SHE WALKS INTO THE BAR at ten past one on Sunday afternoon – high up in the Switch Room, close to the summit of the brick tower, to the members lounge few members reach.
On this hot day in early September, situated inside a broad deep-focus shot of a large L-shaped interior flooded with natural light, his heart simmers at the prospect of a first date. The post-industrial decor, the brushed cement, the exposed piers and beams blend with flared lightwood tables that are mostly empty – just a solo young woman sat with an art book, a thirtysomething glued to his laptop, two women eating cake, and behind them, wraparound windows revealing the crammed central London skyline and splinters of a glittery Thames.
The low head count means he can take the best spot, a well-placed stool by the raised table with a clear view of the entrance. He should be nervous; but this go-round he appreciates that waiting to meet a possible future lover is almost better than the encounter itself, where regardless of what the date brings, the tender moments of anticipation remain. Then again, arrival is also good.
She appears at the threshold on heels, with big bright eyes, looking less than convinced. She’s already been up, down and round several levels and lounges, in then out again, confused. At this point she’s not on board with Walter Benjamin saying ‘being lost is to be fully present.’ Having arrived to the centre of town on time, she headed west along the south bank of the river covering the route at pace, fast like the walker her dating profile claims. She arrived at the Tate, through the front entrance, exactly the same time he came in at the rear of the building. A drone shot confirms it. But then the muddle started – which wing, what floor, this bar?
She leans towards the woman at reception, who has tiny paw prints 🐾 inked on her finger. She asks is this the place and the receptionist confirms it. Reassured that she’s finally landed, his date smiles and steps away from the entry desk, taking in the broad open lounge. Carefully he watches her eyes scan the room left to right as her head swivels towards him, landing on his face. She smiles. When I look I am seen. Shot reverse shot, he smiles back.
She’s better looking than her photo. He’s suddenly nervous crossing the few yards to greet her. She has dark eyes, her hair is ombre, and her skin deep brown from an Italian holiday. They shake hands. Only briefly – because anything longer is rude, or creepy. But on this she differs. She feels his short handshake says a lot. She thinks he returned her hand too soon, as if he didn’t want it – doesn’t want her.
He suggests she go find a table round the bend while he gets the coffee. (She declines an offer of food.) He points to where the lounge area is at its quietest. She nods and turns away. Her heels are clicking. She has a nice walk.
She parks herself at a table facing a window with a view of St Paul’s. The window is overlaid by exterior lattice brick work which spoils the outlook. She thinks she’d prefer a different spot. Did he have to send me here? Pack me off so quickly? He was firm with his instructions but his handshake was soft. I gave him my hand but he gave it straight back. It’s disappointing. We will never fuck, she decides, and checks her phone for texts.
|Whippy near the woods|
Go forward several weeks. It’s no longer hot, that’s all over. But the weather continues to be warm during a mild autumn, with sunny weather all afternoon on the Essex Borders for their long romantic walk in the woods.
It’s early evening and they’ve long since finished their ramble. He is making his debut visit to her place. It is just him and her indoors. They are intertwined on one of the two sofas in the front room. An ice cream van passes playing If You Go Down to the Woods Today. It’s after dark, though, well past seven. He can’t imagine going back down to the woods, or wanting an ice cream. She asks if he would prefer music. He says he’s fine as they are. He looks over her shoulder, which is half bare, at the large feature fireplace. He thinks that must look nice in December; and also in wood there is fire.
The two sofas are draped in a matching pale fabric. He could call the fabric ecru, but would this accurately represent the furniture on which they have become intertwined? The sofa the other side of the coffee table is a two seater while this one is made for three. They have been physically engaged upon the ecru three seater for many minutes, caught up in next-level petting and becoming quite heated. The sofa faces the large window and the dark green hedge beyond; and with the low level lamplight and the blinds not closed, they are almost on display, like a mini pop-up theatre in the ‘burbs. But before the scene turns X-rated, she says shall we go upstairs?
This is Date Five. In the week, she texted suggesting a walk and then we could eat at mine. She said she’d cook – If that’s okay with you? He thought, this must be it, their first night, as he carefully chose his good vest and best briefs for their big-box Hollywood date, eager to be red carpet ready. Now they’re in her bedroom, further engrossed, a dog barks loudly in a garden close-by as she says, Take off your vest. Or maybe that’s not what she says.
