The Revolving Door

So this is what 21st century dating looks like. Easy come, easy go. A not-so-merry-go-round. A revolving door.

Swipe left or right. Discard or match. On Tinder, Bumble, Happn, Grindr… In this brave new world, we can order up another human being in the same way we can order food on JustEat.

So we don’t commit anymore. What’s the point? We think intimacy lies in a perfectly-executed string of emoji. We think effort is a “good morning” text message. We say romance is dead, because maybe it is, but maybe we just need to reinvent it. Maybe romance in the 21st century is putting the phone down long enough to look in each other’s eyes at dinner. Maybe romance is deleting Tinder off your phone after an incredible first date with someone. Maybe romance is still there but we just don’t know what it looks like anymore.

We “choose”, but we still want to keep a wandering eye on all the other options. We want the beautiful cut of steak, but we’re still eyeing up the mediocre buffet, because, you know… choice. Our choices are killing us. We think choice means something. We think opportunity is good. We think the more chances we have, the better. But all it really does is make everything watered-down. Never mind actually feeling satisfied, we don’t even understand what satisfaction looks like, sounds like, feels like. We always have one foot in the revolving door, because in that door is more, more, more. We don’t see who’s right in front of our eyes asking to be loved, because no one is asking to be loved. Swipe left, swipe right. We long for something that we still want to believe exists. Yet, we are looking for the next thrill, the next jolt of excitement, the next instant gratification.

We soothe ourselves and distract ourselves but, if we can’t even face the demons inside our own brain, how can we be expected to stick something out, to love someone even when it’s not easy to love them? So we bail. We leave. We see a limitless world in a way that no generation before us has seen. We can open up a new tab, look at pictures of Portugal, pull out a credit card, and book a plane ticket. We may not do this, but we can. That’s the whole point – we know we can, even if we don’t have the resources to do so. There are always other tantalising options. Open up Instagram and see the lives of others, the life we could have. See the places we’re not travelling to. See the lives we’re not living. See the people we’re not dating. Swipe left, swipe right. We bombard ourselves with stimuli, input, input, input, and we wonder why we’re so fucking miserable. We wonder why we’re dissatisfied. We wonder why nothing lasts and everything feels a little hopeless. Because, we have no idea how to see our lives for what they are, instead of what they aren’t.

And, even if we find it. Say we find that person we love who loves us. Commitment. Intimacy. “I love you.” We do it. We find it. Then, quickly, we live it for others. We tell people we’re in a relationship on Facebook. We throw our pictures up on Instagram. We become a “we.” We make it seem shiny and perfect because what we choose to share is the highlight reel. We don’t share the stuff that make relationships difficult and complex and real, the messy human things, the misunderstandings, the fights, the reddened eyes, the tear-stained pillows. We don’t write status updates about how they shine a light on those parts of ourselves we don’t like. We don’t tweet 140 characters of sadness when we’re having the kinds of conversations that can make or break our future together. This is not what we share. Shiny picture. Happy couple. Love is perfect.

Then, we see these other happy, shiny couples and we compare. We are The Emoji Generation. Choice Culture. The Comparison Generation. Measuring up. Good enough. The best. Never before have we had such an incredible cornucopia of markers for what it looks like to live the Best Life Possible. We input, input, input and soon find ourselves in despair. We’ll never be good enough, because what we’re trying to measure up to just does not fucking exist. These lives do not exist. These relationships do not exist. Yet, we can’t believe it. We see it with our own eyes. And, we want it. And, we will make ourselves miserable until we get it.

So, we break up. We break up because we’re not good enough, our lives aren’t good enough, our relationship isn’t good enough. We swipe, swipe, swipe, just a bit more on Tinder. We order someone up to our door just like a pizza. And, the cycle starts again. Emoji. “Good morning” text. Intimacy. Put down the phone. Couple selfie. Shiny, happy couple. Compare. Compare. Compare. The inevitable creeping in of latent, subtle dissatisfaction. The over-analysing. The fighting. The distance. “Something is wrong, but I don’t know what it is.” “This isn’t working.” “I need something more.” Another love lost. Another graveyard of shiny, happy couple selfies.

