Like any red-blooded boy of the age of 13, when I was growing up, I imagined nothing the Almighty had created could compare with kissing a girl. I did the whole deal: making out with pillows, feeling up two slightly deflated footballs… When I started to become comfortable with the fact that my parents knew puberty was beginning to rear its hairy head — well, I’m still not entirely comfortable with it, to be honest — I would cut out all the models from Sports Illustrated swimsuit editions, put them on my walls and give them little comic-strip thought balloons, saying stuff like, “David, you’re hot!” and “David, James Bond has nothing on you.”
In my imagination, I was a torrid lover, a machine, a manly cat the kittens couldn’t keep their paws off… well, let’s face it, guys, I was Shaft. Unfortunately, I was a most private dick; even though a few of my friends had tales of heavy petting debauchery, usually with an older girl, typically in a dark room somewhere and often involving zippers, rubber gloves and mayonnaise, I, at 13, had still never properly kissed a girl (I’m talking about real snogging here, not the quick, stolen pecks on the cheek with Stacy behind the primary school washrooms when I was 11, although, at the time, they were meaningful). The closest I came was taking a girl in to the school bazaar; she ended up leaving with another guy when I told her, no, sorry, I can’t go to hang out the mall afterwards because my Dad is picking me up bang on 6 o’clock, can’t be late. (Emily, I haven’t forgotten you… contact me, if you ever want to talk.)
I thought it was never going to happen. Then, my childhood friend Andy started dating the local football coach’s daughter, and I was lucky (so lucky) enough to accompany him on a few of their dates. Mostly, they would sneak off to a dark corner, and he would touch her breasts (He touched her breasts! He even grabbed them!) and kiss her cheek, and I was off trolling around, hoping neither of them noticed that I was watching.
I mean, what must it be like? You’ve got a girl there… and you can do anything with her! Sure, one time Andy sneaked his hands a little too low, and she let out a shriek and told him to stop it, but I suspect that’s just because they were out in public. When they were alone, who knew what kind of insanity went on? I bet he even kissed her with his tongue.
Imagination was all I had. I was helpless with women, and rather than face the embarrassment of being rejected, I just avoided them. It wasn’t until I joined a local youth club that I finally met a girl who would talk to me.
Her name was Michelle, and I was the first person she’d ever kissed, too. She was a shy, bookish girl, with big glasses that I think also helped the sight of anyone who happened to be standing behind her (within 10 feet). She was a year below me in school and wanted nothing more than to get straight As, be a bridesmaid in her best friend Julianne’s wedding, meet David Hasselhoff (believe it or not, there was a time when The Hoff was considered sexy) and not be late to Sunday school. She was a proper sweet straight-laced schoolgirl, and sex was something that would be not be even thought of until her wedding night, and even then only if you’re lucky.
I liked her because she was nice and funny and a good decent girl — this was during a period of my life in which I wanted to be a minister; that might be surprising to you, and probably strikes you as something I should delve into deeper, but I won’t, because it’s not really all that interesting, and besides, it was a very long time ago, and I’m such a sinner now I’d feel guilty even thinking about it — but mostly I liked her because she had enormous breasts and I thought maybe if I was really, really nice and gave her flowers and told her I loved her and took her to movies and made nice with her friends and held her hand, she might let me touch them.
I was willing to wait. Once I finally dug up the nerve to ask her out, we had three dates. The first was to a movie, Teen Wolf with Michael J. Fox. Mum wouldn’t let me go unless I had a chaperone, so Andy, who was a year older, also came along… if only Mum knew the stuff I’d seen Andy do! The second was also to a movie, the name of which I have forgotten.
The third night, I knew it was time to make my move. It must have been a particularly ribald weekend in Hollywood, because all the films at the cinema were rated R, save for one. So Andy and Michelle and her friend Julianne and I marched up to the ticket window, plunked down our cash and headed in to see Back To The Future.
The scene was toward the end, when the band is playing “Earth Angel” and Marty McFly is starting to fade from existence because his parents-to-be aren’t getting together on the dancefloor as they were destined to in 1955. The tension was high; would this be the end of our hero? Michelle gripped my arm. I touched her hand. She looked at me. I leaned in. She leaned in. Closer. Closer. I puckered up (this was fucking it! Oh man oh man oh man!) and planted my lips on hers, where they remained for about, oh, half a second. We were in a cinema, but I could still see her blush. As did I, when Andy, sitting right behind us, began to giggle.
And that was my first kiss. Years later, at Julianne’s wedding, I gave a toast. I saluted Jules and her husband, and made a joke about initially spending time with her to get closer to Michelle, my first kiss, someone I’d never forget. Michelle blushed then, too, though I think she might have been drunk. She ended up marrying a grocer or something, and I think they have a couple of children, both shy and bookish with enormous glasses. Curious to see how their breasts turn out.
I’ve been chatting online with a friend of mine who’s been quite distraught at the prospect of her cat being put down. Listening to my friend mourn her pet brought memories flooding back of my own experience a few decades ago and inspired this piece I wrote for a writing challenge on the theme of “Love & Loss”.
He was there when she was alone and needed a friend. Now her pet is dying, and she feels helpless.
When I was a child, probably about eight or nine, my family was visiting some neighbour friends for a late-night barbeque. As tended to be the case, the adults would sit around the grill and bitch about their marriages, or their jobs, or their children, whatever came to mind after a six-pack or two. We kids were relegated to the garden, free to roam around as long as we were within eyesight and able to stop, drop and roll at a moment’s notice. I was running around stupidly, freely, as children are wont to do, when I came across a small kitten, likely a stray. He was gray and dirty and had the cutest little nose. Unlike most cats I’d come across at the time, he didn’t seem to mind when I picked him up and roughed him up a bit. He was sweet and funny and even jumped up on my lap when I was lying in the grass, daydreaming. He was the friendliest cat I’d ever come across.
A cat seemed like the ideal pet for her. Cats are easy. All you really have to do is feed them and change their litter box. Cats aren’t like dogs; they don’t need attention. They just go about their own thing, eating, sleeping, shitting, licking themselves. The world of a cat is a blissful one, and it is decidedly solitary. They just go about their merry way, living their content, spoiled little lives, and if you end up playing with them, it’s because they have allowed you to.
She loved that concept. As nice as dogs are, you could pretty much smack them upside their head with a two-by-four, and after the cobwebs cleared and the blood was wiped out of their eyes, they’d happily come drooling back for more. Not cats. They don’t need you. They’re just fine without you, thank you very much. You have to earn the respect of a cat. They figure out whether or not they like you, and then they conclude if you’re worth hanging out with.
Her brother has the best way with cats. He has little interest in pets and he’s particularly not a fan of cats. So he just completely ignores them, not even implying any interest in their activities, a difficult task, since there are four of them roaming around his house. What happens? The cats, appreciative of not being picked up and snuggled when they just want to sleep, can’t get enough of the guy. He has to peel them off of him anytime he’s just trying to watch the telly. He often tells me that this is also how you’re supposed to deal with women, which, well, is a notion that might be of some value.
We were just fooling around. I would grab a leaf, rub it against his nose, then throw it so he could chase it around. He’d grab it in his teeth, bat at it with his paws, knock it across the grass and then scamper after it again. Playing along, I’d swipe it from him, dangle it around his ears and giggle as he twirled wildly trying to find it. I even did that trick where you pretend to throw the leaf and keep it in your hand instead, tittering madly as he searched furiously for it. At last, I did wad the leaf up and throw it toward a fence that surrounded the garden and shared a boundary with the neighbour’s. Out of nowhere, I heard a chain rattling, a growl, a crunch, a shriek and, ultimately, a whimper.
