By Kendal Orr
It was a Friday night from memory and I recall just how vivid and clear the night skies of Alice were. The immense space of the desert used to open me up and diminish me all at the same time. I had come to see Suzi’s exhibition which was in a gallery upstairs off from the mall. A few friends of mine were there and after talking to them I moved around the crowd checking out who else was there. The place was full of energy and the gallery itself was small which I liked. I had heard of Suzi before but this was the first time I’d seen of any of her work outside of her illustrations. It was good to see her in person and to see the large questions she had hanging down from the ceiling. The words immediately confronted you as you entered. Her exhibition made me reflect further about race issues in town, some things I had noticed, some I had not.
After I left I walked around town for a while before deciding to head home. I took a short cut and started to walk through the laneway where a popular alternative cafe was located. As I approached the cafe I noticed Suzi sitting outside with a few friends. I walked past her on my way through and caught her looking at me from the corner of her eye and it felt like she was looking out for me in a protective way. I felt strongly that she and I had both recognised each other’s soul core in those few seconds.
I went home inspired by the art but also curious as to why it felt like I knew her. It was possible being a small town that she and I had just heard of each other because of our creative work. Still it felt like there was more to it. I woke up the next morning and wrote a poem based on her exhibition and decided to walk it around to her letter box.
A couple of days later she called me and said that she liked the poem and that she had heard about me and my music. She explained that a friend of hers had seen my last show and told her about it. She was pleased to hear that I had spoken openly about mental health and sexuality in between my songs. She mentioned that when she was younger it was difficult to tell her parents about being gay and said how she never really spoke to her dad about it but was able to talk to her mum.
She then said how her mum had shock treatment like me but without the anaesthetic and that she was the one who had to give permission for the procedure.
“That would have been hard for you, I know that it was a tough for my parents,” I said trying to empathise.
“Yes, it was hard,” she said and I genuinely felt for her and her mum. I winced at the thought of not having anaesthetic and realised how fortunate I had been.
She mentioned that she was putting together an exhibition on women and mental health and that it was going to be in Fremantle at a venue which used to be an old asylum, which she thought was very appropriate. I agreed.
“Do you have any pieces of writing about your time in the psych ward that I could have to use in the exhibition?” she asked.
I was both surprised and delighted that she had asked and immediately told her I would write some things down and post them to her. I then told her how I was bi polar, gay and vegetarian.
“You are vegetarian too! Well, there is no hope for you then,” she said and we both laughed.
We did not see or speak to each other much for a few weeks, apart from Suzi pulling over in her ute to talk to me briefly when she saw me walking home. One evening after a stressful week I lost my bike key, which meant my bike was locked to a pole in town. I thought maybe Suzi might have a bolt cutter and could help me free my bike, but really I just wanted an excuse to call her. Someone told me that she rarely answered the phone. Fortunately she picked up when she heard my voice rambling on the machine and told me to come around. The way she spoke on the phone that evening reminded me so much of my father that it sent a shiver through me.
I walked towards her place and I could see that she was waiting out the front of her house wearing a black t-shirt and blue jeans. She had no trouble following my frenetic trail of words and swam through my fears with me like she had no choice. It was an intense exchange and it was the first time that we had stood next to one another. I was left mystified and she herself looked affected but regained composure before we parted and said that maybe it had something to do with past lives. I walked away feeling better but knew deep down that we would both have to keep our distance. There was more than twenty years between us and the energy was too much to contain.
Over the next six months we spoke on the phone a couple of times. We saw each other once at the post office but did not speak, we both blushed as our eyes met and it felt like we could see right through one another. I still remember the top she had on.
She rang me to thank me after I left a copy of my new cd by her door and we spoke for a little while. She was very supportive and encouraging. A couple of months later she sent me a postcard for her upcoming exhibition on mental health. I decided to spend three days on a bus from Alice Springs to Fremantle to go and see it. I think I surprised her by leaving a comment in the guest book. She would have realised just how far I had travelled.
I arrived back home after that trip and started to prepare to leave Alice Springs. I was due to play at a festival in Canberra and was then planning to try and find a place in Melbourne to live. I had one more performance in town before I left Alice and Suzi came along to see me. I did not know that she was in the crowd. She waited for me to come out from back stage and we both hugged knowing we would probably never see one another again. It was such a joy and relief to hold her even for that brief moment.
I later realised that I grieved for the connection I had with her more than I did for the desert and I loved the desert. My connection with Suzi also got tangled up with other mini griefs which made it harder to recover. Mainly I was frustrated that I never got the chance to get to know her properly, then again perhaps I already did. Lying in bed recently because I was writing this story it came back to me that she and I were both wearing orange that night we hugged.