To fall in love is to create a religion with a fallible god. – Borges
Act I – THE Polish Girl (1986): The Polish girl is dead, so she is not at the centre of this story. But, like Stephen Jay Gould's spandrels bridging the arches in San Marco's Basilica, the Polish girl is the locus for the pattern I am making to explain why I should have made a friend of her friend SueZ. It is SueZ who counts here.
Of course, SueZ isn't her real name. It's a tag I've invented. But she's there in the name. Repulsive and enticing. A mangle of Chrissie Amphlett and Cleopatra. All mouth, teeth and lips; voluminous, voluptuous; grave and greedy. The ancient tide of the River Nile, the livery pull of the Yarra, the corrupt foam of Kororoit Creek. A mountain trickle. Ocean currents. All the waters. Still, a tag is not a name.
I'd give the Polish girl a name, a tag even (the dead are known to be tagged) but I don't want her to haunt me. You name something, you make it real, you own it. So the Polish girl figures in this story as a ghost kept at bay. As a memory of friendship gone bad.
In this story the Polish girl dies late one summer the day before the school year starts. The Polish girl's boyfriend takes her for a spin around the block in his VK Commodore. It is the sort of thing 18–year–old boys do. They – the Polish girl, her boyfriend and his mate – have been hanging around on the street, telling jokes on the nature strip outside her house, listening with their young faces to the blast of heat that announces itself to Melbourne just before the final wave of cloud and thunder that fronts the change of weather. It is almost time to go indoors. Night is closing in. The car is as good an indoors as any. The Polish girl's boyfriend has downed a couple of cans and they've all blazed a joint. He cuts the circuit once, up to the shopping centre, around the back streets, then slows to drop the Polish girl off at her house. The mate in the back seat wants to go out, maybe hang out in the city for a while. Remember, the Polish girl has school in the morning. Something must egg the boyfriend on. Maybe it's the Polish girl herself in the passenger seat. Maybe she doesn't want to go home, jealous that her new boyfriend, the one she'd broken off with SueZ over, would rather hang out with his best mate. Maybe he says, "OK, I won't go anywhere then. We'll just fuckin' drive around." So he floors it. A first long straight stretch. Sixty. The bend ahead. Another hundred metres. Eighty. Shakes the weed from his eyes. Presses harder on the accelerator. The Polish girl shrieks. She wants him to go faster. He does. One hundred. One hundred two. Eight. Twelve. A slight turn and slide into the bend. Then somewhere between the high school and the Polish girl's house the first drizzle sprinkles like gold powder in the last of the sunlight.
The impact left a deep smile of a scar in the hardwood power pole. I know because I took the bus past two days later to see it for myself, to be sure that what I'd heard was true. The Polish girl ended up on the footpath 20 metres away. By some intuition her mother knew it. She came pounding out of her house and down the pavement to rip her daughter's body from the concrete and into her arms before even the ambulance could arrive. Dead as if she hadn't even been born.
At the Polish girl's funeral I sobbed over her open coffin. I sniffled, shook and beat the mahogany with my fist, as if I were Romeo arrived too late at Juliet's mortal remains. I had never known anyone to die before and was so overcome by the opportunity to make a show of my half–realised grief that I hardly stopped to look at her face properly. I only remember the awful duskiness of her skin. The terrible chill that had crept into it; a dull lump of golem clay. I waited for someone to help me away, the way James Brown has his minders lift him up from the unplumbed depths of his musical soul. But no one came. At night I tried to remember her face.
I saw SueZ at the funeral, but didn't speak to her. I barely knew her. Until SueZ became my friend, she was just a voluptuous half–presence in my world. Someone to placate when she rumbled through the quadrangle with her gang, extorting lunch money out of the year–eights. I'd tangled with her a couple of times, let her have a cigarette when she sent one of her minions over to hassle me. At the funeral she was far away, huddled in with the Polish girl's parents. They seemed to me to be locked away together in a barrel of grief; bewildered by the revengeful prayers they'd found themselves praying. SueZ's mouth shaped itself into a dark hole – the same shape I imagined her guilt to be. In that dark hole lived whatever angry words she had said to her friend and had never taken back, and the question that would never be answered. Would the Polish girl have died if they had been together that night as they usually were, safe in the bungalow in the backyard at SueZ's house, pulling bongs, drinking, kissing their boyfriends, listening to Mötley Crüe records?
