Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing (4 page)

BOOK: Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing
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I'd be happy. And Diet Coke would be delicious instead of just necessary.

Without the proper medicine, for my entire life I was uncomfortable all the time and w-a-a-a-ay screwed up about love. To quote the great Randy Newman, “It takes a whole lot of medicine for me to pretend that I'm somebody else.” I guess I wasn't the only one.

“Hi, is Suzanne there?”

“Yes, can I tell my mom who's calling?”

“It's Pierre…”

When the phone rang, Mom and I had been in the middle of the
best
day together. We had played games all day long—we even tried to play Monopoly, but it's hard when there's just two of you—and then as night fell, we found
Annie Hall
on our little TV and laughed our asses off at Woody Allen's house under the roller coaster. (I didn't get the sex and relationship jokes, but even at eight years old I could understand the comedy of sneezing away $2,000 worth of some kind of white powder.)

That is my absolute favorite childhood memory—sitting with my mom and watching that movie. But now the prime minister of Canada was calling, so I was about to lose my mom again. As she took the call
I heard her turn on her professional, spinmeister-y voice; the voice of a different person, of Suzanne Perry in fact, not my mom.

I turned the TV off and went to bed. I tucked myself in, and without the need of barbiturates—yet—I uneasily slept till early light illuminated my Ottawa bedroom window.

I remember around this time seeing my mother in the kitchen crying, and I thought,
Why doesn't she just drink?
I have no idea how I got the notion that an alcoholic drink would stop crying. I certainly hadn't had a drink by eight (I'd wait another six years!), but somehow the culture all around me had taught me that drinking equaled laughing and having fun, and a much-needed escape from pain. Mom was crying, so why didn't she just drink? Then she'd be drunk and not feel as much, right?

Maybe she was crying because we moved all the time—Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto—though I spent most of my childhood in Ottawa. I spent a lot of time alone; there would be nannies, but they never lasted that long, so I just added them to the list of people who abandoned me.… I just went on being funny, quick, smart-mouthed, just to survive.

By standing next to Pierre Trudeau and looking beautiful, my mother became an instant celebrity, so much so that she was offered the position of anchoring the national news for Global Television, in Toronto.

What an opportunity—this was a job she could not pass up. She was pretty good at it, too, until one day when they were promoting a beauty pageant. My mother said, “I'm sure we'll all be glued to
that
one.” It was a funny line—and kind of surreal coming from a beauty pageant winner—but she was fired that night.

I hadn't been happy with the move to Toronto—for starters, I hadn't even been included in the decision. And for the entrée, I would never see my friends again. My mother was also nine months pregnant—by then she had married
Canada AM
host Keith Morrison—yes, him, the one with the hair on NBC's
Dateline.
I had even been picked to give
my mother away at the wedding. This was an odd choice—figuratively and literally.

But soon I had a beautiful sister! Caitlin was as cute as could be, and I loved her instantly. But there was now a family growing up around me, a family I didn't really feel a part of. It was around this time that I made the conscious choice to say,
Fuck it—it's every man for himself.
That's when the bad behavior started—I got shitty grades, I started smoking, I beat up Pierre's son (an eventual prime minister himself) Justin Trudeau. (I decided to end my argument with him when he was put in charge of an entire army.) I made the choice to live in my head and not in my heart. It was safer in my head—you couldn't be broken there, not yet anyway.

I changed. The fast mouth appeared, and no one would ever get near my heart. No one.

I was ten years old.

By seventh grade, we were back in Ottawa, where we belonged. I was beginning to see the power of making people laugh. At Ashbury College, my all-boys secondary school in Ottawa, in between being the class cutup I somehow managed to land the role of Rackham, “the fastest gun in the West,” in a play called
The Death and Life of Sneaky Fitch,
put on by the school's drama teacher, Greg Simpson. It was a big part, and I just loved it—making people laugh felt like everything. The ripple that turns into a wave, all those parents pretending to be interested in their kids' exploits until—wham!—that Perry kid actually made people laugh. (Of all the drugs, that one is still the most effective, at least when it comes to giving me
joy.
) Being the star of
The Death and Life of Sneaky Fitch
was especially important because it gave me something to excel in.

