Love secrets of don juan, p.7
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       Love Secrets of Don Juan, p.7

           Tim Lott
 
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  On the other hand men, the crude mechanicals in the equation, the ATMs, are alone. They can’t allow themselves a common enemy – at least, not if they’re guilt-ridden, gender-politics-sensitive liberals like I used to be. Furthermore, they don’t have a talent for connection – quite the reverse. Their talent is for aloneness. Men mistake it for strength.

  You’re looking tired, Danny.

  Am I, Liz? I wonder what the explanation for that might be.

  Liz’s eyes are small and black, and close together. She has pale skin and mousy hair that falls down her back in a dull cascade. When she says I’m looking tired, I take it to mean that I am looking old and ugly in comparison with Oliver. This is true, but it’s not helping my digestion. The fresh cake tastes very good. Tastes of love.

  How’s the work going?

  This time it’s Charlotte speaking. A nice woman, rather lost for words most of the time, shy and nervous, with a paradoxical extremity in her choice of dress. She is wearing a ‘Barbie Is A Slut’ T-shirt and a pair of boots with huge heels. I’d thought we were friends until the split happened.

  So-so. I’ve been…

  I have to be careful what I say here. Actually, I’ve just been given a small job for Hopkinson’s Perfect Plastic Buckets, but if I show the slightest sign of worldly success, Beth will be on to her lawyers looking to prise an even larger chunk of my depleted income out of my Lilliputian coffers. They insisted on taking my last year’s total as indicative of my earning power. It didn’t cut any ice that my work comes in dribs and drabs – and it was my bad luck that I had my best year for four years when we separated. Now the most profitable work has dried up again, and I’m stuffed. Already I work six days out of seven simply to pay my rent, spousal maintenance and child support.

  Another slice of cake, Danny?

  No, thank you, Oliver.

  It’s nice here, with the sun beating down, friends together in the back garden, the sound of Poppy’s laughter from her room.

  How’s Caleb, Miranda?

  Caleb is Miranda’s seven-year-old, a charmless child with appalling manners and an enthusiasm for acts of extreme violence. Out of the corner of my eye I can see him gleefully dissecting a still wriggling worm with a lolly stick. Miranda is a brisk, no-nonsense middle-class professional, with a flourishing public-relations business. Even her small-talk snaps out as if she is hectoring one of her three secretaries.

  He’s fine. He’s a boy, you know. Lots of rough-and-tumbling.

  And when he gets older, lots of shooting and mugging, I imagine. The worm is in what looks like six pieces now. Caleb’s smile has grown wider.

  That’s nice. Does he see much of his dad?

  The atmosphere sours a little. Liz rattles her cup on its saucer.

  He’s gone abroad for six months. Never get so much as a phone call.

  Bastard, I mutter.

  To abandon your kid because you’re having trouble with a marriage is unforgivable, unacceptable and shit in every way. Although I have to confess that, at one point after the separation, after what seemed like the two-hundredth screaming match that week, I could see the appeal, and savoured the fantasy: to disappear, to be away from it all, to distance myself from the wreckage and start again. It looks good, from a distance. It probably is good, especially if you find yourself a new woman, a new life. But it’s wrong. Simple as that.

  I think he’s adjusting reasonably well.

  The worm is in twelve pieces now, and Caleb is chuckling to himself. He’s eyeing a trundling snail that is making ponderous progress across the masonry rabbit that decorates the rockery. The rockery I built, in the garden I dug and planted year after year.

  Go on, have some more cake, Danny.

  Fuck off, Oliver. You’re trying to poison me. Poison me with the love in that cake, the love you know you possess, which I stopped wanting. But now you’ve got it, it’s suddenly become mysteriously appealing.

  Did you bake it specially? I say, curtly.

  Oh, I can’t cook! says Oliver, crinkling his eyes in a fashion he obviously thinks fetching.

  Oh, poor little me, I say, parodically, half under my breath.

