You know Ted and Elaine from Airplane* are the most romantic couple of all time, right?
*(“Flying High” to some of you Antipodeans out there)
You’ve probably forgotten. That’s okay. I’ll give you a quick reminder.
Last Friday I was at the launch for Dark Night, Auckland Libraries’ festival exploring sex and sexuality on page, stage, and screen. Afterwards, in the pub, the conversation got pretty deep as we considered the ways in which society influences the way we show our gender and sexuality to the world.
By 1am I was rather the worse for drink and I had trouble carrying my round from the bar to the table. Another festival attendee helped me out – actually managing to carry more drinks than me back to our group.
‘I know we shouldn’t define masculinity by specific kinds of prowess,’ I said (or slurry words to that effect), ‘but you can’t help but feel less of a man when another dude carries more booze back to the table than you.’
One of the AUT postgrads turned to me, and with an admirable command of polysyllables at that late hour, said: “Remember that a lot of heterosexual manliness is not about your relationships with women, it’s about how you demonstrate your masculinity to other men.”
Some bit of academic jargon sparked in my brain as he went on, and we spoke as one: “It’s about being homosocial as much as heterosexual.”
After that, I knew I would spend this week writing about some of my male friends. That, if I could write about sexual relationships of varying intensity and duration, I could do the same for three varieties of “bromance”.
Which brings me back to Ted and Elaine.
When I first went out to Australia and was staying in Bondi Junction like every good young backpacker, I shared a room for a while with another English guy called Mike. It was one of those weird relationships where the dynamic slowly turns over a period of months.
I met Mike in a hostel on my first night in Sydney. He was this nervous young dude on a working holiday visa, who had just come down from a lengthy stint in a Queensland call centre. He talked a mile a minute and couldn’t seem to sit still. I didn’t warm to him and, on that first night in Aussie, I chose to go out on my own rather than get Mike to come along for a drink.
My solo mission into Sydney’s Inner West went pretty well: I ended up getting swept along with a karaoke outing from the University’s Circus Skills Society and ambled home quite merry in the wee small hours.
A few days later, a German couple moved into our hostel room and I decided to get everyone out for Karaoke, Round Two. Mike couldn’t cook to save his life and we’d started to shop together, exploring the city and then ending the days with a meal of varying degrees of fanciness. I don’t much like cooking for one, but I enjoy being in the kitchen, so it was a pretty sound deal from both sides.
After dinner, the four of us sat around playing cards and drinking goon, the cheap boxed wine which is the staple social lubricant of backpackers across Australia. Mike was nervous about karaoke and drank way too much before we even got out the door.
We went to a Thai-run karaoke joint in a basement off Pitt Street – the kind of place where there was no air conditioning and, if you drank there for long enough, your wine ended up salty from the sweat droplets falling back down from the ceiling into your jug.
It was a blazing night of boozy glory. Mike turned out to have the voice of a Disney prince, and a misguided sense of his own capacity for wine which ended with me half-carrying him back down Pitt Street, pausing to let him regurgitate the night’s drinking back into each bin we passed.
“Matt Finch. Matt….Finch…” he gurgled. “You’re like half-way between my mum and me. Because….you look after me like my mum. But…..you’re cool, like me.”
From then on, our destinies were sealed by the magic of cheap wine and the voiceless choir. We moved to more permanent lodgings, gathered parties of international lost souls to participate in tuneless tributes to The Little Mermaid soundtrack, the music of KISS or the timeless hip-hop stylings of Willard Christopher Smith, Jr.
We realised it was probably going too far when we took a couple of newly arrived German girls to the Australian Museum one Sunday. After a few hours’ mooch, we emerged into the Sydney sunshine a little after lunchtime. The girls were keen to see the Opera House and Harbour Bridge.
“Ah, we’ve already done all that,” Mike and I told them.
“What are you going to do then?” the Germans asked.
We looked at each other. “….Rent a booth and practice karaoke?”
