All that she wants and needs

My friend Nicola, from Brighton, has started eating meat again. For the past five-odd years, she has been a staunch vegetarian. For a little while, I think she actually took it into all-out veganism, but she dropped that quickly when she realised the only things she could eat were blades of grass from her lawn.

Nicola has always been what I would call “crunchy.” She has long straight brown hair with stray blonde streaks, wears bracelet-type contraptions with lots of beads on them and, for a rather creepy stretch, was refusing to shave her armpit hair. (Last summer, a few of us got together in London on a repressively hot day, and Nicola was wearing a tank top. On one particular Tube journey, I noticed three teenage boys eyeing her up the way I eye up just about every woman who isn’t related to me. The train jerked, and Nicola lifted her arms to grab the bar above. Their faces dropped from lust to horror instantaneously.) I think some of Nicola’s habits/statements are silly, to say the least, but I respect her for them. She’s headstrong, wilful and takes no shit. Her beliefs are hers, she believes them and she sticks with them. Good for her.

But she has met this new guy. She seems to have jumped into this relationship a wee bit fast, and in no time at all, she’s been telling me how crazy she is about him. One night, they loaded up on wine at a fancy restaurant, and he, no vegetarian, jokingly suggested she have a steak. “Really?” she said. “You think I should?” She ordered one and tore through it with carnal abandon. She said she spent the next three days with him, just lying around, devouring dead animals. I wouldn’t be surprised if she just ate it raw; I imagine neighbourhood squirrels frantically texting relatives to steer clear from her place.

And now, well… Nicola eats meat now. She’s even shaved the armpits. Her friends and family, predictably, are ecstatic on both fronts. Me… I’m not so sure.

When I was younger, I had a tendency to willingly, gleefully, chuck any unique quirks of my personality if a woman I was interested in found them not to her liking. It’s not so much that I was trying to please her, though, of course, I was; it was more that I was so enamoured of her, so impressed that a creature of her calibre would deign to spend time with me, that I figured if she didn’t have the same peculiar peccadillo as I did, there must be something wrong with it, and with me, and therefore had to be changed.

The list of interests I don’t really hold but have pretended to for women — no, have convinced myself to — is endless. I’ve acted like I actually understand and enjoy all sorts of crap things. I’ve fooled myself into believing that a vodka cranberry is a perfectly acceptable beverage for a man to drink. I’ve even left an enthralling football match at half-time (I was playing!) because of a girl before. And let’s not even get into the ridiculous clothes I’ve worn because a woman suggested it. Nothing as silly as Beckham’s sarong but… shiver.

The lengths we will go to in order to sublimate ourselves and placate the people we care about is a simultaneously charming and pathetic aspect of human nature. A woman I knew back in the Caribbean had been dating a guy for more than a year and still hadn’t slept with him. She was attracted to him — why, I am still not quite sure — but staying a virgin until she was married was something that was important to her. Fair enough. I can respect that. But then they waited and waited and waited, and finally, he asked her to marry him. She said yes. They had sex a week later. I lived in the Caribbean over 12 years ago. They’re still not married.

Now, please don’t get me wrong. I know that relationships are complex animals, and at a certain level, to make one work, you have to make sacrifices and compromises, and not just parade around like you’re alone in your room. But often we give up what made us unique and interesting in the first place. The entire relationship turns into a game of guess-my-mood, a relentless exercise in co-dependency. Eventually you just drive him/her crazy, and they wonder why they were with you in the first place and when, precisely, you became a lapdog just willing to please.

So I decided: fuck it, no more of that for me. I now try to play it cooler, sticking closer to what makes me me, no matter how stupid and pointless that may be. Sometimes I even veer too far in the other direction. Out with Nicola and her new man in Camden the other day, we stepped outside after a great show at the Roundhouse and she took a deep breath, exclaiming, “Ah, it’s great to get fresh air.” I grumbled that this was London she was talking about, that air was totally overrated, and that she really made too big a deal of such luxuries. She is a patient one, and dismissed me with a withering glance. Perhaps some moderation is in order.

I’ll probably fall back into my own patterns soon enough, though. Trying desperately to avoid acting a charade, for me, is in itself a type of charade, and who knows how long I’ll be able to keep it up.

But Lord help me if the next girl decides to become a vegetarian.