On to the next. Searching for the elusive “more”. The next match. The next fix. The next gratification. The next quick hit. Living our lives in 140 characters, selfie-stick snaps, frozen filtered images, four minute movies, a “like” here, a new “follower” there. More as an illusion. We worry about “settling” for someone, all the while making ourselves suffer thinking that anything less than the shiny, happy filtered life we’ve been accustomed to is settling. What is settling? We don’t know, but we fucking don’t want it. If it’s not perfect, it’s settling. If it’s not glittery filtered love, settling. If it’s not Instagram-worthy… settling.

We realise that this “more” we want is a lie. We want phone calls. We want to see a face we care about absent of the blue dim of a phone screen. We want slowness. We want simplicity. We want long-term investment. We want a life that does not need the validation of likes, favourites, comments, followers. We may not know yet that we want this, but we do. We want connection, true connection. We want a love that builds, that moves past the inevitable imperfections, a love that overcomes, not a love that gets discarded at the first hurdle, for the next hit. We want to come home to people. We want to lay down our heads at the end of our lives and know we lived well, we lived the fuck out of our lives. This is what we want even if we don’t know it yet.

But we’ll never find it through a revolving door.

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Peace with inches…

I have just this moment finished reading Off the Road, the autobiography of Carolyn Cassady, where she tells in unrelenting detail tales of life with her writer husband Neal, novelist Jack Kerouac, and poet Allen Ginsberg in their prime, when their chief objective was ripping shit up, putting it back together, tearing it down again, and then gracefully elucidating the glory of it all just when they were about to become too insufferable to withstand any longer. It’s a fascinating book, not just because of her observations — as the most lucid, sane pseudo-participant, which was no great feat really — but also to see how the trio was a pack, the boys, like-minded in the important ways, fundamentally distinct in the tragic ones. The three of them pushed each other, farther, into the gorgeous nether of madness and chaos and beauty, and back again. They were each other’s muses, and burdens, and inspirations, and anchors. They struggled together. And it seems like they never really questioned themselves. But they did, because they must.

There’s something wonderful about the notion of a pack, particularly for literary folks. Who among us has not felt that our friends, ourselves included, are somehow the most enthralling people on the planet whose peculiarities and eccentricities must be chronicled for future generations to understand and appreciate? This is why we have friends. They’re interesting. I have met people in this world whom I would have thought it impossible to exist in real life. And yet, there they are.

These are the people we want to throw all caution to the proverbial wind with, the people with whom we just want to jump in a car and do something crazy. We just want to experience life with them, record their perceptions, expand on our own, try to make some sense of this constant pandemonium that swirls endlessly, find the absolute peace and splendour we all perceive is out there, somewhere, somehow, it has to be, right? And we love people just as nuts as us. People who see the world the way we do; as scary, beautiful, enchanting, aloof, full of awe, something to be tackled and dealt with, however we deem fit.

Man, I love these friends. Something about them makes me feel like I’m a part of something bigger than myself, that we are a troupe, that we are sages, seeing the world like no one else does. I’ve had many of them over the years, and just thinking of them gets me fired up. It’s the one aspect all my closest and dearest friends – male and female – have in common; they are all seekers. They are introspective, questioning, inspiring, alive. They are wild bulls of souls, unleashed, rampaging onward, trying to find the meaning, the truth.

But I am romanticising them, I realise now, as I sit here watching the bright, waxing moon. They were all those things. They are all those things. But they are not just all those things. They are real people. At the end of the day, Neal Cassady had to make a living. We live in a different time now. My friends are not in school anymore. They are grownups. They are married, or they are getting married, or they are worried about the mortgage, or the direction and financial security of their companies. I blinked, and they all became regular people. Somewhere down the line, they saw where they fit in in the universe, and they adjusted accordingly. They saw one path leading to mental destruction, and they chose the other, healthy, wise one. It is to be a visionary to question this whole existence; it is to be an adult to shut up about it and make sure the bills are paid and the trains run on time.

And I am still out there, adrift, wondering which way to go.

