I’m going through a patch at the moment when fragmentary memories come to mind seemingly without reason. They come as a surprise and, surprised, I dwell on them as if a novelty. Some of these things have not been in my mind since when they occurred. Years later, I get a different perspective on them.
One such memory was of me when I was a teenager and regularly clashing with my father. I don’t think we were ever close. The closest we ever got was when we’d go to the footy together year after year, but that was more companionship and a shared passion than true affection. My father isn’t the warmest character by nature and could be described as an alpha personality.
As a teenager, I sensed his need to dominate, and by nature, I rebelled against it. I say by nature, but I wonder if instead, it was something that developed in the abrasive interactions between us. Though we weren’t close, I admired him. He’d achieved a lot, was a mover and shaker, and was by far the most forceful personality in our ecosystem of family and friends. I respected his achievements, but it was the strength of his will that drew me. My father certainly wasn’t the most liked, but that wasn’t a consideration for me (my mother was the most liked, and so counter-balanced the equation). In my juvenile way, I liked that he was the man every one stopped for.
I might have liked it, but it didn’t mean I wanted to stop for him – or even heed him. I got it in my head that I would respect me more if I stood up for myself as an individual, and so I was an active resister. That was a naïve, idealistic belief – I’ve learned since that powerful people want nothing more than to be obeyed.
I look back, and I can admit I was probably a pain in the arse. I don’t know that I was ever really hostile, or even rude, but I was one of those annoying children who would ask why? And if the answer was unsatisfactory, or – more often – not forthcoming, then I wouldn’t cooperate.
That’s a stage a lot of kids go through. In my case, there was an element of wrong-headedness about it, but I can’t say I regret it much now. It was who I was.
Dad took another view. It infuriated him that I might defy him. I can hardly remember the things we argued about, but I remember how we would yell at each other and how, on occasion, it would lead to physical violence.
My mum always maintained my father treated me terribly. I never took that view. By and large, I believed that if I copped anything, then it was mostly because I provoked it, and fair play. I have the same attitude today. If you poke the bear, then you can’t complain if he gives you a swipe in return.
I suspect I’ve probably forgotten a lot, but I reckon too that mum exaggerated, and her recollection was likely coloured by how their relationship ended. We certainly came to blows, and by that, he struck me. He was the bigger man, my father, and I accepted it went with the territory – these were very different times – but I can understand now how someone in authority, the bigger man, should not act in such a way.
Most of my memories of our clashes are vague, but I remember one such when I was about 16, and we were living in Sydney. I can’t remember what we argued about, but I know it was a Sunday. One thing led to another, and he struck me with a clenched fist. The next day I went to school with a black eye and claimed I’d been hit by a cricket ball. Pretty classic.
Within a year, it all changed. One day we clashed again, and this time I was the bigger man. I cocked a fist at him, and I remember everything going still. This was back in Melbourne, in the living room of our house in Lower Plenty. He looked at me with steely eyes and said something along the lines that “the day my son raises a fist to me is the day he’s dead to me”.
For the next 3 months, he ghosted me. We lived in the same house, and he wouldn’t even look at me, let alone say anything – I know this is a time that wounded mum.
In the end, she left him, and that was part of the reason why. Not surprisingly, I went with her while my sister stayed with my dad – who now had started talking to me again. Years later, I came to understand that he had severe hang-ups about me, while – then at least – I was just a kid acting, more or less, like a painful kid.
I can date my unwillingness, or inability, to submit back to that time. The question is whether I was born that way or made it.
The other memory is much happier, more innocent, even inconsequential.
It’s years later. I’m out in the world about 23 or 24 and feeling at the peak of my physical powers. I decided to learn how to tap dance.
I used to admire dancers like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. They made it look so much fun, and the movies they made doing it so joyous. I thought, I want a piece of that, and I began lessons in a dance studio in Chapel Street.
In the end, I only attended 3-4 classes, though I learned enough to do some basic tap steps and moves, some of which I still use.
What I remember is that of the class of 7-8, there was only one other male besides the instructor, and he was just about the opposite of me – a slim, slender, retiring type. I was so full of male juice that I could barely comprehend someone like that. I wanted nothing more than to cut a swathe through life, and one had to be bold and fearless to do so. It was another type of naivety.
I felt so commanding. I was strong and fit, and I moved well. I remember, I wore a charcoal grey tank-top to class, a favourite by Saba that showed off my build. I was tall and lean, but my bare shoulders were balls of muscle, and my biceps as big as melons. As we skipped across the floor, I could feel vitality flow through me, like electricity.
As you can probably gather, I was pretty cocky. In my defence, I was also smart and sensitive off-screen, but it was hard to contain the abundance I felt. It didn’t help being in a class full of fit and attractive women. I was in my prime and knew it.
That’s a memory that hadn’t come to mind in all the years since, until Wednesday night. It happened though. I was there.