Wednesday, 19 October 2016

A Birthday Tribute to a Friend

Today is Tricia's birthday. I won't tell you how old she is because she is only four months older than me, and ladies in the arts tend to be shy about such information. Besides, for me she is "Forever 21", as she was about 21 when we met in a large shed at the University of Toronto. I believe the shed had offices above it sacred to the memory of Marshall McLuhan, a demi-god to secularists despite his devout Catholicism. It was autumn; perhaps October.

Trish, a tall young woman with long brown hair done up in a bun, was scrambling around the collection of props and scenery owned by the Poculi Ludique Societas. She was wearing a beret. I had been sent to find her, as I had dropped by the HQ of the famous old mediaeval drama society to volunteer as crew of some sort. I had failed in the auditions to get a role in Tricia's play, but apparently she still needed a stage manager.

Tricia had judged the auditions herself, so in truth I first laid eyes on the woman in a long, glass-fronted sitting-room in Victoria College. Same hair, same bun, same beret. Through earlier association with the PLS, I knew about her. In fact, I had a crush on a PLS guy who had mentioned her, so I squeaked out his name at the audition for the sheer thrill of mentioning him, and she said something like, "Ah, [Such-and-Such] that old rogue." 

Such-and-Such was also tall and wore a beret. I thought he was the most fascinating, glamorous man in the world, and Tricia's friendship with him made her instantly glamorous too. I knew that Such-and-Such had been in love with her for years since their break-up, but instead of being envious, I thought she was a kind of superwoman. The fact that she had herself translated this play from mediaeval French did nothing to erase this impression. When I went to the shed, I was primed for admiration, but when the goddess shouted out joyful greetings and gratitude, I fell in love. 

At the time I was failing the transition from my comfortable Catholic bubble--in which the air had grown stale--into the wider world of the university. Despite being enrolled in the Catholic college, I found it extremely hard to "integrate" (as Catholic uni students say now) as a member of the University of Toronto. Frankly, I was so ill-prepared for university life that on my first day I wore high-heeled shoes and a mini-skirt and cringed when I heard my heels click in the corridors full of sneakers and jeans. Surrounded by pro-ab*rtion rally stickers and "Queers are Here" posters, I was constantly horrified. 

I see from my diary of the time that I wore a "Stop Ab*rtion" button all that week. (At U of freaking T. Holy crap.) And on my first Friday I was caught removing a pro-ab*rt sticker from the corner of a bulletin board. My critic, a young women slightly older than me, demanded to know what I was doing. Heart banging, I told her I was "eradicating a pro-ab*rtion sticker". There was a long pause as she got back on her bicycle and then, as she was riding away, she called back, "I hope you burn in hell. You and all your Christian friends."

The malediction followed me through the campus and my undergraduate years. Whenever I failed in some self-directed pro-life protest (like having the courage to wear my button), I mentally beat myself up. At the same time, I rebelled against all this psychological anguish and wanted to join in the mainstream life of the university in a way that would not betray my faith. That's how I came to the PLS.  

The PLS people didn't frighten me too much, and although their conversation was worldly, they were kind. Most of them were much older than me, though: they tended to be graduate students or professors. I was too shy to talk to them much, let alone befriend them, although I admired the handsomer of the men, including the tall, broad-shouldered Such-and-Such. 

Thus, Tricia became more than a friend: she was my integration into the wider life of the university. Although an agnostic, left-wing, pro-choice and (most staggering of all) sexually active, she never made me feel badly about being a Catholic, pro-life and pro-chastity. My whole philosophy opposed many of her beliefs and much of her way of life, but she didn't care.

She liked me, and she liked my Catholicism (without wanting to adopt it herself), and over the early years of our friendship, I got to know her well enough to quit thinking of her as some sort of pagan superwoman and love her for who she really was and  is. That said, I think very fondly of that first year of extreme hero-worship. Having such a mentor kept me from making really stupid mistakes as I met more interesting, agnostic, left-wing university and even started dating So-and-So. 

That year she lived in romantic squalor in a basement flat in Toronto's picturesque Annex whereas I lived at home in my parents' boring then-suburb. She had a hot plate and a perpetually unmade futon bed and Botticelli's Primavera, framed in green, on a wall. She had a hurdy-gurdy, mediaeval costumes and a charming crow puppet. She had busked with hurdy-gurdy through Europe as a teenager. She knew the tune to Shakespeare's "Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more." She wrote poetry--good poetry that eventually was published by Insomniac Press. She knew a gazillion other poets and musicians. She drank coffee and ate baklava at Future Bakery. She was chatted up by men wherever she went. She had very long straight pond-brown hair the finest comb could have got through; I was sad when she cut it all off. Boo.

She did not, I discovered, have it all worked out. In some ways, I realized, I had  "it" worked out better than she did, and I think in some ways I still do, although for sheer talent, hard work and dedication to her art, I know no-one like her (with the possible exception of Alisha Ruiss).  As undergrads we both lived for romantic love and art. Yes, I'm afraid I squandered most of my intellectual and professional opportunities at U of T, but at least I squandered them with Trish.* 

Back then we drank coffee in the afternoons and sometimes wine at night. We went to Goth bars where we wrote poetry or danced to death metal.  Sometimes we boisterously recited The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock while striding through campus:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes, 
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes, 
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening, 
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains, 
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys, 
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap, 
And seeing that it was a soft October night, 
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep. 

I could write a Proustian volume covering over twenty years of friendship, but this is supposed to be a birthday card, so I'll stop here.  I'll end by saying that youth is traditionally described in terms of spring-time, but when I think about mine, I think about  October and Trish. 

Update: Lest my parents be sad, I should mention that my grades skyrocketed. Realizing I was never going to hunker down and do the heavy lifting necessary to a Classics degree, I switched to English Lit. 


  1. Oh, that's a hurdy-gurdy...My brain interpreted it as a pumpkin that she was carving!