Of course SueZ could not have known that her friend would die so suddenly. It is in the nature of teenage friendships that they should fall and rise again with the permutation of empire but without the consequence. Constantine's inheritors finally lose all to Theodoric, Charlemagne instigates the resurrection. All are part of the same continuum with Pontifex Maximus, the guardian of sacred belief, holding the centre.
When the Polish girl died, a bubble in the shape of that question of lost friendship inflated around SueZ. What is not at issue in this story is that SueZ's bubble popped. It did pop. The real question is: when is it going to pop? And who pops it? Because it's certain that someone is going to pop SueZ's bubble. It's me. In the end this story is about me popping SueZ's bubble. But first we have to be friends.
ACT II – FRIENDSHIP (1986–1988): Some friendships do not begin at a clear moment. They gradually bring their weight to bear the way a trickle of water from the high ground will always find a way to the shoreline. When one moon in the orbit of a vast planet collapses, another is drawn into that planet's gravity. By the beginning of the year after the Polish girl's death I had become SueZ's new moon.
She picked me for it just before the summer break. She threw a party while her parents were away and asked me to come along. We poured wine cooler into our mouths from silver bladders and danced to Bon Jovi. When school started again she sat next to me in class, and wrote her tag on my diary; then I found myself sharing the weight of her school bag on the long walk home through the flat streets of our suburb. She never really asked for my help. Asking wasn't her thing. It was more an enlistment. I'd go home for dinner, then I'd walk the half kilometre back to her house and, sprawled across her bed, pages of notes floating between us like the wreck of a house in a flood, we'd read George Johnston together. I'd imagine myself to be Davy Meredith and SueZ as Gunner Morley, but it wouldn't hold for long. She was too coarse to be that spark of a vision in the gun–pit at Elsternwick with Tristram Shandy hidden in her bag. We talked about the Cold War. About Egypt in 1956. The Suez crisis. I explained Joh Bjelke–Petersen's fall from power, and taught her to worship Bob Hawke. Our friendship waxed like the moon in the darkness.
Around the time of her split from the Polish girl, SueZ had hooked up with a new boyfriend, a Nikki Sixx cock–rocker who, from what I could tell, because SueZ kept me shut out of that world for fear of his jealousy, was a nice sensitive guy who sometimes drank too much and just wanted to be a rock star. On the nights when he'd put her in a taxi home at midnight, SueZ would call me, and I would leave my bed, counting the steps to her house where we'd meet in secret in her kitchen. Cock–Rock would usually call to make sure she'd made it home OK, and I'd have to be quiet. He'd ask her if I was there and she'd lie to him. Then, after they had whispered goodbye a hundred times, we'd smoke all the cigarettes we had, drink a bucket of instant coffee, roll a joint if we had any weed, and she'd talk. She would confess to me her struggles and doubts, her ecstasies and angers and I would listen with the patience of a submarine. I analysed her, advised her, berated her. That was my reward for enduring the humiliating tithe she exacted from me in the light of day when she guarded me with tenacity, made sure I was around when she wanted me, tempted me with the playfulness of a lover and pushed me away whenever it suited her. In that night–time world I was the one who owned our friendship. I would hear her confession and give her absolution. But in my own Lutheran heart I was loath to confess anything to her in return. I held my secrets for a god I hadn't yet invented. I didn't say anything about us. I didn't say anything about me. My life. My love. She ate up all the feeling I had for a world outside her. I kept to myself my negotiation of the no–man's land between friendship and love – and hate.
