Nic Holas: That Guy
Hi. I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories – the podcast for the monthly LGBTQIA storytelling night I host and programme. Queerstories takes place at Giant Dwarf in Redfern, though in 2018 we’ll be taking off to a few more venues and cities. Stay tuned. This week – writer and HIV/AIDS activist Nic Holas.
One thing I remember about that train ride was the glow of the setting sun filling the carriage, the dark lines cut into the amber by the shadows cast from the bridges and the power lines. In the playback in my mind, the whole carriage is bathed in it. The memories of that time now are almost distant enough to see myself in them, like a piece of cinema, as opposed to through my point of view like a shitty handheld emo music video. That’s what happens to distant memories in our brains. When we recall them, our minds replay them like films and we see ourselves, even though our brains recorded them straight through our eyes.
It’s a Friday evening. It’s one of my last in Melbourne, where I’ve been living for a few years. On Wednesday, I am flying away for good. I’m in this amber carriage alert to a sense of things ending and new things beginning, literally glowing with them, or is that literally just the twilight. Piercing that soft glow is the sharp, digital sheen of my phone, activated by an incoming call. Dad.
I’m staring at it, weighing up my options. It’s late, late afternoon. And now, the amber is draining out of the carriage as the sun continues to set. It’s close enough to be after dark for me to not be lying to myself, right? Plus, I’m on public transport. I don’t want to be that guy. I don’t want to be that guy.
You see, I’d recently made myself a promise. No more answering the phone when Dad calls after dark. Increasingly, our conversations had devolved into these one-sided, careening murmurs. Foggy monologues stitched together with his erratic, haphazard peals of laughter. From him. Only from him these days. I‘d just let him talk and then find a way to excuse myself, then excuse myself again, and again, until through the fog, he’d get the hint.
These type of calls had been going on for a while since my stepmother had passed away a few months prior. He was grieving, somewhat stuck between some of its seven stages, in some hidden Easter egg stage. He was hurting. He was living on the Gold Coast far enough away for me not to visit, so on the phone, I was patient. I was understanding. I don’t want to be that guy.
I don’t want to be that guy.
Dad and I, we’re more like mates than father and son; that’s how he sees it. My queerness was never a hurdle, actually, it was always a source of pride. Growing up, he was, in many ways, camper than I am. Occasionally though, I probably could have used a father figure, as opposed to the guy who gave me my first pot brownie at age twelve and let me wander around a hippy market in northern NSW, stoned out of my little brain. Or, who, at the same age, took me to the Big Day Out, at twelve, in a limo he couldn’t afford, and let me wander through the sweaty pits of drunk and high adults, completely unsupervised, while he sat somewhere drinking and smoking.
Look, I mean, what age twelve, going to the Big Day Out is pretty amazing. In the face of what seemed like a seemingly limitless substance-fuelled parental environment, sometimes you kind of want your dad to make you do your homework, you know? I wanted him to be that guy.
Now, it was a Friday night and he was reaching out. Friday night. No way that incoming call wouldn’t be laced with pot and booze, and whatever else. No way it would be brief. No way I wanted to take that call while I was sitting on a train. So, the phone went unanswered. I’d ring him back tomorrow, I thought, but I probably didn’t think that. I probably just rolled my eyes at the increasing difficulty of being his son. Maybe I wondered when he was going to stop living like this.
Moments later, the sun had disappeared and I was ascending the escalators of the city mall, carrying me to the cinemas where my friend was waiting to meet me, My phone started to buzz once again, and in the neon light storm of a shopping centre, my phone’s digital flashes fit right in. This time though, it wasn’t my dad. It was my sister. Between the hustle and hum of a thousand or so people chatting, shopping, and commuting, it was tricky to make out what she was saying. Her naturally husky voice was made even harder to understand, punctuated as it was by panicked sobs.
“Dad… is… trying… to… kill… himself.”
It’s really weird, getting life-changing news on the way to or in the middle of something. My first thought was, “I can probably still go to the movies. I don’t want to cancel on my friend.”
Memories can be distorted, but your brain in crisis is truly bizarre. Suddenly, as people around me were buying popcorn, I was trying to piece together what had happened or, as it turns out, what was happening; unfolding somewhere in real time, as we were talking on the phone. A DVD commentary of someone else’s cinematic memory. His final one, if everything went to plan.
And, a brief sidenote, can I just say that DVD commentary is going to be something that’s going to have to be embarrassingly explained to young people when we’re old. This bizarre, late-capitalism value add that it was. And even now, it’s over, which is even weirder. If anyone in the room is under the age of 19, I’m sorry. Yes, even in writing and talking about this some five years later, I am attempting to distract from the pointy end of the story, the harder to remember bits. Leaping off into DVD-era nostalgia is a new one, though.