Can I simply be? I wrote a Facebook message to a group of old friends the other day, one of those impersonal, hey-look-you-were-included-on-my-closest-friends-list type of things. It was a pithy little comment on how I was doing something particularly domesticated that evening, full of self-mocking and look-at-what-it’s-come-to faux irony. One friend responded to the list saying, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that I was right, David had become a blissful little suburbanite, he’s going for walks and cooking and watching the Olympics and buying Nike and voting and all the things you’re not supposed to do if you’re the outsider doggedly resisting social mores. It was funny and played into my joke. Then another friend responded to him, hitting a little closer to home:

(I’m paraphrasing) “Which do you think he likes more? Being domesticated, or the fact that we’re all sitting here talking about him being domesticated?” And he was right, of course. I’d always enjoyed being the little ugly duckling that everyone looked at as the peculiar one. His words disturbed me greatly, because he was so right. Did I really still want to be that guy? Why didn’t I shut up and play ball, live like a normal person? Nothing all that special about me. Nothing all that special about any of us.

Another example to prove my rapidly shifting point: I was talking to another friend who knows me as well as anyone the other evening. She met me several years ago here in London, at one of my many self-congratulatory birthday parties. She was a friend of a friend, so on, and I was still relatively new to the city, not that long removed from island life. That birthday evening, I was the new guy in town, telling my tales of the Caribbean, of ex-girlfriends and beaches and journalism adventures and self-doubt and romance and transcendence and insanity and the loss of God and anything else that would make it more likely this gorgeous girl in front of me would continue to listen, and she was staring at me, weirdly fascinated. She told me the other evening that she was compelled that night not so much by my stories — who could be? — but the fact that I had been somewhere, that I had done things. “I was looking at Kim [her other friend] and was like, ‘Er… we went to Mexico for a week once. We live just down the road from each other.’”

And I had been nowhere, really. I had done nothing. It is all relative, and ultimately, like everybody else, I’ve sold out. Real curiosities, the true lost souls of this world, will forever be roaming, searching, struggling, dreaming, wondering. I’m beginning to feel I don’t have it in me anymore., that it is no longer worth it for me. That I want to play ball.

In the end, I was far more like my friend than the weirdo whimsical outsider I once wanted people to believe I was. I am a dreamer, but I am also a human being, one who just wants happiness and serenity and a comfy chair to prop my feet up at the end of the day. Calm.

I might never again just hop in a car with a cohort and drive across the country for assorted aesthetically realised misadventures, I will never be nuts again, I will never cut all ties and just go go go GO, man! Not anymore. I like my flat too much, I like my monthly salary too much, I like my comfort too much. I am tied to this world, in a way the true visionaries never were. I cannot step outside it all, pretend that I am Neal Cassady, just not giving a fuck, ambling about, seeking seeking seeking seeking seeking. No longer. My peace is to be found in a flat that’s clean, in bills being paid, in the overseas family I can call at the end of the week. I didn’t think that’s where it was found. But I think it might be. This doesn’t make me any different than the rest of humanity. It is who I am. It just took me longer than most to realise.

So where does this leave me, or any of us who are starting to understand that, after a while, it takes too much energy to try to be the special unique snowflake all the time? That being normal has its advantages? That there’s a reason people choose comfort and relaxation and playing the game the right way? That’s OK, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

But, Dave, you say, this whole series of incoherent ramblings seems to have been focusing on some sort of final goal, some sort of intangible Meaning Of It All. We want some sort of resolution. The answer to this whole thing, it’s not becoming a corporate drone, is it? Is that what this all means? Do you conquer the demons and figure out what it all means? Do you find a way to be yourself in this universe without becoming what you’ve always fought against? Well, I’m afraid, this story has a rather mundane, mediocre conclusion. I’m just a regular guy, a squirrel trying to get a nut. I have a boss, and rent due, and bills, and a recently-acquired goldfish that needs to be fed. I have visions of a life I go home to every night, with a girlfriend or wife, and neighbours from whom I borrow tools, and membership in the golf club, and maybe a dog. I hope to get there someday. I am not Neal Cassady. Far from it.

