(Written on the sly at Work for the Dole, while some little fucker I’d like to smash over the head with his laptop rants loudly at the room proclaiming his IT genius. Probably full of typos. *ATTENTION WEIRD INTERNET GRAMMAR NERDS: If typos and grammatical errors disturb you, may I politely suggest that you fuck off and get some sort of a life outside of masturbating to Terry Pratchett audiobooks before any chance of love and happiness pass you by forever. Never mistake pedantry for intelligence. May a grocer’s apostrophe fall off a sign and kill you while you’re ignoring the scary world of thought and ideas in order to bitch about a stranger’s online comma use.)
I have that kind of face – the kind where people think they’ve met me before, or that perhaps I am Someone off the Telly. Lately, though, this face of mine has been doing strange things. A combination of stress, chaotic lady hormones, enthusiastic-to-mildly concerning trashbaggery and adult themes has sent the skin hurtling back into adolescence. Pimples not heard of since 1992 are making a comeback. Not just pimples. Craters. There is presently a zit on my chin capable of accommodating a lunar module. It’s odd, how humiliating this experience is for a thirty-eight year old woman – the incongruous combination of frown lines with ‘you’re not the boss of me’ lumpy outbreaks reflecting back from the mirror, an apt manifestation, perhaps, of the inner landscape.
And so it is both my face that sends me to Coles at nine o’clock in the morning for Clearasil, and my face that engages the high-school aged checkout chick in unexpected conversation.
‘You look like someone who knows about sociology and German Expressionism,’ she declares chirpily and quite incorrectly, as she whips my bottle of dermatological angst killer through the scanner. ‘Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about my art essay?’
What is it about this visage that engenders such faith? Or maybe it’s not that; maybe it’s some kind of pheromone thing? Small children climb over multiple bus seats to sit on my lap and invite me to imaginary Rainbow Brite parties. Babies lean from their parents’ arms, smiling and gurgling and wanting to grasp my finger with their tiny perfect hands. Back in Smith Street’s glory days, a total of five people in twelve months with slowing heartbeats and failing organs crawled into the doorway of my workplace in order to overdose and expire and be brought back from the dead. In that same year, two people somehow made it past an electronic security gate in order to do this in my driveway. I have no idea what I’m doing, or what’s happening next, or where my life is heading. I live from one meal to the next, one dollar to the next. But something about my ease with this situation – a native surfeit of courage and existential stupidity – seems to make a me a safe harbour for the lost, the vulnerable and the spiritually (in this case, academically) bewildered.
I am actually a disastrous person to ask for either advice or directions. It’s a twisted politeness thing. I have terrible trouble saying no to people. This internal taboo is so strong, if someone asks me for directions to a place I’ve never heard of I try to guess it. Besides, I figure, it might do them some good to see the world.
‘Sure!’ I reply brightly, or as brightly as a thirty-eight year old woman with acne can manage at nine o’clock on a Wednesday morning.
‘What does Expressionism mean?’ the girl asks, ignoring a man who is fidgeting impatiently in the queue behind me and trying to buy some grapes.
I rack my mind trying to remember what Expressionism is.
‘I asked another customer, and she said to talk about Marx and how Expressionist art is elitist,’ she continues. ‘But I don’t know if that’s right.’
‘No,’ I say automatically. The brain’s inner catalogue has whizzed through its index cards and found Expressionism – Munch and all that. ‘That’s not right. That’s not right at all.’
‘Well I thought I’d talk about that, and about how individuals make a society and society makes individuals,’ she continues. ‘Like what Pierre said.’
The man with the grapes clears his throat and starts shuffling around in his wallet. She is oblivious to him, and I am perversely enjoying his frustration.
‘Pierre who?’ I ask.
‘Pierre something starting with B,’ she replies.
The man gives up on his grapes and walks out.
‘Well,’ I say. ‘Expressionism is the first art movement to talk about ordinary human beings. The fear and the horror and the lust and desire.’
She is seventeen, and has no idea what I’m talking about.
‘It’s hard to be a human being,’ I elucidate.
She blinks and smiles happily. She still has no idea what I’m talking about.
‘Talk about Freud,’ I advise finally, giving up on context. ‘Psychoanalysis. Freud was practicing at that time.’
