Love secrets of don juan, p.16
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       Love Secrets of Don Juan, p.16

           Tim Lott
 
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  She invited me up for a cup of coffee, and we talked, and I told her how I had made a terrible mistake and how I still loved her and how we still had a future if we only worked at it, and that what I had done was crazy. She sat and listened, then said, I have go to. I’m meeting Conrad.

  I begged and pleaded with her, but she went, and she promised she’d call me. She never did. In about forty-eight hours, the whole thing had died down again, and that week’s particular shipment of illusions capsized, and I realized again, and fully now, that it was over between me and Helen. I was glad, and I wished her and Conrad well.

  I never spoke to Helen again. Within six months they were married.

  All this introspection and memory has failed to dredge up Problem X. But it wasn’t entirely useless. It revealed to me that one of the secrets of any relationship is knowing, in the end, how to leave it. Even if you don’t want to leave it, you have to know deep within yourself that you have the emotional equipment to do so, should it be required. You have to go forward from a position of strength.

  Yet everything in relationships conspires to make you weak. Love makes you weak, desire makes you weak, the past makes you weak, fear of regret makes you weak, inertia makes you weak, tenderness makes you weak.

  From where, then, does strength come? It comes from knowing that, whatever happens, you don’t disappear. You will still be you. This is true of all change. You cannot imagine your parents dying, but when they do, you don’t disappear. You cannot imagine having a child, but when you do, you don’t disappear. You cannot imagine losing the woman you’re with. But when you do, you don’t disappear. You are continuous.

  We are perpetually renewed. We are forever changed.

  No luck. Problem X seems to be lost to memory for good, which means it probably doesn’t matter that much. I check my watch. Late. I run outside, grab a cab. Five minutes later, I arrive at the bar. Carol is waiting.

  Hey there, Spiky.

  She stands up to kiss my cheek, then sits down again, regards me affectionately. She has aged well. Better than me. Women do age better than men nowadays – when did that happen? Her clothes are expensive. The badly cut, Marmite-coloured hair is long gone: now the cut is chic and modern, and her hair is carefully tinted. Her figure has retained its slight gawkiness, but is also still trim and athletic. She wears a cashmere sweater in much the same shade of pink she wore at Sharon Smith’s party. Much of that version of Carol Moon has survived. But there is a tightness, a wariness that she didn’t have at thirteen, before life had been battered out to the shape she now finds it to be, in luxurious solitude in a palatial flat in St John’s Wood, where the litter bins are never full and the air smells of antiseptic and furniture polish.

  Her stare has remained the most constant thing about her. Her eyes search my face blatantly, looking for news before I’ve had a chance to speak. It’s a habit I still find disconcerting. She nods, as if she is confirming to herself what she already knew, then lets her eyes lower.

  What’s been going on, then, you reprobate? For once you look vaguely cheerful as well as sad and pissed off. Here, I brought you a present.

  She hands me a small rectangular package, carefully gift-wrapped. It’s obviously a CD. Carol’s musical tastes have remained pretty stuck in the 1970s and 1980s while mine have moved on – or, to be precise, pretty much disappeared. The only time I listen to music now is when Poppy brings over a CD – Now That’s What I Call Music, Volume Infinity. I prepare myself for a tactical smile in acknowledgement of some country-rock masterpiece or neglected white-soul classic that, in my hands, will continue to be neglected.

  What is it?

  Something that will chime with your emotional state. Or, at least, the emotional state I saw you in last time.

  Jacques Brel? Nick Drake? Early New Order? Nico?

  More bitter.

  Bitter is good.

  The CD is Blood on the Tracks.

  I know you don’t like Dylan.

  Of course I do. This is great.

  You hate him. But this will reach you. It’s the story of his divorce. You need to listen to track four, ‘Idiot Wind’.

  Thanks, Carol.