I recognise… What is pulling me back to earth here? What has made me see the notion of settling as something that ain’t nothin’ to run from no more? Is it an inherent islander’s desire to have a home, happiness, tranquility? If that was what was important, why would I have ever left the Caribbean in the first place? Or was I just fooling myself then, thinking there was something else out there? Does it even make a difference? I just don’t want to run anymore. I don’t want to search. I just want to be normal. I want to work and go home and have a drink and relax and listen to music and watch sports and not be so damned peculiar and hungry for answers anymore. Is that so wrong? Is it? Seriously. Is it?

But no matter. Worry not. In a week, I’m sure I’ll feel the exact opposite. I am crazy, you know!

Mr. Nice Guy

I’d been trawling the Internet and antique shops for a particular, hard-to-find item over several months when, a few days ago, as has been the case lately, to which I reply, “about fucking time” – I caught a break. A friend of a friend of a friend had one at her shop in East Molesey going at what I thought was a ludicrously cheap price. I called the girl, we met, we bonded over Radiohead, and sealed the deal. Ecstatic, I burst into a longwinded, nonsensical, relentlessly insane thank you that lasted about three minutes. She stared at me quietly for a moment, and then laughed.

“You’re crazy. But you’re a nice guy. You don’t find a lot of crazy people who are equally as nice. I like that.”

Now, “crazy” is a word I’m a little used to and understand wholly, but I probably hear no word more often than “nice.” People are always telling me that. I have an unfortunate habit of over-politeness, saying “thank you” and “please” when it’s entirely unnecessary (and aggressively annoying). You’re too nice. You’re so nice. You, David, are nice. Nice guy, that David.

Now, ignoring that nice originally meant ignorant or foolish – classifications I’d agree with wholeheartedly – I’ve never understood this. Am I a nice guy? I mean, sure, I’m pleasant. I smile a lot, make a bunch of lame jokes, try to act polite and rarely start randomly punching the face of the person with whom I’m speaking, however great the temptation. But does that make me “nice”?

Seems like popular opinion would say yes. At a pub the other day, I ordered my drink with my customary “please” and “thank you.” When I do this, I’m not hoping to brighten the pub landlord’s day. It’s just a habit. It’s a ruse. It’s so I can get by without anyone giving me any grief. It’s so people will think I am conscientious and caring. Often, people attribute it to my roots in the Caribbean, as if there are no rude people in the West Indies.

A girl I really like asked me the other day, without a trace of irony: “You’re such a nice guy! Why are you still single?” (Did I mention she’s very attractive… and ALSO single?). The response that rose to my lips would not have been considered “nice” or polite so instead I made some lame comment that was supposed to be funny, before politely excusing myself and heading to the mens’ room to bash my head repeatedly against the bathroom wall. A real nice guy, that David.

So let me set the record straight: I. Am. Not. Nice. Deep down, once you strip away all the surface bullshit, I’m not all that concerned with other people. I just want them to like me. Me! Me! The way I really am does not matter; what matters is what people see. And they see that I am “nice.” I tell myself that everyone does this, everyone tries to put their best face forward, everyone tries to mask the seedy, nasty, grimy parts that lie beneath. But I think what I do is worse.

Sure enough, the pub trick worked. The girl behind the bar commented the other day on how “nice” I was, and that you didn’t get a lot of guys like me in the pubs she’d worked in. I smiled sheepishly, stammered a bit, head hunched down, my work here done.

I have an old friend in America who called me last week. She told me she was feeling horrible because she felt she’d deserted a little girl. I asked her what she meant.

She explained that because the city of New York – she’d recently moved there from Georgia – was so harsh and fast and angry, it was wearing her down. She felt compelled to do something good, worthy, provide the world with a little bit of light, give something back. She signed up for a Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, and she took a seven-year-old girl to museums and cooked for her once a week, because her mother was unable to. Every Saturday afternoon, my friend would head to Brooklyn, pick the girl up and try to make her feel special. But she just started a new job, and she can no longer be there every Saturday. She shows up whenever she can, but her own life has got in the way of the relationship with the child. “I just feel so guilty, so horrible.”

That, friends, is nice. I am not that. I do not give money to charity. I do not help little old ladies across the street (tried that once and she almost attacked me with her handbag). I do give up my seat on the Underground to pregnant women, but only if they make eye contact. I am a self-absorbed, self-indulgent, passive-aggressive piece of crap. I am out for myself only. I am, after all, the ultimate Alpha-Male!

