Auckland, New Zealand
“Goodbye,” I said. “See you in a few years.”
That’s what I believed, that I’d return to New Zealand after a few years away. We’d done it previously a couple of times, Suzie and I, left New Zealand and gone off to live in Africa (1976-77) and Australia (1981-82) for a few years, then come back. Most young Kiwis* in those days went out to see the world, they probably still do. New Zealand being a country made up of islands surrounded by the South Pacific ocean, you have to go overseas to go anywhere.
As usual, Kiwis had a phrase for it, “Getting your O.E.” for Overseas Experience.
Now we stood in the Departures Lounge of Auckland International Airport, embracing friends before we boarded our plane to go and do it again. America this time. New York City, where we had friends upon whose couch we could crash.
I’d known and loved Suzie for a dozen years by then. I met her when she was eighteen, barely more than a kid. Now she was a fashion model, clothes designer and travel agent.
I was a film animator. I made TV commercials selling toilet bowl cleaners and stuff like that.
Everything we owned was at our feet, packed into three suitcases.
Proving, I suppose, that for most of us artists, it really is art for art’s sake in this material world.
“Good luck, mate,” Nick said somberly as he gripped my hand. He wore a serious expression, which gave his face an unnatural look. He wasn’t usually so grave. Looking at him, I was more than ever convinced he believed Suzie and I had made a horrible mistake and were doomed to failure in America, where we’d end up like every artist that ever was or ever will be ends up, starving to death in our freezing rat infested hovel with bill collectors banging at the door! To lie on a filthy mattress, too weak from hunger to rise, and stare sepulchrally with feverish eyes and bitter irony at the unsold masterpieces (painted in my own blood) hanging on the damp, decaying walls— and with my last painful breath receive the cruel enlightenment to look back on my life and wonder;
“Where did I go wrong?”
What our friends didn’t understand was that Suzie and I felt we had nothing to lose.
After all, everything we owned fitted into three suitcases.
Suzie’s eyes sparkled with excitement at the idea of America. She liked to travel. Even before I'd met her, she'd been around the world a bit. She had tremendous curiosity and was remarkably free of emotional tethers to places and things. What Suzie loved was people.
She was unresisting to change, too. In fact, she liked change.
“We’re not waiting for our ship to come in, Nicky,” she’d said a few weeks before, when we told Nick and his wife of our decision to leave New Zealand. “We’re going to swim out to it!” We talked it over over dinner. That’s when I first saw the look from our friends. The look that said you’re crazy to go and try animation in America! Making cartoons? You’re barely eking out a living now, here in Godzone,** how will you survive the mean streets of New York City?
In his youth Nick had done some O.E. in the States, so he understood its allure. He and Suzie had worked together for years too, so he understood her pretty well. He even understood me pretty well. Nick was good with people. It was animation that he couldn’t understand. He’d watched me work at it obsessively over the years and never seem to get ahead. Which was true, we weren’t very far ahead, as far as money and things of that nature. But I found making animated films absolutely fascinating and couldn't dream of doing anything else.
Besides, we’d seen the world a bit and done a few things, Suzie and I, so I wasn't concerned about how far ahead or behind we were.
Nick turned from me and embraced Suzie. They were special friends, he and her, she having worked for him from before the beginning and helped to grow his travel agency in downtown Onehunga.*** After his somber best wishes to me, Nick looked close to tears as he parted from Suzie.
“Keep the home fires burning, dahling!” laughed Suzie in her sweet, musical voice. She kissed Nick’s cheek, leaving a smear of red lipstick, before adding, “I just want to have a look around America and take in the sights. It ought to be fun!” Suzie had a beautiful accent, a singsong lilt that sounded more French than South African.
“Keep in touch, Suzie,” he answered. “The place won’t be the same without you.”
To be continued…
* A Kiwi is a flightless bird, New Zealand's national symbol and what a New Zealander is called.
** Kiwi slang for New Zealand.
*** Pronounced, for your amusement, "Oh-knee-hung-ah." A suburb of Auckland.