Love secrets of don juan, p.10
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       Love Secrets of Don Juan, p.10

           Tim Lott
 
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  Talia was there when I arrived and, like Juliet, she was attractive. You’d be amazed at the women who read the personals every week, just waiting for a vivacious, witty ad. This tilts the scales towards the writer who’s literate and imaginative rather than stupid and drunk, but well dressed and a good dancer. When I saw Talia sitting there in a terrific pair of raw denim three-quarter-lengths, a figure-hugging black-leather jacket and two-inch fuck-me-then-propose-to-me heels, I was more than all in favour of this.

  I’d come in my best clothes, determined not to be outclassed. I was in Nicole Farhi, a blue serge three-button suit, a white T-shirt and a pair of Prada shoes. Hair carefully washed, gelled and preened. We seemed like equals. I bought her a drink. Five pounds for a gin and tonic. Jesus.

  We hit it off right away. Talia had the great saving grace, the ultimate virtue, of not taking herself too seriously. She laughed at herself at least as much as she laughed at anyone or anything else.

  Are you Danny?

  Are you Talia?

  Of course I’m Talia. Otherwise I wouldn’t be asking you if you were Danny.

  It struck me that it had been a dumb thing to say, but also that it didn’t matter. I was comfortable with Talia.

  Sorry. I’m a bit nervous.

  I’m pissing my Provocateurs. This is just so weird. Get me a drink, for God’s sake. Get me two drinks.

  We had a few gin and tonics, and talked. I successfully avoided the nervous man’s mistake (talking constantly about oneself, getting a little too drunk a little too quickly) and Talia successfully avoided the nervous woman’s mistake (putting up with it). There was a nice balance.

  Within five minutes of talking I nailed her down with five key personality traits. She was confident. She was a little bit vain. She was ambitious, but did not see work as anything other than a means to an end – so she had a sense of proportion. She liked kids. She wasn’t a fool.

  So, you like ER do you? said Talia.

  Wow. Doctors. Brave. But tortured. Incredible dialogue. Sharp characterization.

  What did you think of last week’s episode?

  I missed it.

  Do you think Carter will be able to get over the trauma about the ice pick and the bag lady, though?

  I’m not sure.

  You don’t like ER, do you?

  Pause.

  No.

  Why?

  It’s slick, sentimental crap.

  I’m with you. It’s all too polished. The Yanks have got a blind spot for rough edges. When they bring in some tramp, it’s like you can see he’s a struggling actor who’s spent not long enough in Makeup getting his hair mussed. Real life is all rough edges.

  That’s right.

  So you tell lies to get dates with women.

  Yeh.

  I can respect that.

  I really connected with this woman. And I could sense that she liked me too. There was a current running between us, although whether it was sexual or not I couldn’t say. But we liked each other. That was a good start.

  We had a couple more drinks, and then I suggested taking a cab into the West End for a meal. She insisted on buying the extortionately priced drinks, so I offered to stand us dinner. Within half an hour we were in Joe Allen, me ordering the hamburger off the menu, so that she would know I was cool, and she ordering steak and chips and a huge pudding. I love women who dig food, who aren’t afraid of their bodies. We drank a litre of wine, and by this time we had shared our family histories, some of our traumas and triumphs, and had a bloody good laugh. She had grace, Talia, and I fancied her, I confess. Things couldn’t have gone better.

  Until it came time to say goodbye.

  Even though I was quite drunk, I felt under no temptation whatsoever to try to kiss her or make any sexual overture. That could wait. One of the great things about being forty-five is that the driving, pounding insistence at the heart of you beats at a slower rhythm – I had been unchained from the gibbering lunatic of my libido some years previously. I felt optimistic about the future. I felt sure that Talia and I would meet again – why wouldn’t we? It had been fun.

  We left the restaurant and walked down the street. I felt as relaxed as could be, and was readying myself to hail her a cab and possibly shake hands when she turned to me and said, Danny.

  Call me Spike.

  Spike. I’ve had a really nice evening.

  Talia. So have I.

  You’re a terrific guy. Funny, intelligent, warm. I like you a lot.

  I felt myself puff up a little.

  Well, I like you a lot, Talia.

  Can I say something?

  Of course you can.

  Maybe I was going to get lucky, after all. And I’d come out without the condoms.

  I’d like to meet up again.

  Me too.

  But that’s not all I want to say.

  Oh.

  Spike, I don’t fancy you. Right.

  I hope you’ll forgive me for coming out and saying it like that. I wanted to spare you any embarrassment in case you were thinking of trying to kiss me.

  Oh. Right. Thanks.

  It’s not that you’re not perfectly attractive and everything, it’s just that you’re really not my type.

  OK.

  But it would be great if we could be friends.

  Terrific.

  Look, here’s a cab.

  Great.

  Give me a call, eh? There’s some new theatre thing I’d like to see next week.

  Superb.

  I look forward to it. Great evening.

  Great evening!

  See you, then. ‘Bye.

  ‘Bye, Talia.

  You don’t mind, do you? About the… you know?

  Me? Mind? No, of course not. That’s absolutely fine. No worries.