  Well, I can’t, says Oliver, simpering a little.

  Men are hopeless, says Liz, fondly, and with a predictability that the circling sun might envy.

  Are they? I say, draining my teacup.

  Oh, she’s only joking, says Charlotte, smiling her anxious smile. We love men. Don’t we?

  Of course, says Miranda. You’re too sensitive, Danny.

  You don’t love men, do you, Liz? says Oliver, throwing me a conspiratorial look. I almost like him for half a split second.

  I don’t dislike them, says Liz, constructing herself a smug roll-up with a drug addict’s ease. They’re just a bit messed up. They don’t really have much of a clue.

  All right, it’s nothing, and all right, I’m being a baby. But I’m sitting here outside what used to be my house, in a happy, sunny garden that used to be my garden, which is now full of friends and cake and laughter and Poppy screaming in delight at something Beth is doing with her in the kitchen, and my fuse is short. I’ve heard this sort of thing just one time too many. I turn to Liz, who is focusing on her roll-up.

  Do you think men and women are equal, Liz?

  She looks up, surprised but unperturbed.

  Of course I do.

  We all do, says Charlotte.

  Yes, says Miranda.

  I nod.

  Tell me some of the things women are better at.

  What?

  We all know there are things that women are traditionally better at. It’s not controversial. Name some of them.

  Well, says Liz, sitting forward in her chair a little, beginning to relish the task, I think they’re probably better at multi-tasking.

  Definitely, says Oliver. Men tend to focus on more specific goals in a linear way at the expense of everything else.

  Women are more in touch with their feelings. They have an emotional intelligence that men lack, I suppose, says Charlotte.

  Yes, says Liz.

  They’re better at nurturing.

  And communicating. Men find it so hard to speak of their feelings, don’t they? says Charlotte, mildly.

  That’s so true, says Oliver, shaking his head and tugging ruminatively at the cord on his – my – dressing-gown.

  I think, says Liz, stroking her chin thoughtfully, that women can read social situations far better than men. That we’re sensitive to other people’s feelings in a way that men simply aren’t.

  Yes, says Oliver.

  Yes, says Miranda, nodding calmly.

  Women are more capable of love, aren’t they? says Charlotte. They’ve got a knack for it. For giving. For sharing.

  Men are so emotionally constipated, says Oliver.

  Women are diplomats, says Liz. They know how to sort things out, how to make the peace. Men just blunder on.

  I hate to say it, says Oliver, in a way that suggests he is in fact delighted to say it, but I think, when all is said and done, women are simply more grown-up than men.

  More evolved, I suppose, says Liz.

  But that’s not to say we don’t like them, says Charlotte.

  Of course, men are responsible for most of the sexual abuse and the casual violence.

  And war.

  They can’t find things when they lose them.

  And they don’t do their share of the housework.

  And they can’t iron.

  And they never get what it is we’re trying to say unless we spell it out in six-foot-high capital letters.

  There’s a brief hiatus. Tea is sipped. Mouthfuls of cake are primly consumed.

  Is that it? I say, getting ready to leave.

  I think so, says Liz, a faint, satisfied smile on her face. All the faces round the table wear similar expressions.

  Good. And what kind of things are men better at?

  A current of faint surprise seems to travel around
the gathering, earthing itself on four suddenly furrowed foreheads.

  What?

  We’ve listed all the special virtues of women. We can all agree on them. Me included. But what are the special virtues specific to men?

  Silence. More silence. An embarrassed giggle from Charlotte. I turn to go. I think I’ve made my point about the female definition of equality.

  I’m a man, says Oliver.

  Then you should try behaving like one, I reply.

  Liz opens her mouth to say something, but I cut her off before she has a chance to speak. I’ll tell you one thing men are better at, I say, flatly. Putting up with things. Biting their lip, and putting up with things. Putting up with bucketloads and bucketloads of absolute shit being poured over their head. And not fighting back. They’re better at not fighting back. They’re better at taking it, taking it, taking it, and then just walking away.

