33) 1995-1996. Turner Road, Rockhampton QLD 4700

With Dale completely de-fanged, Mum took another step toward freedom by moving us out from underneath his shitheadery and into a place of our own. He wouldn’t follow us this time.

We moved into yet another unconventional structure: Once an old Queenslander, a temporary wall had been erected right up the middle of it, turning it into an unofficial duplex. As Queenslanders aren’t built to be split up the guts, it made for an odd house shape: my bedroom, which had no windows, was only accessible through my sister’s bedroom. My bedroom also had a door that led to the kitchen via an unlit hallway that doubled as a storage cupboard—part of the hallway of the original house. The verandah that wrapped around the house—a standard feature of this style of house—had had walls built around the verandah railings, closing them in and giving us a giant, L-shaped sleepout.

Turner Road

As you can QUITE CLEARLY see, this house is no longer a makeshift duplex. It has been restored to some level of former glory that we never saw when we lived there. They rebuilt those front stairs, turned the front verandah back into a verandah, and painted EVERYTHING. For reference: We lived on the right hand side: our front door was actually half way up that side wall.

I am a little taken aback at how fancy our old, weirdo half-house looks now. Luckily, this story has very little to do with the house itself, so we can forget about the loss of what could have been and move forward. Forward to the story of a very important adolescent first.

When I was fifteen, I was very much like Drew Barrymore. My voice was slightly nasal, I never knew quite what to do with my hair, and I had Never Been Kissed.

Josie Grossie

Me IRL. #josiegrossie4lyf

It was 1996, and I was at a high school dance. Being 1996, The Presidents of the United States of America’s third charting single “Peaches” was blasting out of the speakers in the school auditorium, and my friends and I were standing in a circle, head banging. Because that’s what you did at a school dance when “Peaches” came on.

On this particular occasion, I must have really been feeling the emotion in Chris Ballew’s voice, because I was head banging with ardent fervour. In fact, my fervour was so ardent; I didn’t even notice that I’d slowly started to rotate on the spot, so that I was no longer facing the rest of the circle. I continued to not notice when, after turning 180 degrees, I started to drift away from the group like a delicate snowflake.  What I did notice, however, was the very centre of my forehead connecting with the corner of the auditorium stage.

Connecting…with ardent fervour.

There was an immediate jab of pain, followed by a wave of nausea, and then more pain. I snapped upright, and the momentum of this sudden movement made me topple all the way over backwards and, as I collapsed in a heap, I slammed the back of my head into the floor also.

My friends couldn’t decide whether to rush to my aid or laugh at me, so they did both. Among them was one of my best friends, Kristel. As my friends helped my throbbing, vibrating form up onto the stage to lie down—something about keeping something elevated? I’m sure it was a misguided medical precaution, as I still ended up horizontal, just higher—Kristel sat over me and rested my head in her cross-legged lap. She ran her fingers through my hair, stroked my cheek, and kept asking if I was okay. Despite the red-hot pulsing ache just above my eyes, I felt so relaxed, so cared for, that I could have stayed there all night.

At this point in the story I need to give a quick splash of background. Kristel had spent the entire tenure of our friendship flirting with me, and making jokes about kissing me. These jokes completely failed to land because my horrified, prudish teflon coating kept deflecting them. The whole kissing/hormones/sex thing was a source of constant terror for me. I can’t hang an air freshener on this one: for a teenage boy I was obtuse and frigid.

Now, while I was as comfortable as a very comfortable thing (despite possible internal bleeding), Kristel was not. The weight of my (even then) oversized head was causing her legs to go numb. She asked me to get up, I said I wouldn’t. She demanded I get up, I said I couldn’t. She reasoned, she begged, she whined, she bargained – but there was no way I was leaving the comfort of the stage floor and her lap to face the throbbing, dizzying torment of verticality. Her gentle hands and innocuous conversation were the only things distracting me from the searing pain in the front, back, and ego parts of my head, so I. was. not. moving.

