This is a chapter from Volume I of my autobiography entitled Sex with a Sunburnt Penis. The chapter was in fact removed from the second draft as part of a lengthy culling process and re-organisation of the material. Sex with a Suburnt Penis (hereafter, SWASP) was written between July and November of 1997 after a particularly bad break-up of a relationship that had lasted four and a half years. It goes without saying that I brought it all upon myself through repeated misdemeanours, but still was genuinely devastated when the shit hit the fan. It set me off on a particularly introspective period of binge-drinking and autobiographical writing, inspired by Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell and Ernest Hemingway to name a few. My habit of diary-keeping – still have not missed a day since 1986 – made this process considerably easier as I had a wealth of material to mine, alongside my then more vivid recollections of the events. Whilst not in evidence here, I still consider some of the the stronger passages of SWASP to be my most visceral and honest writing to date.
One afternoon when I was sixteen years old, whilst helping my dad to paint the lounge-room, he asked me a question out of the blue.
“Mate, do you smoke marijuana?”
“Ummm, no,” I replied.
“Look,” he said, “I used to smoke it a bit myself, and I’m not against it. But I still think you’re a bit young to be getting into it.”
I nodded and said, without making eye contact, “Well, I haven’t tried it.”
“Well, look, mate,” said my dad, squaring up, “if you ever take anything, for whatever reason, and you get into any trouble, I want you to know that you can always call your dad. Just get straight on the phone and I’ll come and get you, wherever you are. Don’t be afraid of being in trouble – the first priority is to make sure you’re alright.”
He was looking at me so intently that I felt embarrassed. I was glad to have the roller in my hand.
“You’re my son,” he said, “and I don’t want you to do anything stupid, obviously. But we all make mistakes. Don’t be afraid of calling your dad if you need any help.”
“Umm, I won’t. Thanks.”
He turned back to the wall and smiled to himself.
“I tell you what,” he said, “smoking dope used to make me as hungry as buggery.”
The truth, of course, was that I had started smoking dope the year previous, though I never seemed to get properly stoned. I rather wondered what all the fuss was about, for none of my friends seemed to get stoned either. My closest friend, Jason, tried his best to prove otherwise one truant afternoon by hiding in the cupboard and pretending to be linen, but it didn’t exactly wash. I felt sure he was faking it, and so did everyone else, yet our doubts were mixed with the envious fear that he was actually stoned. It seemed churlish to challenge him so I just pretended I was stoned as well. We all did.
Such pretending certainly had its precedents, for, earlier that year, Jason and I had spent many hours practising with tea-leaves. One terribly immature evening we donned some paisley head-scarves, ordered a pizza and rolled up a savage, nine-skin, Earl Grey and Russian Caravan Tea joint. After a heavy dose of bergamot we upped the ante with a few lines of sherbet, put on The Tracks of my Tears and re-enacted the scene from Platoon in which Charlie Sheen smokes through a gun-barrel, albeit with Irish Breakfast and a plastic tube. It was a farcical charade of retro cool, but at fifteen we longed for a taste of counter culture so badly that even mere pretence had the tang of rebellion.
Well versed as I was on the subject of tea, when it came to marijuana I was entirely ignorant of the varieties and in all likelihood we were only smoking leaf. No wonder we never got stoned, but then, getting hold of any stuff, let alone good stuff, was a serious obstacle. In my third year of high school Jason and I had tried to buy our first “foil” from a classmate called Duke. A few days later in maths he handed our twenty dollars back. No luck. It was to become a familiar story and our hopes were regularly dashed in this fashion.
By the time we were sixteen, marijuana began to show up at parties. I puffed away on the rare and holy joints of empty leaf, but so little effect did it have beyond inducing an overexcited and ultimately frustrated musing on its workings, that I entrusted my evenings to the siege engines of tequila. Not having been properly stoned made it difficult to know what to recognise when it finally happened. Yet, when I did find out, the contrast was immediately apparent and set a benchmark I was unlikely ever to forget.
Like so many pivotal moments in life, fortune smiled from the unmapped realm of the random. One Friday night, a mere week after my father’s enquiry, I walked into the Paddington Green hotel to see if anyone was about. This pub was notorious for turning a blind eye to underage drinkers and was a favourite haunt of the more game amongst my high school peers. “Game” was a tag to which I keenly aspired.
In the front room I spotted two friends, James and Rowena, who were playing the card machines. They seemed happy to see me, so I bought a beer and pulled up a stool.