  I stood and watched the cab pull away. What Talia had said was perfectly reasonable. She was only being honest and fair. Anyway, it wasn’t personal – I just didn’t fit her particular selection criteria.

  So why did I feel like the worst piece of shit in the world?

  I went home, took my copy of Time Out and threw it in the bin. There was something screwy about this way of meeting women, I decided. It all made sense on the surface, but underneath it poisoned things.

  Of course, this was simply an initial, defensive impulse. It wasn’t the personal columns that were at fault. It was me.

  Or not exactly me. It was my circumstances. I’m going through a long, messy divorce. For the pheromones to function, for the responding pheromones to splutter, what any man needs is confidence, self-belief. My stocks of both are at an all-time low, and all the funny aperçus and intelligent insights in the world aren’t going to change that. I need to get better before I can get a serious relationship.

  Perhaps what I need is a bridging relationship, one of those women you hook up with to get you through to the next serious relationship. They don’t have to be that great – just great enough to convince you in a deep emotional way, not a dry cerebral way, that you are OK, that you are a man. Because marriage, or at least the prospect of divorce, has somehow emasculated me. I need to re-equip myself, and I need a neutral ground on which to find my feet. Until that opportunity comes along, I’m going to sit at home and introspect, I’m going to do my homework. You can learn all the lessons in the world but they aren’t going to do you any good if you never get a chance to sit the test.

  Helen Palmer and I slept together about six weeks after our date with the devil. It was quite tough to get her into the bedroom. It turned out she did have a boyfriend, back in Peckham, some plumber she had been with since she was at school. And this struggle to lose my virginity to Helen taught me the first thing I learned about women. If you’re completely determined – and you’ve got it right to a certain extent, even though they may not realize it – they usually cave in sooner or later. You can wear them down. With enough charm, and perseverance, you can bulldoze them.

  Nowadays I don’t bulldoze. The prize
no longer seems big enough to chase, the chalice seems too poisoned. Also, it seems undignified, now that holding on to dignity has become a desperate project. To pursue and be rejected, to pursue again and be rejected again, I just don’t have the energy any more, the belief in myself or the belief in the woman, or the belief in the whole courtly-love hall of mirrors. But in those days I chased them down, the hound and the fox. I knew Helen liked me, and I wasn’t going to let a little thing like her boyfriend get in the way of that.

  She said no, and she said no again. But she meant yes. Everybody sometimes says no when they mean yes. No one is fully cognizant of their own desires. Sometimes their own desires have to be dug out of them, excavated by a kind of soul-mining, by unreasoned persistence. People sometimes don’t know what they want. Nobody knows everything they want. We’re not that powerful. Sometimes it takes others to reveal it to them. Often it’s the only way.

  So, Helen and I went to bed, because I pestered her and bugged her, and made a complete nuisance of myself. I pulled it off because I had enough insight to understand that it was what she wanted – to be freed of responsibility for the consequences and to cast herself, in the private drama of her inner life, as subject to forces more powerful than she was. This made it possible for her to hurt her boyfriend – because she had no choice. This made it possible for her to take me inside her – because she had no choice. It was a lie in both instances, but defused the guilt.

  How did I find the strength to win her? Because her boyfriend was a plumber called Gordon, and I just couldn’t see her ending up with a plumber called Gordon. For one thing, she was too clever, and however she felt about him, I knew she would be torn, like I was torn between the desire to belong and the desire to escape. She wanted her plumber, because he was her first love, and she wanted me because I was on my way out of cuppa-and-a-Garibaldi-biscuit land. I knew she wanted me more because I was the future. Dislocation was the future.

  We got drunk, naturally. When I entered her bedroom for the first time I had a premonition of doom, even though our relationship hadn’t properly started. It hit me the moment I saw the garish soft toys arranged on her bed.

  There they were: a bunny, Carrots, a bear, Huggy, a hippo, Harry, a pig the size of a small cat, Pinky, and a giraffe, Gerry. My image of Helen as tough, edgy, sophisticated and strong took quite a knock. Though not enough of one to stop me sitting down on the bed with her, pushing her back on it and fumbling under her dress.

  She didn’t say no. Well, she did, but not with any conviction. She didn’t say yes either. She didn’t seem to know what she was doing. Which made two of us. I had assumed that because she had a boyfriend she was fairly experienced, but this was not so. She was nervous, and her fear communicated itself to me. We both had to master it. But by now I was beyond listening to the demands of anything other than the sound of my own heart, beyond smelling anything but the rich, earthy, unnameable smell that was her half-hidden desire.

  Clumsy, frightened, excited, it took me a while to find the correct aperture, but then, in a single stroke, I was inside Helen. Not just a part of me, I was inside her. My self, then so overblown yet hollow, melted away, and I was Helen and she was me, and neither of us was there at all. I pulled back. I pushed forward. Helen gasped; I looked into her eyes.

  Eyes: the strangest tissue, the mystic skin. That which watches, that place where we live, somehow, behind our eyes, our vantage-point for the entire universe, of the entire universe. To look directly into someone’s eyes is an awesome thing. Were Helen’s eyes beautiful? I suppose so, but I didn’t really see them. I was reaching for something beyond them, something beyond speech or seeing, which was also reaching out for me. I held her eyes, one, two seconds. I pushed at her again, and then – an extraordinary thing.