‘Freud. OK,’ she says uncertainly. Who the fuck is Freud? is the thought bubble floating above her head, in the depiction of this exchange that will never appear in a graphic novel.
My pimple, my Clearasil and I walk back to the flat together, musing over this exchange and the father of psychoanalysis. People, especially people who have never read it, love to declare that Freudian theory has been soundly debunked; that it’s outdated sexist claptrap; that a drug addict with a peculiar obsession in the human proboscis can’t possibly have had anything profound to say about the mind and the self.
They are right. And they are utterly, utterly wrong.
Who doesn’t know the terms ‘ego’ and ‘egotist’, ‘libido’, ‘angst’, ‘Narcissist’, ‘fetish’, ‘unconscious’? Who doesn’t use these terms every day, taking them for granted as part of the normal world as much as ‘tree’, ‘moon’, ‘fuck’, ‘Centrelink sucks’? Freud’s analysis of the uncanny in Hoffmann’s ‘The Sandman’ forged the way for what we now recognise as critical and literary theory, and is the first example of thinking of its kind. He was the first thinker to posit, based on his own personal experience, that sexual abuse and other forms of cruelty traumatise the survivor and can shatter a child forever. It’s odd to think, now, that at the time this notion caused such outrage that he was forced – at least temporarily – to recant, and to pursue a far less socially shocking avenue of experimental nasal surgery so extreme that it caused a female patient’s nose to collapse.
We know Freud was right about sexual abuse. Sexuality goes to the core of what it means to be human. We know this because to people like me, sex seems like this incredibly fantastic idea aliens thought of when they decided to invent something better than cocaine. While to many (not all) who have been sexually abused – we all know and love at least one person with this experience – sex is a wound on the psyche as much as a promise of pleasure and respite; an expectation, a compulsion, a site promising love and acceptance and debasement and loss of power all at once. A complication and a shattering point. We know he was right about angst, too – the indefinable horror at finding ourselves stuck with sentience, stuck with the weight of an existence with no intrinsic meaning. We know this because a single pimple has driven me to the supermarket for a stick of chemicals with which to make myself acceptable in society once more, and I will not under any voluntary circumstances leave my flat until the damned thing is dead.
Back at the flat, I curl up on my bed with my cat. I am strangely exhausted. There are road works going on outside, pneumatic drills and jackhammers and workmen shouting at each other. The smell of fresh bitumen – not entirely unpleasant, but heavy with tar – floats up through the window almost visibly, like the steam from an apple pie in a Loony Tunes cartoon. I drift off to sleep in the midst of this noise and sensory confusion. And I dream:
A middle aged lady, perhaps in her early 50s, is talking to the camera quite simply about her life. She has dark curly hair, shoulder length, and distinctive deep set eyes. She is a New Yorker of Russian Jewish descent. It is now, but she is speaking to us somehow from the year 1968, I think, or thereabouts. There is no set behind her besides a plain blue backdrop. She is a Holocaust survivor, I suspect, although it is not mentioned directly. She has the saddest, kindest eyes I have ever seen.
‘My first miscarriage, we buried the baby in a round coffin,’ she tells us. ‘It’s a Jewish tradition to place stones on a grave. So we covered the coffin with stones. Dozens of little stones.’ She hesitates just slightly, in the way trauma victims do when they’re attempting to explain a deeply personal pain to an audience. ‘Like you might have seen in that Seinfeld episode,’ she finishes.
I remember the episode. A comically ridiculous funeral, in which the mourning is so ostentatious a wealthy Jewish family has buried their relative in a giant round coffin covered in stones. George says something about it by the graveside, and is overheard. There are problems. Kramer goes into business digging circular graves. I remember how hilarious I found this. How hilarious I still find this.
Comedy is based on pain, after all. This is fine.
I think, though, with anger, about the expectation we place on people who suffer to explain their suffering to us. To educate us. We don’t really give a shit about them. We just want to understand. To be better people, somehow.
She continues talking about her life, and I find I am crying. Genuinely grieving for this woman. I wake up just enough to touch my face, and to feel the wetness under my eyes.
‘This is an extraordinary thing,’ I mumble to the cat, and tumble back into sleep.
My friend comes in a red Corvette to pick me up from school. I am me now. Why am I waiting for him in front of my old high school, with my school bag? Am I somehow . . . Yes I am . . . thinner? Not a bad dream, after all.
