(5 April 2008)
In 1984, Donna Case was perky, popular, tanned. With legs almost as long as my entire body and her hair constantly shiny, she was everything that I wasn’t. At our high-school formal, she wore a tight-fitting, strapless Thai silk dress in white that made her look like a perfect, long-stemmed orchid. Wearing the same dress, standing on the opposite side of the room, I felt like a squat caterpillar. When I left St Anne’s Girls College, one of the blessings was that I’d never see her again. Twenty years later, though, I did.
It’s a hot, sticky day. My husband and I have been cycling around Lake Macquarie, and we’re messy and dishevelled. Wearing our ill-fitting, baggy, borrowed bathers, we have fetched up at the beach where I spent much of my childhood. It’s the same beach Donna Case graced for years, surfing, flicking her perfect hair across her perfectly tanned shoulders while I burned in and out of her statuesque shadow. Richard and I are battered by the surf, our odd bathers pulled into even odder shapes, hair flipping in multiple surf-made comb-overs. We’re sunburnt, red-eyed and tired. At that moment, a tall, lithe, tanned woman bounds down the beach with an elegant red setter on a leash. Donna Case. I take a deep breath and smile at her. It turns out she’s in Australia visiting her family from her home in New York. She also, it’s clear, has no memory of who I am.
If this were a film, this moment would mark the beginning of my turnaround. Perhaps I would realise that I wanted to live in New York, or to get a tan. I’d be transformed within days. At the very least I’d have a makeover. Somehow, the past and present merging is unsettling, and we look for meaning in the accidental moment. The Donna Case Encounter certainly unsettles me. There is a well-known Zen koan that asks ‘What was your original face before you were born?’ Was I really, I wonder — before I was born into my adult life — so invisible?
When I was fifteen, the girl across the road from me ran away to join a circus. Mandy rode the elephants in a sparkling red dress and, even in the 1980s, this seemed gloriously retro-chic. She returned home every so often, driven by a handsome man who would step out of the car, walk around and open her door. To me, boyfriendless, bookish, watching from the verandah on the opposite side of the road, her escape to the sequins and circus seemed a sign of magic, of hope.
The beachside encounter has set off a train of speculation about the end of the story for a pantheon of my childhood friends and crushes. In the past this sort of wondering would remain idle, a daydream of an accidental encounter. Perhaps a letter would be written, or an ad placed in a newspaper: searching for X, my kindergarten sweetheart. Now, in the age of the Internet, the search is as easy as completing a thought.
I google Jacki first. At five, she was the person I most adored in the world, apart from Steven Hill, a white-haired boy with a bad bowl haircut. We fought with fists and words (often over Steven Hill, who was oblivious to both of us). In the film Stand By Me, Gordy’s father writes, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?” For me, there was never any friend like the one I had when I was five. She was my kindergarten idol – the person who told me that it was not okay to run to the toilet with your pants down, who explained the correct technique for balancing in the middle of a see-saw, a skill I have made frequent use of in my adult life. Does her lack of presence on the Internet mean she has no meaningful life? That she is unsuccessful? Invisible? I find her, eventually, the old-fashioned way, through a friend of a friend of a friend, and she comes to stay for a weekend. I haven’t seen her for almost three decades and I am as nervous and excited as a bride. She has the same beaming, moon-shaped face, and I realise with a shock how many of my memories are attached to this face, how much of my early story is bound up with hers.
We spend the weekend cooking, eating, talking: I want to know everything, about everyone. Her sisters. Her mother. The boy at school whose dad was a pop-star. Where are they? I am hungry, I realise, for the ending of these stories, hungry for a narrative resolution. As she leaves, we embrace, and she says, “You were always so smart and so determined.” Smart? Not invisible? She blinks, startled. “No. Not invisible. Why would you think that?”
I don’t need to google Anna. She hears me being interviewed and emails my publisher. I reply warily. She was dark-skinned, black-eyed and the entire school seemed to flock around her. She was the alpha female and I was her assistant. Some weeks we’d be best friends, other weeks – as is the way with teenage girls – we’d be cut adrift. Or rather, I would be cut adrift and she would have another assistant, an awed audience. But in that first year of high school, we laughed so often and so hard that I was frequently reduced to tears – bent over double, laughing for days at our (world-class) renditions of the Solid Gold dancers (bathers pulled up bums, our mums’ stilettos pinching our toes) or our cutting-edge, scathing impressions of teachers voices and their imagined private lives. It’s what Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette captured so well in Puberty Blues, the intense vivacity of teenage friendship. We email back and forth about life now, and – briefly – about life then. Our versions of the past are different, I suspect. Still, we arrange to meet in a garden café. There are many dark-haired women outside. I have no idea what Anna looks like now so I smile at an olive-skinned woman, who smiles politely back then looks pointedly away. And then she’s there. For a moment, a split second, I see a 40-year-old woman; then she is replaced by the 14-year-old girl. We sit for two hours – laughing as much as we did 25 years ago. For the entire time, I have this shifting dual image in front of me. Like the vase/face picture or an Escher print, if I close one eye or tilt my head just so, we are 14 again. This time, though, I’m not trying to please or frightened of being pushed out of the crowd. And who at 14 talks about babies, addiction, recovery, mortgages? You were so powerful, I tell her. I don’t tell her I felt like a fly following her. She is quiet for a moment, then says she has been bi-polar her whole life. In an instant, the story of those few years – me following in the shadow of the dynamic leader, then cast aside – is reframed, restructured and given an altogether clearer twist.