“I’m having shit luck,” said James. “Why don’t you have a crack?”
“Okey dokes, though I haven’t the faintest…”
They showed me what to do and I doubled up a few hands; a fifty-fifty choice between red or black cards. I can only assume that it was a brilliant spate of beginner’s luck, but within five minutes I had won them forty dollars. It was no piddling amount for a teenager back then.
“Fucking excellent,” said James. “What a champion. We should go and get smashed!”
Both he and Rowena were keen as mustard to get hammered and it was plain they knew how to make it happen. I was scared of their capability; James and Rowena were united in rebellion against school and convention and were known to indulge in harder things than booze and pot. Despite being curious and adventurous, I retained much childhood timidity.
“Maybe we could get some speed as well,” said James, confirming all of my worst fears.
“Oh, no,” I protested nervously, “I don’t want to get involved with anything like that.”
“Nah, well, don’t worry, man,” said James, “we wouldn’t want to do make you do anything you don’t want to do.”
I was pleased with how quickly they ruled it out. I felt completely reassured and my spirits rose again. They were going to look after me! I was excited by the prospect of heading into a world with a harder edge; nothing too dramatic, and hardly a patch on what was to come only a year later, yet it had all the gravity of anticipated significance.
Before long we were on the ever-reliable 380 bus to Bondi. The long bus swung and dipped its winding way to the Royal Hotel, where James said a quick score was certain. “We’ll get some hash, man. Have you ever smoked hash?”
“Nah,” I said, swallowing my resurrected uncertainty.
“It’s just like dope, man. It’s the same stuff. But different. Better.”
Rowena smiled. She was beautiful, Italian, wearing a little too much foundation.
“I love hash,” she said.
It sure seemed sexy now.
The pub terrified me. I’d never seen a place with so many rough blokes in it and there was none bigger and rougher than the bloke whom James approached and disappeared with into the toilets. I waited outside on the street with my nerves crippling my conversation. I liked Rowena, but she was so grown up for a girl her age that I felt like a child beside her. I stood dumb, expecting something awful to happen; that somehow we would all be the victims of violence. The real world could be frightening, exposing the thinness of my bravado. It was vast and I felt small. It struck me that out on the edge there was less room to run.
When James emerged a couple of minutes later I couldn’t wait to get moving. “It’s sweet, man,” he said, “I got a hell-good deal.”
The humid air was full of spring blossom and the sea. We hurried off into the night, all of us with an extra spring in our step.
“Have a look, man,” said James, offering me a stick of hash. I had no preconception of what hashish might look like and was surprised to find a slightly sticky, malleable brown lump in my hand. It was like the chocolate Spacefood bars I’d eaten in primary school and similarly moulded into a rectangle. I gave it a light squeeze and took a sniff. It was nutty, pungent and dusky. I smiled and handed it back to James.
Away from the main strip I was able to relax. Since being harassed by Nazi punks only a year before, I was wary of everyone and felt more at ease away from the main strip. In the side streets I could hide in the shadows, but Bondi Road swarmed with fired up, drunk young men and it was anyone’s guess as to who or what they might not like.
Before long we arrived at James’ house. It was a modern, red-brick semi which mirrored the one adjacent; set back from the road down a fragrant path.
“My mum’s home downstairs,” he said, “so we have to be real quiet.”
We tip-toed along a hall and into the front room; James held his finger to his lips. This was much more familiar territory; a game I knew only too well. I was adept at being stealthy and had a whisper so low it might be mistaken for the brush of silk.
We settled against bookshelves, sitting cross-legged. “I’ll be back,” said James, and snuck off into the hall. Rowena and I remained silent, smiling and raising eyebrows. I wondered what she saw in James. He might be cool and know a thing or two, but he was jug-eared and acned. It must have been his street cred, his dedication to the dark side that gave him the upper hand.
He returned just two minutes later with a bowl, a bong and a packet of biscuits.
“Are you mixing?” James asked, handing the bowl to Rowena to confirm this demarcation.