  She was absent behind her eyes; she was gone. There was an almost terrifying blankness there, a giving up, an interior disintegration. It was animal, as old as time, and it scared me, but I was still beyond fear, and she let out a long, low sound from the back of her throat. I moved inside her once more, sensing that absence was what we were seeking here, but that I was still there, I was still, despite it all, holding on to my self-consciousness, and I didn’t know then what I know now: that I would never have the abandon women can muster, the ability to get lost, to enter nowhere. I would always be here, ecstatic, abandoned, excited – but here. The literalness of the male mind, the tragic, unshakeable focus.

  I pushed once again, and then it was over. She touched my hair, and I felt it clearly, with all my senses: I truly loved her.

  But it didn’t last. I don’t know how to make it last. So began the first great failure of Don Juan.

  After that, we were indisputably girlfriend and boyfriend. The plumber was flushed away. I loved Helen. She loved me. It was as shallow and as fragile as only true love at that age can be.

  Suddenly, this exquisite thing, Helen Palmer, was ‘mine’, as the language of romance circa 1975 would have it. I had conquered her, subdued her, won her round, out of her boyfriend’s faltering orbit and into mine.

  I suppose it was then that I also began to hate her.

  How was this possible? She was kind and giving, clever and beautiful. Yet as the months went on and our relationship became more and more familiar, the seeds of disappointment grew into weeds.

  If I can understand this, I can begin to unravel the knots in my history. If I can understand the impulse to lay waste the innocent, I can take another step forward. When I find the next putative, provisional Right Woman, I can start to get it right.

  Is there something deep within men that wants to crush what they love? Is it the cause of war, of all discontent? Is it primal? Is it self-hatred, the completion of symbiosis for those women who love bastards?

  All I knew was that part of me wanted to crush Helen Palmer as soon as I began to love her. I would never have admitted it to myself, but the rage was there, at her gentleness, her finally submissive nature.

  The woman I remembered from that night at the cinema, who had turned on the threatening Christian, was becoming harder and harder to square with the interior Helen. It was true that she was possessed of a certain public courage with people she did not care about: she would berate traffic wardens, fight her way through police lines on demonstrations. But in a relationship that courage deserted her. In loving me she became afraid – that I would hurt her, that I would discover some nothingness she imagined to be within her, that I would leave her. In being afraid, she somehow sealed her fate, and mine.

  Because I was seeking strength. Men always ache for a show of power. I wanted her to be herself, to tell me to go fuck myself when I was tardy, or unkind, to throw a glass of wine in my face, to kick me out and tell me never to return. When I was insulting her, or putting her down – and I did these things, I am ashamed to say – I was angling for her spirit. I was pushing at her boundaries, seeing what she’d take before she turned on me.

  What was Helen’s defence against my cruelty? She did nothing. She looked at me, eyes filled with tears. Her perpetually puzzled expression, which I had initially found so seductive, deepened to unfathoming confusion. She never looked like leaving me, not for a second. She took it all.

  And it worked – for her. In terms of power, not love. It was at that point I discovered about guilt and its many applications. I discovered the martyr’s gambit, and its power over little boys who want to please their mothers. The martyr. It’s so deep in the culture – the memory-trace slave culture of women. A culture left over from the long dark wash of history that they were excluded from and written out of. How do the powerless get power? By violence. Psychological violence if no other kind is available.

  But at that age, and with Helen Palmer, I had not learned anything. I had not learned about female masterblaster no. 1, the light sabre of Guilt, the Kalashnikov of the powerless.

  Helen.

  Yes, Spiky.

  I’m going out with Martin tonight.

  Oh, OK.<
br />
  Is that OK?

  Sure.

  Fine, then.

  Fine.

  During this conversation, I experienced a wide range of emotions. First, apprehension: I knew I was going to end up feeling distressed. Then when she said, Oh, OK, the guilt kicked in. To understand why, you have to hear the tone of voice, observe the facial gymnastics. You have to know that the Oh is not just an Oh but an Oh. That the pause between the Oh and the OK was just half a beat longer than it needed to be. Together they say something quite different from Oh, OK. They say, But don’t you want me to come?

  I don’t know how long it takes for one emotion to generate another but… actually I do. It takes the time between Helen saying, Oh, OK, and me saying, 7s that OK? The emotion generated in this case was fury: fury that I was being manipulated, fury that Helen was being pathetic, and fury that I didn’t have any defence against feeling bad. I was too young, my sense of self was too incomplete. It worked. I felt guilty.

  Of course you can come if you want.

  Oh, no. That’s fine.

  Pause.

  Come on. I’m sure Martin would like to see you.

  It’s OK.

  Come on. Please.

  You don’t really want me to come.

  I do.

  Well. If you’re sure you don’t mind…

  Of course I mind. You’re just too pathetic to sort your own life out this evening, and I’m too pathetic to force you to accept responsibility. The weak torture the weak: another fact of life, just like the strong torture the weak and the weak torture the strong. Only parity equals stability.

 
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