Joseph was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the crime and culture capital of Canada. Unsurprisingly his father worked in law enforcement and mother in performing arts, ballet. It was an impossible balancing act, like marrying love and hate, but they at least agreed on being control freaks. Jo and his elder sister Magda, navigated the fault lines by hiding their selves and walking the Assiniboine Forest that in places, runs through the city of Winnipeg. Feelings in the family were not discussed or expressed openly. Magda developed migraines. Jo withdrawn and depressed.
As soon as he finished tertiary education in film and media, his sister in legal studies, they left home in the same year, and migrated to New Zealand. Hardly any discussion took place between them or with their parents until the airline tickets arrived. Promises were made to visit home and NZ each three years that never eventuated.
Jo’s first job was on an organic farm in Hamilton on the banks of the Waikato river. It lifted his spirits. Magda found work as a legal secretary in Christchurch, eventually upgrading her qualifications to work as a lawyer. No migraines but plenty of administrative headaches. Jo made a number of documentaries for the farm and helped move it up to an international showcase for organic farming.
A similar organization in Lismore saw his material and head hunted him. Thus he came to Australia. Within weeks of arriving he met his future wife, Soledad (solitude). She had come to Australia with her family from Brazil, and worked on the same property. They had a lot in common but a huge difference in expression of emotion. Jo had a limited vocabulary – bored, lonely, angry and sad. Soledad had the full list, and all the nuances in three languages. She loved him nonetheless. He didn’t know love at all.
At the six year point in their marriage, no children and wanting, she was exhausted trying to reach passed his awkward distance, to the self he had hidden from childhood. She had given up months before, calling it quits, and signalled him it was so. He buried himself more in his work. One day on the pretence of a doctor’s visit, she quietly rented a house in Federal, unannounced, reprising Jo and Magda’s departure from Winnipeg. He hadn’t seen it coming. He came home to their house absent all her belongings. She was sending him a wake up call but he phoned his sister.
She told him to get his arse onto a plane to NZ. She took a week off work and focussed all her attention on him. They had good old times hiking, camping and talking. They had important calls with Soledad. As a result Magda called me and booked him in for ten sessions, prepaid by herself. Never a good sign!
Jo was a large man, olive skinned, a wide jaw and broad cheeks with a brilliant, perfect teeth smile. He had thick black hair, tied in a bun samurai style, and large sad dark eyes looked out beneath a high forehead and brow. He had a baritone voice that just about melted me. His father was of Ukrainian heritage and it showed in Jo’s huge frame and deep silence. He wore FXD work gear and Bloodstone shoes, which seemed to reflect his personality. I imagined he had a truck to match and maybe a fat boy Harley. All of which proved to be so. He would spend days away on the bike, just thinking, travelling a thousand kilometres or more. His favourite ride was up and down Waterfall Way listening to triple J. He later told me he felt free there but trapped at home.
‘Jo, tell me about your self,’ I asked, as he sat heavily in the chair, scanning the room. I sat opposite him.
‘What dya want to know?’
‘Anything that would help me understand your sister’s concern.’
‘She’s a worry wort.’
‘Are you here just to please her.’
‘And the other part?’
‘Who is Soledad?’ I asked biting my lip, suppressing a smile and thinking that this was going to be like pulling teeth.
‘The best thing that ever happened to me?’
‘Just the best.’ A tear began to form in his left eye.
‘That important, huh?’
There was a long silence. Jo seemed to be preparing to say something, his eyes rolling to the left looking up and lips forming unspoken words. His breathing was steady but shallow. He moved his hands from side to side, folded arms across his chest, and then separating down to his lap, and around again. The circuit continued maybe five times in the five minutes I sat with him. It was an internal monologue that must have been his marital communication. I couldn’t even guess what he meant but I imagined Soledad was his translator.
And then he just stood up, left the room and walked down the driveway.
I hadn’t had that experience in thirty years, when I was last called a ‘head shrinker’ by adolescent clients. I stepped out and watched him down the driveway. He must have sensed me, turned around and threw his hands up in the air, as if to say, ‘What’s the point?’
Next day I received a call from Magda. She had the story from his view point. I apparently was a “a piss poor listener” and was just in it for the money. She’d spoken to Soledad. They agreed he was to give it one more shot before deciding to quit therapy. I thought “deciding” was code for allowed, and figured he couldn’t open up with two strong women on his case. His best strategy would be to stay invisible and muddle on. Same way he inhabited his childhood.
‘Come on in Jo.’ I whispered. ‘Pull up a chair and tell me all about it.’
‘Nothing to tell.’
‘Well those two women of yours had plenty to say.’ I mumbled as I moved to a chair beside him, looking out the window into the garden. I would have had to twist my neck uncomfortably to eye ball him.
He looked into the garden. I replayed a Crash Test Dummy song in my brain. ‘After seven days he was quite tired,’ the song began. ‘so God said let there be a day for picnics, for wine and bread.’
I sang this to Jo, ‘let there be a day for picnics, wine and bread Jo’. He looked at me astonished. I then remembered the band was from his home town.
‘What?!’ he said. ‘You’re frickin out of your mind!’
I ignored his protest and continued singing, badly.
‘God shuffled his feet’, I continued.
‘So he said “once there was a boy
Who woke up with blue hair
To him it was a joy
Until he ran out into the warm air
He thought of how his friend would come to see
And would they laugh, or had he got some strange disease?”’