So she decided she wanted a cat. She wouldn’t even rent a flat that wouldn’t let her have one. She didn’t care what type of cat; as long as she had a kitten, something whose mind she could shape and warp in her own image. Her brother and I, just happy that she’d moved the 300-odd miles north, went on the hunt and found a woman he’d worked with whose cat just shot out a litter. The middle one will be perfect for her, she said; he’s sprightly and energetic and very affectionate. She’ll be living alone. She’ll need all the affection she can get… I mean… when you guys are not around, of course!
Thus, on one Sunday afternoon, about two weeks after she’d arrived in New York, a city in which she knew hardly anyone, a furry little tiger runt showed up at her new flat, announcing his presence by crying and sprinting under the bed. At first, inexperienced in having her own pet, she rushed after him, trying to calm him and instantly make him her friend. She learned quickly enough… just leave him alone. After a few hours, he peeked his head out from under the covers, looked left, looked right, and slowly, slowly, slowly crawled tentatively toward the living room. She tossed him a play toy she’d bought for the occasion. He hopped back, frightened, and bolted out of the room. Within 30 seconds, he was back, gnawing on the toy. She just watched, quietly. A half hour later, he was attacking her feet. An hour after that, he was on her lap, sleeping, and she knew he was hers. Or, more accurately, she was his. She named him Simba.
Many friends of hers in Pennsylvania had cats, and she thought they treated them too much like, well, too much like cats. They would end up either hiding under the bed anytime company would come over, or they would be the fat blob of hair taking up half the couch, a piece of furniture that needs to be fed. Her cat wouldn’t be like that, she vowed. He was just her flatmate, and he could do whatever he wanted just like any other flatmate. Want to sit on the kitchen counter? Dude, go ahead; it’s your place too. Want to eat the leftover pizza? Want to scratch up the wooden sofa legs? Want to bite my arm? Hey, it’s your prerogative. Who am I to tell you what to do? I have no business telling you how to live your life; like I know what I’m doing.
And he was awesome, the most personable animal this side of a car salesman. He would welcome any visitor with a hop up on the lap and a nibble on the wrist. He was just another guy — having him fixed was an ordeal she lamented for days — and he became more a pal than an inferior household pet. He would fall asleep wherever she ended up at night — whether it was the bed, the sofa or, on those particularly rough nights, the floor — and he ran the place however he saw fit. He even helped her out by charming what few guys she could coerce to come over to the flat. (Sometimes being a girl living alone with a cat does have its advantages.)
It has always seemed to me that, in a way, we’re closer to our pets than we could ever be to another human being. You can pick your nose, fart, masturbate, whatever, the types of things you could only otherwise do alone, with your pet in the room and not even think twice, not even hesitate. It’s a natural closeness. That’s the type of relationship she had with Simba.
She talked whimsically about how insane it would be for Simba, who as a cat was likely to live for close to 20 years, to go through changes with her, to move to new places, to meet the man she’d love, to play with her children. You have a cat for a long time, and, sometimes, they’re actually a bit of work. With Simba, it was a commitment she didn’t think twice about making.
Immediately, it was obvious something was wrong. I hurried guiltily over to the fence and saw an enormous dog, blood dripping from its jaws, scurry away. And on the ground, eyes wide wide wide open, was my little kitten. There were two puncture wounds, one just below his neck and one just below his ribcage. The cat was feeling no pain, not yet; it just lay there, in shock, lacking understanding. I was vaguely aware that I might have caused this… if I just hadn’t have thrown the leaf near the fence. And then came the gasps. Later that evening, my mother explained that the dog’s bite, its horrific CHOMP!, likely broke the kitten’s ribs and collapsed its lungs. But all I remember are the gasps. The desperate thrusts for air, a wheeze, a cough, another wheeze. There was simply no air to be found. He wearily lifted his eyes up to me, what happened, oh God I can’t breathe, what is going on? I found myself eerily calm. He is going to die. I ran to the bathroom, grabbed a wet rag and ran back out to him. And for the next two hours, until my parents made me leave, I lay there with my gasping kitten, wiping his brow, trying to ease his suffering, making sure he was not alone.
Her cat is dying. It started about four months ago, when her flatmate complained that Simba, entirely out of character, had urinated on her bed. After changing the sheets and apologising profusely, she watched as Simba promptly hopped on her own bed and pissed there too. She took him to the vet, who told her he had a urinary infection, common for male cats. He gave her some pills (he gave the cat some too) and told her to make sure he drank plenty of water.
Simba was better for about a week, but then he was right back at it again, this time not urinating, but instead depositing little droplets of blood across the flat. It was almost cute; he was conditioned to the litter box, so he would only go on places that weren’t the floor, like the bed, or rugs, or pieces of clothing lying around. She rushed him back to the vet, who said his bladder was blocked, or his tract was swelling, or something, she didn’t really understand what. He said Simba would need surgery, and that it would cost her about several hundred dollars. This was money she didn’t have just sitting around, but there was no way she was letting her cat suffer. Plus, the place was starting to smell. Simba had the surgery and was fine for about three months.
And then last week when she found a dark red spot on the rug. She called the vet, bitching up a storm about paying all that money for a surgery that would only help for three months.
“Yeah, we were afraid that was going to happen. Listen, we weren’t sure at the time, but this is a chronic thing. This isn’t going away. We can perform another surgery on him, but this is likely going to happen again in three months, or two, or one. And it’s just going to get worse.”
“So what do I do?”
“Well, he’s going to be in a lot of pain. I don’t think it’s right to let him suffer.”
“Yeah, but how do I fix him?”
“We’re not sure we can.”
“Wait, you’re not saying… ?”
That’s what he was saying.
About a year later, I was riding my bike by the very same house we visited that night. It was the middle of the afternoon. No one was home. I noticed the dog, a big nasty mean ugly dog, sleeping in the neighbour’s front garden. Stealthily, I hopped off the bike and jumped the fence. I stood there watching that dog for a while, trying to will myself into kicking it right in the stomach, but I couldn’t do that. So I just leapt over the fence again and pedalled away, feeling empty.
She is taking Simba to the vet tomorrow. She’s not certain what the vet will say, but she has a good idea. So now her cat is lying there, on the sofa, silent, motionless, in agony. Occasionally he’ll move his head, look up, eyes wide wide wide open, and let out an anguished yet muted rowwrghhhhhhhhhh, then put his head back down. Christ, is there anything worse than an animal in pain? The poor fucking thing… just lying there, crying, screaming, wondering what in the world is happening to it… incapable of adequately communicating how much this fucking hurts.
As “owners,” we have little control over our pets’ lives. We feed them, clean their litter boxes, make sure they’re not living in total filth. That’s about all we do. Yet she keeps thinking that she’s done something wrong, that she fed him the wrong food, or didn’t pay enough attention to him, or didn’t change the litter often enough. She could have done something. This is her fault. It isn’t, or so I keep telling her, but to her, it sure feels that way.
Oh God, she says. He just jumped up here, on my desk, next to my computer. He’s looking at you on the screen. Did he know we were talking about him? How did he have the strength to make the leap? He’s staring at me now. Does he know? Is he aware? Can he understand? Is he angry? Does he know how much he’s meant to me? Has he ever known?
And then the anguished cry: Oh, Simba, I am so sorry. Please forgive me. We have been through so much. I don’t know what to do without you…
I found out a little over a year ago that my late grandfather liked to write. It is a failing of myself that I had never thought to ask.
It came up in casual conversation with my great-aunt, whom I’d dropped by to visit over a busy Christmas schedule in the Caribbean. I love Aunt Helen, who helped me land my first job in journalism and who, despite her years, is still a formidable force to be reckoned with in the field. I was telling her about my job in IT and how I’d been keeping up my writing through my blog and with the occasional piece I write for various publications, including hers. I don’t even know if she knew about this blog; the Internet is not something too much in her frame of reference. Telling her about the IT, I almost fell asleep myself. But her face just lit up when I talked about writing.