But somehow, people keep lumping me in with the warmhearted people, the ones who see the big picture, the ones who understand the world is more than just one self-obsessed person thinking humanity owes him something. Who sees the world through the prism of himself. Whose favourite topic is always me.

What does being nice mean? We’re so busy these days, we don’t have time to actually figure out whether someone is nice or not. So we just use shorthand: If you’re non-confrontational and soft-spoken, that makes you “nice”. If you’re effective at disguising your inherent self-interest in everything you do, you win the prize. You’re the one who means well, the one who just wants to stay out of everyone’s way. The one who writes a blog about poor me, sad little pathetic single guy, doesn’t want any trouble. Whether it’s true or not.

There are people who have known me, past the “please” and “thank you” and “that’s OK”, past all the bullshit, seen the way I really am, the way I can be with those who would deign to try to dig deeper.

And I can assure you… they might have a bit of disagreement with the classification of “nice.” Though I can’t really know for sure. You’ll have to ask them. They don’t talk to me anymore.

Battle of the sexes

I’m on the job hunt these days, and a friend of mine just quit the one she’s had for two years. This piqued my interest because hers was the sort of role that I always found interesting and even coveted. But she insists that I’d be a fool to go for it. “I quit this job to go into the job market, as tough as it is. Doesn’t that tell you anything?”

She has a point. Right now, even the rats in London are claiming benefits. I tried to explain to her my own situation and why I wanted – needed – to move on. She wouldn’t have it. She said the job was demeaning and demoralising and degrading and any other progressive adjective with the de- prefix, save for maybe detoxifying. It will break your spirit, she said. It’s a bunch of delusional balding men trying to hang on to their waning libidos, she said. You’ll hate it there just as much.

Then she paused. “Well… you’re a guy. It might be easier for you.”

I knew immediately what she meant, but I can’t figure out whether or not to agree with her. I know what she was trying to get across: that it was a work environment that perhaps isn’t as accommodating to women as it is to men (which I think is classified as “illegal,” but hey, never you mind). And I wasn’t sure if I should be insulted by the implication. Would I be complicit, a willing party, if I benefited from an environment that excludes women? (And seriously, boys, the Mad Men days are over. You can’t even smoke in the office anymore.)

These are all fascinating questions, really – they are, honest – but, me being me, her comment got me thinking about myself, and myself only. It affected me less on the Should-I-Take-This-Job-If-Offered front and more on the Wait… I’m-A-Guy? front.

The concept that there is some fundamental difference between the sexes, something deep down, ingrained, either through nature or nurture, a little pink or blue dot in the middle of our brains that determines how we see the world, is one that has always frustrated me.

It’s always been my belief – and feel free to mock here, because everybody does – that men and women are essentially the same. We all just want happiness, and peace, and comfort. We might go about it differently on occasion, but shit, we’re all on the same team here. But no one ever agrees with me.

I missed the blokes’ handbook they evidently handed out in primary school, along with the What’s Happening to My Body? book. I don’t think of myself as some member of an enormous fraternity, a man before I’m a human. I mean, I can barely grow a decent mat of chest hair, I really love Meryl Streep and I often talk to little babies and small, furry animals using words like “cute yiddle puddy wuddy.” If I’m supposed to be a representative of some guy culture by my very existence, I think I’m doing a very poor job. Shit, sometimes, get this, I even talk about my feelings.

But the rest of the world doesn’t seem to see it that way. And I wonder if I have a choice. I will admit, there are most certainly benefits I have received only because I am a guy, most of which I’ve never noticed and likely never will. But I didn’t sign up for this. I’m just a person, like everybody else.

I fail the Bloke Test in almost every way. Sure I talk meaningless shit about girls with the guys – and sometimes to the girls, which usually gets me in trouble. But that’s all it is to me – meaningless shit. I’ve never been in a real fight. I own no weaponry. If pressed, I’ll confess I prefer cricket, and maybe even tennis, to football. Wrestling and Formula One confuse me. I don’t spit in public. I worry about my weight. I’m not sensitive about my penis size (OK, maybe a little).