Finally, she decided that extreme measures had to be taken. She knew the one thing that would get me moving, and fast:

If you don’t get up in the next five seconds, I am going to kiss you.

I decided to let it happen. Either she was bluffing, or I was about to have one of those Momentous Adolescent Moments.

She wasn’t bluffing. She kissed me.

Despite everything that came after that, that kiss is one of the most perfect I’ve ever had. It is certainly, to date, the most genuine. It was soft, it was innocent, it represented nothing, but meant everything. I will remember that utterly sublime moment for as long as I live.

And by the time she had pulled her lips away from mine, I was completely in love with her.

:+:+:+:+:+:+:

Unfortunately, teenage love doesn’t work like that. In fact, not only was our friendship going to remain exactly as it already was, but not long afterward Kristel started dating someone. An actual boyfriend. I can’t remember his name, so in the interests of continuing the shoddy Drew/Never Been Kissed metaphor I’ll call him Barry More.

I was devastated by the development. I’d seen Disney movies. Weren’t we supposed to live happily ever after now? She confused me. She crushed me. And she kicked off what has been, to date, a lifelong habit of falling for people who don’t fall back. (Okay, granted, that says more about me than it does about Kristel.)

But hey, we were fifteen years old. Not only was I pretty resilient, I also had the attention span of—well, a fifteen year old. So I got over it pretty quickly. Kristel and I were back to being friends within, oh I don’t know, nine minutes or so.

Besides, Barry More was a cool guy. He wore a leather jacket, and had the thickest, shiniest hair I had ever seen on a dude. It was like an entire shampoo commercial was sitting on his head at all times. Sometimes the three of us even hung out together. Not often, because he didn’t go to Rocky High like Kristel and I did. But we hung out on weekends often enough that, despite the threat of a teen drama-esque love triangle developing, we were all comfortable with each other.

It was during one of these weekend times, hanging out at Kristel’s house, that the topic of her and I kissing came up. Barry More knew that before they had started dating, Kristel had kissed me, and it had been my first. Barry More joked that he had kissed Kristel, and that I had kissed Kristel: the only two people out of the three of us who hadn’t kissed were he and I. As a savage bolt of electricity that I didn’t quite understand shot through me, Barry More merely snickered at the hilarious homo joke he had just made.

Later that afternoon Barry More had to go, so we went out to Kristel’s front yard to say goodbye to him. Out of politeness, I turned and took a step away when Barry More leaned down to kiss Kristel goodbye, so that I wasn’t looking right at their PDA. I might have been at ease with the situation, but that didn’t mean I wanted great dirty teenage pashes all up in my face.

I was putting such a concerted effort into not looking or listening that I was completely unaware that they’d stopped, and that Barry More had walked up behind me. What happened next took me by complete surprise: Barry More put one hand on my shoulder, spun me around, grabbed the back of my head with his other hand and started kissing me. It was all done in one quick, fluid motion and I had no time to react, or process, or do anything except kiss back.

To summarise: the first boy I ever kissed was the first girl I’d ever kissed’s boyfriend. I mean. I guess at least I was efficient?

I’d like to say that kissing Barry More completely blitzed any feeling I had for Kristel, and opened me up to a whole new world where I could discover who I really was – but no. He found the whole notion hilarious, and I…I didn’t know how I found it. All it really did was confuse the hell out of me.

It did, however, pave the way for me to build the courage to hold hands with Paul at the cinema a few months later. Though, not that much courage: my teeth chattered with nerves as our fingers touched and, eventually, interlocked (I was in year 11! He was in year 12! Also HE WAS A BOY!), and the blood was pumping so ferociously it rang in my ears: I lost all track of the movie. I never did find out how Michelle Pfeiffer got on at that dodgy school.

gurl, that vest

I’m sure she did fiiiiiiiine. She had Coolio to help her.

Oh hey, I just remembered a way I can tie this winding story back to this address!

Turner Rd

The point of this whole blog. Remember, idiot?

