It was just a glimpse I caught of you
Not quite enough to fill the gap
Between the knowing and déjà vu
My mirror image to unwrap
Reflected there behind the mask
That begs the question I must
One perfect day I’ll be that me
You know I was always meant to be
That day will come . . . this nightmare end
The truth revealed of my manhood
No longer so misunderstood
This broken thing only I can mend
That perfect day will come I’m sure
I’ll be that me forevermore
Orientation Week was heaven on a stick. I joined every second club and society that had a smiling face and a hint of fun to be had. A new town, with a squeaky new future in the wings, was the perfect mixer to go with the truckload of free beer O-week had on offer. I couldn’t wait to try the anythings and everythings I imagined uni to be. The Platonic idealism I’d nursed through high-school and my short-lived career as a labourer would finally get an airing in the hallowed halls of learning. Set against the backdrop of that optimistic good cheer, the misogynistic rant I came across in the bar was a grating reminder that all was not well in that world. ‘Did women build the Roman Empire? Was it a woman who took that ‘giant step for mankind’? How many women does it take to… blah, blah.’ The guy with the mouth had an ego Superman couldn’t jump over and as tempting as a heckling confrontation was, I couldn’t be bothered buying into some wanker’s macho ego-fest when there were far more enticing activities to be had around the campus corner. I didn’t give Pete a second thought until he plonked himself down at my table in the ref a few days later. He’d seen me at the mountaineering club and wanted to know if he could join the Federation Peak walk over the Easter break. He had no clue our paths had already crossed and I had no reason to revisit my first impression.
Over the next few months we shared our interests in politics, bushwalking and every barrel from physics to philosophy led to an unlikely friendship taking shape. Pete’s conversation habitually took aim at the female of the species and the resulting exchanges were often as not half a word away from a blood sport. I never backed away from my criticism of Pete’s Anglo-centric sensibilities and testosterone charged abuse of feminism, and he would likewise tear strips off my romantic anarchism and defense of every girl from Alice to Aphrodite. As spirited as those encounters often were, we never came to blows. The one thing we never disagreed on was climbing. We rarely spoke during a climb and as clichéd as it sounds I can’t help but think those silences were the real reason our friendship endured.
Work and family and travel and women took our lives in very different directions. Christmas cards and the occasional scribbled note from wherever in the world Pete happened to be were intertwined with yaffly coffees and meals whenever he was in town. Chilli mussels and too many red wines set the tone for most of those get togethers. We’d catch up every week or two when he was around and then go our separate ways when the distractions of life took over. Pete had been living in Indonesia with his latest lady-love and when that relationship, like all those before it, came to its inevitable end, he called me on his arrival back in Melbourne:
‘Bakers still doing their seafood night?’
Pete-speak for dissecting the minutia of where it had gone wrong, of where she’d gone wrong. He knew he’d get little if any sympathy from me, not that that had ever stopped him over-analysing his life choices in the past. To be honest, the closet soapy-watcher in me was looking forward to the next installment of an existence that had nothing in common with the suburban family life I led. In his enthusiasm to have an ear to bend my casual mention that I had something to tell him would have gone straight through to the keeper. No surprises there: Pete’s world loomed large from where he sat, and from his perspective mine was simply what it was. When you had known someone for as long as Pete and I had, the scripts we lived by rolled out in anticipation of the familiarities we expected of one another.
I arrived early for dinner. The first beer didn’t touch the sides, prompting the waitress to ask if I’d like ‘another while you’re waiting for your friend?’ She didn’t have to ask twice. Seven o’clock swung ‘round. My heart-rate increased and by quarter past what had seemed like a good idea at the time was rapidly morphing into ‘what the fuck am I doing’, which was followed by Pete walking in. He gave the café crowd his usual once over. He looked across at me. He turned and walked out. Right, that didn’t go as well as I had imagined it might. Yes, it was presumptuous of me to think Pete would be OK with this stuff. We’d covered a lot of ground over the years but I’d never once hinted at what I now so pointedly wanted to share with him. Even the best of friendships have their limits and it looked ominously like I’d found ours in that glance. I had no Plan B and the only thought to cross my mind was, So, that’s what the pit of my stomach feels like. Pete was still outside the café having a smoke and I was about to try his mobile to ask what his story was when I saw him check his watch . Sweet. I waved the waitress over and asked her to tell the guy on the footpath that there was a beer waiting for him inside. A measured breath in … out … and Pete was standing at my table.
I smiled and said, ‘I thought we’d agreed to meet for dinner.’
Pete’s mouth opened and closed and opened and closed again. The longer he stood looking the more I relaxed into the ‘me’ he was seeing for the very first time. His stare never left my face as he fumbled for a chair, an absent-minded ‘fuck me’ slipping out when he finally settled at our table. Pete’s eyes were doing all the talking and seeing him lost for words was a first. It was one of those classic silences that only last a second or two but take forever to break. The anxiety I’d felt only a few moments earlier dissolved into the quiet confidence that came with being in the skin I was in. When I reminded Pete that I had mentioned having something to tell him, the ‘you bastard’ he responded with put a grin on both our faces. Pete still had a lot to take in seeing his oldest mountaineering mate primped and powdered to perfection.
