The nature of friendship has been the subject of my musings of late, and a discussion on the theme with an old housemate led me to recall an experience from almost 15 years ago.
I had made a financial mistake.
I’m still not sure exactly what it was, but I think I subtracted one from the tens side rather than a two, or a three, or a nine, and it plunged me into a week of chaos.
I realised it right before I was due to head off for a weekend away. I did the sums in my head and, to my horror, discovered that not only had I bounced a cheque to my housemate, but also that until Friday morning, I had not a penny to my name. Actually, that’s not quite true. The cup of change by my bed had about £1.74 in it.
In hindsight, that seemed fitting. For about six months, I had been doing a temp job that barely paid me above minimum wage. This was good because it taught me how to live in London on what was essentially an ox’s salary. It was bad because, well, stuff is expensive in London. There had been times of such intense poverty that my breakfast, lunch, and dinner consisted almost totally of the free biscuits and coffee at work.
But I had just taken on a new part-time job, and even though it hardly made me rich, it was certainly a welcome step up in salary. I was starting to imagine what it would be like to live as a normal human being. It was something I had been looking forward to: a job with a living wage. I was so close.
My first payday was to be that Friday. I somehow had to make it four days until then. One last week of being one of the great unwashed.
I did an inventory of what I had to survive one week. The list read something like:
£1.74 in change.
A handful of winegums. (Not even Rowntrees … some cheap brand!)
Half a box of cat food.
Endless cups of hot coffee (courtesy of work).
One package of digestive biscuits.
That was it. I had no money for a travelcard, so after work Monday, I headed out into the cold London evening and walked from Russell Square to Hendon, where I lived at the time. I’d always been curious how long it would take me to walk that far. This was as good a time as any to find out.
One of my favourite books when I was younger was The Long Walk. It was written by Stephen King under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, published decades after it was written (when King was still in college, which is just depressing). It concerns a competition in the “not-so-distant” future in which 100 young men simply begin walking. They are required to walk a minimum of four miles an hour. If they go under four miles an hour, they are given a warning. They have an hour to walk off the warning. If they receive a fourth warning, they are shot.
There are stilted political implications in the story, though I can’t for the life of me remember what they are. But the story fascinates me still. I mean, it’s simply walking. Anybody can do that, right?
From my workplace in Russell Square to where I lived in Hendon is, according to Google Maps, about seven miles. Not an overwhelming distance and, as I mentioned, I’d been curious about walking it anyway. This final week of poverty seemed like an ideal time to finally go forward with the experiment. So, after a long day at work I packed up my bag and turned onto Great Russell Street at 6:02 p.m.
I walked fast. It was exciting, really. Why don’t people do this all the time? Up, up, I went, along Eversholt Street, past Euston Station, past the Koko nightclub and Lyttelton Arms, through bohemian Camden Town with its weird and wonderful people, past Stables Market and Cottons Rhum Shop, and into Chalk Farm. I moved at a steady pace, passing all the office workers and meandering shoppers. It was I who could not be stopped; it was I who was on a savage journey. Four miles an hour? Please. I’d double that, backwards, blindfolded, walking on my hands.
Belsize Park is an area of London where I have spent much time (I later worked in the area for five years), but I have never really understood it. An old girlfriend lives there, and, like her, everything is a little too precious. I had barely been back to the area since we’d parted ways, and I was reminded why; people in Belsize Park can make you feel like you don’t bathe often enough, like you’re this swarthy minion swooping up from the city’s underbelly, lurking in to sully their happy, lily-white pseudo-suburbia. The whole area makes me want to drink six cans of some cheap, nasty lager, and then fart. Preferably in a crowded Starbucks.
That said, when I walked past Tapeo, a lovely tapas restaurant where the ex and I had spent a lot of time together, the pangs of envy were overpowering. Nobody here chooses what they have for lunch simply on the basis that it’s only a pound-fifty.
Plus, my feet were starting to hurt. I’d noticed it as I went past the Sir Richard Steele pub, which, all considered, isn’t bad. But I was only three miles into my journey and had another four to go. It was 6:47. Not bad time, I thought, but a pace I was unlikely to keep up.
I felt the blister just after going past the Everyman Theatre. I walk on the backs of my feet, something you’d think would help my posture but doesn’t. Right there, on the base, right under my ankle, it started to swell. I kept wondering if it would squish as I moved forward, soaking my sock. But it wouldn’t. Just a squersh, squersh, squersh, as it shifted with each step. But, nevertheless, on I walked. I had declared to my housemates that I would make it back to the house by 8 p.m., and time was wasting.
Through Hampstead, down past Queen Mary’s House on the western side of the Heath (7:23… good pace still) and into Golders Green with its kosher butcher shops and Middle Eastern restaurants.
