Yes, that IS me you can feel in your back!

All right, I’m about to sound like a a bit of a nerd or a proper pub quiz champ with a Spock fetish, so bear with me.

In my entire life, I have never looked at the evening spread out before me, full of infinite possibilities, and decided, “OK, I’m going to go find a complete stranger and talk her into coming home and having sex with me.” I am not attempting to sound like some sort of sensitive panty-man here; I certainly hold no discernible philosophical qualm with the notion of engaging in carnality with a woman with whom I am otherwise not familiar, particularly if she bulges in all the right places and has no specific problem with bringing a friend. And if a few clever words and a bit of banter helps me to achieve that goal… why not?

But I’m talking about something else. There seems to be a whole culture out there — presumably fuelled by alcohol-drenched freshers parties from years past where Smith’s little sister would be willing to go all night if offered the right drink by the right guy — that involves sad little men walking up to random women and asking them, repeatedly, where they’re from, what they’re like, what they do all day, how did they get such beautiful eyes, until they either stop accepting the free drinks, find a tall bouncer to hide behind or, in a one-in-20,000 shot, they actually succumb to the drunken charms and just sleep with them already.

This surely isn’t shocking to you. If you’re not a part of this culture — and even if you are, you’re loathe to admit it — you certainly have seen it, probably anytime you head out for a Friday night. But I could never really get my head around it. Either I’m at the theatre/cinema/band night, chilling with my mates down at the pub or at someone’s house, or I’m sitting at home reading a book while bouncing coins off the carpet trying to discover the Meaning Of Life, watching telly or a movie, or doing other random and occasionally unspeakable things. The thump-thump, hey-I-haven’t-seen-you-here-before club world is not really my regular social scene, to say the least, but it’s everywhere, and when I stumble across it, it’s like joining a conversation midway and realising everyone’s speaking Esperanto.

The other evening, I met up with some friends for drinks after work. We left the work week behind with two-for-one specials and shots with vaguely bigoted names — what, exactly, is a Black Russian? — and the resident deejay playing the hits of the day. The minutes bled into hours, and towards the end of the night, it was just me, Richard and Dave, and Richard’s girlfriend, Sally. The guys were shooting darts — quite well, I feel obliged to point out — and I stepped outside for some fresh air and a phone call. When I returned, a bald guy in an Old Navy button-up long sleeve with a peculiar stain on his trousers was talking to Sal.

Now. People talk to each other all the time at bars. One of the fun aspects of drunken nights in this city of ours is the raw amount of miscreants you meet here, the unwanted, the listless, the lost. They all have stories to tell, some tedious, some implausible, but always new, always unexpected. This seems like a natural process to me. Sally’s talking to a strange guy over there; hey, why not? He might have a funny story we’ll get to hear later. But then it went on, and she started to look uncomfortable, and he started touching her arm, and shit, then I really didn’t know what to do. I mean… is he trying to pull? Doesn’t he see she came in with a strapping stud of a man, albeit one carrying a scorebook and a freshly sharpened set of darts? I looked at Rich — he was squinting at the dartboard and completely oblivious to everything else — and back at Sal. Finally, she sidled over to me, with “him” tugboating along, lapping up the back of her hair, and she shot me a look of distinct disappointment. She hissed in my ear: “Why didn’t you save me from that guy?”

Um… Me?! Glancing again at Richard (her boyfriend, in case you’re not keeping up). He was still oblivious but, from the look Sal gave him, she seemed to expect that. She explained that, well, this happens all the time. “I’m just used to it at this point. It happens every time you go to a bar.” Now, she is quite pretty, but it still hadn’t registered. Did this guy really think he was going to get laid? I found out later that he told her she had the most beautiful eyes in the bar, which would be quite a compliment had I not overheard him saying it to another girl about 15 minutes earlier.

That said… I mean, who says “you have the most beautiful eyes in this bar” with a straight face? Seriously. Come on! Another friend was out recently and the guy behind her dropped this cringe-worthy delivery: “Yes, that is me you can feel in your back!” Are you fucking kidding me?! After millions of years of evolution, when we’ve put a man on the moon, this is the best we’ve come up with?

There’s this guy I know, a pleasant enough bloke with close friends and an apparent plan in life, who, for some reason, turns into a sucking letch when he goes to a bar. It’s fascinating to watch him in action. You’ll be standing there, having a conversation about whatever, and by the time you’ve set your drink down, he’s lurking behind the Allen sisters with the big boobs sipping their vodka cranberries at the end of the bar. He’s not unattractive, necessarily, but he’s no Brad Pitt, I’ll tell you that.

You just look at him, like a kid trying to score goals from the corner flag at the end of practice, thinking that if he actually hits this ridiculously unlikely shot, his life will somehow have meaning. And it’s miss after miss. But he keeps kicking them; someday, it has to go in, right?