Paul and I had our first kiss—blowing Barry More’s right out of the water, by the way—as we sat on the back steps of this very house. It was actually intended to be our first and last kiss: we didn’t know what to do with our hand-holding feelings, so we’d decided to abandon them altogether and part ways. That resolve lasted exactly four hours: Cut to an eight person, all-genders game of Spin the Bottle out in the middle of the street that night, and Paul and I ended up making out for so long everyone else had to move three feet to the left, so they could re-form the circle and continue the game without us. After that, Paul and I realised that maybe we should just go ahead and date like proper teenagers.

What comes next I’ve already described: I freaked out, decided I didn’t want to be gay, and broke up with Paul in the most assholic way: telling him I was done “experimenting”. A boy-on-boy crime I paid for by staying confused and closeted until I was 23 years old.

In hindsight, this goes a long way to explaining my slapdash, stop-start approach to dating and sexuality. Kristel, Barry More, Peaches, a school dance-induced concussion, Michelle Pfeiffer, Paul, Spin the Bottle. It’s hard to decide what you want for dinner when you’re handed the ingredients for five different meals all at once.

[Editor’s Note: Holy shit, fifteen year old Christopher had better game than any future iteration of Christopher has ever had. I…I’m not sure how I feel about this?]

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32) 1995. Smith Street, Rockhampton QLD 4700

Much larger than Pennycuick Street, and able to hold all of us properly (remember, I didn’t decide I was going to Rockhampton until after mum had found the Pennycuick Street house), Smith Street was located in a quiet part of Rockhampton called The Range. I only just now learnt that it’s called The Range, but it makes sense: it would explain the extreme slope of  the street and backyard, which turned the relatively simple task of mowing the lawn into a dangerous battle against both the petulance of a two-stroke engine and Newtonian physics.

The Hills Have Houses

“Hoooome, home on The Raaaange, where the deer and the antelope plaaay. Where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the lawnmower threatens to barrel roll across the backyard every time you turn a cornerrrrrr…”

My change of heart wasn’t the only reason we needed somewhere a bit bigger than Pennycuick Street: Dale found us. Again. He moved himself back in, as he was wont to do, and started throwing his arrogant, muscular weight around once more. Tommy, his only biological son, apple of his eye and baby of the family, was allowed to run bratty, amok-running rings around the household, while either Lauren or I was blamed for every single act of his four-year-old terrorism (I was once, at fifteen years old, blamed for stuffing pegs into the slot of the VCR. I mean, how dare you: I only ever stuffed the VCR with episodes of The X Files or Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman that I’d recorded off the telly).

Meanwhile, mum…I don’t even know what mum ended up living with. At least, not the details. And even if I did know, I don’t think I would want to write them down.

It had now been nearly seven years of this. Mum had tried everything she could within this trapped, hopeless situation. She tried going with the flow: it ended up with us stuck on the Papua New Guinea side of the Torres Strait. She’d tried running, again and again and again and again: he kept finding us (in case you missed it: Dale’s sister worked for the Child Safety Services division of the Queensland Government, and just kept giving Dale our continually updating address). She’d moved to Rockhampton to study at CQU and find a way to better her life, and Dale was there to tear it all down again.

I guess after seven years of such suffering, one might end up thinking there is nothing left to lose. Maybe there isn’t anything left to lose. Maybe when every single available surface is coated in fear, it’s impossible to become any more afraid. So the fear just sets, and rusts over, and turns into hopelessness. Hopelessness is almost indistinguishable from emptiness. And once you’re empty…

…what is there to be afraid of anymore?

I’m no expert, and I’m only an observer in this scenario, but I think that is what happened to mum. I think that’s why, one mid-Saturday morning, during one of Dale’s alarmingly regular rampages about god knows what, with nothing left to lose, mum took a step towards him, planted her foot, and punched him as hard as she could right in his stupid disgusting drunken abusive cunt of a face.

Kapow.