There is a dumpy looking forty-five year old woman with a blonde perm and a Ken Done jumper sitting next to him, in the passenger seat. I have never seen her before.
‘Get in,’ says my friend. ‘We’re going to the hospital.’
I have terrible trouble saying no to people, and so I get in.
The dumpy woman and my friend are kissing passionately in the front while he drives. Ergh! This is horrible. I want to wash my eyes with bleach. I am not at all comfortable with Ken Done featuring in any sort of erotic context. I dig around in a pocket in the car door, and pull out a much needed bottle of Bourbon. It’s in a brown paper bag and has a straw sticking out of the neck.
Thank Fuck. Mother’s milk. I stick the straw in my mouth and start sucking.
‘This is great,’ the dumpy woman confides to me, disengaging for a second.
‘OK,’ I mumble around my straw, sucking harder.
We get to the hospital and meet some bikie friends who look like ZZ Top. One of them gets a text message that reads: ‘HOSPITAL FUNERAL. WTF?!’
We are walking down corridors towards the morgue when I wake up.
Sometimes, dreams are not what they seem to be about. The tears on the tops of my cheeks haven’t dried yet; they have slowly, steadily flooded my face. I am amazed by this.
I know what these dreams mean.
Our friend Tony, who is incorrigibly rude, utterly outrageous, hard as nails, blunt as a thumb tack, sexually insatiable, proudly bi-gendered (although definitely not bisexual – strictly a cock fan) and profoundly independent, is dying. He has cancer. He is lying in a Catholic hospice with days to live. I make a point of saying a Catholic hospice, because of what this means in real terms: Little chance of morphine. No chance of being eased out of living death by the kindness of a needle.
Tony is, as I have said, one of the rudest people I have ever met. It took me years to like him. We’d go and visit him in the sex shop in the city where he worked, Spray ‘n’ Wipe in one hand and vibrator in the other:
‘Look, your clit needs seeing to. I can give this to you for a discount,’ he’d say, waving the box in the space above my tits and below my nose. ‘Just clean it first. They probably tried it out in the factory.’
Or, at a dinner party:
‘No more food for her. She’s so fat, no wonder she can’t find her pussy.’
Or, to a mutual friend emerging from the Men’s at the theatre:
‘Still hanging around toilets, then?’
Gradually though, somehow – Stockholm syndrome, perhaps – I came to like this snappy rudeness. There was certainly no attempt to ingratiate here. No agenda, hidden or otherwise. No dark smell of snake oil charm.
Over the same period, he came to like me. To trust me to some degree, a high compliment from such an autonomous individual. Not my generically recognisable face this time, or any hypothetical baby-friendly pheromones.
A friend was with us one day when we went to visit Tony in the sex shop. Our friend was at the bitterest downswing of depression, the point where grooming and dressing is too hard and walking takes every ounce of will. None of us could help, we knew, but I think we thought if we just kept him moving something might happen.
No one could help, that is, except Tony. A different person to the rude, snappy, implacable drag queen met in most encounters emerged in the face of true suffering. He was kind. He was wise. He was absolutely no nonsense, a platitude-free zone.
Our friend, unbelievably, felt a little better afterwards. Comforted. Tony asked about him when we saw him the next time, the time after that, and the time after that. He still offered me discount vibrators; but still, he asked.
I realised, finally, that both offers were quite genuine. He was genuinely concerned about our friend, and he was genuinely concerned about my orgasms. He just had a uniquely unembroidered approach to expressing both sentiments.
‘Just enjoy it,’ he told me, the last time I saw him. He was lying on the couch, too sick to move, a vomit bucket by his side. ‘You don’t know when it ends. Just have fun.’
He had promised to give me a box of his dildos before he died. I thought this was a joke, something he wouldn’t follow through on.
It was. It wasn’t a box of dildos. It was a garbage bag.
These dreams then, not what they seem, are about Tony and death. Death, the eternal problem. About letting go of a friend, someone unexpectedly cherished; about recognising his suffering and his uncompromising earthy, intelligent brand of bravery; and about honouring his last wish to have fun, even though it is so, so hard to be a human being.
Less cryptic is the dream I have later, about finding a cave in a mountain stuffed to the top with free cocaine.
Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.