Patrick Bryson: Schadenfreude
Back in the mid-nineties – before the plucking of nasal hair became a weekly chore – I shared a short intense friendship with Grant, who was, for a time, one of the Drama Department’s most recognisable actors. Humiliating as it is, I admit that I was the other one – although I consider myself reasonably fortunate; when undergrad life finished, so did my acting career.
I just couldn’t hack it. Finding an agent, turning up for castings and waiting by the phone; it all left me feeling like a beggar. And the nerves made me come across as arrogant and desperate, an undesirable combination for any potential director keen on hiring me. The last gig I had – actually, the only paying gig of my career – was as an extra in a Telstra commercial. I had to walk across a busy street in a group-shot for four hours, trying to look solemn. Ridiculously, I hoped that the producer would note my seriousness – surely more heartfelt than any of the other extras – and discover me. When the costs of the Salvos suit I purchased especially for the shoot were coupled with my train fare to Town Hall and deducted from my $120 fee, I was left with 80 bucks. Averaged over the nine months that I tried to go professional that equals $8.88 per month, or $2.20 a week. If you take out the money I spent going for the other two auditions that I blew – both of them for roles where they needed a tall guy – then we’re down to about 60 bucks, or $1.60 a week. Between that and the bullshit I got from Centrelink, it was better for everyone if I just got a job.
Ensconced in my role as a night-packer at Coles, I ran into Grant one afternoon at Burwood station when I was on my way home from the TAB. We embraced.
Man, how are ya?
How am I? What about you? You crazy fucker.
By that he meant that the last time he saw me at The Northern Star I’d been on acid. He turned to the girl he was with.
You know, like those people you meet and you think you’ll never see them again? He’s one of those guys.
I was a little embarrassed; my white polo shirt didn’t smell great and I hadn’t shaved in a few days. I was also slightly drunk. The girl Grant was with stepped forward and tried to smile, but couldn’t quite pull it off.
When I asked Grant what he’d been up to he said that he’d gotten into NIDA.
Awesome, I said – thinking bastard, arsehole and fuck, fuck, fuck, why not me?
I tried to make my exit as soon as possible, citing my non-existent controlling girlfriend, but he was having none of it.
You’re coming back to our place, man.
At Uni we had both advocated the pursuit of fame and we respected each other for being up front about it, as opposed to our acquaintances who would go on protests with the Wilderness Society, deplore the use of deodorant and spurn anything mainstream, but who all formed grunge bands with the unvoiced desire of becoming groupie-shagging, heroin-snorting, rock gods.
As we walked along I peppered him with questions about the acting course at NIDA, which was painful but preferable to talking about what I was doing, which at the time involved a lot of masturbation about the middle-aged boilers I was working with, the softening of my belly and the little gambling habit that I had acquired.
She was the one who broke the spell.
So, Peter, what do you do?
With Grant, I could’ve told the truth. But the look on her face – and the fact that she had casually mentioned she was at NIDA with him – made me lie.
I write, I said.
What bullshit. The last thing I’d written was a final essay to complete the BA, a 3000 word puff piece on Lee Strasberg and Method Acting.
Really? she said. Have you had anything published?
Well, at least that was true.
I hated her immediately and she didn’t even think enough of me for that. Back at their digs – a standard two room flat with a PULP FICTION poster, a bong, a bean-bag and a PlayStation – I had to struggle with the cup of tea she made. I asked for a strong one with two sugars; she gave me a milky brew with none.
Grant didn’t notice. All he talked was NIDA, NIDA, NIDA. After the right amount of time and one forced cough from the girl – whose name is deliberately and spitefully forgotten – I bailed and forgot him for the next ten years.
It was Facebook that brought us back together. I’d Googled him a few times, to see if he’d made it, and the results were inconclusive. His name was listed in a few references to the Sydney Theatre Company – as a spear carrier – and one or two co-op productions, but nothing else. The scarcity of information disappointed me. If he’d snagged a regular TV spot, or had made the leap to feature films, I could have revelled in some really serious envy. Conversely, if his name had drawn a complete blank I’d have toasted his failure and patted myself on the back. The longer you keep the dream alive the thinner the ranks of the hopeful become.