Rewind to early September. Scroll back to when London was still baked, returning to the Switch Room at Tate Modern. He’s bringing the coffees round the corner, coming towards her, thinking, she’s beautiful, how does this work out? She looks at him and smiles as she slips her phone back inside her bag. She thinks tall, nice, appealing, but No, probably not.
He’s got so busy in his head, thinking Don’t, Do Not look at her cleavage! as he lowers the tray. Wondering loosely how he might swing it to get this attractive woman to want him back, he also imagines several miniature men popping out the top of her phone – an unwanted, unwelcome cartoon of eager suitors and swains rising from a bulging dating app; a string of man-planes with stubbly midlife man-faces stacked in a holding pattern over Greater London.
He sits down facing her across the table and buries any thoughts of rivals. His memory says that his chair is blue. Her recollection says it was yellow. She is sitting away from him, her back against the cool cement wall. He must bend forward to hear her soft voice as he gestures over his shoulder with his thumb – pointing to the big windows, to St Paul’s, and the post card view. He says, You not only get to see me, but a lovely blue sky and several major London landmarks.
You have only me, she replies.
You and the polished cement.
She shrugs like the emoji woman 🤷🏻♀️.
I’m just saying, if my face gets boring.
I love St Paul’s.
Have you ever been inside the Whispering Gallery?
No, I haven’t, she says, and sounds honestly disappointed.
I went once. Years ago. He remembers being impressed. He says it is definitely worth a visit. That said… He sighs.
Well. He lowers his voice, he bends in a bit closer and tells her about last summer’s tragedy, when a visitor fell from the gallery and died.
She fell over the railings. Splat.
That is not a sunny tale to start a date. He looks at the table. Be glad you didn’t say head over heels. His coffee is already finished but she still has plenty to go. His empty cup is slate grey, but in her memory both cups are green. He worries her drink will go cold – a pointless intrusive thought which fortunately he leaves unarticulated. Instead he says something about the Picasso show downstairs, but this is not what’s on his mind. Attraction is largely pulsing inside his head. But also, what are her thoughts? In the early stages of dating, when it would be so, so useful to know, you can’t ask. You can wonder all you like, but you’re going to have to wait at least until date two, or date three, or first time in bed, before it’s an acceptable query – What you thinking?
She tells him she has been to the Picasso exhibition twice already. They talk about the show, about the artist’s gaze, is it too male as many suggest? She says it isn’t and veers off to tell him stuff about her holiday, before they return to the exhibition, exchanging thoughts about creative types behaving badly. She wonders if Picasso asks questions, or if his work through 1932 amounts to a series of closed statements. He engages with her thoughts and to underline a point he references Talking Heads and a lyric from Once in a Lifetime. He often finds song quotations a useful support in discussions. If he starts to feel lightweight, bung in another’s wisdom, and hope it sticks. Obviously real full-blown poetry would be more impressive. But he doesn’t have much if any verse to offer. He tells her this and she is amused by this blunt statement of ignorance. She describes to him a painting she likes by Bruegel and how it features in a well-known poem by Auden that he’s never heard of. Her soft voice is very mild and he has to ask her to repeat stuff on several occasions. She doesn’t seem to mind but he decides it’s time to point to his listening devices. He hopes this will engender sympathy and not revulsion.
He says, Yes, I know.
She asks what’s up with the ears with a sympathetic face as he explains about the rapid loss, and the clever devices, and how they help, but also don’t help, by making everything too loud – Except for the things I specifically want to hear. He says he’s getting to be this deaf at times he feels tempted to pull the devices out and simply withdraw from the conversation.
She says, Oh no, you don’t want to do that.
I know. I agree. I guess.