“Oh, your grandfather always knew you were going to be a writer, just like your dad.” I woke up immediately. What? My grandfather died when I was 11; the last thing on my mind the last time I had seen him was what I would end up doing with my life. (In retrospect, the only thing on my mind when I was 11 was, “I hope my parents don’t find out how often I masturbate.”) How in the world did my grandfather ever imagine that this particular grandson, out of so many, would end up writing?
“Your grandfather used to love writing. He said it made him feel calm.” My grandfather was a politician, holding several cabinet positions during his career. The only writing I imagined him doing was writing speeches. But his sister was talking about what he wrote in his spare time. “He raised four children, so he didn’t have much time, but boy, whenever he had time, he loved it. He was very funny. He just never had time.” I was stunned. Did anyone else in the family know this? “No, he kept it rather quiet. It was just one of those things he loved to do, like gardening. It relaxed him.”
I asked her if she had anything in storage that he had written. “Oh, no, I don’t think that ever occurred to him. Honestly, I think he would have been a little embarrassed. I don’t even know if your father ever even knew.” She paused. She is getting on in age, and her hands shake. Her signature always looks like an ECG readout. “But he always knew you would do something like that. He saw it in you when you were very young. You’re just like him, you know.” She then asked me if I wanted any of the black-eyed peas on the table with my lunch. I declined. Black-eyed peas are vile.
One time, I came home from university abroad, somewhat depressed, for those vague, completely stupid reasons people get depressed in uni. It was a lovely day, and I was supposed to meet my father for lunch to watch some cricket, so I drove to his office.
Barry, a guy my father worked with for more than 20 years, saw me pull in and told me Dad was stuck in a meeting away from the office and wouldn’t be back for half an hour. We chatted a bit and then he told me I should just wait in Dad’s office until he returned.
The first thing I noticed there was a picture of me and my siblings, all flashing bright smiles. Then there was a picture of Mum, that photo I knew he loves so much, and next to that was, to my shock, my most recent article for the Guardian. It was surrounded by several others. In fact, my father, a former journalist himself, had almost covered his desk with his son’s newspaper clippings. I sat quiet for a moment, then grabbed my backpack and headed out to my car. I’d wait for Dad there. I didn’t want him to see me seeing all that at his desk. It would have been embarrassing for both of us.
A few months ago, I did a reading from my Dad’s newly-published poetry anthology. My brothers and sisters were all there with my parents. While I was up front reading, apparently some women in the back of the room were carrying on a conversation. (I can never hear this when I’m on stage; I’m too busy concentrating on not urinating on myself.) People talking during a reading is nothing unusual, or even bad; readings are, on the whole, pretty boring, and I’m sure what they were talking about was far more interesting than whatever I was blathering about up front.
But one of my younger sisters would have none of this. She stood up, walked to the back, crossed her arms and stared at the chatty Cathies. “AHEM! Excuse me, but my brother is reading from my Dad’s book right now, and you need to be quiet. So be quiet!” She stared at them for another 10 seconds or so, then turned back around and sat down next to my father.
From what I’m told, they were very quiet from then on.
I was talking with a friend recently about my writing, specifically, the minute details of my life and of my family’s life I have included in this blog. Then she brought up something that, once again, I’d never even considered: “You ever thought just how fascinated your grandchildren are going to be reading your blog? It’s going to be like a time capsule.”
Imagine that. Imagine being able to read about your grandfather’s life, and his times, from when he was in his mid-20s and 30s and 40s. His fears, his hopes, his dreams; by the time they read these, they will know the ending of the story in a way the author does not. They will have a tie to their roots, a little sliver of understanding of what has helped make them who they are.
This was never the intention, but, truth be told, that might be one of the greatest gifts this blog could ever give, if I can keep it going.
When you strip it all away, we are lonely and confused and, all told, rather pointless. Our constant bluster must be amusing to whomever created this universe; nothing we do is important. In 90 years we’re all going to be dead, and whatever we have created during our short time here will be forgotten. Everything I’ve ever written, anything I’ve ever done, will, eventually, be the dead sea scrolls, relics, strange curiosities easily dismissed.
At the end, all we really have is family. We have the people who know how we used to cry whenever we lost a big game, how we would get scared and crawl into bed with them after listening to jumbie (ghost) stories, how we never could pronounce the word “denominator” without stuttering over the third syllable. They’re the people, the only people, who are with you at the beginning, the middle and the end. They’re the only people who, honestly, really matter. Everything else just occupies the time, gives us something to do.
My family is the reason I’ve been able to do anything, and they will be my only legacy. That’s just fine with me. I couldn’t ask for any better way to go down in history.
My parents celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary just before Christmas. Now, obviously, that’s a figure that blows me away. 41 years. Ignoring that I haven’t been on earth that long, and ignoring that I’ve never even been married, just simply let that roll through your brain for a while. 41 years! My parents were married during Watergate, the Thatcher years, and during many more momentous times.. And yet when I see them together today, they’re the same. Mum’s making fun of Dad, he endures the good-natured ribbing with a shake of his head and a grin, and at times they’re just like a couple of kids so comfortable and enamoured with each other you feel like you stumbled across them on their honeymoon.
Now, you might think I’m going to be pithy in this column, a Pip-like Londoner full of cute little snide comments about my West Indian family, how they don’t get it, how they’re getting old and crotchety. But no. My parents are normal, sincere, hard-working, straightforward people who have set an example for me that often sends off internal alarms any time I feel I might be betraying it. In December 2010, I flew back to the Caribbean with my US-based sister to join the rest of our siblings to celebrate their 40th anniversary, and the whole trip served to remind me why I think my parents are so great.
Four examples that immediately come to mind, out of the thousands:
They recognize and enjoy that they have interesting, and sometimes weird, children. A couple years ago my mother was telling me about a conversation she had with someone. She was telling them about her son in London, and her daughter in America, and her other kids, the paramedic, the teachers and journalists. Her friend’s response was something along the lines of: “You have such interesting kids. You raised them well and they’re really living their lives.”
I could hear my mother positively beaming down the telephone line when she told me that story. She couldn’t have been more proud if her friend had told her we should run for President. My parents never blinked, not once, when I told them I wanted to be a journalist; they never panicked when I walked away from a steady job to help start up a new newspaper with no guarantee of success or income, and they never blanched (at least not openly) when I decided to move to London, following what must have seemed like a senseless flight of fancy. My parents have never really ever pressured me to do anything other than what I believed in, unless you count eating black eyed peas. Talking to many of my peers, pushed and pressured to become doctors and lawyers and accountants, I gather this is a rare, rare quality in parents. I’m not sure my father has yet worked out how to send a phone text message, but I often feel he has supported this mad dash of mine since before I even knew it was what I wanted.
They’re really just mother lions. As a kid growing up, I could always count on a clip behind the ear from a giant paw when I stepped out of line (which was often!), but if you really want to see my parents’ fangs and claws, just mess with one of their children!
The night before I left, we went out for dinner. A friend of mine showed up who, coincidentally, happened to know an ex-girlfriend with whom I’d not had a very amicable split. This fact was brought up to them, and they, simultaneously, squished their faces as if they’d just stepped in dog manure. “It’s a good thing I never saw her afterwards,” my mum said, “because I would have had a few choice words for her.” To this day, the mere mention of her name draws their ire, far more than it does mine. I don’t even think about it much anymore (really), but they never forgot how much that break-up gutted me, and they likely never will.
