An exercise in autobiography

Tuesday, June 25, 2013
Penni Russon

headshot of Penni Russon
Penni Russon

I am thirteen. My best friend since prep, Zoe, has gone away for five months to Europe and America. I get postcards from Spain, Italy, New York. In the meantime, I need friends, quick; a flock I can conceal myself in at recess and lunch, somewhere between the soccer oval and the flat grey river. Protective colouration. Failing that, I will kiss boys.

I am twelve. Zoe pulls me to one side and whispers “Let’s run away from Anna”. We run, but we are not great runners. Anna easily catches up with us. Anna blames me; she thinks I am the charismatic one, the leader not the follower. Nick P. sees us all together and says to me, “Why do you hang out with these hippies?” Zoe and I stand in the hallway outside homeroom and make up lies to tell Anna, who always believes us. Years later it takes three weeks for Anna to approve my friend request on Facebook and in subsequent exchanges she is polite, distant.

I am thirteen. Zoe writes me letters from Switzerland, from America. She gives me addresses so I can write back – New York, NY – but I don’t write. I have nothing to say. My life seems dull compared to hers. Hobart is grey and colourless. Everything is the same. I can’t articulate my experiences. The person I am now is a constant exhausting performance of who I think I am supposed to be. I am scared of my friends. I go from boyfriend to boyfriend; as soon as we kiss, I break up with them. I start going out with boys younger than me to avoid the kissing (and occasional touching). The grade seven girls call me a slut. A small group of them hate me for the next three years, until I graduate. I wish I kept the letters Zoe sent me.

I am fourteen. I want to be an actor. I am in a production of The Sound of Music, rehearsed and performed in a theatre in the psychiatric hospital in New Norfolk. We never rehearse the second act. Maria is heavily pregnant (how do you solve a problem like Maria?) On opening night Captain Von Trap reads from his script on stage. At the matinee performances, patients wander onto the stage and no one seems to notice. I share the role of Brigitte with another girl whose name I don’t remember. One day in rehearsal we are standing together backstage and we start singing Like a Prayer. It is a quiet sort of miracle, our voices weaving together. I never sing so well again, until I have babies, and my voice is the only thing holding together the tattered dark.

I am thirteen. My mother is called into school because I have been caught cutting my wrist with a razor on the school bus. Tiny cat scratches. It is humiliating. Don’t tell Dad, I beg her. I didn’t even mean it. Elodie has been doing it too. She means it, I am sure of that. Her parents are divorcing, her aboriginal mum, her European dad, and I think it must be like watching her own body trying to separate itself into its parts, in Tasmania in 1988, where all we were taught about Aborigines was that we killed them all.

I am thirteen. I am fourteen. I am fifteen. I am sixteen. Elodie stops talking to me. Suddenly, violently, she withdraws herself. I beg, flatter, scrape, and then I wait. Weeks. Months. She is there, always there, wielding her blunt, aggressive silence. When eventually she looks me in the eye, throws me a word, dazzles me with a rare smile, I fold into myself with relief.

I am thirteen. Zoe comes back from overseas. She asks to meet me at lunchtime. Elodie follows, silent, bruised, and watches as Zoe gives me presents one by one, each wrapped in paper tissue. The only one I can remember right now is a Swiss cowbell, but there were lots of them. Andrew Sylvester tells Zoe she will have to repeat grade eight and become a panel beater. We drift apart. I have changed in ways she has not and I think we both expected it would be the other way round.

I am twelve. I am reading a book. I show the book to my friend Zoe. I show the book to my friend Jonathon. The book has a girl giving a boy a head job. The principal takes the book from Jonathon, telling him off for reading in the halls. I am called to the office. I am in trouble. The vice principal talks of suspending me. The book is called Beginner’s Love by Norma Klein. It is a Young Adult novel, though I don’t know that term yet. Angus and Robertson have a handwritten sign: Teen Fiction. My mum researches the genre at the library where she works. In an odd postscript, some years later, I come across a novel written by the vice principal in the slush pile. I reject it, not out of malice or revenge, but because it is simply no good – a group of girls on horses with no problems, solving unlikely mysteries – completely out of touch with what teenagers are really like.

I am thirty-eight. We are Russian dolls – thirteen, fourteen, seventeen, twenty-four, thirty-eight. She watches from within, with her narrowed eyes, dismayed, delighted, embarrassed at my adult life. And I look back at her: delighted, dismayed, embarrassed, curious and incredibly moved.

I don’t know which of us wrote this.

About Penni Russon

Penni Russon studied Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT. She spent some time working as a freelance structural editor and content producer until her first novel was published in 2004. She completed a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne, where she now teaches. Penni is fascinated by adolescence and the intersection that exists in that period of life between language, bodies, reality, imagination, poetry, sexuality and ideas. Her most recent novel is Only Ever Always, which won the 2012 Aurealis Award and the Western Australian Premiers Book Award for Best Young Adult Novel and was named a Children’s Book Council of Australia notable book.