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We are all actors

The most useless piece of advice anyone can ever give another person is to “be yourself”. Be yourself. Just… Be… Yourself. This is bullshit of the highest order. I can’t think of a single function in life where just being yourself is appropriate. Someone once told me before a big job interview to relax and be myself. I told them that, all things being equal, the truest incarnation of myself would be frolicking nude in a vat of rum and Häagen-Dazs ice cream with The Saturdays with calypso and 80s rock bands blaring out on endless loops. When you boil it all down, that’s probably the closest I can come to self-actualisation.

My friend didn’t want me to be myself. My friend wanted me to lie. And why wouldn’t she? If everyone actually listened when people told them to just be themselves, society would crumble. Except maybe France. France might survive.

Truth is, 95 percent of every conversation I have is bullshit. I doubt you’re much different. From a staff meeting at work to conversations with a girlfriend to intellectual discourses on whether or not football should introduce goal-line technology, it’s all almost entirely bogus. This is not to say that I am constantly lying. I am not, or at least not at a blistering 95 percent clip. It’s just to say that human nature dictates that we keep most of what we’re really thinking to ourselves and limit our actions to what other people will find acceptable. My boss once mused aloud in a meeting, “What’s the world coming to?” The response that immediately came to mind was, “Internet porn, mostly!” but, of course, what I actually said, stifling a grin and shaking my head seriously, was “Hmmm. Tell me about it!” You see, every conversation has an agenda, whether it’s to get laid, to order a steak or just not to get fired. We are only talking to get us through the conversation so that we get can back to being lost inside our own head.

More accurately: We are talking so that people will see us the way we would like to be seen. That image above, the one with me in a rum-soaked ice cream bath with Frankie on one side, Molly on the other and Rochelle and Oona… well… as pleasurable as it might seem, that’s not the way I’d like to be known. Frankly, it might have been a mistake to even mention it. No, no, I’d much rather you see me as the chilled-out Londoner, the one who means well, the one who remembers your birthday, the one who jumps around all excited when he sees you, the one who wants you to remember him fondly… what a great guy, that David. I’m constantly playing the role of David, and depending on whom I’m talking to, the role is played by a different actor.

If I’m at work, I’m the quiet, affable hard-working gent just trying to do his job and be left alone. With a girlfriend, I’m the loyal, funny, sweet guy who wants her to be happy. With my male friends I’m just one of the lads, watching sports, downing shots, checking out the girls and making fun of everyone we know. With my parents I’m the stable kid they don’t have to worry about too much. Am I really all of those people? Absolutely. In sections, parts of my personality, I’m a segment here, a segment there. It’s not like I’m lying to them. I’m just giving them each a part that’s appropriate for the situation. You do the same thing. It’s like a bookshelf you prominently display in your flat; it’s not like you’ve actually read all those books. You just want people to see your books and think something about you without you telling them. Umberto Eco next to Bill Bryson… he’s so well read! I’m whatever I need to be at that moment. I’m whatever I want you to want me to be.

Stick with me here. You have to know what I’m talking about. Surely, the conversations you have with your parents are dramatically different than the ones you have with your significant other, just like those are different than the ones you have with your close friends, just like those are different than the ones you have with your work colleagues, and on and on. You’re shifting on the fly. You know when you get a phone call at work from someone who wants to talk about something personal and you’re not comfortable taking the call next to the nosey lady in Accounts? That’s two worlds colliding, right there. Which one is the real you? The easy answer is to say the personal one, but which role do you spend more hours a day playing? At what point does the performer become the individual? Does it even matter?

You know what we are? We’re Voltron. Anyone remember Voltron? You had five little robot dogs, or something, they were metal, that I remember, and you’d piece them all together to make one monstrous Super Voltron. The little pieces fit together, each part representing something small but vital. No. I don’t like the Voltron analogy, though it really was a great toy. How about those little Russian dolls, the one that have a one that fits in a bigger one, that fits in a bigger one, that fits in a bigger one? That’ll work. The smallest doll is the one who you are, and the rest are just the layers used to disguise that fact. But to any observer, the larger dolls are all there is to see. So isn’t that doll the real one? Does having something underneath that’s “real” but no one ever sees allow it to be “real”? Aren’t we just what people see?

I found out the other day, almost accidentally, that a good friend of mine has tried heroin. Now, I’m not being judgmental here; though heroin doesn’t necessarily seem like my cup of tea — what with the shitting yourself, tendency toward self-mutilation and willingness to suck a dog’s dick if it’ll lead to another hit — I’m not going to tell you what’s right and what’s wrong. (I once sucked down loads of alcohol at a medical students’ party then spun around in a circle until I was convinced I had calculated Pi using Roman numerals; I have lost all moral and intellectual high ground, I assure you.)