These are all stereotypes, urban legends, myths passed down through the generations. (When did they become hard, real ways to live our lives?) But I’ll never be able to live them down.

Put it this way: I was out with some friends the other evening, and one of them, a post-grad student, mentioned that she was working on a paper. She asked everyone she knew a question: If you found out your partner had developed a deep emotional attachment to someone of the opposite sex, would it bother you more than if he/she had meaningless sex with someone he/she hardly knew?

The student claimed that of the 50-something-odd people she asked, every single woman said she would be more bothered by the deep emotional connection, and every single man said he would be more bothered by the sex. She revealed this after she’d polled us, and, lo and behold, her postulate proved accurate. The four women didn’t care so much about the sex, and the two guys (myself included) did, quite so. The student was quite pleased with herself, convinced she’d stumbled across a universal truth.

I dissented, strongly. Listen, I calmly explicated, the reason I give that answer is not that I’m a guy. Don’t we, as humans, have the right, no, the duty, to develop as many “deep emotional connections” with as many people as possible? If I recognise someone as some sort of kindred spirit, male or female, why is it wrong for me to pursue a relationship – and by “relationship,” I mean an exploration of another person’s mind and thought processes, not anything sexual – with them? Isn’t it inherently flawed thinking to limit ourselves to enjoying the company of only one person, female or male? Would a girlfriend of mine object to me making a new male friend? Isn’t the real betrayal sex, and cheating, and lying?

For not the first time, the group of women laughed at me. “Guy,” they said. “You’re just a guy, and you’re full of shit, and you know it.”

See what I’m up against here?

The first kiss

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 A’s, 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.

Summer camp

Did any of you ever go to a summer camp as a child? Could anything better summer camp? For anywhere from one week to two months, whoever you were at home — whether you were the youngest in a family of eight, a nerd with no friends, or just a regular boy looking for a change of pace — none of that mattered. You could completely reinvent yourself because you were with people who didn’t know you from Adam.

Your friends at camp weren’t the type of people you usually hung out with; they were just the guys who happened to be in your group, or the guys you were assigned to activities with. As far as they knew, you were the most popular guy at your school. You could actually be cool, for a week or so.

Gav got married a few years back, and his wedding was about as close to summer camp as this adult will ever get. On the grownup hand, everything was gorgeous, the bride looked ravishing, the food was fantastic, the reception was at this Devon hotel with a stunning, picturesque vista, or something. On the other hand, it was one big huge tequila-soaked party. That’s my kind of wedding.

***********************

Will is American and in some sort of sales. He went into greater detail about what exactly he does the night of the rehearsal, but it was loud at the bar and I couldn’t really understand him. He spent a lot of time on his mobile, though, talking about accounts and end-of-the-month sales goals and quotas and dammit, Joanne, just file the papers, file the freakin’ papers. Will is an excellent golfer, nearly bald, and lives in Philadelphia.

Josh is about to get engaged, I think. I’m told he’s in a serious relationship, and it’s only a matter of time. I couldn’t tell you what he does for a living. Something in engineering, maybe. Josh is a terrible golfer, even worse than me, is rather tall, and lives in Ireland.

That pretty much sums up all the personal information I have on each. Oh, and Will has this really loopy father who wears tweed jackets, writes books on American history, and actually tells knock-knock jokes with a straight face.

And for four days, Will and Josh were as close a group of friends as I’ve ever had.

Will and Josh were the other two ushers. Gav’s brother was the best man. (Isn’t meeting lifelong friends’ siblings a fascinating experience? If my friend Gav had chucked the corporate life and became a long-haired primary school teacher, he would be his brother. It was like Bizarro Gav.) But he brought a date, and, as tends to be the case, he was preoccupied with her most of the weekend. (Gav’s brother aside, considering his girlfriend was pretty and nice, I ask, why do we bother bringing casual dates to weddings? They’re always more trouble than they’re worth.) Will and Josh were dateless, like me. So, essentially, it was summer camp. Three guys, with everything paid for, with endless fountains of alcohol, scrubbed up real nicely and ready to stir up some shit.

