Love secrets of don juan, p.8
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       Love Secrets of Don Juan, p.8

           Tim Lott
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  If it had been you sitting there. If it had been you pressing the button. Would you have given the shock? Would you have kept going until the man behind the panel was unconscious?

  Oh. She seemed surprised now that the question bore framing. I’m sure I would. I’d like to think that 1 wouldn’t. Yd like to pretend to myself that I was more independent of thought. But you can’t be sure. It’s easy to imagine yourself in a more virtuous light than you actually are. It’s hard to know yourself. Do you?

  No, I said. No, I don’t. And you don’t know me, either. My name’s Danny Savage. Some people call me Spike.

  At this point, it must have been clear enough what I was after (not sex, not just sex, but that was involved). It must have been transparent that I fancied her. Otherwise, why would I have walked over and started talking to her like that? Why not to a man? Why not to one of the ugly girls? (She knew perfectly well, I could tell, that she was attractive.) The moment for me to be crushed was already there, looming. I had only asked her whether she would push the button, but the subtext was plain. So, would she push the button? Would she administer pain to the stooge?

  I’m Helen Palmer.

  Still no movement, no sign of a bolt, just a silence that needed to be filled, another possibility of rejection to be surmounted.

  Do you fancy a cup of coffee?

  I’ve got another seminar in an hour, and I really should prepare for it…

  My gut churned slightly. A vision swam before my eyes of kicked teeth. The awareness of my own clumsiness, my own lack of physical charm pressed on unprotected nerves. Rejection. The hated heartburn of foolishness.

  … but what the hell.

  She smiled. The churning in my gut reversed itself; the premature self-hatred and doubt converted to premature triumph and joy.

  She’d said yes.

  But only to a cup of coffee. There was much work to be done before I could fall in love for the first time.

  At the coffee shop, I spoke a little too fast, a little too eagerly, not only from nervousness but also because this was, if not a courtship ritual, then the possible preamble to a courtship ritual. I was seeking to establish a number of crucial facts. Did she have a boyfriend already? If so, did she love him? Did we have anything to talk about other than whether plain or chocolate digestives were the best accompaniment to instant coffee? I didn’t find out all I needed to know – that would have required me to be more direct than such a pre-ritual allowed – but she made no direct reference to a boyfriend. Also she sat quite close to me – closer than she would have if she had found me wholly repulsive – and we kept reasonably steady eye-contact.

  The first half-hour was on the relatively safe territory of Milgram. Then I found out that she was from Peckham, that she had a younger sister, and that she wanted to be a social worker. Not so interesting, but it didn’t matter. It was personal, it transcended the purely functional. I had breached her armour. This was sufficient for my purposes. We made no plan to meet again, but a precedent had been established. The coffee ritual would be reprised.

  In those days, everything I ‘knew’ about women was cobbled together out of prejudice, received information, propaganda, and stuff I’d picked up from TV, movies, gossip and magazines. These are the sort of assumptions I would have made:

  Women were nicer than men.

  They didn’t want sex as much as you did, and only granted it to you as a gift if you managed to crack some code that only they knew.

  On receipt of that gift, women required you to sign up to a certain set of obligations, which were never made explicit.

  Women were as clever as men academically, but not necessarily in other, more important fields, like playing poker and getting quiz answers right.

  They were less daring than men.

  Women, with the sole exception of Carol Moon, liked awful music.

  Women had a sense of humour, but they forgot the punchlines to jokes.

  They remembered birthdays and knew how to wrap gifts.

  They did things like tidy up and cook and take responsibility for things that you were too cool to think about.

  That was that. Such was the gender-related knowledge of Danny ‘Spike’ Savage at that time.

  Armed with this knowledge, I had coffee with Helen again a week later. Again, she had to go to another class shortly afterwards, but this time I took the plunge.

  The Exorcist had just opened and Christians were demonstrating outside the Gaumonts and Essoldos of Britain, because the film ‘would promote devil worship’. Fleets of St John ambulances were parked outside cinemas to minister to those who fainted. Highbrow film critics dismissed the movie as disgusting trash. Clips showed a young girl’s head rotating on her shoulders.

  Terence found it ‘interesting’ that I had picked for a first date a movie about a pubescent girl who is possessed by the devil. He found it less interesting when I told him it was my second choice after Bambi, which had been sold out. I take his point that it was not, perhaps, the obvious film for a first date, and it stands as further proof that my knowledge of women was rudimentary. All the same, Helen went for it. I asked and she said OK, just like that. Eight o’clock outside the cinema.

  I say ‘first date’, but even then that concept was muddying as the lines of demarcation between the sexes blurred. The idea of women as friends had crept into the mainstream. When my father, or any man of his generation, asked a woman out, there was no doubt that a courtship ritual was being observed. It wasn’t a potential friendship that was being sought but a potential mate.

  But I wasn’t sure that what I had was really a first date. Perhaps I was just making a new friend. Certainly, she was a girl and I was a boy, but it was possible that we were doing no more than seeing a movie. Then, I didn’t understand the language of signs, gestures, silences and hints, only crude reason. I didn’t see the beauty of the game of seduction, only a series of obstacles to what was a practical goal. In short, I was literal and Helen was symbolic.

