Love secrets of don juan, p.5
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       Love Secrets of Don Juan, p.5

           Tim Lott
 
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  ‘Trusting the moment’. I can’t quite believe I’m talking like this. It’s so hard not to submit to the pressure to turn into a surrogate woman nowadays. Women, like therapists, are always using phrases like ‘trusting your instincts’ and ‘using your inner eye’ and ‘being spontaneous’. Yet on the basis of one hour’s introspection, I can sort of see what these ideas mean. They mean stop trying. Float. Let the water carry you.

  I’m just getting ready to pick up the phone to call a cab when it rings. It’s Martin.

  Martin Gilfeather is my best friend – or my best male friend, at any rate. He’s a lovely man in many ways, sincere, witty, kind, although he does have this very irritating characteristic, which is doubly irritating at this exact moment. Martin’s terrifically successful with women. I don’t know how he does it. If he knows, he’s not letting on. Martin’s not spectacularly good-looking, or rich, or unusually charming. Yet you put him in front of just about any member of the opposite sex, and something remarkable happens. The women come alive: they start to twinkle and glow. He can take his pick, more or less. I’ve asked him how he does it, and he just shrugs and looks embarrassed. Admittedly he rarely stays with one for very long, but I assume that’s just because there are so many alternatives on offer. Despite lacking the biological clock, most men, like women, are finally pressed into a long-term relationship by collapsing choices, the unstoppable narrowing of options. However, this is showing depressingly little sign of happening to Martin. He represents the male fantasy of easy, perpetual freedom, of relaxed semi-detachment. I’m jealous of Martin.

  His current girlfriend, Alice Fairfax, has lasted nearly two years, which is a record for him. I’ve met her on a few occasions, and she’s not like most of her predecessors: she’s less glamorous, more thoughtful, more substantial than his usual fare. He may even love her, but he hasn’t mentioned it to me. He barely mentions her at all. Women are just women to Martin – that’s one of the secrets of his success. His quasi-autism. This male distance, so derided by women, has an undeniable power. He doesn’t need them, so they flock to him. That’s definitely a nightmare thing about women: their perverse and unvarying appetite for indifference. The way they yearn for love – but only up to the exact point at which it’s won. A declaration of love, once offered, can be traduced into a gesture of weakness. That can be dangerous. Women never quite forgive you for loving them. It’s all to do with female self-hatred – or so Martin believes. This is a solid-gold Love Secret.

  Martin understands this impulse towards self-hatred, and it suits him, and he gives them what they yearn for: unattainability, and the fantasy that they’ll be the woman to surmount it. But, then, if they did, if they got Martin, or men like Martin, to love them, the appeal would be lost. He’d be just another man.

  Spike. Can you talk? I’ve got a situation. It’s tricky. It’s a mess.

  It’s a bit difficult at the moment. I’m about to —

  This won’t take a moment. I wanted to ask your advice about something. I’m in two minds, in a tizzy, in a turmoil.

  I get the gist, the juice, the gen. Shoot, then. You’ve got five.

  One of the nice things about Martin is that he has the humility to ask for advice. He’s not one of those men who sees seeking help from other men as a display of subordinancy. I like to give him advice. So long as it’s not about women.

  It’s about Alice.

  God in heaven, Martin. What are you asking me for?

  Why wouldn’t I ask you? You’re my best friend. You’ve been married and everything.

  I have to be out of here in a few minutes. I’m going on a date. But I can tell you what I know about women, if you like. They’re a –

  Yeh, I already know they’re a nightmare. But I just wanted to ask… I just wanted to know…

  I check my watch. Cutting it fine.

  Come on, Martin. What else is there to know? I’m going to be late. Can’t we talk later?

  I just wanted to know what you think of Alice.

  Alice? What does it matter what I think of Alice? It’s what you think of her that counts. Why is this suddenly so urgent?

  I’m getting a bit of pressure. A touch of the old thumbscrews.

  I know what kind of pressure Martin is talking about. Martin hates that kind of pressure.

  Time to take ‘the next step’.