  Carol straightens her hair, adjusts her expensively framed spectacles. She regards me solicitously, her tiny eyes shrewdly assessing the hunched nature of my body language; her bullshit detector is on full alert. We are in a bar in Primrose Hill. She nurses a drink – a vodka. I can remember her sipping vodka from that Donald Duck tumbler all those years ago. I order a large Jim Beam.

  I sit next to her, picking at a bowl of pistachios, pretending I’m out of the woods. She knows better. I can also see that she senses the arrival of Alice – or, at any rate, that something has changed in me since the last time we met.

  How are you, Belly-flopper?

  In the middle of an unfolding disaster. Blood on the tracks doesn’t come close.

  That married man?

  No other kind left. It’s… What’s the word? Shit.

  How come you’re so brilliant at decoding everybody else’s life and make such a mess of your own?

  Emotions. They distort everything. I’ve been trying to get rid of them.

  Any luck?

  They’re quite persistent, it turns out. Particularly the negative ones. How about you?

  The divorce is going ahead. It’s with lawyers now. The mediation business didn’t really work out.

  That’s too bad. When the bloodletting’s over, things will calm down. There are demons to be exorcized for Beth as well as you. How are you getting on with her?

  Fine. Except that I hope she dies soon.

  She will die. Symbolically, at least. She has to kill you too. Also symbolically.

  I get enough of this from Terence, really I do, Carol. Anyway, you misunderstand me. I want her to die literally.

  That’s sweet. How’s Poppy?

  Hard to tell, really. Sometimes she seems very angry. I’m scared of losing her.

  You’re doing your best. Don’t punish yourself too much. She’s a nice kid.

  Sometimes. She can be pretty difficult.

  She’s just a child, Danny. She’s angry and sad.

  Everyone’s angry and sad.

  Are you seeing anyone else?

  I pause. I’m not sure I’m ready to tell Carol about Alice yet. I don’t like the shrewdness of her eyes, don’t like the truths she’s so keen to tell me.

  Not really.

  Good. You’re not ready, you know.

  Aren’t I? Then why do 1 want a woman so much?

  That’s why you’re not ready. You’re too angry and you’re too hurt. You need to get beyond all this. You’re too down on women.

  I’m not ‘down’ on ‘women’. I’m just angry with Beth because of everything she’s putting me and Poppy through.

  It’s all her fault, then.

  The separation isn’t her fault. The way she’s conducting it is. You know, I was thinking today. One of the real secrets of relationships is knowing how to leave them. With dignity. With courage.

  Um-hum.

  It’s true, isn’t it? Having the strength to do it cleanly, with grace, without blame and bitterness. To cut the cord. The weak torture the weak, don’t they?

  Um-hum.

  To tell you the truth, I was expecting something better than ‘um-hum’. Something along the lines of ‘You know, Danny, that’s very true. It’s clear you’ve been giving this thing some thought and I respect you for that, and obviously next time you go into a relationship you’re going to have a far better chance of making it work.’ But all I’m getting is ‘um-hum’.

  You have to be poised to go, to cut your losses. Fear of separation is what keeps people together longer than they should be.

  Um-hum.

  Will you stop saying that?

  Sorry, Danny.

  And stop looking at me with those little eyes, like you know exactly what’s going on.

  I don’t know what’s going on. I wa
s just thinking…

  What? What were you just thinking?

  Never mind.

  No! You can’t do this. I hate it when you do this.

  OK, then. I’ll shut up.

  Too late now. Tell me what you were thinking.

  The reason I’m not saying it is because I’m not sure I’ve got too much confidence in the thought.

  Tell me anyway.

  Perhaps … This thing about always having the courage to go. You’ve had that ever since you and Helen. Maybe it’s become a sort of fetish. Maybe you smash things up before they’re ready to be smashed up. Maybe you deliberately take the difficult option just because it’s a difficult option, and therefore it seems to be braver to you. Maybe you’re just someone who likes to make life difficult, because to you difficult is tough, difficult is brave and, above all, difficult is dramatic. We all learn lessons. Sometimes we learn them too late. But sometimes we learn them too soon.