When I was a child, my mother had a photo album tucked into the bottom of the china cabinet. One of my great pleasures was to pull it out from the cabinet and flick through the black pages. Here, a photo of my father as a handsome, 20-year-old man. A school photo with my 10-year-old mother circled in red. And my favourite: Joyce. There they were, the two of them, Mum and Joyce, glorious, both of them, with pin-tucked hair, and boy-leg bathers. The photo was black and white. They were on a pier somewhere, Mum and Joyce, young women laughing madly, heads thrown back, with the wind in their faces and their hands resting on each other’s shoulders. It always struck me that my mother should have kept Joyce, should have kept the connection which brought that laughter to her face. But, like most of us, she didn’t. She had just the photo, which provided a potent memory, and an imaginative question mark. Once, my mother sat with me and looked at that vital photo, at her beautiful young self, and Joyce. “Well,” she said, “I’d love to see Joyce. No chance of that though, wouldn’t know where to start. And wouldn’t know what to say to her if I found her.” She brushed her hands when she put the photo back as though wiping away the past. Yet in the past was the story of her present.
Jodi, an old college and clubbing friend, finds me online and emails to ask if she can come and stay for 10 days. I collect her from the airport, waiting at the arrival gate for an eyeful of the red-haired wonder I knew. She emerges, hunched and pale, with nicotine-stained fingers and teeth. I step back and put a hand to my own face: it’s as though she is a mirror for my own aging. Trying to disguise the movement (my god, have I aged like that?), I slip my hand up into a wave. But I needn’t have bothered. Jodi, still caught in a moment that is forever 1988, has been urgently cleaning out the Qantas bar and is pretty well off her trolley before we actually get to the trolley collection service. The next 10 days are very, very long and leave me mystified by my past choices in friendship and in recreational activities. I’ve seen no glimpse of my true self, or of hers, when I finally wave her off at the same airport and, if there is a story, I’m finding it hard to see the happy ending.
It’s similar with Dom, my high school beloved. Brilliant, shy, quirky – he was going to become a doctor. Which is to say, he was expected to become a doctor, and had the grades to become a doctor. What he really wanted was to work in forests, to make things grow, to make things greener. No way was he going to become one of those disappointed doctors. ?We meet in Newtown. He’s a disappointed doctor, he tells me. His flesh spills across his face and down into his neck. What about the forests? “When I retire. Maybe.”
Dom’s disappointment and Jodi’s palpable unhappiness make me uncomfortable in an intimate way. In the same way that I feel able to bask in Jacki’s solidity, her ease, and in Anna’s hard-won wisdom, I find myself reflected in their lack. School reunions are at least partly about this, surely – the desire to be seen as successful, to have made a decent ending to the beginning of the story. It’s not just our own successes we want to parade, though. The failures and successes of our long-lost friends and lovers become mirrors of our own Pilgrim’s Progress through life.
When someone sends me a Facebook link and a swarm of long-lost acquaintances “poke” me (which really still sounds as though it can’t be legal), it sends me, with apologies to Saint John of the Cross, into my own Dark Night of the Soul. Who is it that I am really looking for? Am I after my story – or theirs? Is it just a story I’m after, or is it genuinely a search for some sort of wisdom? I’m in Facebook Overload. Pre-internet, the fleeting curiosity about our past lovers or friends tended to stay fleeting. We didn’t know the end of their stories and so we made them up. But perhaps now we’ve found a way of holding together the narrative strands, the threads that make up our own story. In a novel, we want each fictional thread to be ‘tied up’, partly because we don’t get that in life or can’t see a way of making it happen. Fiction tidied things up, made endings make sense, made people find each other again, allowed us to know the end of the story. Now, though, we want the threads tied up for real. Is it possible that novels, fiction, narratives, are becoming less crucial as the endings become more transparent in our real lives?
In Margaret Attwood’s Cat’s Eye, Elaine, the central character, returns to her hometown and is swamped by memories of a tormented friendship. It is clear that Elaine’s past bleeds into her present. Some of the desire to revisit the past – or at least, those we loved in the past – is an acknowledgement of missed opportunities. What if I had planted that kiss on those lips? What if I hadn’t? If narrative is receding, why do I find myself working so hard to piece together the story?
In spite of Facebook overload, I use it to find one more person. I studied drama with Tanja. She was politically passionate and, somehow, at drama school, in the wrong place. Talented and idealistic, she had lofty dreams of saving the world, of living life according to her rigorous values. Nervously, I prompt for information. She gave up acting long ago, and is a green councillor/counsellor, a campaigner against poverty, an environmental worker. She has become, in a sense, her own self, the self she always was, and her story, yet again, allows me to see a little clearly, and a little more optimistically, my own.
I have forgotten about the girl across the road and her circus adventure until I pay a nostalgic visit to my old street. In one of those accidental meetings, Mandy is paying a weekly visit to her mother. She recites the list of her life: married, divorced, remarried, divorced, kids, part-time job, ends sometimes being met, exhausted, middle-aged, what a circus.
“You were a star,” I say, “I wanted to be you. You had such courage and adventure. You rode the elephants!” Her daughter stares up at her, amazed. Mandy gazes into the distance. “Good Lord” she says, “I was bloody adventurous. I’d forgotten about the elephants.” And, in a flash, there she is again: shiny, courageous, adventurous, still riding the elephants.
*Names of old friends have been changed.