From about sixteen, I began going out. Whenever I did, I tried to look cool – just like any other teenager. I spent a lot of time on my hair, and sometimes blow-dried it, although the hair-dryer – in combination with the gels and mousses I used – always made me feel sticky and stifled. That was something that seemed to be developing as I got older, a physical hypersensitivity to external sensation – not that I thought much of it.
I also had good facial growth. Some people said I looked like George Michael, although that was never my intention. Whenever I went out, I’d shave a few days earlier, timing it so that my growth would be just the right shade to look my best – teenage vanity at its best.
Clothes were something else entirely. My wardrobe was modest, but I tried to look good – even if it meant discomfort (which it often did). Like my overcoat: that came everywhere, even inside clubs or parties in garages where wearing an overcoat was suffocating. It became my trademark. Jeans were something else. Putting them on for the first time, they were always stiff and scratchy. Sometimes, I’d put them over my pyjama-pants and bounce around like I was doing aerobics – just to loosen them until they were comfortable. Then I’d remove my pyjama-pants and put my jeans back on. I still hated the initial feel of them. It was like pulling sandpaper over my legs.
I liked getting ready to go out.
I liked the thought of going out.
But being out terrified me.
I projected confidence, but had none. When I was out, my heart thumped, there was flightiness in my stomach, and I was fidgety. Everybody was a threat. I wasn’t paranoid. That wasn’t it. But there was a potential for danger everywhere. The scale heightened whenever it involved people who looked … well, scarier than your normal person.
This is the teenage world. There’s always somebody wanting to fight or beat somebody’s head in. My parents were always reciting News where people got attacked. They used it as validation: go out and you might get beaten up. You might have an accident. Something horrible might happen.
I also couldn’t relate to anybody. That had been the case at high school, but now it was worse. Whenever I talked to people, I was shy and awkward. I never knew what to say, never knew how to respond, and kept feeling I would blurt something totally inappropriate – well, not just inappropriate (I’m sure every teenager worries about), but something heinous, something unpardonable. If somebody told me there’d been a tragic accident in their family, I had the impulse to shout, Good! Great! You deserve it! Or maybe drop my head and butt them between the eyes and shatter the bridge of their nose. These weren’t things I wanted to do, but just what popped in my head. I had to warn myself over and over to make sure I didn’t do any of these things.
Because of this difficulty relating, my circle of friends didn’t expand and I never had a real long-term girlfriend, because I couldn’t connect with anybody and stay connected with them. It was bad enough being the author of the NEXT GREAT FANTASY EPIC – being an aspiring writer, and particularly of fantasy, wasn’t a selling-point amongst teenagers – but if I told girls what was going on inside my head, they’d think I was crazy. Half the time I thought I was crazy.
The way I handled all this was to drink. Drinking and being a teenager are synonymous, but I did it to cope. It was the only way I could feel at ease, the only way I could relax. If I didn’t drink, then I had to confront the way I was feeling, and the way I was feeling had a cumulative effect – it just got worse and worse.
This was probably the reason my best friend, Stan, and I got along so well – because we were so alike. My issues weren’t as specific as his, but we both felt like social misfits. When we went out we both drank to cope, relax, and enjoy ourselves. But whereas I remained meek Stan was invincible. One time, some try-hard pulled a knife on Stan and Stan reached out and closed the knife on the try-hard’s hand. Another time, a car pulled over by us in the middle of the night, and its two occupants – a pair of freak shows – gave us a hard time; Stan walked over and stared at them, just glowered at them, until they shut up and drove off.
I could never do that. I wasn’t sure when it happened, but somewhere along the line I became meek. As a kid, I’d stand up to bullies, be the first one off the high diving board, jump ramps on my bike, climb the framework of houses under construction and do lots of crazy stuff. I lost that fearlessness as I got older.
Stan and I went out regularly, despite our mutual social awkwardness and my underlying fear of everything. When we heard about parties, we’d travel as far as it would take to get there, catching lifts, taking trains, or even walking; at the end of the night, we’d walk home – regardless of the distance – or even hitch.
Other times, we went to clubs. There was a makeshift club, called Kasey’s, that operated out of a nearby reception hall every other month. Stan’s older brother worked as the bartender on some nights, so Stan and I always got free drinks – order a couple of beers, hand over a ten dollar note, get ten dollars (and sometimes more) back in change. If it wasn’t Kasey’s, we went to clubs in the city – we both looked old for our age, and were never carded.
When I was eighteen, I was at Kasey’s one night and got in a wrestle with a guy I knew – it was one of those playful things that grew semi-serious. I fell, and he kneed me in the bridge of my nose, breaking it. Afterward, he apologised, and everything was fine. The break was small and a specialist manipulated it back into place.