I have to be clear about this hate. It was real and coloured by a deep simmering knowledge that I should never have been her friend. It was the ear that heard my friends say I was her puppy dog. It was the hot shame of my devotion to her. But I've already said she was rivers and oceans. All the waters. Irresistible. The swimmer and the river own one other, even though one is drowning and the other grows corrupt with the decay of its dead.
During the long immobile summer between high school and university, when I went to work at an inner–suburban post office pushing around a mop at six every morning and was hardly around during the day, SueZ found another boyfriend. At 24, Glen was broken–toothed and pockmarked with addiction. Some time in December he tried to sell me a car. A '75 Kingswood that he said was in perfect working order. He had it parked in the paddock next to SueZ's place. Only $300. I was tempted. All my friends had cars. I asked my mother if she would lend me the money until payday. "I don't know," she said. "I'll have to see the car. Have you seen it?" I said yes, but of course I hadn't. Later on I rode my bike past SueZ's house to see the car. It was there in the grass. A flat tyre, rust that even I could pick from 20 metres back, and – most telling of all – the driver's side window was smashed. I could smell a lemon. A hot one. I pressed down on the pedals, chasing away my naivety. The day before I had heard Glen begging someone for some speed on credit. I didn't want to see SueZ, but just as I had gathered enough momentum to escape she stepped out of her front door and called out to me. I almost pretended not to hear, and I could have. But instead I U–turned and rolled up her driveway. She wanted to know if I was going to buy the car. I said no, because I didn't have any money.
"Why don't you borrow some from your parents?"
"I can't. They won't lend it to me."
"Why not? It's a perfectly good car."
I looked into her eyes. Did she really think that was true? She second–guessed me.
"Go on," she said. "Glen really needs the money. He's broke."
"Where did it come from? Is it hot?"
"No, he bought it off a mate."
A lie. Served straight, no ice, no bubbles. We both knew it. It wasn't the first time. Anyway, she'd confess it to me one day. I didn't buy the car. But neither did I mention the lie. It kept the status quo about right.
SueZ was what people expected of her – an icon of bad reputation that she didn't fully deserve but which gave her a certain cachet that grew on her like an urban myth, fed as much by those who hung off her as by those she repulsed. SueZ was expected to have a new boyfriend every six months, cheat on the current one at least once, drink, smoke, swear and threaten violence. It was a reputation that hung on her like sackcloth, informed by a deep but incontinent Franciscan sense of universality, an ennoblement of the wretched and dangerous edge of humanity. But, as we held hands all those nights in the dim rooms of her house I felt in her palms the hot fear of turning up dead on the footpath the way the Polish girl had. I touched those scars, welts left from her embrace of danger.
ACT III – BELIEF (1988): Michale Shermer, who heads the US Skeptics Society, puts belief down to biology, to the evolutionary accident of neural wiring. We have evolved brains that seek patterns as a means of survival. He revisits Gould's "The Spandrels of San Marco" essay that points out just how tempting it is to regard the evangelists mosaicked into the connecting spaces between the arches of the great central dome in San Marco's Basilica in Venice as the reason for the space existing in the first place. In truth it's the other way around. The space is a byproduct, a redundancy. And it's the fact that the artists need to fill in the space, to prettify it, that tells us something about belief – that we have to find patterns, connections where none exists. It's the basis of all our stories, of morality, community, society, religion. And, according to the pop–neurologist VS Ramachandran, it is in the wiring of the limbic system itself that we find the pattern of God. Even the myth of the unified acting self is an illusion of the sometimes ill–matched systems of the brain. Belief is an abandonment, an inescapable irresponsibility. It has always been ripe for exploitation.
It's belief that I'm thinking about while SueZ is sitting on the low brick fence outside her house, while I, Grand Inquisitor of the Western Suburbs, interrogate her about who she thinks she is, about how she can justify herself to me. SueZ has been back for a week already from Camp Motivation or some–such, an Australian version of the Esalen Institute at Big Sur in California, a franchise–in–spirit of the Human Potential Movement. In just a couple of days she will be starting back at high school to repeat her final year, to do better, climb higher, to excel beyond her wildest dreams.