Speaking of which, it occurred to me that I was starving. I hadn’t eaten all day, which, sad as it is to say, wasn’t that highly unusual a situation for me as it probably should have been. But I was expending energy now, starting to slow perilously toward that 4 mph threshold, and it was beginning to look like calories might not be as wretched as I’d always believed. But the compiled change (up to three quid now!) in my pocket was to be used for tomorrow’s bus rides. No food could be had.
It dawned on me that I was a complete idiot. When people heard that I was broke for the week, I received a surprisingly high number of offers to help. Here, Dave, let me order you a pizza; hey, what’s your bank details? These entreaties were kind, warm-hearted, and downright touching. But, to me, they missed the point. This was a test for myself, one last week of struggle, something to never forget, something to put in the pocket of an old coat and discovered years from now with a fond smile. This was a project. This was life as art.
As I trudged up Highfield Avenue toward Brent Cross station, six miles into my journey, “life as art” was starting to look like a tremendous load of bullshit. I was hungry, cold, and, to my alarm, my calves were starting to cramp up. But, at this point, what choice did I have? I couldn’t exactly waste the whole trip by hopping on the Tube now and wasting valuable pennies. I had to make it home. Wait… is that a hill? Jesus! When did we get hills around here?
If I had been in the Bachman contest, I would have been shot somewhere around the Brent Cross Flyover.
But past the shopping centre I went, almost home now, so close. In the distance, my house. I glanced down at my right shoe. The sole of it was flapping aimlessly. “Come on, matey… hang in… almost there.”
I put my key in the lock. I heard a “Wow!” from one of my housemates. “We weren’t expecting you until 9, at least!” It was 8:11.
Weary, I forced a weak grin. I wanted to curl up on the sofa in front of the telly, and not think about how hungry I was. I shuffled to my room, peeled my shoes off, crowbarred my socks onto the floor, and shuffled back. My housemate, to whom I had accidentally bounced the cheque that had started this whole mess in the first place, was standing outside my door.
“Dave, do you want some food? We made you a pizza.”
They had. It was most wonderful.
This week wasn’t even half over. And all it took to wear down my “I don’t need help, this is for me, I must prove myself and remember and make it last” was an oven pizza and two warm housemates on an old battered sofa, administering a Cosmopolitan mag quiz (“What Kind of Lover Are You?” I think it was), huddling up in blankets, staying safe.
Because your friends, the ones who are there for you, they would have no place in the Long Walk. If you slow down, they don’t shoot you. They crouch beside you, offer you their shoulder, take your arm gently, rub your back, and tell you, “I’m here.” Then, once you’re up again, you carry on down the road, together, scarred but stronger, ready for the larger, fiercer battles ahead.
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?
I lied to a journalist last week. It was not a sneaky misdirection, not a subtle not-quite-the-whole story, wink, wink. I flat-out, bald-faced (where did the expression “bald-faced” come from, anyway? As a 30-something-year-old who looks a lot younger, I’m pretty much bald-faced all the time), between clenched teeth, lied. Bore false witness. A falsification, a fib, a pulling of leg.
Now, as a journalist myself, I’m aware that if there’s one profession you don’t want to lie to, it’s a journalist. When they’re not piss drunk, those guys are crafty buggers, and they’ll find you out. It’s a tough game, interviewing people, being interviewed, and to survive it, you need powers of manipulation that I’ll never have.
Mind you, it’s not like we were discussing cancer research or nuclear fission here; my lie didn’t hurt anybody, and it was inconsequential enough that I shouldn’t even be worrying about it. She probably knew I was lying, and she probably didn’t care. Yet still it bothered me. She was nice, had written something nice about me in the past, and I thanked her by lying to her, even making up details to cover it up.
My mother loves to tell the story of the first time that she realised her darling boy was, in fact, capable of lying to her. I was about five, and we were having a family get-together at my grandfather’s. There was this cat, you see, and this cat was bothering me, meowing too loudly, biting too harshly, scratching too fiercely. Sitting next to this cat was, of all things, a can of white paint, open, with a brush lying tantalisingly just to the side. When you’re five, you don’t think, oh, shit, this jar of goo is something I shouldn’t mess with, and you certainly don’t consider the possibility that taking that brush and spreading it all over the cat is the type of matter that might potentially displease someone. The idea must have dawned eventually, though, because when the cat came stumbling out of the garage, smelling of paint and more than a little petrified, and the mothers came out accusing their own and each others’ kids… the one no one’s eyes were trained on was me, because I said I didn’t do it, and Mum knew I could never lie to her, and she told all the other mothers so and that was that and that was all.