They never fail to tell me how much they care, but don’t embarrass me by actually saying it. I don’t think we are a hugely lovey-dovey, touchy-feely family, and I wouldn’t want us to be. I know my parents love me, and vice versa, so we don’t need to go on and on about it. They always pick the right times to show it.
On my surprise trip for their 40th anniversary, heavy snow in London had forced all the major airports to close. They were still closed a few days before my return to London (I was flying back before Christmas), and I was desperately hoping that I might get stuck out in the Caribbean for another week. I could tell my parents were secretly hoping the same and my mum looked quite crestfallen when we realised that flights had resumed just the day before I was due to leave. I was quite gutted myself.
My friends can’t believe they’re as old as they are … and they’re not even that old. My parents married young and they both still take care of themselves (and each other). Unlike me, my dad has all his hair and I probably have as many or even more grey ones than he does (I am SO thankful for L’Oreal MenExpert!) Dad still occasionally gets mistaken for an older brother and Mum has a face at least 10 years younger than she really is. My parents are not decrepit old people; it’s like they insist on remaining as young as possible, and by doing so, they keep me young too.
I am getting to the age now where some of my friends have lost their parents. It makes me so sad, just to think about it. They’ve done their best to fill that cavernous gap, and they haven’t done it the way I suspect I would – depressed months and years of aimless wandering. How? I can’t even begin to imagine. I would be so lost without both my parents in my life. I know that’s dopey, and certainly not very hip. But I love my parents, and simply the privilege of knowing them, let alone being able to call them my parents, is my boundless good fortune, and it’s one I will never take for granted.
Happy anniversary, guys. May you have 41 more. Please.
Lately, it seems to have become almost reflexive for our society to frame any sensitive topic — from the London riots to international terrorism to the economy — by asking “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
To judge from early Mesopotamian wisdom literature, this conundrum is as old as civilisation. It hinges on a pair of interesting premises: “Bad things” occur and “good people” never cause them. “Badness”, it appears, resides somewhere on the fringes, outside of ourselves and beyond our control — more often than not, in somebody else.
The challenge lies in separating the bad from the good. For instance, can a “bad thing” produce a “good” result? What if my dream is your nightmare? And why does someone “evil” so rarely resemble the face that we see in the mirror?
Once, on the Tube, I overheard a mother caution her daughter to be careful near “all the bad people”. The little girl scrutinised the face of each passenger preparing to exit the train. Then, puzzled, she tugged on her mother’s sleeve. “Mum,” she said timidly. “How can you tell which are the bad ones?”
These were the thoughts that came to mind the other day when some friends in Surrey discovered, much to their chagrin, that someone had nicked their recycling bin. The bin, after all, had been marked all over with their address in permanent ink against such an event.
And now, in a gesture of sublime audacity, the anonymous neighbour who took the container had actually returned it near to the front of my friends’ house, full of newspapers, in time for the weekly pickup! Apparently, the vandal not only recycles — he or she is a reading, even thinking, individual!
What is one to make of a literate bandit who cares about the environment? Good apple or rotten to the core? Who can hope to understand another’s motivations?
The odds that we could guess why it happened are slim. Honest mistake? Lapse in judgement? Opening salvo in a secret campaign to eradicate the concept of private property? Somebody needing a visit to Specsavers?
In the ancient wisdom monologue Ludlul bēl nēmeqi, (“I will praise the Lord of Wisdom”), a pious man concludes that we could never disentangle the good from the bad, enjoying the former and avoiding the latter, because the will of the gods is too obscure to understand. That may be true on a cosmic scale. Seemingly inexplicable events will continue to beset us. But what remains within our hands is our reaction. We are free to respond with love or hate, anger or kindness… with creativity.
During his years of incarceration, Nelson Mandela fashioned a garden out of 16 oil drums sliced in half and filled with rich, moist dirt. His jail-yard farm of almost 900 plants included spinach and strawberries, lettuce and cauliflower, onions and broccoli, aubergine and more. Some of the bounty he gave to the kitchen to serve his fellow inmates. Much of the harvest he gave to his jailors. His heart remained unshackled in spite of his captivity. In the words of Langton Hughes, he was free within himself.
In time a puzzle hints at its own solution. The saga of my friends’ bin is evolving. After running through the usual gamut of emotions — from grumbling about un-neighbourliness to wondering how to catch the interloper red-handed — another idea emerged. What about… phoning the council to request another container? And having it ready — adorned with a bow — to present to the “stealth recycler”?
The phone call took less than 10 minutes — a fraction of the energy that would have been expended had my friends’ irritation gone unchecked. Now, the scenario had shifted from seeking confrontation to offering a gift in the hope of resolving a mutual problem. While the outcome is uncertain, the chances it will end on a friendly note have improved as a sense of equilibrium has been restored. Eventually, they might even laugh about it together.
Maybe life is just one big salvage operation. Recycling love — now there’s the ultimate haul!
I am struck by the feeling, for the second time in my life, that everyone around me is getting married. I’ve been through this wave once before, several years ago, when I was with The American — the only woman to whom I’d ever seriously considered proposing. Well, I’m single, so you know how that relationship turned out; I appear to be in a bit less danger this time.
My friend MDS called from Florida the other day. MDS — which is not some writerly pseudonym; that’s actually what we call him — is one of the few geniuses I’ve ever met, a mad poet with wild, intense eyes, unruly and sprawling long black hair and a mind that never met a problem it couldn’t deconstruct, dissolve and destroy within 10 to 15 seconds.
He was also crazed; he once, after a particularly late evening of both legal and illegal revelry, began speaking what seemed like fluent Spanish to me, even though he, in fact, didn’t actually speak anything but English.
MDS always had a beautifully different take on everything I mindlessly watched pass by. I’d hoped I would chronicle his doings for many years, because if I couldn’t be like MDS, I’d be more than honoured to tell others about him. He was a true original, and I always figured he’d either become president or die a glorious, romantically gruesome death by the age of 30. Thankfully, neither happened.
After the split, my trips across the Atlantic became less frequent but MDS and I stayed in relatively close touch, and anytime I travelled over, I made sure to visit. It was amazing, really; everyone who had met him since I left treated him as the same strange type of god I always had. He’s the type of guy you’d storm a bunker for, blindfolded and naked, with no weapons. He was born to be a leader of men.
Then he met a lovely lady named Sarah, a pillar of the community who spent her after-work hours as a volunteer working with children suffering from Down’s Syndrome. I met her once, and she was as advertised: sweet, wholesome, almost preposterously nice. I liked her instantly, but I couldn’t help wonder about the long-term prospects. Not that MDS was some kind of arsehole. It’s just, well, it seemed the man would be too busy scaling mountains, writing cosmic manifestos and inspiring the masses out of their complacent sloth and into planning a revolution to have time to get too serious.
That said, MDS and Sarah eventually moved to Florida where they both worked as teachers. I still talked with MDS, but I had plenty going on myself, so correspondence dwindled a little.
And then he called last week. Usually, we’ll chat about… ahem… “soccer”, mock people we used to hang out with for a while, shoot the proverbial shit. But there was no messing around this time.
“Hey man, I got married.” Sarah and MDS had headed cross-country to a Vegas chapel, where they tied the knot amidst countless couples in various stages of gestation (which they were not, I hasten to add). Stunned, I congratulated him and then stumbled through various conversation topics, including our amusement at the fact that the mystic MDS was now somebody’s uncle. Then we hung up, and, as I am wont to do, I got to thinking and freaking out.
You see, dear readers, something has happened to me recently that I haven’t let you in on, and I apologise.
No, no, no, I’m not getting married; heavens no. The idea of someone spending the rest of their life with me were recently summed up by a girl who gave me the old “You’re a really great guy and I do like you, but you deserve better than me, blah, blah, blah…” spiel. I’ve got that a lot, post-American. It’s a bit like saying, nice place to visit; wouldn’t want to live there.