He realises withdrawal is a strange notion for a launch date as he asks about her work. Her profile was vague (or mysterious) referring to a career in well-being. What does she do exactly? She tells him she’s a therapist. He thinks, of course, and smiles. She’s glad he’s unfazed by her job. Some dates, the men are instantly on their guard, twitchy because it’s a shrink. He says all the therapists he knows seem to be nice people. She thinks it’s is a kind thing to say.
|a termite Gherkin|
They share some life stories. He quizzes her about stuff she wrote on her profile – like the thing about the cows? He listens as she explains but doesn’t completely because he’s admiring how she looks while estimating his chances. When she tells him where she lives he tells her he’s never heard of it. And then reveals where he lives and she says the same in return. They sigh and look around the room and discuss the Switch Room. She’s lukewarm on the architecture. He says he likes it, loves the creased outline and all that wonderful brick. He explains how the building makes him think of termite hills. In this age of information abundance, he has some amazing nature facts to unload. Termites can build towers as tall as three metres in just a year, he says. For their size this is the equivalent of a huge bunch of us building the Gherkin. But there’s no team leader with termites, no star architect, no Richard Rogers, or Renzo Piano, not a structural engineer, or drawings, or plans. Just a daring hive mind. To underscore how interesting he’s being with his astonishing tales of insect ingenuity, he makes a broader intellectual point about intelligent systems that are not human. So, we have termites, but also cattle – he nods – and octopuses, elephants, trees, the bacteria in our gut, and then of course there are robots – several systems of intelligence which humans might try getting along with, and not just colonise, or slaughter.
Plainly she likes this idea and engages. He feels good about his speech skills establishing a solid foothold in their launch date. He knows that conversation is what he’s got. As he thinks about this she reflects on how she enjoys the way he talks and not knowing what he will say next. While he expounds on termites she looks at his face properly for the first time. She thinks it is strong and attractive. (She shares these first impressions months later.)
He asks what kind of therapy she practices. He listens attentively to what she says as nearly all her words seem well chosen and meaningful. He is, by now, actually following her speech rather than simply wondering if she fancies him. This is unusually good dating. But then she gets up to go to the toilet and the magic circle is breached. She walks away feeling confused, thinking, I like the guy, it’s fun talking to him, but sadly he doesn’t appear that into me. She is not sure if she’s disappointed or relieved to realise this tall man will only be a friend.
|him in his vest|
LATER – First weekend of November. In bed together.
Not in bed exactly, but on it. The bedroom at the top of the house is nearly dark, with just a chain of luminous red hearts strung across the headboard. She says shall I undress? But he hears, Take off your vest.
Her assertive directive is alluring. He does as told – does as she didn’t actually say. But not just the vest; he ditches the trousers, the socks, and finally his pants. He now finds himself dramatically under-clothed as she’s hardly removed a stitch.
She knows he’s had surgery – she read his blog. She thought about it this morning cooking, will he be mangled, what will the sex be like? Before they begin, he tells her what to expect, then pulls out his listening devices and inevitably loses many of the words she says. He wonders if this could turn out to be an issue.
|going all the way|
THEN – Back at The Switch Room
She leaves him at the table in the members lounge, off to find a bathroom. He watches her walk away and reminds himself that the object of our desire is also a subject who may not desire us back. That it is the subject’s capacity to encourage, or discourage, to reject us, or respond in kind, that arguably makes them compelling.
He turns and checks his phone and then puts it down and swivels and gazes out the window. But he’s only looking at, not seeing, the jumbled skyline; not marvelling at the number of cranes circling the Barbican; not perceiving the jagged mishmash of centuries; because in his mind’s eyes he’s swiping through a generic TV landing page, an aggregate version of Netflix, NOWTV, iPlayer, and All 4. In this era of endless, multi-channel TV, faced with all this choice, we all from time to time feel overloaded as we seek an out. It’s almost a boost sometimes to pre-ditch a show, or decide in fact you’re not gripped by the pilot for the latest hyped series, and therefore not obliged to commit to a slew of eight, ten, thirteen sixty-minute episodes. It’s really actually a relief. But this isn’t how we date now, is it? Him? Her? She hasn’t already swiped has she? Is this why she went to the bathroom?