She describes the camp as an idyll in the Victorian countryside: log cabins, fireside storytelling, a reconnection with nature, plenty of eucalypts. But I'm listening for the traces of something else and imagine it as a tense clearing house, a shack of surveillance and control, its floorboards creaking under the weight of a tribe of shaky urban kids whose parents think they need a kick up the arse so they can make it through high school/university/breakfast without failing/smoking too much dope/spilling milk.
This kind of retreat was all part of a brave new world in 1988. This was Australia in the days before Anthony Robbins, before the rise of the New Age cult of self–reinvention. Perhaps it was even the moment of its birth, the moment when a few clued–up baby boomers decided they could make some money by pumping the parents of these kids with their leftover Me–generation good vibrations. It was the end of the decade of greed when Kurt Cobain started gnashing his still–young teeth at the sidelines, waiting to bite hard into the void of twentysomething cynicism, when things would fall apart in stock market crashes and interest rates surges, and when people would need to reinvent themselves. The days of Christopher Skase and Alan Bond. The birth of self–development as a service industry. The kind of commodified belief that has lately merged with televisual evangelical Christianity.
SueZ has been talking to me, effusive about her citizenship of this new nation of self–belief. She's been infected with motivational–speak. Her mantra is about finding the power within, something self–affirming and large. I hear all about the trust–building exercises, letting yourself fall backwards to be caught by the yay–team, following micro–rules of I–think–I–can self–affirmation. The solution she has been offered for her disease of danger–embrace is for the new self to forget what the old self owned. This new self is improved, brighter, whiter. It can speed read with total recall, can turn every "negative" thought into a "positive". Now she regards herself with supreme confidence. She is a three–metre eagle soaring above the world. No longer that snake's belly dragging on the ground, that river, that canal simply swallowing and bloating its corpses.
I am sceptical about the secular miracle that has overcome her. This doesn't sound like SueZ to me. SueZ has always been out, now she is in. Or rather she is out in a very in way. I don't think this is real at all. I am only 18 and have never heard of Gould but I can sense in there that SueZ thinks that the rushed art she has made on the stucco of her spandrels, these brittle tiles arranged in more–or–less neat patterns that form an image of herself as evangelist, are the foundations of the earth. She is wrong. But she is the last one to think it. SueZ is a true believer. She has drawn the curtain on our two–hander and, as her confessor, I resent her backslide from Catholic dependency to Protestant self–sufficiency. She has become someone like me. She believes she no longer has need for other people and can become a dispassionate observer. But her new belief stands in my way. Hypocritically, I have come to depend on her self–doubt as if it were the solemn temple of mother church itself. Now I have a mission of counter–reformation, of bringing her kicking and screaming back into our fold.
ACT IV – CRUELTY (1988): I've always disliked the word"deprogramming" when it is pointed at former cult members. It smells like another one of those technologies of control – doing something that the cult itself did in the first place. A counter technology. I don't have anything against belief – self, spiritual or scientific. I'm just as suspicious about the zeal of sceptics as I am their nemeses. It's a fight I don't belong to. But still maybe it's the best way to describe what I did to SueZ that day on the low brick fence with her Labrador sleeping at our feet. Amateur deprogramming. All you have to know is how the belief–peddlers work. They pinpoint an impossible desire in people, make the impossibility sound like a simple disease of perception, an infection, a problem with the wiring, then offer a simple cure, the antidote. I knew all this because I had my own version of it to compare with, my "born–again months": those days in 1985 when Ozzy Osbourne was first biting the heads off doves, when Iron Maiden were singing the role of Satan in the headbanging theatrical extravaganza of The Number of the Beast and when someone, a newly converted girlfriend, told me that if I listened to this stuff for too long I'd commit suicide and go to Capital–H–Hell. There was the disease. Solution? I bought myself a pocket New Testament, stuck a glimmering "Jesus is Lord" sticker on it, bought every U2 album there was (October is still the most raw devotional rock recording I've ever heard), and prayed as hard as I could. This wasn't a stage that lasted long. I abandoned my belief easily, casually even, as soon as the girlfriend and I had parted ways. And it was in that easy abandonment of what I felt as sincere and profound belief that I learned just how much of life is mere petty performance.