The punch landed squarely enough (and, one assumes, with enough of a surprise) to make Dale stagger back a step. When you’re over six foot three, a kickboxer, and occasionally a bouncer by trade, it must sting when a short, round mother of three clocks you so hard you stumble. It did sting, and the sting made him mad. He strode forward to close the gap she’d mad between them, and said in the low, aggressive voice I’d heard many times before “Don’t you EVER do that again.”

“Do what,” mum asked, “this?” and she swiftly punched him again, in the exact same place on his stupid disgusting drunken abusive cunt of a face.

Kapow II: The Kapowening.

He staggered back a second time. This time, he didn’t step forward again. He didn’t do anything.

And I don’t just mean in that particular fight. I mean he never did anything to hurt any of us ever again. Shortly after this incident, mum, Lauren, Tommy and I would move to another house and Dale would not follow. 

Mum was free. We were free. It was over.

:+:+:+:+:+:

So, here’s the thing. Obviously I was, and still am, nothing but thrilled that Dale’s control over the family had evaporated, almost overnight. It was what I’d wanted since at least 1991. But the way it happened. The children’s-textbook manner in which a bully, once confronted, immediately crumbled is insidious and repugnant. This man physically, emotionally, and mentally tormented my mother, and by extension me and my siblings, for years. To discover that all it took was two punches from a tee-totalling cross-stitch enthusiast to cower him is galling. It is almost embarrassing in its Very Special Episode predictability. That his menace was so hollow. Not that his menace wasn’t menacing—the ferocity of his drunken abuse was life threatening—it’s just that it was so brittle. So bafflingly, almost amusingly cliche. To this day I’m as embarrassed for him as I am furious at him. You’d think that the desire to beat a woman and torment her children for the better part of a decade would come with a bit of fucking follow-through.

But no.

None of this is the point, however. To disappear into my own head-hole over the semantics of Dale’s behaviour is to completely overlook the very wonderful things that happened: Mum discovered a strength she never knew she had, and we were free of Dale. Never again would we be moving house because of his volatile caprice.

I mean, we’d still move house a lot. You’re reading this from the top, one assumes, so you already know there are sixty stories: I’ve still got twenty-eight to go. But at least the remaining moves are for reasons a lot more capricious and whimsical and nonsensical!

H…ooray?

31) 1995. Pennycuick Street, Rockhampton QLD 4700

Crows Nest continued to be just the worst. My only solace remained in line dancing classes, populated by the town’s supply of old ladies, including my grandmother. A friendless, gawky 14 year old grape-vining with a room full of CWA members: entire runs of British sitcoms have been produced with less bumbling awkwardness.

Meanwhile my mother, trying to keep her head above water in a fake-nonchalant “No No I’m Not On The Run From Dale, I Just Coincidentally Enjoy Moving Very Quickly To Wherever Dale Isn’t” sort of way, was trying to find a way to regain some agency over her life’s trajectory. She decided to get herself a degree, and was enrolled at CQU: the Central Queensland University. Meaning? We were moving to Rockhampton.

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 5.47.59 pm

Did you ever visit the Pennycuick St house? You didn’t? Good. This is DEFINITELY the house. I didn’t find myself unsure after an hour of searching Google Street View and then take a bit of a stab. Nosirree.

Except: well, I wasn’t. I decided to not move across the country again. I was going to spend the three weeks of school holidays in Brisbane, working for my Uncle Ken at his sign-writing company (SPOILER: The skills I picked up there were never, ever used again). Then I would go back to Crows Nest, move in with my grandparents again, and continue my schooling.

I know what you’re thinking. And no, I don’t know what the hell was wrong with me either. Staying at that school? Living with my grandparents? Voluntarily? Teenagers, man. They’re fucking idiots.

Thank goodness, then, for manual labour. For three weeks, I worked at Greenwood Signs, mostly scrubbing down old real estate signboards. Peel off the contact, scrape off the paint, patch up the screwholes, and repaint the boards white so they could be used again. I did this all day, every day, at one stage getting a sunburn so severe, at night my skin audibly hummed. It was physically intense work, and it put my pale, weak, indoor-specialist body through its paces.