I deeply cared what strangers thought of me—still do—in fact, it's one of the key threads in my life. I remember begging my mom to paint the backyard blue so people flying in planes overhead, looking down at our yard, would think we had a swimming pool. Maybe there
was some unaccompanied minor up there who could look down and be comforted by it.

Even though I was now a big brother, I was also the bad kid. One year I went through all the closets before Christmas to see what my presents were; I was also stealing money, smoking more and more, and getting worse and worse grades. At one point the teachers put my desk facing the wall at the back of the classroom because I talked so much and spent all my time trying to make people laugh. One teacher, Dr. Webb, said, “If you don't change the way you are, you'll never amount to anything.” (Should I admit that when I got the cover of
People
magazine I had a copy of it sent to Dr. Webb with a note that read, “I guess you were wrong”? Nah, that would be crass.)

I did.

Making up for my shitty grades was the fact that I was the lead in every play and a nationally ranked tennis player.

My grandfather started teaching me how to play tennis when I was four, and by the time I was eight I knew I could beat him—but I waited until I was ten. I would play for eight to ten hours every day, and spend hours hitting at a backboard, too, pretending I was Jimmy Connors. I would play games and sets, every shot of mine Connors, every return of the backboard John McEnroe. I hit the ball ahead of my body, I would sweep with my strings, I'd put the racket behind me, as though I was placing it in a backpack. I figured it was only a matter of time before I'd be walking out at Wimbledon, nodding sweetly and modestly at the adoring fans, limbering up before going to five sets against McEnroe, waiting patiently while he berated some stuffy British umpire, before nailing a cross-court, backhand passing shot to win the tournament. Then I'd kiss the golden trophy and sip a glass of Robinsons Barley Water, a drink so far from Dr Pepper I would actually love it. Surely, I'd get my mother's attention then.

(The 1982 Wimbledon final, where Jimmy Connors narrowly beat
heavily favored John McEnroe, was my favorite match of all time. Jimmy graced the cover of
Sports Illustrated
after his victory, and it's framed and has hung on my wall to this day. I was him, or he was me—either way, on that day, both of us won.)

For actual matches in the real world, I played at Rockcliffe Lawn Tennis Club in Ottawa. You had to wear all whites at the club. At one point, there was a sign out front of the club that read
WHITES ONLY
until somebody thought that might give the wrong impression. (The sign was quickly changed to
WHITE DRESS ONLY
and everyone moved on.) There were eight courts, mostly peopled by seniors, and I would spend all day waiting in the clubhouse in case somebody didn't show up and a fourth was needed and I could step in. The older folks loved me because I could get to every ball, but I also had a crazy temper. I'd throw my racket and swear and get all pissed off, and if I was losing badly, I would start sobbing. This usually preceded me coming back to win—I'd be one set down; 5–1 down; love–40 down,
sobbing,
and then I'd come back to win in three. All along I'd be crying but also thinking,
I'm gonna win; I know I'm gonna win.
Winning wasn't as necessary to others.

By fourteen, I was nationally ranked in Canada … but that was also the year something else started.

I had my first drink when I was fourteen. I held off as long as I could.

At this point I was hanging out a lot with two brothers, Chris and Brian Murray. Somehow, since third grade we'd developed a way of talking that went, “Could it
be
any hotter?” or “Could the teacher
be
any meaner?” or “Could we
be
more in detention?”—a cadence you might recognize if you're a fan of
Friends,
or if you've noticed how America has been talking for the past couple of decades or so. (I don't think it's an exaggeration to suggest that Chandler Bing transformed the way America spoke.) For the record: that transformation came
directly from Matthew Perry, Chris Murray, and Brian Murray fucking around in Canada in the 1980s. Only I got rich off of it, though. Fortunately, Chris and Brian have never busted me for that and are still my dear, hilarious friends.

One night, the three of us were hanging out in my backyard. No one was home; up above, the sun shone through the clouds, none of us knowing that something extremely significant was about to transpire. I was lying in the grass and mud of Canada, and I didn't know anything.