She took the hash from him and squeezed it into a ball. In the bowl was an unfolded, blackened paperclip. Using the paperclip as a prong, she stuck the round ball of hash on the spike, then placed it beside her. Without a word she removed a cigarette from the packet and began toasting it with the lighter; running flame up and down its length. The paper browned and blackened in spots and soon, satisfied, she put down the lighter and rubbed the cigarette between her fingers. The now drier and more brittle tobacco spilled out into the bowl. Next she took the paperclip in her fingers and held the lighter under the ball of hash. She turned this over and over in the flames, flicking it in and out and being careful not to set it alight. Sweet and heady smoke arose to mix with the toasted tobacco smell, and then, in a quick move, she pinched the hash from the end between thumb and forefinger, plunged it into the tobacco and began to work the mix with her fingers. In no time she had transformed the contents of the bowl into a dark, finely ground powder. I’d never seen anything like it and had watched the whole process in silent awe. Marijuana was marijuana, but this looked more like drugs. Perhaps it was really Rowena who had all the cred, and it was James who was along for the ride.
I still did not say a word; partly in honour of the request to remain silent, and partly out of a desire not to reveal my ignorance by asking naïve questions. James just sat smiling, saying nothing either. Rowena now packed this powder into the cone of the bong and handed it to me with a lighter.
“You go first,” she said, with a polite smile.
“Are you sure?” I whispered?
“Yeah, go on.”
I put the bong to my lips, put my thumb across the air hole and fired up the cone. The smoke tasted as rich as it smelled; it was a brown and heavy flavour, dusty and woody, and within seconds of tasting it I felt my head reeling. I leaned back against the bookshelf and didn’t move or say a word. I knew it was regarded as unmanly not to “punch” a cone, to finish it in one hit, but I took it slowly through several breaths. By the time I placed the bong on the floor and nodded silent thanks, I was well on my way to a new sensation.
James and Rowena smiled and turned their focus back to the business of packing and smoking their own cones. I sat silently, feeling myself accelerate and slow simultaneously. I guessed that this must be it, that I must be becoming stoned! Time slowed down further and my heart began pounding in my chest; the few words uttered by James and Rowena reverberated in my ears. The quiet, almost inaudible sounds of the room became echoes in what seemed a vast soundscape. I shuddered with the sounds; I shuddered in myself; I heard a sliding, throbbing noise and listened to the blood coursing through my veins. I pressed myself close against the bookshelf and watched the other two going through the motions of smoking. I had absolutely nothing to say. I was afraid of hearing my voice.
I felt both fearful and elated; and rose and dipped rapidly between the two. James and Rowena were smiling. “Excellent,” said James. “Excellent hash,” and I found myself laughing, having never heard anything so funny before in my life. It was the release I needed, but it was not enough. A moment later I felt the shelves against my spine and began to reason my way through this.
“Okay,” I thought, “this must be it. So, I’m stoned at last – tick – but what the hell do I do now? What happens next?” It was almost unbearable being forced to sit here so quietly, and then I realised that James was talking. He was talking to Rowena! Weren’t we supposed to be quiet? I couldn’t really understand what they were saying, for by the time he’d reached the end of a sentence, I’d forgotten how it started. I blinked and then closed my eyes, but things began to spin, so I opened them again and looked straight ahead. The packet of biscuits was being offered to me.
“Have one,” said James, “they’re fucking excellent.”
The biscuits were crisp and cheesy and I took two. I stuck one in my mouth and broke it in my teeth. It was dry and so was my mouth, yet in no time I chewed it into a salty, cheddary paste. They were superb biscuits! I felt the world had once again grounded itself. This was the key – sustenance! How could mankind live without food? I felt myself growing hysterically excited, tears welled in the corners of my eyes, my throat caught and thickened , but I said nothing. I was afraid of what might happen if I started to speak. What would come out? My words or someone else’s?
I ate the second biscuit. It was an historic moment. Here, still, after thousands of years, we were making things from wheat, as once they had in the fertile crescent. Where would we be without crops? Without agriculture? Where we would be without all these slow accumulations?
I was nodding to myself, nodding and chewing my way through that second biscuit. Damn the biscuit was good. I reached out and took another one. So this was what they called ‘the munchies.’ Now I could say I’d officially had the munchies, and yes, I was officially stoned!
James got up to leave the room again. Suddenly there were only two of us – how odd it all seemed. This room felt desultory. I hated overhead lights, yet, propped like some quarto volume leaned against the shelves – a book full of words and pictures – I felt small and inconspicuous. Safe enough to begin speaking.
I opened my mouth and nothing came out. I hadn’t prepared anything at all. Where should I start?
“I’m really stoned,” said Rowena.
