I have had some practice at social isolation long before this pandemic. It was a period I call ‘early adolescence’. After the blaze of glory and frantic shirt signing that was grade six graduation, my mum, brother and I moved to a new town in a waterlogged and God-fearing pocket of Gippsland. In my oversized blazer with 80s businesswoman shoulder pads, I trotted off to high school and immediately fell into the peripheral crowd that had divorced parents and loved Lord of the Rings.
My sort-of friends and I weren’t the kind of kids that hung out on weekends or after school—it was a lunchtime and ‘Is anyone sitting next to you?’ kind of friendship. There were also the various people in the school cabaret production that I had secret crushes on, but apart from weeks of rehearsal, I didn’t invite them around to watch The Simpsons. Instead I cast embarrassed glances at them across the canteen or carpark at recess. And so, for about twenty-four months, I retreated.
Not having friends is a difficult concept to grasp for some people, especially those who were good at sport in a country high school. Sport was the fabric that held much of Gippsland’s youth together when I was growing up, with all the broad-shouldered, deep-voiced boys in the tightly-bound centre. The Matrix-quoters and people who spoke Elvish were somewhere on the frayed edges. I did play some sports, including soccer for four miserable months and a summer of wonky tennis, but my commitment was lacking, and I would often lose concentration half-way through a serve. To continue the fabric analogy, I was a ‘loose thread’.
I noticed other loose threads out in the world beyond school grounds. They could be found buying baking supplies or quietly flicking through off-trend albums at Sanity, or discreetly reading gossip magazines at the newsagency. But mostly, my domain was domestic and centred on the family computer.
In the early 2000s, the concept of the iPhone was science fiction—Australians were still adjusting to the shock of DVDs, let alone touch screens—so the communal workstation was the only gateway to another digital realm. Computers weren’t the family members they are now. Then, they were cautiously revered like a cabinet for grandma’s silverware or china collection, placed awkwardly in a corner of the lounge or dining room, rolled out for special occasions.
Adolescent impulses and a lack of awareness around browser cookies and the concept of a ‘search history’ led to awkward moments for me as I became the intrepid explorer of my own sexuality. Mum would question why viruses appeared with increasing frequency, or why I’d hover around the computer if anyone else used Google or Ask Jeeves. I wrung my hands and paced around the house until I could be back on the computer searching for ways to not only erase my searches for ‘big cock’, but ways to stop thinking about big cock entirely.
As I attempted to supress my urge to see men doing things with each other I didn’t consider even possible just months earlier, I turned to a more secluded corner of the digital world—The Sims, a computer game equivalent to Big Brother (with a substantial element of Grand Designs).
The Sims, for the non-loose threads, was a game in which you could recreate your own life by constructing a house and family similar to reality, or you could exaggerate everything a little (add a pool, an older sister, get a wacky haircut), or simply imagine a life where you’re sharing a luxurious mansion with five topless men who are always kissing each other. It was the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure. While others trained for interschool kickboxing tournaments (or whatever it was they were doing), I was wallpapering the extension, painting landscapes in my conservatory, and hanging out in the hot tub with live-in models Chad and Andre.
Through the lens of a twenty-nine-year-old obsessed with true crime, I was clearly building a sex cult; but as a thirteen-year-old I saw this as a sexy and impeccably designed dream that filled me with less dread than porn, or actual human interaction with other year sevens.
When my school decided to effectively quarantine us from the rest of the student population in year nine, they opened up a new campus—an abandoned rope factory. Suddenly the dynamics of the year level shifted. Everyone was trapped in this weird building together with a curriculum that included paper kite aerodynamics and meditation. Sure, there were still plenty of assholes, and the more athletic kids were still popular, but there was more freedom for the frayed edges and loose threads. More freedom to occasionally reference Mordor or Galadriel, or for a boy to talk about celebrity couples. And with this breathing room came the confidence to make my first actual friends, not just theatre acquaintances, or computer-generated beings that I had designed.
During this latest social isolation, I’ve revisited the cultural comfort food from my childhood and adolescence, including: the highly camp favourites The Addams Family, Spice World, and Desperate Housewives, along with YouTube clips from Big Brother, my first forays into ‘arty films’ Amelie and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou; and a series of games where you practically play God (Rollercoaster Tycoon, Sim City 4, The Movies). And although I’ve been tempted to create a dreamhouse with an expert gardener hunk (me) and his astronaut husband, I have not revisited The Sims. Happiness seems now, more than ever, something to be lived and not just witnessed.
Max Hayward lives with his boyfriend, housemate, a library of half-read books and two thriving monsteras in North Melbourne. He normally works in events and arts marketing (so things are pretty quiet at the moment), but also writes about movies for Lindsay magazine.