  Without another word, I turn on my heel and walk through to the kitchen, where Poppy appears to be making rock cakes with Beth.

  Poppy, Daddy has to go now. I put my hand on her shoulder.

  Daddy! Look what you made me do, she says, angrily. A small drumlin she was forging out of the cake dough has lost its peak, and become flattened. Not fair. I hate you Daddy! Go away!

  Children are gay and innocent and heartless. So says J. M. Barrie, and who am I, one of a million Peter Pans, to disagree?

  ‘Bye, poppet.

  She says nothing, but begins to cry. Not about me leaving, but about her cake dough being the wrong shape.

  Beth looks at me sternly. I think you’d better be off.

  See you, then, I say, in my best impersonation of nonchalance.

  I walk away, out of the house alone and unregarded, the taste of sweet crumbs in my mouth.

  I flee the trouble: a man’s greatest talent and his greatest temptation.

  4

  I fell in love for the first time when I was eighteen. It had been five years since my experience with Sharon Smith, and I had built on that box-room epiphany and extended it through other clandestine experiences in cloakrooms, alleyways and empty parks. I was still a virgin – I had still not been, on my own definition, ‘out’ with a girl properly, although I had experimented with several, trying fitfully to get the measure of them in all their blithe unfathomability.

  Such an odd relationship, the boy-girl one seemed then. It was as though you were in a room with one other person and you were trying to talk normally and pretend everything was absolutely unremarkable but there was a huge, terrifying, overwhelming and exciting presence just out of sight of both of you, yet you could hear its breath, you could register its footstep, you could sense it at all times. This shadowy golem was sex.

  It’s hard to remember what it was like to fall in love for the first time. The reality here, like everywhere else, has got twisted up with received information, the diet of first-love drama, fictionalization, cinema, TV. Over the decades, where I start and the collective, electronic and otherwise mediated world ends has become increasingly unclear to me. The memory, like the self and the memory of the self, is no longer pure.

  If I were to point to one thing that feels first-hand and genuine, I’d say this: it was easy. One’s antennae in middle age, so taut and sensitive to potential for damage, were then innocent and thus anaesthetized. Love seemed entirely good, without drawback or price tag.

  The love of women seemed a right, an anticipated pleasure, and a certainty. That’s not to say I wasn’t terrified of women – though for a different reason than I’m terrified now. Then I was terrified of the golem, of their strangeness, their potential for evoking my most dreaded emotion –embarrassment.

  But I also sensed that it was part of the way the world worked that girls wanted boyfriends, that it was culturally demanded that they should have one, and that, sooner or later, I would be one of the boyfriends they wanted. Young people fell in love with each other, that was what they did, sooner or later. Not like now, nearly thirty years on, when you’re so stripped down to the bones by pain and failure, so wrinkled, slack and tired in body that it’s hard to imagine anyone ever loving you again.

  Then, it was a cinch: you simply had to wait, and the much-vaunted magic would self-conjure. You would be loved. And for a man, back then, there was an inbuilt conviction that you would not only be loved, you would allow yourself to be loved. Women sought out relationships. Men struggled for sex, but otherwise manoeuvred to stay free. Thus the exchange always involved a certain degree of sacrifice for the man: going out with a woman represented a dilution of masculinity, just as for a woman going out with a man represented an increase in femaleness. It was a hang-over from history, I suppose, which has disappeared now to a degree, though by no means entirely. It would be good to think that it had, because all forms of inequality in a relationship tend towards dysfunction.

  But then, in the mid-1970s, I was – despite being a virgin, despite being awkward with girls – cocky and sure of myself. Sooner or later I would fall in love. Sooner or later I would be adored, promoted from geek to god in the twinkle of an eye.

  At the time I was at college. In those days, there were two courses that outranked in fashionability all the others: sociology and social psychology. Helen Palmer and I were on the social-psychology course.