Whatever you do when you’re home, when you’re thrust into the decadently formal chaos of being an usher at an out-of-town wedding, the normal rules of engagement no longer apply. It’s a world of endless free booze, attractive women in tight, sparkly dresses, and everyone in a raucous, joyous mood. The outside world doesn’t matter anymore.

And it was basically the three of us. Gav was busy, you know, getting married, so we were on our own. Almost immediately, it was us against the world. There was a wedding going on around us, but we were in our own world: three guys, drinking, talking girls, sharing old stories about the groom like we’d known each other forever.

We picked enemies, whether they deserved it or not. Most of the other guys in the wedding party were the brides’ friends, not the groom’s, and we, not to put too fine a point on it, found them insufferable idiots, total snot-nosed kids whom we ultimately labelled “The Yahoos.” We joked about which bridesmaids were the hottest. We sucked tequila shots off the table. We sat in the corner and snidely mocked anyone, really, who wasn’t us. Because we were the only cool ones.

It had the feel of a locker room. To be honest, it was a lot like a sports team, actually, to the point where we even started using sports clichés to describe what made us such excellent ushers. We talked about “giving 110 percent” and “leaving it all out there on the altar.” We stayed up late and blabbed every night. All we were missing was towel snapping.

Hanging out with Will and Josh helped me to understand why people join fraternities. Just a bunch of fellas, causing trouble, being guys.

***********************

The night before the wedding, after the rehearsal, the entire wedding party shambled over to a nearby watering hole and commenced more heavy drinking. Will and Josh settled in with a group of attractive women, of course, and I caught Gav’s eye. After a few shots of tequila, we decided to go outside and get some fresh air, and, the night before his wedding, talked for about two hours, man to man. When we both came to London, around the same time, we were the two single guys with no girls around, ever. And here he was, almost a married man.

You know that point when your friends make that leap into true happiness? When they put themselves in a position where you know they’ve got it, they have it all figured out? When they become a man? That was Gav that night. I’d never seen a guy just grin like that. It was all he could do not to start jumping up and down, twirling about, shouting, “I’m getting married tomorrow! To her! Me! Woooo!”

It was really something to see. I felt honoured to have the opportunity.

***********************

Ultimately, the wedding came and went, we all drank, I had the strange experience with a tennis player, and we folded into the hotel room. I was quite intoxicated and, thanks to my recent breakup, rather depressed.

OK, a lot depressed. By the end of the night, with Josh, Will, Will’s wedding hookup, and another friend in the room, I had decided to lie down on the floor between the air conditioner and the bed because “I didn’t deserve to be anywhere but on the floor, like the pathetic worm I am.” Many of my friends would have left me there, or tried to reason with me, or told me about how they’d had troubles with women too. Not Josh. He walked over and blurted in his Irish brogue, “Jeezus, David, get oop. Christ.” And I did, and we talked for three hours, and he pulled me out of it, and the Ushers reigned triumphant again.

The next day, everybody left to go back to their lives. I shook Will’s hand, then Josh’s. I made them promise to invite me to their weddings, eventually. I’m sure they won’t. I’d be surprised if I ever see either of them again, to be honest. But, for one weekend, we were the Three Ushers. We left it all out there at the altar. We pushed ourselves to be the best. And we drank. Oh, how we drank!

I was chatting with Gav and asking after the other guys a few days ago which is why, perhaps, this whole piece has the feel of a postcard, a note containing nothing but in-jokes that only those involved would understand. That’s fine. That’s the way it should be. That’s summer camp.

Jamie Sherwood* is a pussy

*Not his real name, of course...

A friend was telling me the other day that her boyfriend, Jamie, sometimes cries around her.

This was rather stunning to me, and I told her so. Your boyfriend just cries? Like, when he’s upset? She was confused by my questions. I think her perception was that I was feeding her some sort of macho bullshit posturing, mocking him for being sensitive. She was partly right, of course; I did think he was kind of a pussy. (And still do.) But I was more befuddled than anything else. The guy just cries. Seriously?

I don’t cry. I just don’t. It’s not because I’m some tough guy, or because nothing affects me, or because I just lack the ducts. Crying is just not something I do, and I’m not even sure I would remember how if, God forbid, I actually had a reason to.