Of course, when my mom’s sister-in-law noticed a certain white substance dripping off my trainers and a certain embarrassed downward glance from a totally busted 5-year-old, the game was up. Mum says she cried for two days afterward, and she never quite looked at me with same trusting innocence again.
I’m proud to say my lying-to-my-mother skills improved considerably as the years went on. (No, Mum, honestly, I was pulled over by violent, drooling scumbags who forced me to put those condoms in my pockets. Seriously!)
One of my least favourite claims people make about themselves is that they’re terrible liars, as in, “I tried to lie, but I’m just rubbish at it. I couldn’t keep a straight face.” This is supposed to, in their eyes, clue us into the fact that they’re essentially honest people and just couldn’t mask their inherent sincerity. This is, of course, total bullshit; the only difference between them and everyone else is that they’re incompetent fibbers, not that they’re reluctant ones. We all lie, often, daily, most likely to the people we care about most and listen to us closest, because we’re human beings and, with the possible exceptions of nuns, human beings are amoral, hedonistic, self-serving arseholes.
This calls into question even our most dear friendships, because the people who are supposed to know us best, the ones we pour our hearts out to, have probably been lied to by us more than anyone else. They’re probably little lies, harmless ones, I got a 30 rather than a 27 on my scores, that sort of thing. No, I didn’t sleep with her until the second date, small stuff. We tell our friends lies because they like us, and we want them to continue to. We try to paint ourselves in the most positive light, because, well, it’s hard to find people who like you, let alone like you the way you actually are. It comes to the point sometimes that I’m more honest with you, the reader, in this blog, than I am with my closest friends. I already know you don’t like me; no need to try to impress you.
Yet one of the most common questions I’m asked about this blog is, “Is all that shit you write about true?” Now, ignoring the fact that such a question accuses me of the most base of journalistic ethical breaches — I mean, we’re talking about writing something that is not true — but, well, wouldn’t that take all the fun out of it? I mean, what’s the point of writing a blog about my own life if I’m going to make shit up? What kind of depraved, desperate-for-attention human being would fabricate stories about being an idiot? How unbelievably pathetic would a person have to be to scream for help in such a primal, degenerate way? (Don’t answer that.) Of course this is true.
But where do I draw the line? In one article some months ago, I mentioned being selected one of London’s “20 Most Eligible Bachelors” by GQ magazine. Now, that’s obviously not true, since I threatened them with a lawsuit if they published my name. What single guy wants to be considered one of the city’s top eligible bachelors, anyway? But you knew I was joking when I wrote that, right? Do I have to make that clear? Do I lose credibility?
I was thinking about all this after I hung up with the journalist. I just fibbed to her. If she knows I’m capable of lying on the phone, doesn’t that call everything I’ve written into question? How can she believe anything I say again? Plus, I started feeling quite guilty. It’s not fun to lie to people; it leaves that nasty ashamed aftertaste, like sleeping with a girlfriend you just broke up with. Like that keys-and-phone song from Britain’s Got Talent, I couldn’t make it leave my brain.
So I called the journalist to make amends. After leaving a message, at last I got hold of her.
“Hey, listen, Leah… you know that thing you asked me about earlier? Listen, I’m sorry, I wasn’t completely honest about that whole thing. I was trying to keep our secret going, but I didn’t have to lie to you to do it. I just feel like an idiot. So, outside of this interview, friend to friend, I’m just really sorry.”
“Oh, but, um, everything else I said… that was all true. Honest.”
“Yeah. I understand. Don’t worry about it. It’s fine.”
Sigh. I haven’t read the story Leah wrote yet, but I hope it makes me look like a real prick. I figure I deserve it.
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.
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.
As far as proper, meaningful ones go, I’ve kissed only 19 women in my life. Typically, my mates tell me that this number is somewhat low (you sluts!), but it doesn’t seem like it to me. Nineteen people who would share something as intensely personal and uniquely human as a kiss? Shit, I’d settle for that many people who will talk to me.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this lately — I’m trying to stop watching so much telly and wasting time on Facebook; what else am I supposed to do? — and I’ve decided that No. 20 is going to have to be special. I’ll be officially out of the teens, and I plan on celebrating the occasion more appropriately than I did No. 10. (I never told Sarah Whatshername she pushed me into double digits; I thought I was too mature for such a thing.)
Confession: You might find me to be a borderline psychopath for doing such a thing, but I do have a list in my head of every woman I’ve ever properly kissed, in chronological order. (By properly, I mean the kisses with real feeling — so the totally random hot Spanish girl in Camden a few weeks ago doesn’t count, though I wish we’d both been sober enough to exchange numbers.) I also have an alphabetical list, but I don’t bring that one out very often. I’ve always kept up these unofficial lists. But only recently have I etched it into stone. This list is very important to me, but maybe I’d have to talk to a psychologist before I try to determine any particular reason why.
