Jessica Bell never meant to be a rebel. But growing up with two gothic rockers as parents seemed to make it inevitable.
In 1980s Australia, Erika Bach and Demetri Vlass founded Ape the Cry and Hard Candy, two of Melbourne’s iconic indie bands. They encouraged Jessica with unreserved love to pick up the guitar and write her own songs. But Erika’s back problem became a nightmare of pill popping, alcohol abuse, and anxiety attacks. Demetri retreated into silence for fear of triggering Erika’s drug-induced psychosis. And Jessica turned inwards, to her own reflection.
But her mirror self was a fiend, not a friend. All it took was one secret drink at fifteen, and Jessica dove headlong into depression and self-destruction to escape the madness at home.
Experimenting with bisexuality in a high school rife with bullies? Not a problem; she had alcohol. Losing her virginity to rape? Not a problem; she had alcohol. Trying to supplement absent love with unprotected one-night stands? Not a problem; she had alcohol ...
Until one day alcohol nearly drove Jessica off a cliff.
Jessica had to look at herself honestly and frankly. Why did she keep running from reality, and more importantly, herself?
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Dear Reflection: I Never Meant to be a Rebel
By Jessica Bell
Vine Leaves PressCopyright © 2017 Jessica Bell
All rights reserved.
part one 1985-1993
If my desire to run were tangible, it would be represented by 2D circles on graph paper. Round and round I'd go, drawing curved lines through empty squares, hoping that one day, they'd be coloured in — hoping that one day, my actions would not be the same actions all over again — repeatedly striking through empty squares to meet their own tails.
When I look at you in the mirror, what do I see? I see 2D circles covering my face. A flattened image of developing wrinkles and stale freckles representing my life — a tug of war between youth and middle-age.
I struggle to shift beyond the glass.
My subconscious forms sound waves in the air behind me. It whispers, "Go."
Go where? Every time I run, I take another step towards nothing but myself.
* * *
I needed to pee. It was 1985, and I was four. It would be the first time I remember running from emotional struggle by doing something stupid.
My heart beat in my throat, and I trembled in the darkness of my peach-coloured bedroom at 80 Edwin Street, Heidelberg Heights, in Melbourne, Australia — the red brick house with the crooked mailbox and untamed pink and orange rose bushes I shared with my parents until I turned twenty.
I opened my bedroom door a teeny-tiny crack. The freezing air from the corridor slipped through and gave me goose bumps. I imagined the icy cold floor stinging my feet as I navigated the hall, the kitchen, the glasshouse, past the piano, to get to the toilet, and then slamming the glossy pink door to stop the Heidel Monsters from getting in.
I decided against it and pissed in the corner of my bedroom.
I watched the pee soak into the fibres of the mud-stained ash-grey carpet, then wiped my chishy with the corner of a pillow and placed it on top of the smelly puddle. I returned to bed and wrapped myself in my feather down doona, shivering until I warmed.
The next day, when my mother, Erika Bach, and stepfather, Demetri Vlass, were preoccupied with recording their song ideas onto their four-track mixer in the music room, they didn't notice a thing. I realized how much I could get away with without anyone ever knowing how I truly felt.
It was a triumph.
My bedroom door wasn't transparent, and my mother didn't really 'have eyes in the back of her head.' There was no real reason to hide other than my own irrational fear of feeling something that could potentially be a challenge to deal with. But it felt powerful to hide. The thrill of obtaining such privacy would soon develop into a cold, selfish, heartless reflection I believed protected me.
She persuaded me to run.
Her voice grew more authoritative until she became 'another me'— a decision maker who knew 'best.'
* * *
I sat on Mum's bed, watching her pack a suitcase for us both. I didn't understand. I admired her thick chestnut perm and the black tears running behind her large-framed prescription glasses. I wanted to jump into the suitcase. It seemed like a good opportunity to play.
Mum said, "Say goodbye to Demetri, Juice." Because she was crying, I thought it was Demetri's fault.
I wondered if, when I got older, packing a suitcase would make me cry. I decided no, it was silly. Mum was being silly.
I opened Mum's bedroom door. Demetri squatted in the middle of the corridor that led to the music room, the bathroom, the kitchen, the living room, and my bedroom — and housed a floor-to-ceiling cupboard full of vinyl, pharmaceuticals, and all the bits and pieces no-one ever knows where to put. It was like he was trapped at a crossroads and didn't know which direction to choose.
He sobbed like an injured animal. Strands of black curly hair flattened to his cheeks, hands cupped over his mouth, tears rolling over his knobbly knuckles and crooked Greek nose.
I ran to him, fell into his embrace, kissed him on his stubbly cheek.
"Goodbye," I whispered.
I don't remember feeling sad. I thought it was a strange game. Maybe I knew we weren't really going to leave.
Through the many fights, and broken love between my parents, I would soon understand that choices didn't have to be permanent, nor did anyone have to keep promises if they didn't want to.
That night Mum tucked me into bed, as she always did, stroking my hair and telling me how much she loved me. I felt safe and warm. I always felt safe and warm with Mum — until she said goodnight, and left me alone in my bedroom with the door open a crack so light would stream in.