But there we were. My little sister and I, wondering if this is it. She had also missed his call, probably for the same reasons I had, but unlike me, she listened to his voicemail not long after and she heard a foggy monologue, but not one peppered with one-sided laughter, just a small voice tight in the throat, sad and unhinged, saying goodbye. She panicked and called him. He answered but was unintelligible and hung up not long after. Now, he wasn’t answering. Phone was going straight to voicemail. And she was spiralling through the terrifying notion that she just heard her father’s voice for the last time.
This wasn’t my first time being told that dad was trying to commit suicide, but it was hers. My little sister with the big heart and the husky voice, who’d grown up repeatedly being told she was, “Just like Dad.”
She wanted his address. She’d called Triple Zero, but she didn’t know where he actually lived, and I realized that neither did I. Dad had been asked to move out from his partner’s apartment by her family not long after she passed away. He was living with a mate, somewhere on the glamorously ugly part of the Gold Coast, which doesn’t exactly narrow it down. That’s all I knew. That’s all any of us knew. We hung up as to not tie up the phone line, so I could try and find his address.
I called him. Maybe he’d pick up for me, his best mate, but straight to voicemail. I left him one. He might never hear it, but if he did, he might have been able to hear what I was trying to tell him; that I was sorry. I listened to the voicemail my dad had left me after ignoring his call. It’s just like the one he left my sister. I cannot to this day recall a word of what he said, but I could hear what he was trying to tell me. He was sorry.
Eventually, through my uncle, we tracked down Dad’s address and sent the police and ambulance. They had to break into his house. He’d taken a lethal amount of the oxycontin my stepmother had been prescribed to relieve the pain from her terminal cancer. But he didn’t die. He was in hospital, and he was going to be ok, sort of. But he didn’t die.
Later that night, it was my turn to break down on the phone to my mother as I relayed that evening’s events while she sat in a café somewhere in Spain freaking out. That memory is one I can see myself in, standing by my closed bedroom door of my share house, quietly trying to break down, and through the sobs, anger. “I wish he’d just done it,” I remember saying. “I wish he’d just followed through on something for once.”
A couple of days later, as soon as I could, I was on a plane to the Gold Coast. In a humble little room, beneath a humble view of nothing in particular, a humble man lay beneath a sterile blanket. It was a cold, rainy day in what is supposed to be a city that promises an endless summer vacation. Going to school there, I knew just how broken and unfulfilled that promise was. Dad was as relieved to see me as he was ashamed. I was angry with him right up until the moment I rounded the corner and entered his hospital room. Where does empathy go when you come face to face with the man who brought you into the world but wanted to leave you in it without him? Leave you to deal with the wound he’d inflict because his suffering was all consuming?
And, there’s a moment waiting for all of us when we realise we are charged with the responsibility of taking care of our own parents. For me, that moment was pushing my anger and hurt to the side to show him some patience and some kindness. It was also getting in a cab and going to his house, rummaging through his room, and finding all of my dead stepmother’s leftover painkillers and flushing them down the toilet. It was putting all that hurt and anger someplace else. I didn’t want to be that guy.
But I didn’t change my holiday plans. I wasn’t sure what I was trying to prove or what sort of message I was sending to him. Probably something along the lines of, “Your behaviour will not be rewarded. My life will go on.”
A few days later, I am on that plane heading to Europe to distract to displace and distort, putting all that hurt and anger someplace else. A recent habit had become all-consuming. In the sweaty streets of Barcelona, and Lisbon, and Paris, and New York City, on apps and dance floors and sex clubs, I proved to anyone and literally everyone just how much life I had in me. I allow an endless cavalcade of men inside me with literal gay abandon. They filled me up. One of them, it turns out, with HIV. But It wasn’t his fault and it certainly wasn’t my dad’s fault. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. I was just that guy.
That guy went on to play a big role in changing the way we talk about HIV in this country, and that wouldn’t have happened without him, that me getting it. You might think that it’s a little shitty to speak so openly about someone else’s suffering, but suicide is an act that puts one person out of their pain and leaves it for their loved ones to trip over again and again and again. When it’s your father doing that to you, well, it can make you feel a little bit shitty.
But years later, Dad and I laugh together again, and we laugh often. There are less foggy monologues. He has stopped drinking but not stopped anything else, and that works for him, and it works for us, for our friendship and as father and son.
Ironically, once I became HIV positive, I could see very clearly a long line of male elders stretching back through time, many of them taken early by unfair circumstances. I welcomed into my life new male role models, survivors of that gay plague, uncles and daddies. Some of them I went to bed with, a lot of them I went to bed with. I have many daddies but only one father. Like my HIV elders, I am grateful that my dad stuck around. Thank you. Thanks, Neil.