This is not the type of guy who has tried heroin. This is the type of guy who can name all 70 British Prime Ministers — there have been 70, right? — wears ties to work and is probably seen as legit middle management material at his nice City corporate complex. And he’s done heroin. I cannot square this with the person I know; I can’t even conjure a mental picture of him drinking rum or whiskey. (I try to imagine him with a tourniquet with Post-It notes on it in his briefcase, or producing an Excel document with different syringe classifications.) But he has. Does that mean the person I know is a fake? I would argue not. I would argue that he’s just as real as the one who did heroin; he’s real to me. I’m sure the people he did heroin with have never heard him defend Tory policy. I have. That’s as real as anything. That’s worse than doing heroin, actually.

But who is he to himself? Can he make peace with the disparity? Deep down, at the end of the day, when someone tells him to “be himself,” what does he think of? Does it make a difference?

I don’t think so. I think the public face we attach to ourselves is far more real than any layers or shading that we convince ourselves we have. So the part of David will be played today by the quirky, funny guy, until it’s the serious contemplative guy, until it’s the loving boyfriend guy, until it’s the quiet employee. We’ll be whatever makes it easier to get through the day, to make it to the next day, and to the next day. And during the night, in the quiet, we are alone with ourselves, wondering what role we play now. The prospect is so terrifying that Nature was merciful enough to require us to sleep.

If that’s not a persuasive definition of what it means to be alive, I’m not sure what is.

Glorious Spring

Spring, I once read somewhere, is not guaranteed to be in the best of taste. That is especially true of that period of the season we’re in now — what might be called “High Spring” — Spring just before it overflows into Summer. Spring at the point of its most unstinting haste and gush. Its colours clash. Its chaos of greenness is in overload. It has no skill whatsoever in the art of understatement.

This year the season has progressed with restraint, lingering with some dignity through careful, almost contemplative stages. But now, tossing all care to the winds (and the rains), it “comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.” I am not quite as disenchanted with Spring as was Edna St. Vincent Millay. In fact, I still find its “rush with richness” a stirring, if startling, business, and I happily re-engage with Gerard Manley Hopkins on the subject. “What,” he asks, “is all this juice and all this joy?”

This returning season remains an insistent reminder of an underlying and profoundly constructive inevitability. All the same, if we forget what it is like from year to year, and expect Spring to be kempt and polite, we are liable to find ourselves rudely taken by storm. I have been, this year.

Earlier today, I looked around and thought “It’s here!” It has been for a while, actually, although one might be forgiven for forgetting, what with the recent drop in temperatures we’ve had. But as I went for a walk in the woods, I suddenly felt ambushed by a banditry of greenness — all manner of greenness, from moss to lime, from butter-yellow to emerald, from copper verdigris to tarnished gold. And not only greens, but also russet and peach, rust and ochre, and even the glorious soft red of new copper-beech hedge leaves fresh against the dark purple-black of last year’s growth. How could I have overlooked this arrival?

I don’t know if it was merely a pressing absorption in work and other important matters this last week that meant I was not really focussing enough on things outside. Forgetting, mistiming or miscalculating is an exigent dread for a project manager. It concentrates the mind like imminent hanging. In no time, you can stop noticing that outside the sun happens to be brilliant and that trees, shrubs and grass are scintillating in a swiftly developing natural drama. It makes our indoor efforts slightly pathetic. What on earth are we all doing inside on a day like this?

But my walk in the woods today fixed that. There, in all its utter, upstaging, overacting, candy-floss glory I beheld a double-flowered pink prunus in full bloom. It is a tree with a trunk that has developed into an impressively big bole, wrinkled and seemingly age-old like an elephant’s leg. Yet out of this unpromising column of wood — as if it were a gigantic plain brown cardboard canister for an immense public-display firework — spattered and exploded with astounding extravagance billow upon billow of strawberry ice-cream blossom, an overblown accumulation of excessive flowering.

I should have realised what it portended. It represented High Spring, this outrageous canopy, this impossible dowager-duchess hat. A crass shout of oversweetness. Implausible, preposterous… and (although I was reluctant to admit it) somehow glorious.

A funny thing happened on the way from a wedding…

For years, people told me how weddings, for single guys, were one step removed from a university freshers party meat market. “Man, people always hook up at weddings,” they told me. “And they especially love the single ushers.”

I never believed them, mainly because I’d never seen it. At most weddings I’ve attended, everyone either already had dates or was married. There were never enough single people to go around. Plus, it would seem that members of the wedding party would just be too busy to have a fling at a wedding. I mean, ushers have duties to perform. There are pictures to pose for, and, um, er… alcohol to drink, and, um… you know, all the other stuff that ushers have responsibility for.