  Apparently.

  Martin, I really do have to go.

  Right. It’s just… I’m not…

  Martin is a terrible ditherer. Oddly, that’s something else women like about him. He’s hapless, or possibly helpless. Women want to mother him.

  This is ridiculous, you asking me about women. I’m clueless. It’s well known.

  I don’t think you’re clueless.

  You don’t think I’m clueless? My marriage has broken up, I’m single, I’m depressed, I’m living in a bedsit full of unpacked plastic bags.

  That’s not clueless. That’s just life happening. You were married. That’s something. Christ, this is the longest relationship I’ve had.

  All right, all right. Look, Martin, let me ask you this. It’s incredibly obvious, but I’m going to ask you all the same. Do you love her?

  Well. Um … I think she’s a great girl. You know. She’s got … I think … I mean, what do you think?

  What do I think? I don’t know. I hardly know Alice. She seems fine. She seems OK. Do you love her?

  Well, what’s love? What does that mean?

  Martin, I really have to go. I really do. I know you’ll do the right thing. I’ll give you a call tomorrow, OK?

  Oh. OK. It’s just that … it’s all a bit shaky at the moment. I don’t want to make the wrong decision.

  All decisions are wrong, Martin. And all decisions are right. It’s just a question of how long a view you take.

  Now I can hear Martin brightening up a bit.

  That’s right. That’s true. So in a sense it doesn’t matter which —

  See you, Martin.

  Oh. OK. See you, Spike. And … thanks.

  Forget it.

  I put down the phone, not having a clue what I’m being thanked for, other than giving Martin some spurious justification for what he was going to do anyway. But, then, I suppose that’s all any of us ever wants.

  I went out with Juliet Fry last night, and I was spontaneous,

  I was me. And you know what?

  Fuck Robin Williams.

  The evening started well enough. I was waiting there for Juliet Fry to arrive. I brought the book that I actually am reading, Carl Hiaasen’s Sick Puppy, a middlebrow smile-a-page entirely non-thought-provoking comedy thriller. This is me. I was wearing a pair of not-too-fresh jeans, a not-too-fresh jacket, and a polo-neck sweater that, although purchased from Agnès b, has seen better days. There was a small food stain on the front. This is me. I was drinking lager top, and eating a bag of Mini Cheddars. Crumbs were distributed around my unfettered waistline. This is me. No aftershave. Battered trainers. This is me. I had a three-pack of condoms in my pocket. This is me. I felt good being me. I felt so spontaneous I was ready to combust.

  Then Juliet walked in, and she was absolutely beautiful.

  It turned out that ex-Gap models did get lonely. I suddenly realized that being me was just about the worst idea I’d had all year. I nearly walked out of the pub there and then, Mini Cheddars, rubber johnnies, bulging gut and all.

  She was dressed perfectly – she’d made a hell of an effort. Black ski-pants, tucked into expensive-looking boots. A little candy-pink turtleneck, cashmere by the look of it. A black patent-leather three-quarter-length coat. Mouth a scarlet slash. Hair cut short and Japanese style, as promised by the photograph. Everything as promised. Then she looked at me. And something terrible happened.

  Her face fell.

  It was infinitesimal: it was the smallest of flickers at the corners of her eyes. I think she only let it slip because there was the slightest possibility that it wasn’t me, that although I was
sitting alone in the pub and was, as promised, carrying a copy of that week’s Private Eye, that coincidence might be operating, that she might have got it wrong. Then she realized, without any doubt, that I was me after all. She recovered herself, but I knew that the decision to be myself had been an act of idiocy. All my carefully groomed confidence flew out of the window. But it was too late. I was clocked. We each spoke over the other.

  Hello, I’m…

  Are you…?

  We exchanged awkward handshakes. I got up from where I had been sitting on the chair, spreadeagled, being the authentic me, and felt all the muscles in my shoulders tighten.

  Then I knocked over my drink.