Jo just stared at me. Then without any warning, suddenly burst into a big belly laugh that was so rich and sonorous it just warmed my heart, deep down. And he said,
‘You are one mad fucker mate.’
‘That I am’, I said as I turned my body to look at him and said, ‘I think you once had blue hair and they laughed, so you went silent like you had some strange disease. The only un-ease you have is living inside your own skin.’
He looked at me with those deep sad eyes, a tear forming again, and then dammit he stood up and walked out. This time I didn’t follow.
Next day Magda called. Jo reported that I was insane and shouldn’t be let loose on the world. I smiled and asked, ‘does this mean he likes me?’ She laughed on the end of the phone and said, ‘inexplicable to me but yes. He wants to come back but only on condition you don’t sing. Your voice is terrible he says.’
Jo came in with a karaoke player, and sang his favourite song from the 1993 album, God Shuffled His Feet titled ‘I think I’ll disappear now’. His baritone voice was uncannily like Crash Test Dummie’s Brad Roberts. I just sat there gobsmacked. And then he got up and walked out taking his karaoke machine with him. I opened my iPad and read the lyrics. He had just told me his life story. Tears formed in my eyes.
Next day Magda called. Apparently he ‘well and truly fucked you over’, and couldn’t wait for the next session. I asked her about his singing. She said it was his one outlet each week at the pub. He had begun it in New Zealand and continued it here. She told me of Soledad’s anger that he showed more of himself at the pub than he did in his marriage.
I had an empty bottle of tequila waiting for him and said pointing to the bottle, ‘you can just pretend we’re not in the same room’, quoting his favourite song. There was a long pause.
‘Okay’, he said. ‘I can do that.’ He smiled broadly like a great big teddy bear, taking a deep breath in his belly. He asked, ‘What do you wanna know?’
‘When you sing you’re not invisible to me, and I guess to anyone listening. It’s as if you’re singing from your core. Yet, somehow for no reason I can fathom, the best thing that ever happened in your life, the love of your life, doesn’t get to see hear or feel you at home. What’s up with that?’
‘If she saw me, knew the lot, she’d hate me. It’s better that she not know.’
Again I was lost for words and took an imaginary swig of tequila before turning to him and versifying, “I wanna make something beautiful for you.”’
‘Sinaed O’Connor?’ he asked. ‘Thank you for not singing, you’d just kill a magic song and her heavenly voice.’
‘‘‘And who will dress your wounds?”’ I asked. ‘Your Soledad has been trying to do that for you, dress your wounds and make something beautiful to shield you from the pain.’
‘True.’ That’s all he said and then again, got up and left.
I didn’t get a call next day from Magda. Nor the next or the one after that. But I did get a call from Soledad. She wanted to thank me for opening a crack in that broken heart of a man she adored. For a moment she saw him, vulnerable and open and then as quickly as it came he disappeared. What, she asked, did I suggest she do. I wondered if she had a favourite song.
‘“Baby Can I Hold You” by Tracy Chapman,’ she said.
‘I suggest you get a hold of his karaoke machine, sing it to him with feeling, at home just before he goes to the pub for karaoke night, and then just walk out, go back to your place and wait for him.’
He arrived a half hour late, didn’t respond to text or call. Then I heard his truck and breathed easy. He came to the curtained glass door that opens into my work space and hesitated. Then pressed the buzzer and ambled in. He was red eyed, shirt hanging out from his trousers, I guessed to wipe away the tears.
‘Come in Jo. Sit down and tell me all about it. Water, a coffee?’
‘No, I’m good. Sorry, sorry – I seem to be saying that a lot – late. Truck problems.’ He sounded like a baritone with laryngitis.
‘You look like you’ve been hit by a B-double.’
‘Magda. Drove it right through my heart.’
I waited. Occasionally he took a deep breath and sighed heavily.
‘Right between the eyes,’ he continued as if reliving a scene I was now beginning to imagine. Magda singing, pleading for him to come alive with feeling, reaching into him as if with her last breath – “words don’t come easily, like forgive me, is all that you can’t say. Years gone by and still words don’t come easily.” I spared him my awful rendition, and remained silent.
He moved heavily in the arm chair, my body mirrored the shift and I caught myself thinking, oh shit he’s about to get up and leave. Instead, he coughed, cleared his throat and said,
‘I don’t know who the fuck I am.’ Rolling his eyes heavenward as if the answer lay there.
‘When do you last remember knowing your self?’ I asked.
‘How do you mean?’
‘A moment when you felt truly alive and present to yourself.’
Jo gave me a big vulnerable teddy bear look, raised his arms from the chair and dropped them back down with a sigh.
‘Never like you can’t remember or never meaning at no stage in your life have you ever felt alive and present.’
‘More the last one.’
‘Shit,’ I exclaimed. ‘That must be lonely.’
‘I keep busy.’
‘Homework for you then is to start a sentence each day with “I want …”. You don’t have to share it with anyone but you do have to say it out loud.’
‘But I don’t know what I want. I can’t remember ever saying it.’
‘You wanted to come back to see me. You can start there. You will want to go to sleep tonight. You will want a coffee or a breakfast tomorrow. You will want to see Soledad.’
‘You make it sound so easy.’
‘Homework – once each day say it out loud.’