Anyway, last week, I, on a particularly odd whim, ripped off a brief and mundane e-mail to the American ex, with whom I hadn’t had any sort of contact for about four years. It was quite flaccid, actually; it was just a “hey there, how are you, what’s up, hey, hey, hope you’re not dead or anything.” No big deal.
Then she wrote back. Because I’m an insolent prick, I’ll reprint the main part (I’ll edit it a bit because she never was a very good writer):
I have some news. I’m getting married. I’ve been seeing X (I figure if I’m not printing her name, it’s not exactly fair to print his) for a couple years, the first guy I’ve dated since you. We’ve known each other since the seventh grade. Basically I’m marrying my best friend. I’m very excited. And believe me, this is the right decision. I’ve thought of you and I and everything we went through on occasion lately – well, actually, a lot lately. Very good memories – I hope the same is for you.
Ahem, cough, gasp, chortle, ack (in that order).
It was a stunning e-mail to receive while otherwise innocently preoccupied with cricket scores, nude Kelly Brook pictures and chocolates. Upon reading it, I printed it out, grabbed the Jack Daniels, went out to the garden and read it again and again.
Getting married? The American?
Remember that scene in When Harry Met Sally… (I’ve always hated having to put the ellipses in that title, by the way) when Meg Ryan calls Billy Crystal in tears because she has learned that her former fiancé has got married? She says, (I’m paraphrasing because the bloody IMDB doesn’t have the quote) “It’s not that he didn’t want to get married… it’s that he didn’t want to get married to me.”
Well, I didn’t feel like that. Because fuck that, I’m not one of those idiots who quotes from When Harry Met Sally… But it did feel a bit strange.
Please, please, friends, don’t have the impression that I am still hung up on the ex. She’s right; if we had managed to last this long or even actually got married (Eek!), she would have murdered me by now. I’m glad it didn’t happen.
It’s just, well, our breakup was pretty much one of the most tragic things that has ever happened to me (which, I recognise, makes me somewhat fortunate); my mum once said that, in terms of relationships, it seemed my life was divided into what happened before that, and what happened after.
But good luck to her. She deserves it. It’s just that there’s a lot of marriage going around. MDS is married, several other friends got married recently and now yet another ex is getting married to the guy she met right after me. And here I am, muddling through the muck, head in my arse, just trying to figure out if I have any matching socks. Am I supposed to be that grown up already? And am I supposed to be such a moronic cliché? And, seriously, do I have any matching socks?
It’s not that I’m opposed to marriage; shit, though, does it have to involve me?
But more power to them. Let them have their happiness, MDS and the ex and all the others. I’ll just sit here, on another journey into the night, tapping my thoughts into a computer that doesn’t smile, but happy to be alone in my own head. It’s not always very comfortable in here, but it certainly is roomy.
We should have stayed 13 forever. If we had stayed 13 forever, everything that happened to us would be this wonderful new experience that we appreciate unconditionally, this thing that we can’t believe is happening to us. We would have no history, no cynicism, no reason to doubt. We would take everything at face value, and it would all be beautiful.
I used to be in love with my pillow when I was 13. It was not a sexual thing, or at least not that I remember. I would just lie alone in bed, late at night, and hold my pillow and kiss it and tell it how important it was to me. My fantasy at 13, when it was late and it was just me, was not of fame and fortune, was not of large-chested women covered in oil, was not even of playing football for Manchester United. My fantasy was having a woman I could hold and tell her how much I loved her.
That’s what I did to my pillow. I would caress its imaginary hair, and rub its imaginary back, and whisper into its imaginary ear. I would kiss its imaginary lips, tenderly, no tongue, just soft light touches, my mouth moving so slightly, like I’d seen people do on the television. Sometimes I would pull my pillow on top of me, and it would nuzzle its imaginary head into my shoulder, purring, content. My pillow was so happy to be with me. I was my pillow’s world, and I never disappointed. I even let the pillow sleep on the same side of the bed every night; I knew it didn’t like to be pressed up against the wall.
I think I told my pillow I loved it every night for a year. And I did love that pillow. I really did.
An old friend of mine is always telling me how she can’t find any men. She’ll call, and after a few minutes of cursory narrative about the mundane matters of the day, she’ll launch right into it, which is the only reason she called in the first place. She went on a date with this guy, or this one, or this one, but they all have something wrong with them. It’s never anything all that serious; someday she’ll surely tell me the guy she went out with last night was just outed as a serial killer, but it hasn’t happened yet. They just have those little human flaws that we compile as the years mount. One’s too bald, one’s too lacking in ambition, one’s too married. One guy said he was going to the loo and just never came back. Me? I never quite found out why I didn’t make the cut all those years ago, but somehow we still managed to become lifelong friends.
When we first met, this woman was hot, and a real stunner. But, since she had such a variety of choices on the menu, she kept holding out until the perfect guy came around. And, well, he just never did. She is now noticing wrinkles formulating a triangulated crossfire on her face, and her arse, she’s constantly reminding me, is beginning to expand in a way that, all told, reminds her of her mother.
This guy that she left a few years ago, he was alright, she might have been happy with him but she was conflicted because he didn’t fit the image of the guy she felt she was supposed to fall for, and someone better might be just around the corner, and in any case she wasn’t quite ready to settle then, and if you’re not ready, you’re not ready. No reason to force it, right? And now here we are.
Now she’s terribly unhappy. She has regrets. She wears it in her eyes, in her clothes, in her walk. She has the look of someone who just missed a penalty that cost her team the Cup. She knows that I know it. She knows that everybody knows it. I don’t think she cares, either.
A guy I know had a nasty breakup about three years ago. He loved this woman, with abandon. He was loyal and true, and then one day, she had sex with another guy and told him about it. From what I understand, he was calm. He just said OK, it’s over, you’ve made your choice. And then he made his: I will not play this game again.
Since then, he has slept with just about every other woman in London. He’s diligent and disciplined about it; I’m told he even makes up Excel spreadsheets to schedule his trysts without conflict from any corner. He makes no movements whatsoever toward a relationship with any of them. If they imply that they want their current involvement to evolve toward some sort of longer-term commitment, he coolly drops them without a second thought. And he then just finds another one.
This is what he does. He makes no apologies for it. He’s a real cad to a lot of these women, obviously, but at a certain point, you almost have to respect him. He has a plan. He is not flailing around, hoping to stumble across something lasting. He just wants to have sex with a number of different women whenever he feels like it.
I can’t imagine living my life like that. But that might be a failing of myself rather than one of him. Because it’s not like I’ve been successful in sorting out long-term relationships either. I have no plan. I’m just drunk, in a dark room, hands out in front of me, feeling around, tripping over stuff, knocking over valuables, hoping to find something. I could have someone next to me, with a flashlight, so I don’t end up stepping in shit, but I choose not to. Because it’s my journey.
This guy is just avoiding the dark room all together. I might question his methods, but I understand where he’s coming from.
I sometimes look back over some of my past relationships and ask myself how I could be so foolish as to get involved with this particular girl or that one. My usual response is simple: I was so devil-may-care about the whole thing. I was in love, she was in love, of course we were meant to stay together forever. Isn’t that why any of us are doing this anyway?
Years have passed now, and I don’t feel that way anymore. How could I? I have scars now. Everything is in the grey area now; every decision must take into account an infinite amount of variables.