But there he was in his profile pic, lying on a bed with a baby asleep next to him. Now there was some reality. A baby means responsibilities. It means regular hours, a stable home and lots of the filthy lucre. Maybe he’s given up, I thought. No, I wished.
I didn’t send the request immediately. I’d only just gotten back into it, after having deactivated my account, and this time I intended to be more circumspect with my choice of friend.
So I forgot him again and went back to watching ‘Seductive Asian pussy needs it’ on RedTube.
At Uni we had been involved in a few productions together. In the show I’m thinking of we saw each other daily for weeks. It was a one-acter that I directed, and Grant had volunteered to be my stage manager. Pretty soon the rumour went round that we were both gay. It’s an easy one to pin on people in the theatre; everyone is either queer or in the closet according to the smoko conversations outside the stage door.
This gossip had a bit more sting to it though, as Grant had only just been in a queer piece and played the love interest of a competitive swimmer. The role required him to get in and snog the other dude. Neither tried to dodge it; both of them went hard and gave it some tongue. It was a tricky situation for me in the audience. My then girlfriend, Max, was sitting next to me and, as well as being friends with Grant – who we were both there to support – I was acquainted with the other actor. I had cheated on Max with his girlfriend, a well known Goth Queen and devourer of cock.
So I disliked the other dude anyhow. I can’t remember his name but he was in a band that had a minor alternative hit. At the time I feared that he would come up and make a public scene in front of Max because he knew that I had clumsily fucked his girlfriend at the Bogey Hole.
But he was cool. I was the one who had the problem. When they kissed during the middle of the play I noted a distinct twitch of jealousy from my side – though I told myself then that it was the dread of getting caught cheating – and promptly forgot it.
A few months later, at the after-party for my play, we all went along to the house of the guy that had done the lights. I had scored some pot using the money we had collected from the door – even though it was a Uni production and technically all the cash was supposed to go to the Drama Department – and we all sat back and got royally stoned, except for Grant.
He doesn’t do drugs and he never touches alcohol or coffee. Don’t ask me how the motherfucker survives. Anyway, that night he came along for the ride and acted as the designated driver. Towards the end of the bowl, when the conversation had trickled down to nothing and the eyelids of the smokers had closed to half-way, I noticed Grant looking over towards me.
He caught my gaze and mouthed, Let’s go.
It was our first sleepover. By that stage he was going out with Max’s older sister, Lynnette, so we should have been seeing even more of each other – but the girls hated the idea. They also hated each other and had endured a fucked-up family situation, with their dad introducing them to domestic violence at an early age.
So we got back to my place in the East End, had a quick cup of tea and then went up to bed. We pulled in the single mattress from the veranda and set it up a few feet from my grimy queen-sized, so there was an acceptable buffer zone.
The talk didn’t last for long before I could feel myself dozing off. I put on some music and closed my eyes. I don’t know if it was the good buzz I had or just the routine of taking a girl back and playing some Mazzy Star, but I felt the urge to reach out the hand at that point, and briefly imagined getting it on with Grant. Yes, I’m pretty sure it moved. I’ve got no idea what he was thinking, or even if he was awake.
Then I slept.
A few months after I first saw him online, I relented and sent off the friend request. He accepted it straight away and posted ‘Dude!!!!’ on my wall. We arranged for him to come around and my wife, Maya, put on a great spread – rice, daal, chicken curry – with strawberries and cream for dessert.
When he turned up I went out to meet him in the hall. From my vantage point on the third floor I could see him below as he climbed the stairs. That’s when my initial suspicions were confirmed. I thought I’d detected a receding hairline in his profile pics and now, as well as that, I noticed that he’d developed a small bald patch at the back of his skull. This made me very happy. I had to start shaving my head a few years ago, and to see that Grant’s floppy brown hair had started to fall filled me with a delightful satisfaction.