  Such a moment might have relieved the tension. It might have resulted in a flurry of relieved laughter and amused apologies. But the gulf that had opened between us at the moment we shared the fatal knowledge that she was disappointed in her date simply widened. She had thought I was a balding, middle-aged slob. Now she thought I was a gauche, balding, middle-aged slob.

  I wiped myself down with my copy of Private Eye, made my apologies, went and bought her a drink. She ordered a pint of bitter. Clearly, unlike me, she knew how to be herself without being ridiculous. We arranged ourselves at a safe distance from each other in the corner, and then we had a conversation of the very worst kind.

  A good conversation is a living thing. It is an improvisation, a flowering, a game of pat-a-cake, a series of entertaining, spontaneous flourishes. That is the kind of conversation we had had on the phone. That is exactly the kind of conversation we were unable to muster on this occasion. We had the other kind, which occupies the other end of the spectrum. Conversation here was a dead thing, a big ugly stiff that smelt bad. A conversation, in other words, made purely out of convention.

  I know people who have made an entire life out of conventional conversations, who have no problem with them whatsoever. There were quite a few in the advertising industry, but you find them everywhere. My mother and father, for example. It doesn’t seem to worry these people that the words spoken achieve nothing in terms of intimacy, entertainment or just … being mutually alive, for God’s sake. I think that, for these people, the point of conversation is something separate. It’s conversation more as a fetish, or ritual, in which a series of prescribed moves are made to reassure the participants that life is much the same as it always has been and that things are in their place, and that since words are meant, socially, to be spoken between people then now they have been, so that’s all right. It’s conversation as hygiene, as symbolic washing-up, a doleful necessity.

  That sort of conversation is purgatory to me, and it was clearly hell to Juliet Fry. But that was the kind of conversation we had. It was constructed entirely of cheap, ill-used materials, of cliché and unexamined thought. The subjects we unenterprisingly selected were as predictable as the sentiments duly generated.

  We talked, initially, about how strange it was to be meeting under those circumstances, which it unquestionably was. Both of us claimed it was the first time we had tried such a thing. This part of the conversation was the most interesting, but it only lasted thirty seconds or so. After that, we were in trouble.

  We went into stand-by mode. We were into that dead zone of a conversation, a discussion about the merits of the part of town in which we lived and, heaven forgive us, property prices. Then we inevitably extrapolated into the problems about living in London generally, and how difficult it was, and it was great, really, though, wasn’t it? There was a brief foray into the arid regions of our family backgrounds – her father was a solicitor, her mother a teacher, she had two brothers whom she never saw – and then, before the hour was up, we were talking about which films we’d seen. You know you’re in trouble when you’re into that territory, especially after only an hour. She liked Russian, black and white, long; I liked American, colour, action, snappy. Films in which Robin Williams might appear.

  After films I felt there was nowhere else to go. Then things took a turn for the worse.

  I had been smoking like billy-o because the evening was so grisly, and cigarette advertising, some of which I had written, had convinced me over the years that the inhalation of tobacco smoke could convert any experience, however negative, into something positive, cool and rewarding. My nervousness meant I’d been putting away the cigarette packet in different jacket pockets on each occasion and, fatally this time, I had put it into my inside left pocket.

  Nothing dangerous about an inside left pocket, except that when I pulled out the cigarettes, the condoms flipped out with them. Right on to Juliet Fry’s immaculate black ski-pants. The condoms were the cheapest make. This is me.

  There was a very long pause. I suppose, in some circumstances, an incident like that might have broken the ice, set us on the right path, smashed through some invisible barrier and left us clutching our sides with mirth at the sheer improbability and poor taste of it all. Again, this wasn’t one of those circumstances. A woman at a table next to ours had seen what happened. She looked at Juliet Fry, and Juliet Fry looked back at her, and I saw the look, and it made me want to set fire to myself instead of to the cigarette, which I was desperately trying to get into my mouth with a shaking hand.

  She picked up the condoms and handed them to me delicately. I didn’t say anything, just accepted them as if she was offering me a peanut. Then she shook her head very slightly, got up and walked out of the pub without another word.

  I decided, I definitely decided, that being me was not a good policy.