Isn’t it amazing relationships happen at all, considering what must go into each of them? You have to find two people who, first off, have to be attracted to each other in one way or another. Then you have to hope they have the same mindset with regards to the value of relationships. Then you have to have them interact with each other on a day-to-day basis in ways that don’t make them want to kill each other. Then you have to make sure their real-world goals intersect in a way that won’t make one partner more dominant or more satisfied than the other one. Then you have to hope that past experiences haven’t made either partner slow to trust anyone, or at least too slow for the other person to put up with it. Then you have to be certain that both partners actually want to take the step of devoting their life to the other person, usually at the exact same time. And you have to make sure that both people consider themselves equals, lest the insecurity virus infest the whole thing.
Oh, and then you have to make sure that all these factors stay locked in place for x number of years.
Whenever I’ve had difficulties with women before, people often told me, “Well, if you’re having this many problems, you’re probably better off just forgetting about her. When the right person comes along, all that other stuff won’t matter.” This theory seems like bullshit to me. The right person, if this person exists, won’t make all my fears and worries and doubts and guilts and everything else go away. If I were to meet a person who enraptured me so completely that I no longer thought about all my reservations and peculiarities… wouldn’t I want to run away from that person, and fast? I am me, after all, and if someone is theoretically so wonderful and incredible that I throw all and everything out the window just because they are so wonderful and incredible, am I not doing both of us a huge disservice? Because I’m not always going to find them so wonderful and incredible, at least not at such a high level of intensity. And what happens then? Because I’m still me. I can push that aside for a while, in the name of love, but eventually, we cannot hide from who we are.
In my teens and early 20s, I had little idea who I was. Now, I’m all too familiar.
When I was 13, all I needed was that pillow. That pillow had no history, and neither did I. That pillow was whatever I wanted it to be. It could handle that. It was very easy for a pillow to simply be what I wanted. People are not so flexible. And neither am I.
Yet here we are, still in that dark room, wreaking havoc, searching desperately for a light switch.
Here’s a question for you: How important is sex?
I don’t mean how important it is to a healthy relationship. Sex is a vital part of any relationship, and usually when a couple has a poor sex life, you can tell after hanging out with them for about 20 minutes. The air’s a little thicker, more dense, there’s a certain level of tension… and people keep accidentally crushing wine glasses in their hand. Here’s a tip for fellow people-watchers: When a woman walks across the room and punches her boyfriend in the face, their sex life is not working. Or, perhaps, it has reached a level that you and I just don’t want to think about.
I’m speaking more specifically of the amount of sex we individually need. How important is it to us? Is it all relative?
Let’s take two people, for example:
One is a female friend of mine. She lost her virginity when she was about 16. She is pretty, smart, sociable, and is a serial monogamist. No matter what, she always has a boyfriend — I’ve never known her to be single. Then, about six months ago, she had a long-term relationship end and, in a first for her, there was no one else waiting in the wings. She’s hardly the type of girl to sleep around or just pick up guys at clubs so, suddenly, something that was a regular part of her life just ended. She’s now gone six months without sex. According to her, the longest she’d gone without sex until this six-month hiatus was 32 days. Imagine that: something that had just been a part of your life… just gone. Emotional attachments aside, when something you’ve lived with on a reliable basis since you were 16 is taken away suddenly, that’s a definitive change. (Of course, I know the guy she was just dating quite well and… let’s just say that I doubt she’s missing too much.)
The other is a male friend. Whatever the opposite of a serial monogamist is, that’s what he is. Dates? Ha! He never dates. Ever. He went on a few dates with one girl and never even got her winter coat off. Other than that, zilch. Six months without sex? Try six years. At this point, he’s almost asexual. It’s not that he doesn’t want to have sex; it’s just that he’s got used to not getting any. He doesn’t even really think about it that much anymore (though when the 40 Days, 40 Nights movie first came out, he did bash his head against a wall repeatedly for about a week and a half). He doesn’t even try to go after girls anymore. What’s the point? Sex is something on the Internet or late-night telly, a spectator sport far more than a participatory one. Someday he’ll have sex again, I’m sure. But at this point, there’s no rush.
Which person would you rather be? Neither is having sex right now. Both are human beings, and both need it. But the girl is having a far more difficult time with it than the guy. He’s accepted his lot. To put this another way, paraphrasing: Is it better to have had some play and lost it, than to have never had any play at all?
Another friend is getting married later this year. From all accounts, he seems to have a happy, moderately healthy sex life. Nothing to complain about. But, like all relationships, sometimes circumstances dictate performance. Occasionally, he’ll go a week or two without having sex. No big deal when he was a single guy; essentially, his life was just a continuous string of a week or two without sex. But now, when that week or two takes place with a hot girl sleeping next to you, and you start to itch and squirm, suddenly a week seems a lot longer.
I spoke with him about this some months ago. Specifically, I spoke about a little, um, dry spell I was going through myself. He looked at me like I’d just peed in my pants: “Man, stop being a dickhead! No sex for how long? Seriously man, there was a point a few years ago I was tempted to screw the dog!” (Trust me, that’s not an image you want in your head at midnight!)
But he’s right. I suppose my major neuroticism about sex and relationships is that while I know some women might find me attractive, sexy even, I often can’t quite figure it out myself. (Well, other than the minor man-boobs!) Do I think about this more when I’m in a relationship, or when I’m not? I figure I’m probably the worst at the start of a new relationship. If I go without sex for a while, I can pretty much just convince myself that it’s only because I haven’t found the right woman yet. But put a woman in my bed every night for a week and, until I get used to it, I’m convinced she’s really dreaming of the guy in the kebab shop up the street, the one with the mole shaped like a penis on his cheek. She wishes she were in bed with him right now; I just know it!
And what is it we really get out of sex anyway? Is it strictly orgasm? If so, there are some guys (and girls) who have the most functional relationship I know with their shower heads. Shit, the shower doesn’t even mind if they bring in pictures of other girls! Or do we just need the closeness? Or, lo, could it be, that we have sex because we’re actually in love? How much less is it when we’re not? And, after six years without sex, does it even matter?
I think we have the best sex when we’re in love, because we’ve got the other person more or less figured out, and because it’s a legitimate sharing process. But then this logic makes me think that a good wank can trump sex, and I don’t really believe that. Do I…? Whoa! Perhaps I should just get off this logic train!
Of course, ideally, someone is just single, without commitments, and still having sex on a regular basis, with no ebbs and flows — just something new all the time. I don’t think those people actually exist though. Well… maybe in the Premier League…
Look at yourself right now. Seriously, drop what you’re doing, take off your headphones, get off the computer and walk to a mirror. It won’t take too long. Take a good look. Do you like what you see?
Sure, you’ve got stuff you don’t like about yourself. You weren’t as nice to that one person as you should have been, it didn’t end well, you could have been more honest or upfront or whatever you weren’t doing. You don’t call your family enough. Sometimes, rather than give your best effort at work, you just kind of zone out and hope that nobody notices you’re not working today, at all. You’re grumpy in the mornings. We all have those things. We all have our flaws.
But you think you mean well, don’t you? I mean, you don’t look in the mirror and hate everything you see in those eyes, do you? You have moments of kindness, you have a good heart, you’re just trying to get along and go along. Somebody out there loves you, right? Somebody is rooting for you. Somebody sees the goodness, the generosity, the compassion. Somebody is on your side.
How does it feel when you look into that mirror? Do you have to look away? How long can you keep the gaze?
I hate fighting with people. I mean, it’s unavoidable sometimes and you just have to, but I can’t stand it. In the movies and on television, when people argue, they speak with one mind, the mind of whoever wrote the words in their mouths, and their arguments are opposite sides of the same coin. They are arguing to come to a common understanding. I believe this. Yes, but I believe this. I support my viewpoint with this piece of anecdotal evidence. I contrast that with this piece. Perhaps you are right. But perhaps I am right. I see your side, and I appreciate that you see mine. I am glad this discourse has occurred. I agree. Let us hug!