“Did you work as hard as you could today?” my Uncle Ken would ask at the end of the day.
“Frrmfhm” I would reply from face-down on the floor.
“Well, I’m sure you worked harder than you’ve ever worked before, but I don’t reckon you worked as hard as you could“, he would smug, while I attempted to plot his murder. (I never followed through, I was too weak and puny. Uncle Ken is alive and well in 2015.)

It was tough, but it was exactly what I needed. It’s like the extreme physical workout over those three weeks cleared my mind. Firstly, I realised that on the list of things I wanted to be when I grew up, “signwriter” was at the bottom. Of a different list. On a piece of paper on the opposite side of town. More importantly, this realisation triggered a larger epiphany: I was free to choose what I did and did not want to do with my life. And I did not want to live in Crows Nest. I did not want to live with my grandparents. And I was free to choose not to. I chose, plans were rearranged, and I moved up to Pennycuick Street and started the new school term at Rockhampton High School, a full nine hours drive away from the place I hated most.

The backyard at Pennycuick St. This picture is not related to the story, but my sister made me promise to include it to show what a “filthy fucking snitch” I was. Look. I DID take this photo of her and Tommy to dob them in to mum because they kept denying swinging from the clothesline. I was indeed…ahem… a “filthy fucking snitch”. HAPPY LAUREN?

Rockhampton High School was, and remains, a complete riddle of a place. I had by this stage been to twenty schools before it, so I was kind of an expert in the process of starting a new school: I would keep to myself for safety, and would be summarily ignored by most of the student body. The resident dickheads would come for me straight away, and that was to be expected. I just had to stay low, stay quiet, and stay in the library: I knew the routine. If I was lucky, I’d end up on brief speaking terms with some of the kids I shared classes with, but it was kept very casual, partly because I would inevitably end up moving again before long, and partly because you never knew who to trust: A very common ploy among some of the more torture-happy bullies was to lure a kid into a false sense of security by “befriending” them, before pulling the rug out from under them at a later date in some cruel, calculated (and nearly always public) manner. I’d been caught out that way a couple of times, so this ruse no longer worked on me. I’d learnt to see it coming, and just to be extra careful, I never trusted anyone that came at me all smiles and friendliness.

So I was immediately on guard, hackles raised, eye to the nearest exit when, on only my second day, as I sat under a small tree doing a very good impression of an invisible person, Marguerita Smith bounced up to me.

“Hey! What are you doing?”
“Eating lunch.” (Never give too much away. I would have been a great spy during my teen years.)
“You don’t have to sit there all by yourself!”
“I’m fine.”
“No, come sit with us! You look so alone!”
“I am alone. That’s the point.”

“Ugh, don’t be boring. Come with me.”And she grabbed me by the hand and pulled me over to another part of the yard where about ten students sat in a circle.

I knew I was being had. However, the problem with the Carrie-style false-friend ruse is that calling it out too quickly can be just as bad as falling for it. Letting on that you know their game straight away gives them months of ammunition, as they were “only trying to be nice” when you “turned into a freak”. It’s a win-win situation for your tormentor. So, like finding a leech on your leg, it’s safer to just let them fill up, because if you try to rip them off straight away you bleed more and their mouthparts stay embedded in your flesh—I’m sorry, I completely lost control of that metaphor. What I’m saying is I really had no choice but to go with Marguerita to her coven of monsters who were no doubt plotting something terrible. I was trapped, and had to, for the time being, be complicit in my own torture, at least up until the point where they played their evil hand.

That point never came.

On that day, Marguerita introduced me to the people who became the best friends I’d ever had.

Katrina, the prototype for the kind of independent, zero-fuck-giving alpha women to whom, in later years, I would always find myself drawn: who was rebellious but fiercely loyal; dominating but surprisingly gentle; prone to vulgar humour (my favourite kind) but always full of love.