The days began to blur at Bondi Junction. It was the unsurprising year-abroad round of dead possums and mouse droppings in the kitchen; promiscuous, brawling Brazilians; Wanderjahr Bavarians determining the limits of their fidelity to a boyfriend or girlfriend back home; and burned-out backpackers who had overstayed their visa to embed themselves in the Aussie hospitality industry. Somebody surely died with a falafel in his hand – possibly in the Elizabethan, sexual sense.
I broke my leg in a silly Centennial Park accident and simultaneously got stuck in to some heavy-going literacy projects, which kind of took the edge off the party lifestyle. (Going clubbing on crutches twice was two times too many, although it was fun to have a Kiwi skatergirl try and buy my pain meds off me as I rested against the bar before a Black Angels gig).
Mike became more confident socially as he settled into the new accommodation, while I struggled with my plaster cast and got mired in the day job. It was still fun – I remember us listening to Olivia Newton-John sing ‘Xanadu’ while we did the housework and wondering if we could pull it off at karaoke – but you could feel the balance between us shifting.
One day Anniina, a Finnish teacher who was staying in the building, presented me with an armful of clean pink Tupperware from the kitchen.
“I’ve been using this; I didn’t realise it was yours,” she said apologetically. “But then I thought – it’s pink – clearly it belongs to you guys.”
I must have pulled my bemused face, because she went on: “I really did assume you were a couple in the early days, you know?”
A few other people in the lounge made sounds of affirmation. Mike had materialised by my shoulder at some point during the conversation.
He leapt in quickly: “Which one of us is the dominant one?”
“I can’t actually tell.”
“If you have to ask…” I said, and elbowed Mike.
Over our time living together, Mike and I had developed certain rituals – which suddenly seemed to me exactly like those of an old couple. No matter what time we got in, how drunk or tired or messed up we were, there was always at least one, probably two, cups of tea before bedtime. (I had assumed the Australian capacity for tea would be as great as the British, and had been faintly disappointed on arrival in the Lucky Country). We would buy mixed packs of jam tarts, so he could have the strawberry ones and I the lemon curd. And almost every night, before bedtime, we would start to watch Airplane.
This mean that each evening would close in a dreamlike mosaic of movie moments as we moved in and out of consciousness: Robert Stack punching out flower children, a jive-talking grandmother, the shit hitting the fan.
And always we had the same conversation: ‘Ted and Elaine are the most beautiful couple in movies ever, aren’t they?’
‘Yeah, oh yeah. Elaine’s gorgeous. Like, our tastes don’t even overlap – ‘ Mike thought of his type as “Mediterranean shading into Blackanese” while I was on a Miranda July kick at the time – ‘but I would totally fight you for her hand.’
‘You know, Robert Hays was pretty handsome too.’
Long pause. The screen is watched carefully and with a certain critical regard.
‘You know, he really was. He’s awesome in this. Was he ever in anything else? Was she? They’re like the greatest screen couple ever. God, I hope they’re still hot now.”
Google, google, google.
Google, google, google.
“…Did they do anything cool? Are they still hot now?”
“Meh. Not so much.”
We returned to Airplane time and time again. Other fads came and went – Paul Thomas Anderson movies, card games, Stephen Fry’s autobiography on audiobook, Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy soundtrack – but Ted and Elaine were never far behind.
Eventually, Mike and I went our separate ways. I moved on to new assignments in different countries, and he’s gone back to some white-collar job in the UK. He never listened to me when I told him to push harder for a career in Aussie, to use all his talents to do something really special and different; I never listened to him when he told me to go easy and make more time for play.
Every now and then we email from opposite sides of the world. Sometimes the ghost of a Bondi memory is in the messages as they cross paths:
Hey, how are you doing?
I got a girl to watch Airplane in bed* the other night.
*Errr…not during. Like, after. Or whatever.
Thing is, watching it with her: it just wasn’t the same…
For more on sexuality and gender – from bromance to modern erotica – keep following our Dark Night adventures at Auckland Libraries…See more at the Auckland Libraries Dark Night page,