  3

  There is one question I need to answer before I can begin to make real progress on this stumbling, half-blind grail quest. It is painful, complicated, and to me, although I suspect not to most women, obscure. The question is this: why does Beth, my ex-wife-to-be, hate me?

  Beth and I never had a particularly bad marriage: we didn’t hit each other, we weren’t unfaithful, we tried to make things good for one another. It just dawned on us both at about the same time that we were two wholly different kinds of people who had married for, if not all the wrong reasons, then the insufficiently right ones. We decided to separate, and that was an improvement, so we decided to get divorced.

  We had an OK marriage. I quite like Beth, I bear her no ill-will. I just don’t love her any more. It happens – everyone knows that. It’s life. She says she doesn’t love me either.

  So why is she suddenly acting as if I am a monster? Why do I see in her eyes the hatred of the violated for her rapist? Why do I hear in her voice the contempt of the torturer for his victim?

  An answer of sorts is beginning to occur to me, with the help of Terence and my skinny-dipping in the icy waters of introspection. It’s amazing it never occurred to me before, really. I’ve been making a huge mistake all these years.

  The mistake I made is in thinking that there were just the two of us in the marriage and just the two of us in the divorce. That, I see now, was an underestimation. It dawns on me that there were, in fact, dozens of us. That your relationship with the person you’re with – or are separated from – is a room full of people, of shadows, of doppelgängers. It’s not only your partner you have to deal with. It’s those people they bring with them. It’s the same for them with you. All your shadows have to get to know and understand each other. Have to acknowledge, above all, each other’s multiple id-driven nature. Doing what I do for a living, I should have understood this.

  To take an example. It must have occurred to most men at some time or other that women get furious for no apparent reason. Until now, I had assumed that this was because I was too stupid to realize what I’d done wrong. The idea that women are in some fundamental way more moral than men both pre- and post-dates feminism. I have always believed, and it is a belief they appear to share, that women have a complex ethical compass that can sniff out subtleties of good and bad behaviour far more effectively than men can.

  There’s still a part of me that believes this may be true. But a larger part now thinks t
here’s another explanation for those incomprehensible furies. Which is that people, particularly women, have a profound and complicated relationship with the past. That when they look at you they don’t only see you. They see their father and their brothers and their former boyfriends, and all the pains and rejections and humiliations they suffered but never confronted at the time. Then they load them on to you.

  Terence would say that it’s the same for both sexes but, for a therapist, Terence can be surprisingly naïve. If women are in any way different from men – and they are – it is because they tend to operate on a symbolic rather than a literal level. Thus their shadows are more powerful, more complex. Everything stands in for everything else. That can be good – it can be great, I suppose, although I can’t quite think in what circumstances. But when you’re with a woman, it’s complicated because you don’t know who she’s talking to when she tells you to fuck off and die. Her dad? The boyfriend she loved who dumped her ten years ago? Herself? Or even, just possibly, you?

  If you don’t have a strong sense of yourself, you may take yourself at her assessment, which can be a disaster. The law of the jungle is eat or be eaten. The law of love, and in fact of life, is to define or be defined.

  As for my ex-wife-to-be, she has decided, after ten years of perfectly OK but not-really-good-enough-for-either-of-us marriage, that I am pure evil, that I am the bastard son of Rosemary West and Pol Pot. The fact that I have tried, during our separation, to be a good father to Poppy and that I have given Beth everything she has asked for in terms of money, house, car and record collection and, I think, respect seems to count for nothing.

  It now occurs to me that I’ve just been clubbing my head with the cudgel of reason. As ever, reason is inadequate. Introspection reveals deeper, more atavistic reasons for my wife’s hatred. She hurts, so she wants me to hurt too. She’s punishing me for not loving her, but she’s also punishing me because she doesn’t love me. The world has gone wrong for her, not for the first time, and it’s all broken, abandoned and piled up like rubbish in the corner of a wide, windy boulevard, and she needs someone to blame for all that mess. It’s the most primitive of instincts. It’s the most female of instincts.

 
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