Why the paranoid thoughts, already? Because he likes this woman he only just met. The calendar says September 9, 2018. He first saw her profile late last Monday evening. It was the day after, Tuesday September 4, when they first made contact. On that day, he woke and emptied his bladder, weighed himself as 77.4kg, and re-read her profile while drinking some coffee. He didn’t eat breakfast because he’d run out of milk – making a calendar note to stop and buy a litre on the way home. Her profile featured a trio of blurry headshots. (Blurry is often a bad sign.) In the lead photo she’s eating something, perhaps it’s cake. The fourth image is a picture of her bookcase. He expands the image to a maximum stretch, there’s Freud, and Alice Munro, Dickens, Hardy, Lorrie Moore, Coetzee. She has a good library.
He sends her a message and leaves for work. Hello. You look nice. I mean, you read well. I don’t look at profile pictures. [Liar.] But I’m sure you’re lovely. Your bookcase is very enticing. Real proper writers.
Some hours later she replies. Hello, Renlau, I just read something good. Your profile.
Let me just say that none of it is fiction.
And that’s all they wrote on day one.
Wednesday passes in silence. Twenty four hours. This is a delicate matter. Be cool, or be keen? He holds back, being cool, until he snaps and sends her a feeble message. There’s still time to talk, he says, to make this narrative happen. (Already the literature metaphor’s stale, but he’s short on entry-points.)
Hi, Yes there’s still time! Tell me, if you’ve a mind to, why Renlau?
Well, it’s like this… So he explains. He goes on tell her that in real life he always scans people’s bookshelves all the time. That it’s a nerdy throwback to a previous job. I’m not just a bookworm though, he reports, I can also do several press-ups and hold a plank for longer than sixty seconds.
Oh that’s clever with your name. It makes you sound like a French poet. Now I can go to dinner parties and say ‘I’ve read some Baudelaire, but also lots of Renlau.’
He writes back, Why don’t you like cows? I prefer goats. I live in south London by the way. I could ask more questions as I am a curious man.
Curiosity is a wonderful thing. I have lots of questions too.
You should send some over.
OK, here’s one. Would it be easier to meet sometime and ask our questions face to face?
That’s a good one. And the answer is, Yes. I can do Sunday afternoon.
Lovell you. I will pencil it in.
Follow up message. ‘Lovell you’ didn’t really make sense. Should have read ‘lovely’. How about the Tate?
Yes. I assumed you meant me – that I am lovely. The Tate is a lovell place for sure.
No, just plain ’lovely’.
Shame, I liked being ‘lovely’. Here’s a link for a bar to meet. And my mobile.
Lovely you. That works for me.
To get to Date One, he takes the bus. The barely ventilated interior is tropical. He removes his jacket and finds an inside pocket he didn’t know he had. He considers feeling sad about this lack, for so long, but all he can do is focus on not being rattled by the heat. He then walks through the side streets from Waterloo to Blackfriars, zig-zagging between the luxury apartment blocks to the back of the Tate, all the way to the Switch Room extension and its reticulated, sloping exterior of brick and stone. (He knows it’s not called the Switch Room any longer. He understands the name for the building has been sold to an oligarch.) He thinks his glowing response to the Switch Room proves he’s still up for contemporary architecture. A lot of mid-lifers, the differently aged, they start to dislike contemporary stuff: new buildings, new things, new people. But so far he’s not bent that way. He appreciates innovative builds and also admires the recent revamp of King’s Cross station and the new London Bridge. See, he mutters inside his head, I am open-minded and flexible, as he moves fast up the entrance steps and through the broad glass lobby, climbing eleven flights of stairs to the Members Lounge.
It is a lot of stairs and landings, with more stairs and landings to go. But his legs feel strong. He can make it all the way up, no problem, his fitness is fine. We can’t see round corners, he thinks, turning into the last flight of stone steps, steepling and narrow, preparing himself mentally for his debut appointment with this woman, this picture off the internet. We can’t see round corners, but he knows enough to recognise that either disappointment awaits, or an exciting plunge into the land of green. That it is the pull of another green world, this curious locus for change, that keeps his legs going, pushing up against gravity, carrying him all the way to Level Eight.
‘Every day comes to us like a newly cellophaned present,’ wrote an upbeat Philip Larkin in 1957, ‘a chance for an entirely fresh start.’
So, we know how he arrived at the Members Lounge dead on time, ready for his fresh start. But, that was then. Forget thirty, forty minutes ago. What about now? Where’s she gone? What’s happened?