  It was a polytechnic in the south of England, about as far from any dreaming spires as you could imagine. The nature of the students was pretty standard for that type of establishment – essentially Philistine, with a high degree of political affectation, mostly concerned with getting a good degree in order to land a decent job, and getting drunk. I’ve never liked students, even when I was one, but being at college had its compensations, Helen being the chief one.

  I was not a fan of sleeping around – not that I’d had the chance. I recognized that perpetual promiscuity, even at eighteen years old, was an unrealistic fantasy, and that the act of penetrative sex was too intimate to be shrugged off as a leisure activity like table football. I just knew that it was something awesome. It was common to read in books and magazines, and to see in films (all the Carry Ons) back then that sex was fun, it was a laugh. That didn’t ring true then and doesn’t now, although laughter came into it. Sex at its heart was the most deadly serious enterprise there was. How could something be thought trivial when its result could spread down through time and as yet unimagined generations?

  It was after a seminar on Milgram’s experiments with conformity that I finally got up the nerve to speak to Helen. I had been watching her out of the corner of my eye, glimpsing her through the sheet of blonde hair that drooped down from her crown when she was making notes. She didn’t say much, but when she did it was honest and to the point. Also I liked her voice, which was coarser than her pale, delicate face suggested it might be. It had a sour tang of inner London, a knowingness that held a powerful attraction for suburban me, a reverse form of social climbing (during that epoch, the more working class you were, the cooler it made you). She wore Wrangler jeans and cheesecloth tops, no makeup. Her at-rest expression was puzzlement. I found this endearing: everyone else on the course seemed to be trying too hard to display certainty.

  Stanley Milgram was a psychologist who devised a series of ingenious tests to gauge the extent to which people were inclined to defer to authority. He invited the subjects of his experiments to a laboratory and placed them on the near side of a glass screen. There, they sat and observed another ‘subject’ – actually an actor – in a sealed-off room on the other side of the glass. This nervous-looking stooge was strapped into a chair, apparently to prevent his escape.

  A man in a white coat instructed the real subject of the experiment, the one on the near side of the glass screen, that they were taking part in an exercise to test not obedience to authority but the ability to perform tasks under stress. They were then given control of an impressive-looking device and told that it was capable of delivering powerful electrical shocks to the person on the other side of the screen, s
hould that person fail to answer certain questions correctly. The shocks, of course, were phoney, and the actor faked his screams of pain when they were delivered. But, in the over-whelming majority of cases, the subjects were prepared to administer the shocks to the point of apparent unconsciousness in the victim simply because a man in a white coat had told them to do so.

  I had wanted to talk to Helen ever since the seminar had started, but had never found the courage or the right excuse. It takes quite a deep reservoir of courage to ask a woman for a date – and it remains stubbornly conventional for the man to do the asking, for the woman to do the accepting or rejecting.

  The way in which this courting ritual is portrayed dramatically is rather like the way death was once shown in Westerns: a grisly and agonizing event that is passed off as essentially painless and even bland. However, those were the rules, and I was stuck with them.

  I took a deep breath and sidled over. (I’m not sure what the precise definition of sidling is, but I’ve got a strong impression that this was what I was doing. It was a wafting, a muffled manoeuvring that meant I interrupted her clear passage to the door so that she would have to stop before she could get round me.) I smiled at her. She gave a little nod that might have meant anything, including Tuck off.’ Therein lies the need for courage: you have to keep going, even if there’s a sizeable chance that you’re about to make a fool of yourself.

  Hi.

  Pardon?

  She was on her way round me when this exchange took place. I could smell her now, an odd wet-hay scent that I imagined emanated from her body rather than any kind of cosmetic. She hesitated. She could have kept on walking, yet she hesitated. This also might have meant anything.

  What do you think you would have done?

  Sorry?

  She frowned. I had not noticed her frown before. It made little furrows in her otherwise high, smooth forehead. I wanted to kiss away those furrows. But what was happening now was mere theatre. My voice suggested only measured indifference and academic curiosity.

 
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