  There’s a long pause as I absorb the irritating degree of truth that there probably is in this.

  It must be wonderful being so clever.

  It’s awful, actually.

  No wonder men run a mile.

  I’ve been thinking of having an operation. Like breast reduction. For your brains.

  Make sure they remove enough.

  I will. In the meantime, as a short-term solution, how about another drink?

  The Jim Beam has gone to my head. My resolution not to tell Carol about Alice is melting. I’m desperate not to hear what she has to say. I’m sure I’m not going to like it.

  OK.

  Carol orders, then smiles at me, scouring my face with her eyes again. I love Carol. I love her in the way you can only love someone whom you’re not having sex with, who can walk away from you when they like, and vice versa. Friends are easy to leave. That’s why we try so much harder to be nice to them.

  Why can’t I have a woman like Carol? Because if I went out with her, she wouldn’t be Carol any more. She’d be my partner.

  You know, Carol, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.

  Don’t do yourself a mischief.

  Don’t laugh. I am capable of introspection, you know. I know you think I’m just a blundering, self-pitying, emotional dimwit, but I have been trying.

  Don’t be spiky, Spiky. How’s the therapy coming along?

  How’s your therapy coming along?

  Carol is thorough in her therapy, as she is in everything else. She’s been going for ten years now, twice a week. I think she likes the intellectual challenge as much as anything.

  It’s hard. And rewarding. I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that I always go for the wrong sort of man.

  How much is this guy charging you?

  It’s a woman. I know what she says seems obvious, but sometimes it takes a professional to point out the obvious to you. I don’t feel good about myself, Danny. I don’t know why. I could make up reasons, but that’s all they are –made–up reasons. So I play it safe by making sure I choose people who feel the same about me. If I met someone who loved me I’d run a mile, because I’d want to know what they were doing loving someone with as little value as me.

  God, Carol, you’re the most wonderful -

  I know. Thanks, Spike. I know you think that. And hey -I agree! But somewhere, in the heart of me, I can’t feel that. It doesn’t penetrate to the centre. Ten years of therapy has helped me to understand it. But in the end it hasn’t changed anything. If a man loves me, I don’t love him. So I always end up going for men who won’t love me.

  That’s sad. But not inevitable.

  I’m working on it. Perhaps I’ll get there one day, says Carol, sadly. Wherever ‘there’ is. How about you?

  OK, I suppose. Terence gets on my nerves somewhat, but maybe that’s… you know… projection. Putting my anger on to him.

  Um-hum. I mean –

  It’s OK. No, the real upshot of it all is that I’m learning to look inside myself. It doesn’t come naturally to me like it does to you.

  And what have you discovered?

  Emboldened by the Jim Beams, I slurringly reel off the Love Secrets of Don Juan, point by point – except the one I’ve forgotten, Problem X, what the hell was it? – and sit back and wait for Carol to be impressed, but all she says is Um-hum.

  This disappoints me. Why does she always seem to be expecting everything I tell her? I’d like to take her by surprise, just once.

  God. You know, Carol, you really ought to meet Terence. You’d get on like a house on fire.

  Sorry, Danny. Can I just get it straight what you’re saying – what your ‘Love Secrets’ add up to?

  Sure.

  You seek women’s approval too much, you fall in love too quickly, nothing’s what it seems, your mother and father messed you up, life is full of contradictions, and you need to learn not to be so nice.

  That’s about the size of it, I suppose.

  I realize how pitiful my lessons must sound. When Carol speaks again it is clear that she’s through with the profound insights.

  You’ll find someone sooner or later who can make you happy.

  Is that right? That’s not what you said when you read my palm.

  She laughs, that same sweet hee-haw, perhaps an octave lower than it was when she was a schoolgirl.

  Maybe your palm has changed. Let’s have a look.

  I hold out my left hand to her, and she takes it in her olive-skinned hand, and inspects it for a good minute. Then she looks up at me, a worried expression on her face.

  My God, Spike. Do you know what?

  What? What is it?