Man, I’m so sweaty, he said. Sorry.
He was carrying a skateboard and had evidently ridden it down the hill from the train station, his Bose head phones hanging from his neck.
Grant, this is Maya.
They shook hands and then Maya went back into the bedroom to read, so we could be alone for a few minutes.
He talked about his kids and his wife.
Like, I’m already the bad guy, he said. The first thing Meg does when the kids muck-up is threaten them with Dad coming into the room.
Once you ask people about their children, forget it. He could have kept going for a long time and I had to be blunt to get him onto the topic of his career.
Are you still acting?
I’ve just finished a touring production of the schools, he said.
Yeah, it’s fucked. Basically it means I’m good at talking to kids about Shakespeare.
What do you do otherwise?
Oh man, you’ll never guess.
I sell Christmas trees.
That doesn’t seem weird at all, I said. It suits you.
And it did. The last time I saw him in Newcastle, before I left for Sydney, Grant had been considering running away with the circus.
How much of the year does that take up? I asked.
Like two months, tops. We deliver the tree, set it up and then dispose of it in January.
You must meet some interesting people, said Maya, who sat down next to me.
It was the perfect thing to say, because it gave him an opportunity to do some impersonations.
I frequently hear the word disaster, he said, when I deliver to these women in the eastern suburbs. And I’m like, Love, the tsunami was a disaster, Rwanda was a disaster, your fucking Christmas tree being flat on one side is not a disaster.
He had to break off and answer the phone at that point – to take an order from a woman in the eastern suburbs who would soon be complaining about the flatness of her tree.
I reminded him of the time we’d met in Burwood, back when he’d first started at NIDA.
That’s right, he said.
What was the name of the girl you were with?
His eyes widened.
Vanessa. There’s a story about her.
Unless she had died I wasn’t really that interested.
Yeah. After one year she got kicked out of NIDA and she left town. Then a little while later I hear that she’s in some pilot in LA and now the show has been going for five seasons and she’s a big star.
Full on. Billboards on Hollywood Boulevard, the whole bit.
You should have stayed with her.
I know, man.
Does your wife act?
She used to.
In the car, as I drove him back home to Lewisham, he made a lot of references to the times when he’d been in Hamlet and Macbeth.
I mean, I was on the roster for two years, he said.
Despite myself, I was actually starting to feel sorry for him. Then, the revelation I’d been waiting for:
Man, he sighed, I just feel like I’m delaying the inevitable. You know? Each new job I get means that I don’t have to think about giving up for a few more months. And now there is another kid on the way, I dunno.
He trailed off.
I made some noises about how I was also finding it tough, but it wasn’t one of my more convincing performances.
He started talking about a project he was thinking of doing with a couple of mates – a TV series. He was meeting them at the pub to discuss it.
I didn’t press him for details. He was already on his way down to the canvas.
When I stopped the car, he shook my hand and smiled.
I probably won’t see you for another ten years, I said.
Fully, I know. But keep in touch, alright?
And congratulations, man. Your wife is awesome.
Well, she fed him, so he would say that. He didn’t have to put up with the carrot and stick dance – silent treatment and sex – which always ended with me giving in to her demands.
He closed the door, turned away and then stopped as if he’d just remembered something. He leaned back through the window and looked me in the eyes.
Peter, he said. Good luck, man.
You know what? The bastard meant it. Almost like we were on shore-leave in the middle of a war, and neither expected the other to survive beyond the next few weeks. That whole afternoon he hadn’t asked much about what I’d been doing, but he got enough to know that I hadn’t given up and that I intended to go the distance.
Meanwhile, as I drove away, I realised that he’d have a much better rebirth than me. You see, I was happy that he had kids and no money. I drew strength from the fact that he was a failing actor losing his hair, that he had almost packed it in and that he had to deliver Christmas trees every December. It meant I had won.
Then, as I indicated and took the Neutral Bay Exit, this thought occurred to me: I will never forget him.