And he’ll plug on forever, I bet, until he lucks into that one off the post, which will be all the impetus he needs to keep shooting.

And ladies, ladies, ladies… why must thou encourage them so? No, you’re not exempt from this whole thing. Why a woman who doesn’t want to be picked up — and, honestly, what woman wants to be picked up by a stranger at a bar? I mean, has it ever worked? — would accept an unsolicited drink from one of these guys is beyond my range of comprehension. I mean, I like free drinks too, but is it worth it to be hounded by Vic from Staines all night?

I think there should be some sort of rule. If you accept a free drink from a stranger, you should be required to sit in a room alone with him and a chaperone, and actually listen to him talk for an hour. Many wasted evenings would be nipped in the bud quite quickly, I reckon. “No, no, actually, I don’t live with my parents. But yes, yes, I’m sure the rent is cheap.”

I don’t know. I think I’m just out of my element here and lashing out. In a way, I have to respect a guy with the balls big enough to gleefully dispatch with any fear of rejection and plunge forward, undaunted. But at the end of the night, when it’s dark, and the chat rooms have quieted… is this any way to live your life? Do you need someone that badly? What is it you’re looking for, exactly?

Of course, with guys like Rich standing in the corner squinting at a dartboard while you chat up their girls… I suppose I can’t blame you.

The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics: Sooner or later everything turns to shit

Earlier today, I got a phone call from my friend Nicola. Now here’s the thing about Nicola: There are times when it appears she is the most intelligent woman on the planet. At other times, she seems like some kind of alien, or saint, or mutant. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that she is all of these things.

Nicola, who lives in Brighton, does not date. She does not have one-night stands, meaningful fortnights or month-long affairs. It is not that she does not like men; it is not that she’s a lesbian, and it is not that she can’t find anyone. She simply chooses not to. She has weighed all the dating options, lifted them one way and the other, tested their density, volume and surface area, put on gloves and checked them for lice, asked them to cough. And she’s just decided that this dating world is not something she wants to be a part of, thank you very much, next caller.

Nicola has been through the wars. She’s been through all the blood and piss and shit and mud and pus and grime too many times, and enough is enough. She’s retired.

“But Nicola,” I ask her, “don’t you ever get lonely? Don’t you miss having someone who will listen to you talk about your day? Don’t you miss that close contact? Don’t you ever just want to throw somebody down and rip his clothes off?” (This last question was not a come-on, I swear.)

She manages a smirk. “Listen… I have my own life to live. It’s just too much trouble… and it usually ends up badly, anyway.”

The difference between Nicola and me is that she is honest, and she is smart.

Nicola sees what happens when you give yourself up, when someone gives himself or herself up for you, when the balance is tipped one way, when it’s tipped the other. You end up hurt, or you end up hurting someone else. Someone ends up sad, or bitter, or just changed. She’s been there before.

Alas, I agree with Nicola, but selfishly, foolishly, I choose the other path. I simply opt to ignore the logic and try anyway. I know it’s stupid, and I know I’m a danger to others and myself (and them to me)… and nevertheless I just keep forging blindly forward, like a Godzilla-sized baby, waddling around aimlessly, causing destruction.

My old friend Karen, whom I haven’t spoken to in about a year, once explained to me what she called the “cool quotient” of dating. According to Karen, no matter the relationship, no matter how healthy or happy it seems, each partner deep down knows the inherent inequality. One person is always “cooler” than the other — that is to say, one person always considers the other somehow in a different league, Premiership compared to Championship — in some social way. It doesn’t mean that they can’t get along or that such things are even all that important. Just that they’re there.

Karen always used this analogy to describe my relationship with ex-girlfriend Laura, who she felt was above me on this unscientific scale and therefore was destined to leave me (Karen never pulls her punches). Therefore, it was counterproductive to be involved in any relationship whatsoever because, regardless of the circumstances, one partner was either going to feel woefully inferior to the other or think that they were slumming. Hence everything was doomed. I believe Woody Allen’s line was, “It’s the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Sooner or later everything turns to shit.”

You waltz into these relationships, and everything seems happy and fresh and new and clean. You’re flattered someone you admire will even talk to you, that they don’t dismiss you out of hand. You see problems, but you’re convinced this time such little things won’t matter. It’ll all be good this time, promise; the fact that you don’t really like pop music and she doesn’t get Woody Allen, that she’s too young or too old, that you don’t like her cat, that she’s your cousin, none of it will make a difference. Why should such silly matters get in the way of us?

Then you find yourself worrying. You find yourself thinking that she is right, and that you are wrong, and that you are stupid for not being more like her. A little pop music never hurt anybody. You think that she should be with someone better, someone not so cynical, and this thought invades you, and you sabotage everything, and you drive her away. Because she is better. They are all better. And she is sad… yet you’re convinced she’s better off without you. Thing is, you’re right.