From my side of the looking glass, being frocked-up was as seamless as breathing in and out. I could sit playing with a lock of Phryne Fisher black-bob wig without a blink of self-consciousness. But introducing that same femme self to family and friends was rarely an easy thing to do. ‘Show don’t tell’ was my weapon of choice when it came to sharing the reality of my being Amanda. Pete had to sink or swim in a sea of Allure perfume and a to-die-for 1950s inspired black and white floral print dress – the exquisitely cut cowl neckline flowed into a backless pleated A-line skirt, frothing at the hem with layers of black tulle petticoat, perched on suicide high platform stilettos and finished off with lashings of mascara and the reddest red lipstick on the planet. Everyone blinks.
The attention to detail that defines Amanda’s public persona was lost on Pete. He made an awkward attempt to complement me on my hair and makeup, then had second thoughts and reverted to type with a disparaging remark about my cleavage. We both laughed. Dinner went better than either of us could have predicted, helped along by a tender-as Gippsland T-bone and a decidedly Amandaesque sparkling Shiraz.
Pete had way more questions than I had answers that night. He still has. He wanted to know every where, why, what and when of my Amandaring. His curiosity was initially focused on concern that I not get ‘the shit kicked out of me’ when I was out and about, which was sort of sweet. I assured him it was pretty unlikely I’d be bashed at the ballet or threatened at the theatre and tried to reassure him that the most dangerous place I could go – the Myer mega-sale – wasn’t my scene.
‘So what if the cops stop you?’
I had been pulled over for a random traffic inspection, which was a non-event until the officer asked to see my license. She looked at the photo ID I handed her and then quizzically at me. All I could do was smile and say ‘yeah, there’s a typo on the date of birth’. She waved me off with a cheery goodbye and was still laughing as I drove away. All good and well according to Pete but what he was really angling to know was, What are you going to do when some douche-bag tries it on?
Life to Pete was sex. Full stop. Everyone, everywhere, every day of the week was either doing it or wanted to be doing it. I didn’t live in that world. From day one I’d always assumed anyone seeing Amanda knew precisely what it was they were looking at. It still surprises me that that assumption is only half right. Girls pretty much know at first blush what I am. Boys on the other hand have a tendency to see what they want to see. ‘That’s right Pete, just like you did when you first walked into the café.’ My gentle slap to remind the boy in the man that he’d been sprung only served to spur him on to ask the question he most wanted the answer to: ‘ So, has anyone tried to get into your pants?’
‘Panties Pete, get with the program, mate.’
He could be a real charmer.
There was this guy. The Black Cat was a favourite café-cum-music venue for me to Amanda a night away. I usually sat alone, reading, writing , enjoying. It’s a bit witchy but I could feel the looks I was getting. What’s the deal with that? No, your stare isn’t a tractor beam. No, I don’t feel all gooey knowing you’re giving me the eye. Didn’t he know the rules? ‘If you don’t want to be a dick, DON’T BE A DICK.’ My admirer eventually made his way to where I was sitting and with one of those icky Days of our Lives voices said, ‘Hi, I’m John. But you can call me Jack.’ As if that was ever going to happen. The questioning eyebrow I raised was all the encouragement John needed to trot out his next B-grade movie line. ‘I’d like to take you home and tuck you into beddy byes.’ OK, I have to admit I had a smidge of admiration for his directness, but he totally lost me at ‘beddy byes’! What planet was this guy from? Not knowing what else to do I thanked him with the strongest boy handshake I could muster, leant across the table, and said, ‘You can’t afford me, John.’ A ripple of chuckling from the staff and patrons next to me followed John to the door. Not the nicest thing I’ve ever done but, hey, John was a dick.
Pete was warming to where I was coming from and to the ‘me’ I wanted him to know. Before we’d finished our wine the conversation had settled into the same relaxed ebb and flow we’d always enjoyed. I asked him about Indonesia and the focus of our catch-up shifted 180 degrees.
Pete still has a myriad of questions and rock-climbing is still the scariest fun thing I do. We’ve had lots of meals and coffee catch-ups since that dinner and our discussions can still be feisty affairs at times but, that said, he does tend to tread a little gentler whenever the conversation crosses the gender divide.
Love may make the world go around, but it’s been friendships like Pete’s that have let me breathe in that world.
I met you in my dreams
The wish I made . . . come true
The lie I’ve lived not what it seems
You came to my rescue
Across the years we were apart
You came to me with all your heart
No thought that hidden then from view
Those dreams would one day be you
Testimony to your birthright
The truth revealed for all to see
The you that’s always been in me
My secret sister of the night
Your mirror image now recast
That perfect day has come at last