Dear Reader, I was going to reflect a little on the process of writing the memoir thus far, but I thought you might instead prefer a laugh at my teenaged self’s expense.
Along with becoming a writer or a teetotaller, becoming a lesbian was not something easily imagined in the suburb I grew up in.
Any girls holding hands in high school, or walking too close to each other, or showing anything other than brief physical affection, would be met with jeers of ‘Lezzos!’ from passing boys. These same boys were often the ones who introduced us to the shiny contours and sometimes puzzling close-ups which comprised 1980s pornography, in which girl-on-girl activity was considered in quite a different light. The activity of the women in these videos seemed to involve a lot of manual work, like a housewife trying to remove a stain from a carpet, and a lot of moaning that seemed unconnected to the manual work. Neither of these were as stimulating to me as they were to the boys we were watching it with, so I concluded that I probably was not a lesbian.
I should clarify that I did not reach this conclusion because of any shortage of un-heterosexual feelings on my behalf. At fourteen, I had fallen deeply into unrequited love (normal) for a sixteen-year-old girl (not normal). The object of my desire was named Karen. Karen hailed from the north of England near my father’s family and was intriguingly Other. She seemed balanced, for one, a characteristic I was displaying less and less often as I careened toward mid-adolescence. She was pretty in a Princess-Diana way, an excellent artist, could cook, and was at ease in social situations. She was the lead in our school musical, which was how I came to meet her. She was everything I was not.
I was never sure if I wanted her, in a romantic way, or wanted to be her. To attempt the latter, I started parting my hair the same way she did, growing a bob with a blonde streak in the long fringe, and started working in the same Hungry Jacks in the bogan heartland of Gosnells, where I began spending Friday and Saturday nights mopping up blood from the fights that occurred in the restaurant there. I saved up to buy a lime green (not my colour) mini dress (not my style) that was way more expensive than anything I’d ever purchased before, just because she had one. I tried to copy her way of being generous, inviting people over in northern English style. I even made sure I attended school, which had not previously been my strong suit. Even though she was in upper school and I in lower school, I knew I would see her because I had memorised her timetable and knew where she would be at every minute of the school day. In the days when the term stalking was connected only with game hunting, I engineered ways of bumping into her, found reasons to ask her about things just so that I could stand close to her, and spent sleepless nights wondering how next I could gain her attention.
I remained, however, stubbornly myself. Which is to say, I felt shy, awkward, comfortable only with my close friends, sensitive to everything, but wanting something More.
All my life, I’d watched adults cope with any feelings they were experiencing by drinking them down. I’d watched as they became louder, quieter, angrier, or sadder after drinking quantities of beer, moselle, port, whiskey, or whatever was to hand. So when I became overwhelmed by this desire for More, and Gwen’s friends were at our house with bottles of summer wine, a substance requiring quantities of sugar and carbonation so it could be imbibed without triggering the gag reflex, it was perfectly natural to be able to hold out my glass as the bottles were being poured for Gwen’s friends to initiate me into inebriation.
Before long, I did the 80s version of drunk dialling. This consisted of staggering to the local phone box and trying not to get cut on the smashed glass upon entry, dropping coins into the grey square object, weeping into the smelly handset about how terrible my life was and how wonderful Karen was.
Not content with humiliating myself over the phone, I went one better and staggered down the dark streets to Karen’s house. I cast myself down on the itchy doormat, dressed in a black and red checked teddy-girls outfit, still weeping. Karen’s mother heard these strangulated noises, flipped on the porch light and peered through the smoked glass at the side of the door. I heard her call in her northern brogue, ‘There’s something on the mat, Karen! It’s a big thing, it’s a red thing –’ and then, opening the door, she added, ‘It’s our Jewley!’
Karen showed preternatural patience with these and other visits, drunk or sober, reading my heartfelt, melodramatic manuscripts, tolerating my inquiries about her and her life. She let me stay in her house when nobody was home, listening to her Big Country, Culture Club and David Bowie albums. When she left school and then the country, possibly in part to get away from me, I was inconsolable and absolutely sure I would never love anyone again, regardless of their gender.
This is not to say I did not experiment with sex. Due to Gwen’s proclivities regarding Allans, Mikes and Steves, I knew better than to equate sex with love. Indeed, I regarded my feelings for Karen to be purer because there was no impurity of the flesh attached to it. With her, there would never be any chance of sex of such force it could have been recorded on a Richter scale, or that which would reach aural heights the envy of opera singers. I read Shakespeare’s sonnet 116 and it fitted with the sense of chaste devotion: the marriage of two minds seemed far less problematic that the marriage of two bodies.
I reinforced this perception by following Gwen’s lead and bringing home guys from parties and nightclubs as a fifteen-year-old. The sex was passion-less, mechanical, and allowed for a release of pent up feeling that was akin to purging. Tina Turner and Madonna were on high rotation that year, depending on which club you were in, and both of them projected the sass I wanted to emulate. What did love have to do with it, indeed.
I also, occasionally, kissed women in Perth’s one gay nightclub, and twice had had sexual encounters with other girls, to see if my Karen crush had been a sign of latent lesbianism, or, as all the guide books of the time promised, a passing phase. The kissing was nice – nicer than with the guys – but sexual encounters awkward, possibly because there was no expertise to be had on either side. It reinforced my conviction that sex and love were better left separate, and that the latter was ineffably more desirable.
All that changed with Boudicca.