“Yes, yes, me too!” I said, thrilled to have a contribution. So, it wasn’t just me, of course! We were both stoned. And what about James? He must be stoned as well. How was he faring out there, sneaking like a cat, like a hunching goblin, picking adventurers’ pockets, hiding the gems in his little chest…
I spoke on; unfocussed, confused inanities to Rowena. James returned and smiled at us. No toilet had flushed, no tap had run – where had he gone? I dived back into the crackers like a man possessed. I needed something to do; I needed to return to the Fertile Crescent. I ate three, four, five more biscuits; but still could not think of a way to start a conversation. I saw Rowena reaching for the bowl, saw her filling the cone. Was she mad? Was it time for another? How much time had gone by? Oh my god, what day was it? Where the hell was I? She was leaning forward with her almond eyes, her cunning smile, her lures and wiles all just for James. I took the proffered bong – it had come from a beautiful woman. Could I say no and still be a man? I smoked it, more quickly this time. By gosh my mouth was dry.
Time stretched out, accordion-like, and I tumbled backwards into the widening distance. It was slow in there, heart-pumpingly slow. I took a deep breath and fell further back into a new and juddering slowness, only this time I kept falling. I could feel the bookshelves against my back, but no longer did they anchor me to the world. I was turning over and over, in an ever-faster spin. I pushed myself more firmly against the shelves to discomfort myself back to reality. It didn’t change anything; I tumbled ever on into a ghastly image of an Icelandic maelstrom conjured from some children’s book.
Oh god, I thought, and suddenly felt very sick indeed.
“James,” I said, breathing carefully, trying to right myself, “I don’t feel so good. I think I need some fresh air.”
“Okay man,” he said.
“Are you alright?” asked Rowena.
“I dunno,” I said. The saliva rushing into my cheeks was sobering; enough to give me speech, but not enough to stop the spinning.
I stood up, climbing hand over hand behind my back, shelf by shelf. James steadied my elbow and guided me through the door. I was listing and reeling, but I stayed my course and we made it to the entrance.
“Are you alright, man?” asked James.
“I’ll just be a bit,” I said and left him standing in the doorway.
I stumbled into the night and made straight for the nature strip, feeling sure I was going to puke. I lay on the grass and welcomed the cool of the springy blades, stretching my neck to place my cheeks on the cold concrete gutter. I had learned from several overzealous tequila nights that cold floors were my salvation. Ideally I’d be lying on bathroom tiles, but at least the air was fresh out here.
I held off the first wave of nausea and tried to haul myself in. I wanted to close my eyes and go to sleep, but could only avoid the spins by keeping them open and focussed on the streetlights. What was wrong, I wondered? Was it the cheese biscuits? The earlier beers? Or could hash do this all by itself? What would my father think of all this?
I slowly managed to get myself together. I felt confused and disoriented, but my stomach had stopped its lurching. I couldn’t stay out here forever and decided, after some time that I was well enough to go in.
I stood up, turned around and found myself in serious trouble. The two houses in front of me were identical, and like a butterfly print, their doors faced the same central path. I remembered that the door had been on my left when I came outside, and therefore, I reasoned, it must be the door on the left. I walked towards it and tried the handle, but it was locked. I was afraid that I had been locked out accidentally and reached for the buzzer. It was only then that I realised my mistake. I stepped back, walked over to the door on the right, found it unlocked, and went back inside the house.
I made it through to the room where James and Rowena were sitting, gave a little wave and welcomed their smiles, but the moment I caught a whiff of the hash my stomach vaulted. My head reeled and saliva rushed again to flood my gums. I wobbled, flushed with panic and turned straight back around to head for the pavement once more.
I took up my previous position. The grass was waxy and sharp and pressed through my loose black shirt. The concrete smelled of stale sun. I could scent the cool rubber of a car tyre and the metallic grease of the brakes. I desperately wanted some water, but had not had the good sense to ask for it. I was still an amateur at looking after myself, still working out all the cures. I stared at the lights, hiding in the shadows. At first I had been too anxious to be ashamed, but now I was beginning to feel conspicuous.
I pulled myself together, stood up and brushed myself down. I was dizzy and confused, but my stomach felt sound. I made for the doorway but once again faced a dilemma. Which door was it? The left or the right? I struggled to remember. All I knew was that I had gotten it wrong last time. I recalled my previous mistake and tried to work through it – I had started confident but came to the wrong conclusion. Only where had I started from last time? What was the basis of my previously flawed logic? I could not remember, but the door on the left looked attractive. It looked familiar. Had I not perhaps gone through it before?