Aimée, who we were sure was at least part elf; a creature of delicate hippie-ish whimsy who would eventually move in with my family for nearly two years, becoming the older sister I never had. Who—much to the disgust of the rest of us—entirely skipped her awkward teenage years, evolving from cute kid to fully grown fairy-woman with the speed of a mogwai that was fed after midnight.

IMG_3537

Yes, that’s me in the centre. Katrina is to my left, Aimee second from the right. And yes, my hair really is doing that. I DON’T KNOW WHAT IT IS. Wait until you see my centre part…

Fabienne, who is today an elegant 34 year old woman, but who has been an elegant 34 year old woman since she was 15. Fabienne, who started calling me on my shit in 1995 and has never stopped: who would take my left arm hostage in Maths B so she could draw on it, sometimes filling most of my forearm with abstract doodling (she never took any notes because her pen was occupied on my arm, and I never took any notes because my arm was occupied by her pen: we both failed that maths class. Okay maybe she wasn’t always an elegant 34 year old woman).

Steven, who completely redefined what I thought “cool” was, and who served as proof that I could make friends with a guy, and not secretly fear being punched in the face (I assumed that’s what guys did). Steven showed me it was possible to be a non-sporty, bookish kind of boy and hold some level of popularity at the same time. Not that I was under any delusion that I had what it took to be popular; it was enough just to not have to be invisible.

IMG_3538

And there’s the centre part. (And quite a pale inner thigh, it turns out.) Katrina is to the immediate right of me, Marguerita is far left.

Paul, whose pinkie finger I “accidentally” brushed with my pinkie finger while we sat together at the movies, which built—agonisingly slowly—to a full holding of hands by the end credits. The second boy I ever kissed (but the first boy I ever kissed with intent), and the first boy I actually “dated” for a short time, before I imploded in a fit of gay panic and ending it, cruelly citing it as “a phase I was over”. (The sharp regret of that callousness stings me to this day: but I paid the price, and then some, by struggling with my sexuality for the next eight years. I wouldn’t date another boy for fourteen years.)

Kristelwho gave me my first EVER kiss, which is the subject of the next story so you’re going to have to wait for a week for elaboration.

Those six people changed me in ways I didn’t even realise until, really, I wrote this story. There were other people too: Jodie, Stacey, Becca, Emma(s), Charmaine, and more. I loved them all. The group often grew and shrunk, plus there were peripheral members, but that core group remained solid. I was part of a clique: a clique of dorky semi-outcasts, but a clique nonetheless. We hung out at a pergola on the school grounds, and due to our semi-outcast status, nobody else came near the pergola. It became our safe space, and we became known as “The Pergola People”: at least, according to several statements written on toilet walls.

rocky high

This is incomplete, but, from left to right: Aimée in black, Katrina in the hat, me in the front (yes, again, that’s my hair), Steven at the back, Becca in glasses, resting her head on Paul, who’s standing in front of Marguerita, with Jodie at the end (Fabienne took the photo). Also pictured: the infamous Pergola: Our Turf.

I was at Rocky High for 16 months, and they were the very best of all twelve of my schooling years. I have lost contact with many of these people, but I’m still in touch with three of them to this very day. But contact or not, every person I befriended at that school means so much to me.

They are the reason I learnt how to live. They kickstarted the adolescence I’d forgotten to have until that point. Because of them, I had, among other things, my first detention, my first existential crisis, my first kiss, my first sexual experience, my first failed school subject, my first taste of adulthood, and my first sense of real belonging. They taught me to be funny, to be fun, to embrace what I’m good at, and to enjoy myself.

I guess the bulk of the credit goes to Marguerita, for forcing me to join her group in the first place. Marguerita was one of the first people I lost contact with after I left Rockhampton, and I doubt we have much in common as adults. But I owe her so much. She saved me. Or rather, she created me. The person who writes this today would not exist if she hadn’t taken my hand. I would still be a dull, quiet, invisible goody-two shoes hiding in libraries. So much of who I am now can be traced back to a single catalyst: an act of kindness from Marguerita Smith.

I will never be able to thank her enough.