So, the day sitting on the low fence is at the end of a long week for me during which I have been sizing up the traces of SueZ's self–doubt like a general, one of these slick, remote PR generals we now see with neat maps on flatron televisions, marionetteers who never show their doubt in the result (though we do remember Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt fainting at the podium in Doha in April 2004). I've been visiting her every day in her new serenity, telling her at any opportunity some permutation of the idea that she is weird. "You don't seem yourself ... I feel like I don't know you anymore ... You've become someone different ... You never would have said that before ... Are you sure you've really changed?"
It takes maybe two or three hours of prodding, poking and doubting on that last day for SueZ's dyke of self–belief to start to crumble and fail. When she cries I know the end is near. She is still resisting, but my words have colonised her like ants in sugar. This is cruel. But I continue. And finally, late in the afternoon, when I am growing weary too, and the Labrador has disappeared into the backyard yelping for food, she breaks. There are no more tears, but she realises what I have done and that it can't be undone. Her eyes are red, dried out from crying over the pain of letting go of what she'd only just been given.
The point is not that it is relatively easy to undo the puffing up of the Human Potential Movement or any other belief system. Rather the question is why I should have been so eager to do it? What right did I have to undo that self–belief?
In 1994, my brother was involved in a motorcycle accident. He was a pillion passenger on a Harley–Davidson. A car struck the bike near its back wheel at the point where my brother's lower left leg was resting. The limb was so badly damaged that it was amputated below the knee. Ever since the accident he has described phantom pains, intense sensations where his leg once was and the very real illusion that it is still there – toes, heel and bone, sometimes even in a painful crush, that final wrench of muscle and sinew. He is quite rational and apprehends clearly with his four other senses and with his intellect that the leg is no longer there. This has become an unremarkable phenomenon to him, an ordinary thing. But I see in it the same involuntary patterning of belief that Shermer and Ramachandran write about. That ghostly leg is part of my brother's brain's hard–wired projection of its own intact body image. I have no hope of ever trying to convince him that he should stop believing in his phantom leg. I don't even have the desire to do so, still less do I have any right to try. It's his phantom, his revel, the stuff his dreams are made on.
In the same way, the New Model SueZ that I wore away that day did not belong to me. That SueZ was a player, however flimsy, in her own insubstantial pageant. But in my cruelty, I believed I was doing what Aristotelian friends of the first order did. I believed I was giving of virtue. Really, I just saw an opportunity to restore the status quo to that paradoxical comfort, that balance between our co–dependencies – she on my safety, me on her danger – and in doing so I stripped her down, the way the woman in Peter Carey's short story Peeling is flayed away to nothingness like an onion.
ACT V – CODA: My victory of course was pyrric. The friendship didn't quite end there, though it certainly was the beginning of the end. It was where the hot iron was cooled in the water. There were some angry words, a spray and splash of temper and, after a few months, when I was moving in different circles at university and had found a girlfriend, we hardly bothered to call each other anymore. SueZ once came to see me when my new girlfriend was visiting and after introductions, an offer of cigarettes and some pointless conversation about electives and majors at university during which I fawned over my girlfriend the way a child does a Christmas tree, SueZ left with barely a word of goodbye and I hardly noticed. I called SueZ that night after my new girlfriend had gone home, but she wouldn't talk. I guessed why and I tried provoking her into admitting it, but she had shut up shop. We hung up indifferently. There might have been one or two phone calls after that. If there were then they were probably quite polite, swift. I don't remember. But I'm sure that by August, when I'd honestly forgotten her birthday and still didn't bother to make belated amends, it was over.
I imagine our parting is still a relief to her now almost 20 years later, all the better because of its mild bile. I remember the gaping hole of regret I saw in SueZ's mouth at the Polish girl's funeral. There's the relief, and all the difference in the world. I'm still alive. Still fallible. Not a ghost yet at all.