I tried the handle on the screen door. It was locked again! I couldn’t think at all. What had happened last time? Had I rung the buzzer? Had I knocked on the window? I couldn’t remember a thing. Was this what it was like to be stoned? I pressed the buzzer. What the hell, I needed water; I needed to get inside. I waited only a few seconds before being struck by the terrifying realisation that this was the wrong door. Of course! The other door had been open all along. I ran across the path, tried the other door and was through into the hall in a flash.
I needed water, but wasn’t going to try finding the bathroom by myself, so I walked through to where James and Rowena were sitting. It looked and smelled as though they’d just had another cone; the air was thick with smoke, coiling around the glaring, ugly light. The reek was dreadful, overpowering, and before I could say a thing I felt myself reeling again. “Oh, god,” I said, “get me some water!” Then I turned straight back, ran this time through the front door, lunged towards the gutter and vomited into the concrete.
“Oh, god, oh god,” I moaned, as the full scale of my cheese-cracker consumption became gaudily apparent.
I rose with the heaving retches, otherwise lying flat as a lizard. I don’t imagine anyone likes to vomit, yet I had lived with a phobia of it since suffering a terrible bout of gastro-enteritis at the age of eleven. I was old enough to know I would shrug it off, however, and did not feel overly concerned, but rather, humiliated, ashamed, longing for home. My father’s words now came back to me clearly. His offer of assistance would be more than welcome now, yet my troubles did not seem to be on the scale his words had suggested. Still I imagined him helping me up, grabbing me under the armpits and lifting me to my feet. “We’ll get you home, don’t worry, son. You’ll be alright.”
My home grew great and necessary in my heart. What was wrong within me to make me seek these alternatives, these frontiers? Could I not be happy at home, clean and fed, loved and looked after? Of course it came with a swathe of attendant woes, but the core things, beyond all the bickering, brought a simple, profound happiness. I wished these truths could be always predominant. What a pleasure it would be to go home now and feel them in my body and soul; to feel the safety, comfort and love.
One evening when I was twelve years old, walking home with my father along Oxford Street, we passed by a scene that shocked me to the core. On the bus-stop bench sat two young men with a girl lying across their lap. The girl was, to all intents and purposes, unconscious and had vomit trickling from her mouth, right into the lap of one of the blokes, who seemed so out of it as not to care.
“Jesus,” said my father, “who bloody-well sold them the booze?”
I felt at the time a mix of fear and shame, but worst of all, it made me feel very, very ill owing to my morbid, indeed, at the time, pathological phobia of vomiting. I could not comprehend how people could put themselves into such situations. And yet, look at me now! Perhaps it wasn’t always so obvious where the limits lay.
I retched and retched until I could retch no more, praying that no one would walk past, wanting neither their scorn, their charity or their pity. I was especially fearful that some young child might walk past with their father or mother and that I would become the fearful blueprint of how not to behave. I cursed my fate. So, being stoned could make you sick as well? I suppose I wasn’t to know.
After fifteen minutes I stood up and steadied myself. I was disappointed that neither James nor Rowena had come to check on me; yet perhaps things were more discrete without a pavement congregation. I faced my foe one last time: the two identical doors. Surely I could not make the same mistake a third time, and yet I did, trying the handle repeatedly on their tight screen door. I stood a while shaking my head. How could I be so useless? How I longed to be home, showered and changed, warm in my bed with a good book and the dogs snoring at my feet. How I looked forward to the happy normality of Sunday, killing time with my brother.
I soon realised my mistake and crossed to the right side of the path. I turned the handle and walked on in, back with the low, roiling scents of oily hash. I marched straight through to see James and Rowena and told them I was leaving.
“Can you call me a taxi?” I asked, and they were more than obliging. Perhaps they had just forgotten about me out there; perhaps they had simply not cared. I couldn’t be sure, but I was pleased to be leaving.
“Can I use the bathroom, man?”
Rowena showed me through with a curious, sorrowful smile. I wondered if their hearts were hardening in this life they led, or were they harder to begin with.
I washed my face and hands, rinsed out my mouth, drank a small amount of water. When I emerged from the bathroom, James and Rowena were waiting to see me off.
“Taxi’s coming,” said James, “it won’t be long now.”
We all walked outside.
Later that night as I sat up in bed, freshly showered, book on my lap, nursing a hot cup of tea, I made a silent promise that my father need never come fetch me. Despite his willingness, was it really necessary for him to know of my shame?
So it was, that on the hard nights to come, on the speed and acid, coke and ecstasy nights of the reeling future, I didn’t muck around, but instead went straight to hospital.