  Obvious to the point of cliché, but it took me a long time to get that Love Secret. Some men never get it. Women never admit it. Why? Because they are symbolic. If they want to tell you something important they may give you the means by which to divine it, but they will almost certainly fail to spell it out as a man would. This drives men to distraction, and it gets women pretty steamed up too, because men never really do get it the way they’re supposed to. Feminism seems to have done little to erode this fundamental distinction. I don’t know why. I was being taught that culture was everything, but perhaps it isn’t. Maybe our ruination is biological. Who knows? Either way, we’re ruined.

  It hardly matters, anyway. What does matter is that at that time and on that date – or non-date – I didn’t understand this difference at all.

  No teenage girl, let alone Helen, would ever have been so crude. I do not know what she did on that evening before she met me to see The Exorcist because I never asked her, and if I had she wouldn’t have told me. However, from where I stand now, I am almost certain that she would have called one of her friends about our assignation. She would have worked out whether it was a friend thing or a date thing. She would have had a conversation along these lines.

  HELEN’S FRIEND:What do you think? Are you excited?

  HELEN: I don’t know. Maybe.

  HF: Do you like him?

  H: He seems nice. I’m not sure what he wants.

  HF: Do you think he fancies you?

  H: Laughs.

  HF: Of course he fancies you. How could he not fancy you? You’re beautiful. What does he look like?

  H: Ordinary. He’s OK. I’ve seen worse.

  HF: Tall, short, dark, blond, fat, thin, what?

  H: He’s about average height, brown hair, slim. Quite nice-looking.

  HF: So how far have you got?

  H: We’ve been for coffee a few times.

  HF: Did he flirt with you?

  H: I’m not sure. I think so.

  HF: Did
he sit close? Did he touch your clothes? Did he hold his look?

  H (laughing): All of the above.

  HF: There you are then. Do you fancy him?

  H: I don’t really know him. He’s got nice eyes. Pale brown. Yellow flecks.

  HF: You fancy him. What are you going to wear?

  Then she would have told her friend what she was going to wear, and they would have discussed whether it was appropriate, what messages it would send out – No, that’s too obvious… too subtle… too trashy… Yes, that’s exactly right. The grasp of the symbolic.

  HF: What are you going to see?

  H: The Exorcist!

  HF: You’re joking! What was he thinking of?

  H: God knows.

  HF: I can’t believe he’s taking you to see The Exorcist!

  H: There’s nothing else on.

  HF:Go for a walk in the park. Take a boat ride on the lake. Go on a date that doesn’t involve vomit.

  H (laughs): It’s not really a date. We’re just going to the pictures.

  HF: Would you let him snog you?

  I suspect that this imaginary conversation would have gone on for a long time, might have encompassed several other friends chiming in. It would have involved advice, planning, strategy, according to whether she wanted to go further or not. The subject would have been examined from multiple standpoints. I know some women who would have done none of this, they would have just read their textbooks on Lacan and Melanie Klein and considered it too trivial to matter, just as some men would have approached the date/ meeting-with-a-friend with no thought of sex, just the potential merits of the cinematic experience.

  But I think they would have been in a minority.

  Anyway, I also had a conversation with a friend, a male friend, about the forthcoming date/purely-social-non-sexual occasion.

  I’m going out with Helen Palmer tonight.

  That one with the big tits?


  Reckon you can fuck her?


  Give her one for me.


  That was it.

  Men were like that then. Many men still are. But there are important things to grasp about this conversation. Allow me to translate.

  I’m going out with Helen Palmer tonight.

  I don’t know what to say.


  I have no idea what to say.




  A more advanced translation, using the improbable assumption that the men involved were party to their unconscious thoughts, might be:

  I’m going out with Helen Palmer tonight.

  My God. You’re going out with a girl. How exciting and how strange. I am envious of you, and yet relieved it is not me. Envious because there is a possibility of sex, but relieved because you might enter into an emotional transaction with another human being that will take you to a strange and possibly frightening place in your head and your heart that I can still only fantasize about but undeniably fear as well as desire.


  I hope when you’re finished, you will find some way to tell me something about women, because they bewilder me: the only one I’ve ever known is my mother and she can destroy me just by withdrawing her love. Are all women like that? Oh, God, I’m so paralysed with insecurity, can you say anything to help me?


  I’m going to keep the conversation purely distilled into its sexual element because this will establish the one form of connection that we have, which is that we are both hetero sexual men – or so we would at all costs have each other believe.


  One could keep going like this for some time, delving deeper into the measureless strata of human unknowing, but it gets too depressing.

  As a matter of fact, I had the rare privilege – for a man –of speaking intimately to a woman before my date with Helen. I had a confidante, a non-sexual, non-romantic, genuine friend who was female. I had known her since my early teenage years, and our friendship was born of mutual affection and our lack of attraction to each other. Not a rarity now, but quite something then. That conversation was very different from the one I had with my male friend.

  FEMALE FRIEND: So who is this woman?

  ME: She’s Helen Palmer.

  FF: And?

  ME: She’s special.

  FF: How is she special?