And yet, and yet, and yet, we keep trying. It should go without saying that my friend Karen, inventor of this injurious theory, is now in a serious, allegedly happy relationship. And off we go.

I think about how my parents did this, how my grandparents did this, how their generations pulled it off. Was it that much simpler? You just got married, you started a family, and if you had problems, you just dealt with them. Stop your bloody whingeing. No self-loathing, no twisted sabotaging of your own happiness. You paid bills. You went to the store and got milk. You attended parent-teacher conferences and grounded the boys for getting into fights after school.

I think of the line from Arthur Miller’s The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, in which an elder man tells his young wife, “The difference between our generations is that we got married young to prove we were adults, and you do the exact opposite for the very same reason.” I think the older guys might have had the right idea, though.

But whinge, whinge, whinge, bitch, bitch, bitch. Enough!

So I look at Nicola, and I see that she’s right, and I look at Karen, and I think she’s right, too. Yet I continue to search, sleepwalking into a mess, hoping the ground doesn’t turn to shit beneath my feet.

Oh, I almost forgot, I started this piece with that phone call from Nicola earlier today: “I just met this really cool guy,” she started excitedly.  And off we go. Sigh.

The Valentine’s Day Millstone

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.

Single life

Lately it seems that every time I run into old friends or acquaintances, particularly the married ones, the question is often the same, slightly smug one: “So… settled down yet? Wife? Kids?”

I usually resist the urge to throw a punch and respond, smiling with gritted teeth, with something along the lines of “Nah. No rush. I’m just enjoying my life as it is right now…”

The truth is, I really am. But that never seems good enough for some: “Yeah, but… what are you waiting on? You know… Go forth and multiply and all that. And a guy like you deserves someone nice.”

“Oh, thank you. (Bigger smile, teeth clenched) But you know – maybe, just maybe, it could be that I’m actually happier being single.”

Strange look from Married Person. “Or perhaps you need help!”

Thirty-something, single and not a girlfriend in sight. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, I’m quite content with that so I haven’t even been seriously looking… Something must be wrong with me, right? Sigh! Forfucksake… Here we go again!

After chatting to some other single friends recently, all of whom have endured various configurations of the above, it seems to me there are two major mistakes married/attached people make regarding us poor-souls-who-don’t-know-what-we’re-missing. First, they presume that everyone should be married or attached, and if we’re not, there’s something wrong with us… you know – we’ve got “issues”. (Mine, apparently, is that I’m too picky) The other big mistake is to presume all singles are lonely. Wrong again! Although, to be fair, some are.

Years ago, I had the unpleasant experience of being aggressively hounded by an over-zealous pair of matchmakers who were convinced they’d found the right person for me. They were equally certain that my resistance to their efforts was based on nothing more than selfishness, obstinacy and an unwillingness to accept that their plans were a perfect opportunity for my life as a singleton to end. They were QUITE determined, so this went on for years. The pressure was so great that at one point I almost gave in. Except there were the small matters of me not having a shred of interest in the girl and of me having seen close up the ruins of others they’d hounded in the same way. To this day I still cringe when even well-meaning, trusted friends try to hook me up with anyone. They always get it wrong, anyway: “I know just the right person for you!” Ha, ha! No you fucking don’t!

Of course, some people find themselves unexpectedly, heartbreakingly alone through broken relationships, or the tragic death of a partner. Been there. But, also like me, there are others who haven’t yet met Ms or Mr Right (although there have been times when I thought I did) and have taken the wise advice: Better to be single than to be stuck with the wrong person or in a relationship for the wrong reasons. I’ve had the occasional tussle with the universe about its timing but, frankly, I don’t beat myself up about it – and I’m not going to allow others to do it for me.

However, apart from people trying to hook me up with increasingly unlikely candidates, or wanting to buy me a cat (A cat! See what I mean?) and a lifetime subscription to Weird Bachelor (which I’d probably enjoy!), there are obvious drawbacks to the single state: one can lack the emotional support and physical comfort that should be part of a good relationship, and being single means making all the decisions, paying all the bills, handling domestic crises alone… That’s why I often have to bite my tongue when married friends say, ‘You have all that free time…’

It’s also true that singles can sometimes feel like a spare part at some social events. But I’ve sorted that out by having a few good, close friends. I’ve found that many singles I know have a real gift for friendship. They can invest time and energy and be emotionally available to friends in a way that’s often difficult for couples. Friends are vital to the single life: to share life with – hanging out, travelling, hobbies, and so on.

So I’m single. Big deal. That could change tomorrow… or I could be single forever. I refuse to be defined by it. I don’t feel that I’m missing out on anything because, ultimately, my happiness comes from within, not from another person.