So when I was asked to serve as an usher at a mate’s wedding a few years ago, with the recent breakup still lingering, and the confusion and depression not having dissipated, the last thing I wanted was any excess female contact. It had been all I could do not to start any conversations with women by saying, “Hi. My name is David. I am a human. I respond to logic, reason, and external stimuli. My life view will be the same in five minutes as it is right now. Please, tell me about your species.”

But people told me to just sit tight. “They’ll find you, mate. You’re an usher,” they told me. “People always hook up. Always.

And, would you believe it… they were right.

Sort of.

Setting: The reception at Gav’s wedding. I ended up sitting next to an attractive young woman at the front table. (She wasn’t in the wedding party, which I thought meant she couldn’t sit at the head table, but no matter.) After a cursory discussion, I learned that she loved playing tennis and was the best friend of the bride’s sister. We ended up talking a little about Wimbledon, which had just concluded, and had a nice enough time, though I thought little of it. I was just concerned the bar would run out of my favourite rum.

After dinner, I told her it was a pleasure to meet her and went downstairs for the first dance. I danced with the mother of the bride, coiling her round and round until she almost vomited, and then, out of nowhere, the tennis player pushes in. OK. So we dance for a bit — I am a decent enough dancer — and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, right there on the dance floor, in front of God and everybody, she starts to kiss me.

I would have protested, but I was already quite light-headed. Oh, and there was an attractive, athletic girl in front of me. This lasted about two songs. Then, after I socialised a bit, she asked if I “wanted to go for a walk.” I said, sure, air is good, walking stimulates circulation. So we went for a walk, and she started kissing me again. She then asked me what I was doing after the reception. Like everyone else in the wedding party, I said I was going back to our hotel. She smiled and looked me deeply in the eye. “I’m coming with you. Is that OK?”

Cough.

I did the rest of my wedding stuff, with this woman trailing behind the whole time. (Talking to the guys the next day, I was told: “We were all watching the two of you, thinking, ‘Dave has no chance. It’s like she came here to attack someone, and she chose you. You were a Dead Man Walking.’”) At the end of the evening, we all piled into a large people carrier and headed back to the hotel, with just a brief stop at a bed-and-breakfast where the groom’s parents were staying. (They were next to us drunken kids in the cab, looking nervous while we passed around bottles.)

The tennis player sat next to me, giggling and whispering things in my ear while propping her lovely legs on my lap. The cab cruised on. Then, suddenly, she paused mid-sentence and pulled out her mobile. I heard her call:

“Hi, it’s me. Listen, I’m in a really awkward position right now, and I’m not sure how to get out of it. I need someone to come pick me up. Can you do it? No? Oh, shit. I dunno, I don’t know how this happened.”

Um… Everyone in the cab was staring at me. The guys were mouthing, “What the fuck?!” The girls were wide-eyed. The groom’s parents… well, the look they gave me made me want to jump out of the cab and start running like Gump.

I turned to her, quietly, and said, “Hey, listen, I certainly didn’t mean for you to be in an awkward position. I, um, kinda thought this was your idea. Seriously, you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything. I’d be more than happy to tell the driver to go wherever you need to go. It’s really OK.” She looked down, then made another phone call. Exactly the same conversation. Exactly the same result.

I repeated to her that the driver could take her wherever she needed to go. She remained silent, staring out window, not meeting my eye.

We then arrived at the bed and breakfast. The groom’s parents hastily said their goodbyes and exited. Then, just as the door was about to shut, the tennis player jumped out. Just like that. The cab then took off.  Match. Set. Game over.

(I can’t imagine what the groom’s parents thought of this. They leave a cab of drunken ushers and bridesmaids, and out hops a scared girl, no idea where she is or where she’s going. I must have seemed like Charlie Sheen to them.)

And that was that. I went back to the hotel, dazed and confused, became even more drunk, and I ended up even more depressed. I never saw her again until, quite unexpectedly, I ran into her yesterday. She seemed to recognise me — she smiled and said a cheery ‘Hi’ — and I pretty much ran across the street, dodging traffic and looking over my shoulder to be sure she wasn’t following.

So let’s get this story straight: David meets girl, she’s really into him, she’s all about David; then, suddenly, for no apparent reason, with no warning, she just switches, decides she wants nothing to do with him, and vanishes.

Ha! What the fuck, indeed! Such strange creatures they are…