Hi, I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories.
This week, Sian Gammie is a writer and English teacher who loves seating plans, Mrs Doubtfire and her mum. She has written for the Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC, and blogs at thesianshow.com
My friend Elise has ruined massages for me.
After uni, because I had done a degree in creative writing, I got a job at a natural therapies college that I used to refer to as ‘Hogwarts’. The students studied homeopathy, naturopathy, beauty and massage. I worked in the cafe where we sold dandelion lattes. I got my eyebrows waxed for free because they needed practice on boys. The cleaner was an elderly woman called Sarah with drawn-on eyebrows; she called me Sam. Sometimes she got so excited to see me that she would grab me by the hips and hump me from behind and scream, ‘Very nice! I love you!’
The massages were cheap, so Elise met me at work one day to try it out. Our post-uni relationship was still finding its feet.
My only advice was to avoid a particular mature-aged student whose name was Raymond Friend. He had a long, grey ponytail and came to college with his pet rat Belinda on his shoulder. While he rubbed away, Belinda would scurry into the inside pocket of his jacket and take a nap.
Elise and I were separated by a mere curtain, enjoying the gentle tones of Gaga’s Poker Face played on the pan-pipes, when suddenly the ambience was punctured by an outburst of hysterics coming from Elise’s cubicle. There was no crescendo, no live fade-in. It came all at once, like a fart with a sneeze.
Elise has a nice hearty laugh, and I am very susceptible to contagious laughter, so it wasn’t long before we had both completely lost it. I thought she may have had a visit from Belinda, but she later explained that the pain from her massage was so great that she had two choices: laugh or scream. She thought the former was a slightly better option.
Ever since, I haven’t been able to get through a single massage without thinking of it. The reaction is Pavlovian and can be triggered by even the slightest scent of Tiger Balm.
For a long time, people have failed to understand my relationship with Elise. She isn’t like any of my other friends. When we met at uni, my group was mostly queer alcoholics who wanted to smoke and write poetry instead of washing their clothes. Elise, on the other hand, kept handing in stories she’d written in Year 12 and would rather stay home and re-watch Friends than participate in another conversation about Dada.
At some stage, we had to do a group assignment together. She drove over to my share house, and while my hungover girlfriend slept in the next room, we got to work. We ditched the assignment and instead wrote a list of all the students in our course. Then we numbered them 1 to 30 in order of who we liked the best to worst, and why. At some point that day, we both put each other at Number 1.
Despite this, Elise and I have had more arguments than I have had with any other friend.
I had never had a Christian friend before. She’d never had a gay one.
We argued over everything. Marriage. Sex. Logic. Feminism. Promiscuity. Jesus. We argued because she introduced me to people as ‘my lesbian friend Sian.’
Once, I egged her car. She was really angry.
I used to send her ridiculous videos like ‘Why doesn’t God heal amputees?’ and pull out Bible passages that I’d randomly googled and say, ‘Explain this!’
Another time, after arguing at a Thai restaurant, I slammed my money down on the table and stormed out. Whenever she couldn’t answer my questions, I got angry. I tried to use it as proof that I was right, and she was wrong. She was just an idiot who didn’t understand the real world and I would come away in a rage.
People said she’d changed because of me. I realised that as much as my friends didn’t get why I liked her, her friends didn’t get it either.
Her sister told her: ‘You think you’re better than everyone else at church now because you’ve got a homosexual friend.’
If the use of ‘homosexual’ in that context isn’t a gift from God, I don’t know what is.
Other queers told me, and still do, ‘I could never be friends with a Christian.’
There was a period when I would constantly be drunk when she picked me up to hang out. Once, I asked her to come and get me from the side of a football field. I’d been up all night. We led extremely different lives but, nevertheless, she still came and got me without judgement. And still, I would pick a fight.
At lunch one day, I was badgering her on and on, until she finally said what I needed her to admit. ‘If you were going to be your best self,’ she said, ‘you wouldn’t be gay.’
I told her that on average, Christians were stupider than the rest of the population.
It wasn’t right.
We didn’t speak for a while after that. Year after year my friends kept asking, ‘How are you still friends?’
They couldn’t get it. If our world views were so different, how did it make any sense?
Ten years after uni, I saw one of our old lecturers.
‘Of all the friendships,’ she said, ‘you and Elise was the one I least expected to last.’
We took that as a compliment and took victory sips from our Coco Pops cocktails.
Being with Elise is the best. She’ll do anything for a laugh. You barely finish describing the dare before she’s halfway through completing it.
At uni, she used to pretend her name was Gloria. That way when someone asked, for example, ‘Whose bag is this?’ she would respond by screaming out, ‘It’s GLORIOUS!’
She will sing the national anthem as loud as she can, wherever we are, whenever I ask. [pause] She’s changed.
Once, she dared herself to eat a 30-pack of chicken nuggets.
We’ve seen Hanson together. Twice. The band, not the politician, she’s not that stupid.
Last year, my long-term relationship came to an end. The day after I moved out of our house and fell crying onto a friend’s couch, Elise called. Her dad had suddenly passed away.
At the funeral, Elise spoke. She may not have been bothered to write much during her actual writing degree – she once handed in a story that was a recount of an episode of Scrubs – but she is the best writer I know. She described how her dad was a lover of dress-ups.
She asked, ‘Have any of you ever had to replace your gorilla suit?’
‘God has my father,’ she said through tears. ‘It is true. One day I will rise as well. But the thought I can’t escape, the one that keeps me awake and crying in the early hours of the morning is, will Dad be my father in Heaven? I’m not told in the Bible that he will be, in fact, I’ll have, and already do have, a Heavenly Father, who I know is far superior. So then,’ she asked, ‘why am I so sad?’
As much as her religion had often been a source of confusion and unanswered questions for me, sitting there at the funeral, I realised that in some way it can be the same for her. Some questions don’t have answers, no matter how much you pester someone to find them. She knew this long before I did.
After all, she says, if humans were able to understand God completely, well He’d be pretty crap then, wouldn’t He?
I certainly wished I could answer those big questions for Elise in a time like that. I wish I could absorb her pain for her and feel it for her, to give her a break. Or that I could at least have some sort of understanding of her suffering. The thought of her crying in the night started waking me up at night too. I had my own grief to work through, but I knew hers was sizeably worse, more permanent. Despite that, of all my friends, she was among those that showed the most compassion to me when I needed it. Even though she had her own unthinkable struggles, she found time to be supportive in her own particular way, by singing the anthem, and giving me piggy backs, and letting me use her as my own personal bean bag.
At her father’s wake, Elise and I sat together, pissing ourselves laughing, remembering this or that. I kept hearing her mum explain, ‘That’s just what they’re like.’
So, while Elise has definitely ruined massages for me, she has also taught me many things. I am a far cry from the intolerant, hypocritical young person I used to be. She taught me to listen. And not to be afraid. Through all our arguments, she has always reached out and led me to common ground for us both to stand on.
We are living proof that friendships can last even after one person throws a glass of water in the other person’s face. Religious people and queers can make sense together: we can work shit out and love each other, while still leaving some time to talk about abortions.
When it mattered, Elise voted yes for my equality, and if there ever comes a time, I would vote yes for hers too. Thank you.
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