemed to revel in it, enjoying it, playing up their sexual feelings; others, like me, felt confused and bashful, blushing and sweating profusely, and growing out of my clothes all the time.
High school was, it often seemed, was much less about academic education, and about some other sort of education instead. There was a throbbing undercurrent even shambling, sweaty lumps like me could perceive (and desperately, pathetically want somehow to be part of, if truth be told). You knew who was with whom. You knew who was popular. You knew some girls seemed to have a waiting list. 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 Glad lunch-wrap and rubber-bands as makeshift prophylactics. The guys involved were said to be absolute legends, and the girls were slack slags, 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, though, hear of a great number of girls who were widely dismissed and disparaged (though never to their faces) on account of alleged extreme sexual activity. It was normal at the time, but was still shocking to hear boys around me talking about girls in the class this way, based on no facts, no information. Just malice. Hatred. It was the sort of thing that made me start not liking guys. Because guys could be monsters and think nothing of it. It was revolting.
There were girls, it was alleged, whose vaginas were so loose and slack, dangling wide open, from constant sexual activity, that you could presumably park a Toyota Coaster Bus in there. These boys could sit and discuss these matters for hours, seemingly about each girl in our year. How did they “know” any of this information? Moreover, if any of it were true, it might be that the affected girls could be horribly traumatised at what had happened to such an intimate part of their bodies. They would need counselling and support, especially from their male counterparts. They would need solidarity.
(You’re thinking, Yes, and where were you in all this, Bedford? Were you chortling along with these disgusting lowlifes? Were you defending the girls? What did you do in the war?
I listened. I was a spy. I was such a nothing person, so non-threatening to the natural order of things, that I could sit right in the middle of these discussions, and nobody questioned my presence. I was an algebra variable. I stood for nothing and everything. I was blank and meaningless. I was harmless. But I was listening.)
I liked girls, but at least in high school they didn’t much like me. I don’t blame them, to be honest. I was a hopeless case. I had no idea how to interact with them. 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.
And it didn’t help that I fundamentally did not understand girls. I was extremely curious about them, interested, not just in a hormonal, sexual way (I was a teenage boy and the nights were long, let’s just say), but in the sense of simply having a relationship, a companion, of having someone in your life beyond a friend, beyond even a best friend. 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. 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.)
I later, once I ended up in hospital, had to learn all this in an actual class (see my piece about “Group”). 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.
One day in the middle of high school, a weird thing happened that led to one of the nastiest experiences of my life. I was having lunch with some misfit buddies one day when this older girl comes by with her friends. They’re all smiling and laughing. The older girl smiles and tells me, and it’s definitely me she singles out here, that she fancies me–but then she and her friends flounce off and are soon lost in the crowd.
I was astonished. In a way it was like a great many dreams I’d had. Beautiful woman appears out of nowhere, professes undying love, swoons at your feet, roll credits. Typical teenage boy fantasy. And here was an event kind of in that genre. The gods had leaned down from Olympus and touched you in a very deliberate way. It messed me up inside, to say the least. My buddies were also amazed. I did not know what to think. I was stunned. I remembered she was very attractive, in an unobtainable sort of way. In an out-of-your-league sort of way. My guts were in boiling knots. I couldn’t sleep. I bumped into things, and couldn’t pay attention in classes. Who was that girl? She never told me who she was, I realise. How was I supposed to get in touch with her? Was I supposed to respond? Were we meant to be together? Was that what this was? Is this how it might work? Were there actual feelings here? It seemed impossible, but what if there were?
Then someone helpfully told me that girl was not only on the student council, but that a portrait gallery of the whole student council was up on a wall in the library. Getting this information takes days and days of unbelievable stress and turmoil. My whole life is in flux. It’s a genuine offer/it’s a big con. These are the two sides of a coin that won’t stop flipping and settle. One side seems more likely, but you know that weird and unlikely things happen all the time.
But you do get this information. Her photo is in the library, along with her name. You set off for the library, a detective in hot pursuit of the truth. And once you get there and you find the gallery of headshots, your main reaction is that you’re surprised there are so many people on the council! Surely maybe four or five would have been plenty.
But then, as you’re thinking all this, boom, there she is, her face, that smile, cocky, looking down towards the camera a little, and you’re reminded of how she looked at you, too. By this point you’re angry. You haven’t seen her again. It’s been days. You’ve barely slept. The voices in your head scream all night. You can only sometimes eat, when you eat everything, or not at all. You’re upset, prone to long showers, and your parents are No Help.
You finally track her down at school, laughing it up with her friends. She sees you, the look on your face. She says it was just a joke, and laughs, and her friends laugh. “Who’d fancy you?”
And all you can think as you burn in the fire of her scorn and mockery is that she’s right.
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. Like with Michelle and me, Kelly and I could talk. We got on. 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 make with the woo. 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, though, 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.
So there I was in about 1982, 19 years old, haunted by the idea of being psychotic, haunted by my whole psychiatric experience, imagining my life as before hospital and after hospital. 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. But she was the exception. A regular woman, I imagined, would never accept such “damaged goods”.
Then, one day, waiting at the doctor for an appointment, I had the brainwave that would save my life.
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 here 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. 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 simply 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. You can just relax. Women are marvellous.