Real-life fights are nothing like this. They are messy, chaotic, confused and senseless. They are a tennis match with no lines, boundaries or net. They follow no logic or storyline. They simply involve two people attempting to refute the last statement their opponent made. Punch, counterpunch, punch, with no hope for a knockout. There is no absolution, or mutual understanding. In real life, people are not characters invented by a writer who wants them each to be happy. In real life, each person has their own agenda, created by their own background, values and prejudices. One arguer cannot see another arguer’s position because they are not that person; it’s a game of frustration and one-upmanship. Not only can one person not understand what the other person is thinking, they also can’t understand why they don’t see the situation exactly the way they do. What’s wrong with them?!
They get nasty, and they careen off-track repeatedly, to the point that, by the end, no one remembers what the argument was about in the first place. Not that it matters. In the end, the journey itself has become the battle. In the heat of argumental warfare, most of the damage is done during the argument, not before. Nothing is settled; everything just gets worse. Fighting always bring out the worst in us. And for what? For nothing.
I don’t like myself when I’m arguing either. My voice becomes higher-pitched, like a broadcaster announcing a goal that cost his team the game. I wear my exasperation on my sleeve; the more I talk, the less I want to. I become whiny and petulant. I can’t help it. I hate fights. Most people, when they’re arguing, are attempting to get the other person to understand why they are right and the other person is wrong. I may start off that way too but, in the end, I am just attempting to end the fight as quickly as possible, with minimal bloodletting. These two techniques do not mesh well. I either come across as the spineless half who just lets himself be walked over for the sake of brevity or “peace”, or I just walk away, angry and exasperated, which only makes things worse.
And there is no referee. Imagine a football match with no scoreboard, no overriding authority and no rules: That’s what arguments are like. The only people who can bring about an end to the battle are the participants, which is a recipe for trouble, every time. By the end of the game, half the players are paralysed, the score is still nil-nil and not a second has gone off the clock.
In Annie Hall’s best moment, Woody Allen, after watching a guy behind him in a cinema queue prattle on to his companion about the merits of social commentator Marshall McLuhan, brings out Marshall McLuhan himself to set the record straight. After he does, Woody looks at the camera. “If only life were like this.” Exactly.
But it isn’t. And the battles will always go on.
Look back at that mirror. At some point in your life, someone has hated that face. Someone has seen in it everything they find wrong with the world. They can’t get inside your head, they can’t see that you mean WELL! That you want everything to be OK!
And you can’t get inside theirs. You can’t understand why they hate that face. You can’t understand why, sometimes, they can’t understand that they’re the one who is wrong.
Every time you take a look, that face appears older. This is how that happens.
And yet, and yet… you probably can’t see how that face can be loved, either. You are too close to it. But that’s the other side, isn’t it? Just like only you can understand how you are feeling, what you’re trying to get across, who you’re trying to be… aren’t you the only one who can never understand what it means to love that face too? Isn’t that worth being hated sometimes? Don’t they go together? Isn’t it better than the face inspiring nothing but antipathy?
Of course it is. So look closer. Take a good look. Now smile. Good. It’ll be all right. It has to be…
This is a story about my friend Elena.
We met one night I was out with some mates soon after I had moved from London to Surrey. She was Italian, tall, pretty, funny and smart, so she immediately caught our attention. But there was something inherently aloof about her. She seemed to be silently contemplating mysteries we couldn’t even comprehend while we were distracted by girls and football and girls and girls and girls. It was amazing, really, how quickly she incorporated herself into our friend group. One minute, she was the new girl, and before you knew it, before we even realised what was happening, she was hosting parties at her flat and commenting in her accented, withering, sharp-as-tacks way on the screw-ups and failings of our own aspirations. But she did it a way that was kind; like her infamous mother — shit, like everyone’s infamous mothers — although she was a little younger than most of us, she had a way of dressing you down while still letting you know that it was OK, that she still thought you were the bee’s knees.
She was everywhere, and we were all stunned at how easily she joined every single activity — the drinking games, paintballing, the Three-Curve test, you name it — without a modicum of concern for her social standing. She was single-minded and unrepentant; she was one of our group’s close friends because she said she was, and if it took us a while to catch up to her, well, she was willing to wait. And she didn’t have to wait long.
All the guys secretly had crushes on Elena and the girls were so stunned by her ability to rally the troops and become the pack leader, she was near-worshipped. El (she called me Dee), used to love to make fun of me because I was dating, for a spell, a series of women older than I was and she always said if that if I got my act together, there were plenty of ladies closer to my own age who could have potentially been interested. It wasn’t long before she became our ringleader, our soul, our spirit, our conscience. Whatever plans we ever had were always run through Elena. She was an unstoppable force.
Then she started dating Dickhead. To most, he was known as Mario, a name most unsuitable, as far as I was concerned. Dickhead had always seemed to sum him up for me. Mario was three years younger than most of us, a drummer in a band, and the butt of almost all the jokes from the guys. He also took part in competitive cycle races, something that would have been a most impressive athletic achievement were it not for his propensity to shave his legs. We could never figure out why cyclists did that. Was it to reduce wind resistance? Was it to avoid having hair caught in the spokes? It didn’t really matter; it was grist for our insult mill, and we milked it for all it was worth. To us, Mario was a short, dopey, slightly effeminate little wanker. He hadn’t really done anything to deserve such dissection, but we needed no justification. He was just our mental punching bag.
And Mario, no way was he good enough for El. I mean, she was like a foot taller than he was. But before we knew it, before we could even do anything to stop it, they were together. And they stayed together. Year after year, they remained the solid couple, the unbreakable bond. They even survived a semi-breakup, which culminated in a conversation where Elena told Mario that none of her friends liked him, and he said “What about David?” and she delivered the classic line, “Mario… he calls you Dickhead.”
Their relationship continued when Mario had to return to Italy for his job and El and I, who lived only a couple miles apart, remained the best of friends. She tried to set me up with all her single girlfriends, took me to all her fun music parties, even came along to a few of my football games, and talked about how much she missed Mario. We were inseparable. Some people started thinking we were an item, and there was the expected gossip, but we didn’t care.
One afternoon, I was sitting at home, inexplicably depressed, and El called. “I’m bored. Let’s go see a movie.” We decided on The Departed, headed to London and then walked out of the cinema around 9 p.m. The weather was glorious, one of those rare balmy London summer evenings, and we had a meal, a few drinks and then just walked around until about 1 a.m. talking about the past, and our future, and our friends, and what we wanted out of all of this, anyway. We walked and talked, just two old friends, looking at life, totally unprepared for whatever changes might be creeping perilously just over the hills.
In the autumn, Mario returned to London, and I changed jobs, and El and I just didn’t see each other that often anymore. Then she and Mario got married, in a beautiful Catholic ceremony with the whole gang back together again, me standing up there, so proud, newly respectful of Mario, who seemed a lot tougher and smarter and together than I’d noticed before, and I felt like an arsehole, and they were joined in holy matrimony, and I hugged them both, and then they moved back to Italy and El and I only saw each other on her brief visits to London. Then we sort of lost touch a little. It happens and it’s no fun, but that’s life… and then she called me one night right out of the blue.
“Hi Dee, there’s something I have to tell you.” She sounded fine, almost cheery. Could it be? Mario and Elena had been married for over two years now. Their lives were becoming more settled. El would make an incredible mother. Maybe they’d let me be the crazy godfather! I beamed in anticipation of the news.
“I have cancer.” Oh Christ! No! But it was true. Hodgkin’s Disease. She would be going through chemotherapy and surgery and testing and all that horrible stuff that happens to old people, not people like El. I was so stunned that our conversation lasted only about 30 seconds. I wished her good luck, told her I was so, so sorry, then called up a few of the guys, went out and drank until I forgot my name.