Having such a list might seem trivial or even offensive to you but, I swear, this isn’t some kind of notches-on-the-bedpost exercise in self-congratulation; it’s sincere. I look at the names of these 19 women in wonder. Am I one of their more embarrassing partners? If asked if they had ever kissed me, would they admit it? Do they think of me fondly? Do they think of me at all? Considering that I’ve only spoken with two of the 19 in recent times — and I had the feeling one of them would rather be talking with anyone but me at the time — I guess I know the answers to those questions.
When I kissed the first girl, I should have had some kind of warning about the path my life would take. My first kiss was in primary school, behind the washrooms, during the school’s annual sports day events. Ah, school days!
Looking at such a list is a most disconcerting activity. It’s like reading the story of my life in outline form: Met this girl in the youth group, met this one at a friend’s party, met this one at work, met this one on the train, met this one in New York, met this one while recovering from the breakup of that relationship… The list exposes my flaws and excesses. The first time I kissed the first eight had nothing to do with alcohol; seven of the last 10 were during or after drinking.
It’s also fun to do statistical breakdowns of the list. Of the 19, six are now married, two are engaged, eight have children, 16 have graduate degrees, six have postgraduate degrees and one has now decided she’s a lesbian. Did I play a part in that last one? And does it say something that all six married ones got hitched to the guy they met right after me? Three were from my hometown, four from college or uni, 12 from the scary grown-up world. Weirdly, eight on the list are older than I am, including a shocking five in a row. I don’t know what that means, exactly; my only guess is that I reminded them of a little brother they picked on all the time, and they were trying to make amends.
The women also fall into different categories. Some were one-time aberrations, random occurrences that likely would be forgotten if it weren’t for this self-doubting guy with the laptop dredging them up from their rightful home in the subconscious (Stacy, Julianne, Sarah, Kate, Michelle and Sarita: 31 percent).
Then you have the false alarms, the ones I thought were a big deal at the time, but turned out to be, in retrospect, fond footnotes in the sand (Siân, Alison, Ruth and Terri: 21 percent). Like any human, I’ve had my share of the people who would have every right to hate me. (Well, I was probably a bit of an arsehole to them, and they probably do). I either stopped calling them, or didn’t say a proper goodbye, or things simply didn’t work out. Before you lash out at me, dear reader, make your own list, and see how many of these there are on yours (Amanda, Rachel, Nicole, Amy, Donna: an alarming 26 percent). Strangely, I’ve only really had one relationship that started with no expectations, ended with no expectations and had nothing particularly crazy happen in between. Kind of a perpetual dating holding-pattern (sorry, Jo, wherever you are: 5 percent).
Then there are the ones who stick in your head, the ones you never quite get over, the ones who pop up in your dreams every once in a while just to haunt you. They’re the ones most likely to spur one to write a blog to try to come to mental terms with the 19 women one has kissed. These may or may not have ended badly, but what’s most important is that they ended, and a part of me never quite came to terms with it. These women are the ones that if I ran into one of them on the street, I’d probably go and hide under a table, whimpering. They were too beautiful, too smart, too cool, too beloved by all to be wasting their time with me and it was of course inevitable they would eventually move on to bigger, better and less neurotic things (Nadia, Samantha and Laura: 15 percent).
I’ve always thought it might be cool to track down all 19 and find out what they’re up to, try to find some common theme among all of them to help me understand why I do some of the things I do, why I’ve turned out the way I have. After researching all their lives, I’d probably have enough material for a book, though I’m sure it would never work. Seems like such a project would be destined to be titled 19 Restraining Orders.
Which leads us to today. Now, understand, I’m hardly actively searching for No. 20. Good thing: Anyone reading this blog has probably already eagerly dismissed themselves from competition, if they hadn’t done so long before — and I’m in no hurry. In fact, 19 sounds like a good number to end on. It’s about in tune with what I’m used to; right on the precipice of a milestone, a new horizon, but stopping agonisingly short.
Nineteen is probably too many anyway. I have a good friend who has only ever kissed one person, his wife. They have a beautiful child, a happy home and matching retirement plans. They even have one of those cute wall hangings on their wall that says, “God Bless this Mess.” I used to have posters of Woody Allen movies about longing, loss and the absence of God on my wall. I’m sure my friend isn’t haunted by old girlfriends in his dreams. I’m sure he doesn’t have various women across the world who, if they think of him at all, do so with a little giggle or a snort. I think I like his life a little more; less complicated.
But one thing is certain. If there is a No. 20, I’ll have to tell her. Though I have a feeling if I do tell No. 20, I could be on the search for No. 21 pretty soon thereafter. Wish me luck!
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…