She would leave the corridor light on until she thought I fell asleep. Sometimes I hadn't fallen asleep when she turned it off, and the only light entering my room came from the street. The suburban street lights projected a streaked pattern through my horizontal blinds over the wall my bed sat against. With the occasional passing car, the pattern would shift like it was momentarily immersed in water.
When the lights were out, I played doctor with my stuffed toys. One of my favourite toys was one I had made myself: an injection. It was concocted from a long thick sewing needle and scrunched up tissues held together with masking tape. I had taken them from the corridor cupboard. I kept the injection hidden under my bed where everything would go when Mum told me to tidy my room.
I lined up my stuffed toys on my bed so the streaked glow of street lights rippled over their bodies. One by one I gave them 'vaccines.' Each time, right before I stuck the needle in, I'd say, "Now, it's only going to hurt a little bit, okay?"
Loneliness is a powerful feeling.
It mutates inside us, from the moment we take our first breath.
* * *
When I started Prep in 1986 at Heidelberg Primary School, I was not quite five as my birthday fell on February 26. Mum took me to my first school fair. I knew she didn't want to go, but she did anyway. I'd asked her to bake, I'm sure of it. She wasn't the baking type, but she made macaroons, or ... something. Maybe she didn't bake at all and I'm remembering something I wished had happened. Though the times she did make macaroons were an absolute treat.
People stared at her thick black eyebrows and short black hair. It was now cropped to a sharp bob with a boxed and slightly crooked fringe which she'd cut and styled herself. I liked her black tulle skirt, and the purple and black striped three-quarter length sleeved top with fraying hems, because that was my mum and I knew no different. That was the mother I loved — the mother who'd hold me tightly in her arms until I released myself, and who smelled like Myers — a department store in the centre of town with an entire floor devoted to cosmetics and perfume. I could have nuzzled my nose into the nape of her neck all day long to smell that smell. It was comforting and made me feel at home. But I don't think the other mums could see it, or thought she was as pretty as I did. I couldn't understand why they felt the need to stare. Surely my mum should have been the one staring at them in their skin tight blue jeans, bright pink t-shirts, scraggly paper-thin ash-blonde hair, and sheep-coloured moccasins?
Stalls decorated the entire lower-school playground. Mum gave me a few dollars to spend while she went behind the school building to have a smoke — or maybe she went to speak to my teacher. I decided to use the money to buy Mum a present. I'd surprise her, I thought. I was excited. I found a pretty pink hair clip. I think it was in the shape of a bow. When I gave it to her she laughed and hugged me. She said thank you but told me I should keep it. I said, "Why?" She said, "Because your hair is prettier than mine." I later realized that 'prettier' was code for 'longer.' I felt so stupid. Of course she didn't take the hair clip. She didn't have enough hair to clip. I screamed into my pillow that night.
I tossed and turned in my bed, knowing deep down it was the thought that counted, as Mum had taught me. But I couldn't stop the guilt. I couldn't stop feeling like I had done one of the biggest wrong of wrongs.
You're an idiot. You can't do anything right.
But I thought it was pretty.
You should have just bought something for yourself. You're an idiot ... a stupid stupid stupid idiot!
* * *
I grabbed my school bag off my allocated hook and skipped down the school corridor past the principal's office to the exit onto Cape Street in Heidelberg. I think I was in grade one, so it would have been 1987, and I would have been six. Right before I made it to the exit, a fat boy with food smeared all over his face ran into me and slammed me up against the wall. The back of my head rammed into a bag hook and made my teeth bang together. He called me 'stupid.' I stood there and burst into tears, staring into the street as all the other kids filed past me, hardly offering a glance. There were certainly no teachers around to help, and we were far enough away from the principal's office for the incident to be out of his sight.
I waited a few moments to compose myself, then wiped away my tears and walked down hill towards the back entrance of Warringal Shopping Centre, just off Burgundy Road, where Mum was waiting for me to catch the bus home. I decided it would be best to pretend everything was okay as I wanted to appear strong and able to take care of myself, but I hadn't yet mastered the art. My face was flushed and eyes red and Mum saw right through me. She asked me what was wrong. I told her.
Then I saw the boy who pushed me and I pointed him out. I can't remember his name. I think it started with D.
Mum walked over to him, grabbed him by his school bag and spun him around to face her. She leaned down so her face was level with his. I couldn't hear what she was saying, but she pointed her finger at him, like she did at me when I misbehaved, and said something that made the boy's face flush. He ran away.
We stepped onto the bus and sat down. "What did you say?" I said.
"I told him if he touched you again I would pull his little penis off."
That made me giggle. Mum was my hero.
But it didn't stop it from happening again.
More and more kids began to tease me and bully me until it became an everyday occurrence. I'm not sure what it was about me.
Was it because Mum looked different?
When we got home, a deep thrumming sound of drums and bass and screeching guitars coming from the music room filled the house. Demetri was recording some guitar for their first Ape the Cry album, And The. It could have been the beginnings of the song 'Don't Expect Too Much.' As Mum slipped into the music room to join Demetri, I dropped my school bag on my bed, made my way into the kitchen, and opened the fridge. I grabbed the red and white carton of Rev milk and took it to the kitchen counter to make myself a Milo, a chocolate drink (with more Milo than milk, of course).