As a child, I used to cry all the time. If my sister was making too much noise, if my mum made me eat black eyed peas, if I was bowled for a duck, anything was grounds for loud, relentless wailing. My parents weren’t quite sure what to make of me. I seemed like a relatively well-adjusted child, albeit one who tended to attract too much attention to himself, but for some reason, I would cry over anything. My father was the most bothered by this; it’s hard to brag about your honour student son when you have to drag him screaming from the shopping centre because you wouldn’t buy him the toy he wanted.

And then, out of nowhere, I just stopped. I think it’s probably genetics. We’re not a family of criers. I could count the number of times I’ve seen my mother cry on one hand. I think part of that had to do with her job. When you’ve been a nurse, you’ve seen so much sadness or pain on a daily basis that you almost have to desensitise yourself to it just to stay sane. And my father? I’ve only seen him cry once, at his mother’s funeral. We were following the hearse to the graveyard, and, out of nowhere, he just exploded in a brief, violent spasm. It lasted about three seconds. I was too shocked to talk. He wiped his eyes immediately, collected himself, sneezed and mumbled something about “this dust irritating my bloody sinuses.” And we never spoke of that again. Which was, you know, just fine with me.

In the last 14 years, I have cried twice. The first was at my grandfather’s funeral, my father’s father, just a week before I left for London. I had actually stayed rather composed throughout, taking questions and comforting my mum, who actually seemed more distraught than my father did. I was doing fine until I walked up to the casket. The physical resemblance of my father to my grandfather is almost uncomfortable; Dad looked like a younger clone. And I guess I look like a younger version of my father. I stood there, and thought about my father lying there, and then me, and then my son if I ever had one, and I just lost it. My mother started crying too. But, then, like my father, I collected myself, embarrassed, and didn’t cry again for 10 years.

I’m proud to report that I never cried after I split with The American, the one I’d been certain was The One — no small feat, if I say so myself, because I was quite traumatised. After I dropped her off at Heathrow, for her flight back to New York, I headed back toward my home in Surrey on the M25. On the radio came Radiohead’s 1997 song “Exit Music (For a Film),” or, as my mate Richard calls it, “music to kill yourself to.” If there were going to be a time to break down, that would have been it. I was alone. Thom Yorke is screaming in agony. My life had just swerved sharply in an entirely unforeseen direction. But I didn’t. I just sighed and drove home and drank, for about nine months, actually.

It was at the end of that nine months that I cried for the final time. I was in the Caribbean, about to fly back to London, and some friends and I, quite sad I was leaving, decided to spend a beautiful Sunday late afternoon at the beach. Somebody — I could never remember who — produced a bottle of babash. I’d never tried this West Indian moonshine rum before, and it has quite a fearsome reputation, so I was a bit hesitant. It blew me away. A few sips later I was hugging everyone and telling them how much I loved them, saying things like, “We are the only two fuckers on the planet who understand, man.” We walked into the ocean, and laughed and danced and howled at the moon. Somebody lit a little fire, we all grabbed drinks and sat around in the sand. I was in the middle of a sentence about what life was like in London, and how I missed my friends in the Caribbean, when all of a sudden Stacy’s face went sullen.

“David? Oh, David, what’s wrong?” I told her nothing was wrong, I’m fine, I’m just trying to tell my story. “Oh God… I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do?” Stacy, what are you talking about? Jeez. “You’re crying. Why?” I had no idea what she was talking about. She took my hand and guided it to my face. It came away wet. And I suddenly realised there were tears streaming down my face, and that I appeared to be sobbing uncontrollably. I turned to Stacy. “Whoa,” I said. “I am crying. Crazy.”

I have not drunk babash since, and, um, I can’t say I’m in much of a hurry to again.

So why don’t I cry? I don’t know, actually. Maybe I am trying too hard to be a tough guy. Maybe I’ve become so shallow that nothing can affect me at anything more than the most peripheral level. Or maybe, just maybe… I don’t really have all that much to cry about.

These days, I think the only way you could get me to cry would be to kick me in the groin while peeling an onion under my nose. This confluence of circumstances happens so rarely, however, that I feel I should be safe for a while.

You pussies!