  ME: I don’t know. It’s just a feeling. Stupid, really.

  FF: Not stupid. Feelings count. Are you nervous?

  ME: I’m looking forward to it.

  FF: Really?

  ME: Absolutely. It’s a dead cert.

  FF: Really?

  ME: I’m terrified.

  FF: Don’t be nervous, Spike. It’ll be absolutely fine. Just relax. What are you going to see?

  ME: The Exorcist.

  FF: Interesting choice.

  ME: They’d sold out of tickets for Bambi.

  FF: Right.

  ME: I’ve made a proper cake of myself, haven’t I? She’ll probably stand me up now.

  FF: I doubt it.

  ME: You don’t think I messed up, do you?

  FF: I’m sure it doesn’t matter. She’s going to be so excited about going out with you that she’s not going to be thinking about the film.

  ME: She’s probably just too embarrassed to say no. I’m not even sure it’s a date. All we’ve done is have coffee.

  FF: How many times have you met for coffee?

  ME: Twice.

  FF: How did the first happen?

  ME: I accosted her after a lecture.

  FF: And then?

  me: A few days later.

  FF: Was the next coffee meeting arranged in advance?

  ME: Sort of. She knew I’d be at the lecture. She probably expected me to ask her again.

  FF: Now, Spike, think carefully. Was there any difference in her the second time you met from the first?

  ME: Difference? Um. I don’t know.

  FF: This is important. Reconstruct the scene in your head. What was she wearing? The same as the previous meeting?

  ME: No. She was dressed a bit better, I should say. The first time she was a bit scruffy. Her clothes were nicer. She was wearing a skirt and blouse, I think.

  FF: Did you notice any particular smell?

  ME: Now that you mention it, on the first occasion it was a kind of wet-hay smell. The smell of her hair, I think. But the second time, it was muskier… like a… a…

  FF: Perfume?

  ME: Could have been.

  FF: One more thing. Her lips. Were her lips any different?

  ME: Her lips? I don’t know.

  FF: Shinier?

  ME: A bit shinier, maybe. Yes, definitely shinier.

  FF: Lipstick

  ME: So where do I stand?

  FF: It’s a date. She made an effort for the second meet. Nothing too obvious. Just enough.

  ME: Really?

  FF: Anyway, Spike, there’s not a girl in that college who wouldn’t want to be in her shoes. ME: Really?

  FF: Of course.

  And so on. Support, encouragement, perception, loving lies. It was exactly what I would expect from a woman.

  It was exactly what I expected from Carol Moon.

  I’d got to know her well since Sharon Smith’s party. There was something about her that just made me want to be mates with her – her openness, her intelligence, her lack of artifice, perhaps. And the complete absence of certain female staples – charm, flirtatiousness, coyness, ‘sweetness’. Carol was tough, thoughtful and down to earth. That was probably why she could never keep a boyfriend. Even though I wasn’t attracted to her, I could see she was good-looking, with an athletic, slightly gauche body that looked terrific in a swimsuit, but men were afraid of her ability to see through them. Even then, she was frustrated with men and what she called their ‘silly games’. Strange how different it looks from that side of the gender gap – how each side is suspicious of the other, how ea
ch caricatures and characterizes and demonizes.

  Her love of music remained a powerful bond. We went shopping for records together, then rushed back to one or other of our houses to listen to the latest Leon Russell or Janis Joplin, Jackson Browne or J. J. Cale, or some obscure blues import. She was a genuine fan. Her passion for music was the same as mine – a strange love of sadness, a taste for the pain that was at the heart of all roots music. There was something peripherally melancholic in Carol, as if she sensed that her life was somehow the wrong shape to fit her carefully considered desires. She said the same sort of thing about me, although for a long time I didn’t believe her.

  Yes, her suspicions were well founded. And, yes, it was Carol Moon who gave me my nickname.

  I remember that warm, dusty blue night – leaving the halls of residence where I lived, three miles from the cinema, and running all the way. Running and laughing. It was just like in a film. There have been few times when my life has taken on all the colour, definition and reality of an artificially mediated experience, but this was one of them. I was Young Man on First Date played by a character actor with, in fact, very little character at that age but plenty of curiosity and enthusiasm.

  With Carol’s help, I had convinced myself that I really was going on a date, that Helen quite possibly fancied me. I recognized that there was work to do, that I had to be charming, fascinating, witty, mildly suggestive and so on and so forth. But something was going to happen – I could feel it. I couldn’t articulate it, though, because I thought that if I did I would bring down retribution from the gods, that the act of expecting or anticipating such a thing would prevent it happening. This superstition, of tempting fate, has stayed with me, despite my countervailing belief that the universe is empty, cold and indifferent. It has nothing to do with being a man: it has to do with being human and not being able to manage without God. Or so Terence would have it.

  Anyway, I ran and I laughed until I reached the edge of the precinct, at exactly the time we had arranged.

  Helen wasn’t there.

  I didn’t understand that women were always late for dates. Carol Moon, my sole source of reliable information in these matters, hadn’t mentioned it. By ten past eight I was frightened. I thought she’d stood me up. I thought there were going to be two horror movies in town that night.

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