Above the sink was a window that faced the backyard. Hanging on the rose tree outside this window was a rubber tarantula. It always made me giggle to remember the day Demetri and I hung it there. It 'scared the shit out of' Mum one day when she woke up to make her morning Nescafé. Demetri and I laughed so hard.
I scooped the wet Milo up with a teaspoon and ate it, then drank the milk left in the glass and put it in the sink. I knocked on the door of the music room and opened it enough to poke my head through.
Demetri straddled a Fender electric guitar and Mum clutched a microphone with gaffer tape wrapped around the joint of the cord. Mum reached over Demetri's shoulder and pressed stop on the four-track mixer. I know I must have interrupted them in the middle of a recording, but I was bored.
"Can we play hand ball?" I asked Demetri. Hand ball was what we called hitting a tennis ball against the back wall of the house using our hands as rackets. He looked at Mum for approval.
"He'll be out in half an hour, okay?" Mum said.
I nodded and closed the door behind me.
I went into my bedroom and dragged the drawer of Barbie dolls out from under my bed. I gave one a hair cut to make her look more like Mum.
I immediately regretted it.
What did you do that for?
She looks horrible.
I shoved her back in the drawer. I pulled out the other Barbie instead, the brunette that came in the same packet as Ken.
Don't cut her hair too.
But I wanted to. I wanted to chop her whole head off.
That same year, while Mum and Demetri spent a weekend in a professional studio recording their forthcoming And The album, they sent me to stay with my biological father, Tony, a high school Maths and Science teacher, and his wife, Margaret, who was a kindergarten teacher.
Tony and Margaret lived in a tiny town house in Brunswick with a bright red kitchen counter and cupboards. Despite the house being spotless, every few hours the counter would be covered in ants. Margaret would get flustered by it, but I just thought it was funny and interesting to watch them in action. Where were they all going? And what for?
"Right!" Margaret clapped her hands together after cleaning away the ants for the third time that day. "What do you want to do?" She straightened her floral skirt with her hands and flicked her shoulder length brown hair out of her eyes.
I shrugged and looked at the cat meowing outside the fly screen. I thought about going into the backyard and dragging around a piece of string for it to try and catch.
"I know ..." Margaret opened a cupboard full of canned and packet goods from the supermarket. She took them all out and lined them up on the counter. She pulled a notepad and pen out of a drawer and a handful of coins from her handbag.
She set me up a shop.
"You be the sales assistant and I'll be the customer." She picked up a bar stool and brought it around for me to sit on. She left the room, and then came back in holding her handbag. She approached the counter and said, "Could I have a can of tuna and a can of tomatoes, please?"
I nodded and said, "Here you are," handing her a can of tuna and a can of tomatoes.
"How much does that come to?" Margaret cocked her head to the side.
I was stuck. I had no idea how much it came to so I just made something up.
"Two dollars, thanks."
Margaret handed me a five dollar note from her wallet and asked for change.
I gave her change from the handful of coins she'd provided me with. It wasn't correct, but Margaret helped me fix it.
"Thank you very much. Have a nice day." Margaret smiled.
I said, "Thank you. Have a nice day too."
Then Margaret sent Tony in to do the same thing. He walked up to the counter, and pushed his glasses up his nose, sniffed, and scratched his head of short, curly, mousy brown hair.
"Um, I'll take this," he said, sliding a packet of water crackers towards me. "How much do I owe ya?"
I was thrilled. It was so fun! And every time I visited them, I'd ask to play shop. I often wonder whether I drove them nuts, insisting they come to buy things over and over pretending to be different people each time. I would scribble gibberish on my notepad as though I was calculating their charge. And I would always be the shop assistant, and never the customer. It made me feel grown up and not at all like I was playing a game. The best part was that I wasn't playing on my own.
Mum has told me that Demetri played with me a lot. But I can't remember many of those moments. I remember hand ball, I remember asking him to play with me, regardless of what the game was, I remember games happened. But the feelings that came with the playing have vanished. Now, I only remember him saying "Not now."
The luxury of playing shop with Tony and Margaret only occurred a couple of times a month, if that, and it wasn't long before I learnt to enjoy playing alone. I despised school, so I would often pretend I was sick. Of course, Mum believed me for a little while and let me stay home, until she realised I was always sick on Wednesdays when I had Trolley Maths.
As the years passed and I learnt to read and write, I would be sick on other days of the week too. I'm pretty sure Mum knew I was faking, but she also knew I struggled with bullies and so often cut me some slack.
On sick days I'd write up my own personal TV guide using the Green Guide from The Age, a national newspaper, and sit in bed all day watching my favourite shows on my tiny second-hand black-and-white television set whose antenna needed at least fifteen minutes of jigging before it gained a reception void of white noise.
Excerpted from Dear Reflection: I Never Meant to be a Rebel by Jessica Bell. Copyright © 2017 Jessica Bell. Excerpted by permission of Vine Leaves Press.
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