Every time I called for the next few months, Mario would answer in a grave tone, and tell me whether El had the energy to talk or not, usually not. I kept abreast of what was going on, but only Mario and Elena, who quite understandably retreated into their own world, could really understand. She wouldn’t be able to have children. She lost all her hair, she was weak, she was tired. Yet when I talked to her, she was still El, still on my case about something or other, still caustic and a whirling dervish. And Mario was a rock, handling the situation like a man. I don’t know if I ever took the opportunity to apologise to Mario for the years of abuse and belittlement my friends and I heaped upon him, so if I didn’t, I’m sorry. Seriously. We were stupid. You’re a good man. You have my respect. (Dickhead. Hee-hee.)
Sometime, I’m not sure when, maybe around October 2008, El announced that she was pronounced completely clean, the cancer gone. That Christmas, she and Mario hosted a party in London, with all the old gang there. We made fun of James and his new girlfriend, everyone mocked my grey hairs, we watched old videos, we drank and talked all night, like the last few years had only been a week. I took El aside, hugged her and told her how proud I was of her. She smiled and ridiculed me for being so soppy. Then she hugged me back.
I saw her last around November last year. She had a hectic schedule and we only talked briefly over coffee, and we made plans to try to meet up before she went back to Italy. But it was a busy week for both of us, and we didn’t get to see each other. And then this weekend I received another e-mail, addressed to about 20 people.
It had pictures. They were black and white, with a bunch of letters and numbers at the top of them. I couldn’t figure it out at first. And then it dawned on me: These were ultrasound pictures. These were of Mario and Elena’s son. Nineteen weeks in. July 18 is the due date. And right there, in the middle of a London cafe, I broke down. Against the odds, they’d done it. El, a mum! The next time I see her, she will be holding her baby boy.
In a Thank You card she sent me after her wedding, just before returning to Italy, Elena wrote the following: Don’t forget me. I mean, how could you forget me? I’d kill you. This is really mushy and it’s making me sick, so remember this: If I was a guy, I’d want to be you. – El
El, my friend, it’s been over five years since you wrote that, and don’t worry, I’ll never forget you. And if I were a girl, I’d want to be you too. As long as I don’t ever have to have sex with Dickhead.
I don’t know anyone who really likes Valentine’s Day. Do you?
Valentine’s Day — or Hallmark Rip-off Day, as I like to call it — just squats there on our calendars, in the middle of the dreariest month of the year, and taunts us. More than any other day, even New Year’s Eve, it serves as a signpost, reminding us where we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going. It poses questions that most people have no desire to answer.
There’s a strange dichotomy in our thoughts about Valentine’s Day. On one hand, for people in relationships, particularly males, it’s a weighty millstone, a day wrought with artificial expectations. Guys dread the day because they know that their significant others — what a weird term “significant others” is; it doesn’t make a jot of sense, really — will be anticipating something romantic and touching and special. Women dread it because they’re smart enough to know they shouldn’t have such high hopes for one silly day and nevertheless can’t help but be disappointed when those hopes inevitably fall short. (And they always do.) For people in relationships, particularly those in the early stages, Valentine’s Day is a day to be endured, to be survived. On the two occasions I actually let myself be bothered, I certainly woke up on February 15 with a sigh of relief. She’s still lying next to me; I couldn’t have screwed up too horribly.
Some time ago, I had been dating a woman for about a month when Valentine’s Day came up. This is the absolute worst time for Valentine’s Day to appear; I liked her, and she liked me, but we certainly weren’t in any position to start making googly eyes at each other and pouring our hearts out. Plus, you know…
As if we were actually trying to become case studies of humans’ inability to overcome our natures through logic, we decided to be pragmatic about it. She told me that I had no Valentine’s Day obligations, that the day was entirely unnecessary, and I, stupidly, agreed. We are intelligent people, we told ourselves; what is one day, really? Valentine’s Day is so fake. Let’s stick two fingers to the system!
You can probably guess what happened next. Her friends started asking her what she was doing for the big night — another mistake: Thinking an anti-Valentine’s Day policy will actually work with a woman who shares a house with about 10 other females — and as the day grew closer, she began to suspect that my easy adherence to our rules somehow reflected on her, and how I felt about her. Well, surely he’s just planning a big surprise on Valentine’s Day. He’s such a romantic, I’m sure he’ll pop out of thin air with flowers and a nice bottle of wine. She had psyched herself out of her own plan. The big day showed up, and passed, with no roses or mushy poems. I received a call at 10 p.m. Not only had I failed in my duties, but some other guy — an idiotic, dodgy guy we both knew — had sent her flowers with a card attached. “I know you’re seeing David, but I wanted you to have some flowers on Valentine’s Day. I hope that’s all right.” Awwww. How sweet! Our relationship didn’t make it to the next Valentine’s Day. Shit, it didn’t even make it to Easter.
That said, Valentine’s Day is probably hardest on some single people. The very same people who grit their teeth under the pressure of Valentine’s Day when they’re in a relationship are often the ones who are all weepy and depressed when the day comes and they have no one with whom to spend it. This is natural, of course; the tendency to romanticise relationships, the fear of being alone trumping truthful remembrances of paranoia and neuroticism, is one of the cuter things we humans do. But somehow Valentine’s Day becomes this one day a year where it’s not OK to just be on your own, doing your own thing, no strings attached. For some people it’s a constant reminder that when the lights are out, and their head’s on the pillow, only they care what they did at work that day, and only they care what mood they’re in. It’s dark, and they’re the only one in the room.
In fact, Valentine’s Day has gathered such animosity over time (from me, at least) that it’s almost impossible not to be cynical about it. It’s just so forced. Those in relationships get flowers and go out to dinner and hope the other party doesn’t analyse things too deeply, and those who are single try to pretend the day isn’t happening at all.
I mean not to assassinate the day. Like New Year’s Eve, another day where people feel so coerced into “fun” that they invariably rebel against it, Valentine’s Day, at its core, is a pleasant enough concept. How many days a year are devoted to something happy, something that we are all searching for, whether we wish to admit it or not? That someone at Hallmark even thought of Valentine’s Day is proof that we subconsciously sway closer to optimism than pessimism. We should appreciate it more.
But we should do a lot of things. The irony of having a day devoted to love is that, in practice, it becomes the one day a year we try not to think about love. The next story I hear from someone who was made to feel more in love because of Valentine’s Day will be my first. Valentine’s Day is like that woman at work who is always a little too excited when someone has a birthday. Yes, she’s coming from a good place, and you know she means well, but when’s the last time you sang Happy Birthday to a co-worker with feeling? It’s always more effective when you just pop by their desk and tell them happy birthday in person. No need to make a big production out of it. Doesn’t it mean more that way?
But no. We always go through the singing and blowing out of the candles, because it’s tradition, because it’s what we’ve always done. That in itself says something, and I’m not sure it’s something bad. Cynicism aside, it always is a nice gesture. And, I suppose, so is Valentine’s Day.
Having said that, I have no plans for tomorrow. (Or Tuesday, or Friday, or the day after that… or next week… or anything.) But a lot of you will go out and should. And guys, when you do, try to make her feel special and cared for and that the night is a really, really big night for you, and for her, and at the end of the night, you will both breathe a silent sigh of relief that on Tuesday, everything can go back to normal.
And so, perhaps, that’s the only thing that might make Valentine’s Day a little bit worthwhile. Any couple that endures and survives it just might end up staying together after all.
I want to touch
falls gently on
through open windows,
and unlocked doors
in moonlight like December
this night air,
ruffling the pages of
an open journal
bookmarking your name
for only a moment…