Could I
be
more unaware?

We decided to drink. I forget whose idea it was, and none of us knew what we were getting ourselves into. We had a six-pack of Budweiser and a bottle of white wine called Andrès Baby Duck. I took the wine and the Murrays took the beer. All this took place in the wide open, by the way—we were just in my backyard. My parents weren't home—big surprise there—and off we went.

Within fifteen minutes, all the alcohol was gone. The Murrays were puking around me, and I just lay in the grass, and something happened to me. That thing that makes me bodily and mentally different from my fellows occurred. I was lying back in the grass and the mud, looking at the moon, surrounded by fresh Murray puke, and I realized that for the first time in my life, nothing bothered me. The world made sense; it wasn't bent and crazy. I was complete, at peace. I had never been happier than in that moment.
This is the answer,
I thought;
this is what I've been missing. This must be how normal people feel all the time. I don't have any problems. It is all gone. I don't need attention. I am taken care of, I am fine.

I was in
bliss.
I had no problems for those three hours. I wasn't abandoned; I wasn't fighting with my mom; I wasn't doing lousy in school; I wasn't wondering what life was about, and my place in it. It took away everything.

Knowing what I know now about the progressive nature of the disease of addiction, it's amazing to me I didn't drink the
next
night, and
the next night, too, but I didn't—I waited, and the scourge of alcoholism hadn't gripped me yet. So that first night didn't lead to regular drinking, but it probably sowed the seed.

The key to the problem, I would come to understand, was this: I lacked both spiritual guidelines, and an ability to enjoy anything. But at the same time, I was also an excitement addict. This is such a toxic combination I can't even.

I didn't know this at the time, of course, but if I was not in the act of searching for excitement, being excited, or drunk, I was incapable of enjoying anything. The fancy word for that is “anhedonia,” a word and feeling I would spend millions in therapy and treatment centers to discover and understand. Maybe that's why I won tennis matches only when I was a set down and within points of losing. Maybe that's why I did everything I did.
Anhedonia,
by the way, was the original working title of my favorite movie, the one my mother and I had enjoyed together,
Annie Hall.
Woody gets it. Woody gets me.

Things at home just got worse and worse. My mom had a wonderful new family with Keith. Emily arrived, and she was blond and cute as a button. And just like Caitlin, I loved her instantly. However, I was so often on the outside looking in, still that kid up in the clouds on a flight to somewhere else, unaccompanied. Mom and I were fighting all the time; tennis was the only place I was happy, and even then, I was angry, or sobbing, even when I won. What was a fella to do?

Enter, my father. I wanted to know him. It was time for a big geographic.

Yup, Los Angeles, and my father, and a new life were calling, but I was fifteen, and leaving would rupture my home life and my mom's
heart. But she didn't ask me if it was OK to marry Keith and move to Toronto and have two kids.… And in Canada I was angry, and sobbing, and drinking, and me and my mom were fighting, and I wasn't a full part of the family, and I sucked at school, and who knew if I was going to have to move soon anyway, and on and on and on. And damn it, a kid wants to know his father.

I decided to go. My parents had discussed it and wondered if LA would be better for my tennis career anyway. (Little did I know that in Southern California the best I'd be would be a solid club player, the standard being so much higher in a place where you can play 365 days a year, as opposed to Canada, where you're lucky if you get a couple of months before the permafrost shows up.) But even with that idea, me deciding to go caused a great rift in the fabric of my family.

The night before I made the trip, I was in the basement of our house, where I slept that night only, and it would turn out to be one of the worst nights of my life. Up in the main house, hell was brewing; there was the banging of doors, and hissed conversations, and occasional shouts, and pacing, and one of the kids was crying, and no one could stop it. My grandparents would periodically come down and yell at me; upstairs, my mother was screaming, crying, and then all the kids were crying, and my grandparents were yelling, and the kids were yelling, and I was down there, mute, abandoned, determined, terrified, unaccompanied, and scared. These three very powerful adults would come down to tell me over and over that I was breaking their hearts by leaving. But I had no choice; things had gotten so bad. I was a broken human being.

BOOK: Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing
9.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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