  I haven’t got a fucking clue how to read anyone’s palm.

  We both burst out laughing and I nearly spit out a mouthful of bourbon.

  Honestly, Spike, I do think you’ll find someone. It’s just a matter of time. Time and luck.

  She intends this as a ritual closing-off of the subject, not a serious observation. I take another swig of the Jim. I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep my mouth shut.

  Actually, I already have.

  Now, for the first time in our conversation – perhaps for the first time ever – Carol looks surprised at something I have said.

  What?

  I tell her about Alice, whom she’s met once or twice, and Martin, whom she knows of old, and my nights with Alice, and my wild love, and for once it looks like Carol, the oracle, has nothing to say. The silence seems to last for ever. Then, at last, she speaks.

  Be careful, Danny.

  I know. I don’t want to lose Martin as a friend. I will tell him, but I’m just not quite sure how to handle it.

  That’s not quite what I -

  But I know our friendship is bigger than that. He’ll come to understand that Alice and I love each other. And you know something, Carol? This time I’m going to get it right. I’m going to keep right on with the therapy, I’m going to keep right on with the introspection, I’m going to keep pulling apart my life until I find the solutions. I’m learning my lessons – and I’m going to bear them in mind every day I’m with Alice. I’m not going to let this one go, I’m not going to fuck this one up. I’m forty-five. I can’t afford to fuck up my life again. I know I’ve only been with her for a month, but I just feel it. I’m going to make this one last.

  Carol nods, looks like she’s going to say something, then hesitates, takes a final swig of her vodka and says, Good luck, Danny.

  Luck’s got nothing to do with it, I say, firmly. It’s a matter of commitment. And learning the lessons I need to learn. Or, rather, applying the lessons that I’ve learned.

  Here’s to that, says Carol, a strange twinkle in her eye.

  Yeh. Here’s to that.

  Alice and I are in bed. While she breathes gently beside me, I’m running through the lessons in my mind. Have I fallen in love too fast again? Maybe. Don’t care. Is Alice full of impossible contradictions? None that I can see, but I’m watching carefully. What are her shadows, her doppelgängers?
I’ll find out eventually. At least I know now that they exist. At least I know she’s symbolic and that my literal self is capable of deciphering her. Now that she loves me, do I want to crush her? So far, no. Am I irrationally angry? Not with her: I could never be angry with her. Do I need to be ruthless? That only comes into play if we break up. And we’re not going to. Never, never, never. Then there’s the missing lesson, which I still can’t remember.

  We’re at Alice’s small flat in Putney. We spend a lot of time in bed. We’re still in our horizontal phase.

  She looks so different from how she used to when I saw her with Martin. Sex, the feeling made flesh, can transform the inner eye utterly. Her short, thick pale hair, her long legs, her creamy, marble-smooth torso tapering down to a wiry auburn forest. The mouth is wide and generous, the eyes hazel. I never saw her eyes when she was with Martin. She’s started talking about Martin now, in a neutral, careful tone, talking about how she still worries about him, how he’s much more messed-up and confused than I understand.

  We both love Martin, this we have repeatedly asserted. We are still trying to decide whether it is right to keep him in the dark about our relationship. Alice says she doesn’t think he’ll care. I think she’s right – I know Martin doesn’t love her. We’ve talked about it enough times, Martin and I. And I understand why Alice loves Martin so much. It’s not just because he’s a lovely man – and he is a lovely man – it’s because he has no idea how to love women, or no wish to love them. He is content to be loved. It’s his magical indifference at work again.

  I don’t get why this happens in a world where we are told that women are more emotionally sophisticated, more romantically knowing than men. Yet Martin is proof that the oldest cliché of all is true: women love a bastard. And all ‘bastard’ translates as is someone who doesn’t care.

  Nice guys finish last – and it’s outrageous. If women want to start making their relationships work, they have to start liking nice guys. They have to understand that being nice is a strength not a weakness, that it takes resources and character and power and self-possession. In this respect, women need to grow up.

 
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