Did his glamorous date scarper? It’s been well over five minutes, almost ten, since she left him sitting with his empty coffee cup, headed for the toilet. Maybe she’s on a marathon. (Bit unusual on a date, but guess it can happen.) But ten minutes gone is a long stretch in date time. What if she’s departed completely? Did she say bathroom, but took a powder instead, dropping out of the picture, never to be seen again? That would be harsh. But the thought raises questions. If she’s gone missing, got lost again, or if she has just left – what is his next move? What does the date manual suggest? (It doesn’t.) Where is his script for the disastrous episode, the one where the attractive woman doesn’t return?
After how many minutes does he decide she’s not coming back – that she is either the amusing anecdote known as the curious case of the disappearing date, or she’s got locked in the bathroom and urgently needs rescuing? Do you just give up after ten minutes and simply leave, or do you go seek her out? Do you get staff involved, rope them in on the search for the missing woman, only to then have it publicly confirmed by her non-appearance that you’ve been blatantly jilted mid rendezvous – suggesting you must’ve been so utterly vile she fled. He looks at his hands. Is that what happened?
Wait. Did she leave her bag? Yes, she left her bag. It’s there on the chair. She can’t have fled. She has to come back to me. Oh, here she is now.
He looks flustered. She asks if anything is the matter? He tells the truth. I started to wonder if you’d run away.
At what point would you walk away if your date never returned? When do you know for certain they’ve gone?
She laughs and sips on her cold coffee.
He says, Is thirty minutes too long?
Probably. I’m not sure. It’s an interesting dilemma. Fifteen minutes, perhaps? She looks right into his eyes, head slightly tilted. I went the wrong way for the toilet and then got a bit lost coming back. It’s confusing. Do women often run out on you?
You’re the third time it’s happened.
I once went out with someone, an ex, she often got lost, never quite mastered the way to my home. I wonder what that was about. She thinks, that’s the third ex he’s mentioned already and we haven’t been an hour.
LATER – In her bedroom. In bed.
All the clothes are gone and they are unambiguously, fully physically intertwined in the near dark. This is as far as the reader should go, no? Maybe it’s already been quite enough, thank you. Any further is just too much information. But, there’s a reason, a good reason, to go deeper into their first night on the Essex Borders. It’s got to happen.
Interlaced, they build a rhythm, reaching an agreeable pace that’s neither headlong nor sluggish. He feels his abdomen stretching. He thinks the health dividend of copulation isn’t discussed enough – sex yourself fitter. The work-out is going well, except noticeably, increasingly noticeably, her wide bed creaks. It creaks a lot. It does so rhythmically, and at first quietly. But within several seconds it grows louder, and louder still, and as they hit peak rhythm, they also achieve peak creak. And then, just like a sex comedy, the bed breaks.
He freezes. She laughs. The bottom right end of the bed has subsided three inches and is now pressed down against the floorboards. She says, too much erotic energy. He apologises. She says, Why? It’s my bed. Not your fault, as she urges him to continue with what he was doing. So he resumes with the same vigour, but less creaking, now that the collapse has calmed the complaint. She enjoys the intertwining, the vitality. She thinks, This is fun. But is it just a one-night stand?
In the following week, she cancels her dating profile, the same evening that she relocates a pile of paperbacks from the celebrated bookshelf to her bedroom, helping to prop up her drunken bed. The bedframe is bolstered by several Penguin Modern Classics, including The Glass Bead Game. In recent decades critics have wondered if Herman Hesse still has any use in this post-modern landscape. On the Essex Borders we find some kind of answer.
|like the future was supposed to be|
On London’s Southbank, Date One lasts over four hours; which provides plenty of opportunity to chat about almost everything, plus exes.
They discuss some former lovers in broad strokes only. There is no mean talk or high temperature language, as bitching is not a beguiling look. They take care not to step on each other’s lines. The conversation is contained and polite – your turn; now my turn; next it’s you. Concerning former partners, he sees small ghosts, emoji spirits, falling out the side of her head, where they keel over, vanishing in a puff of smoke. She in return looks for un-departed phantoms hovering over his shoulder.
They segue from exes to sharing date stories. But only safe date stories. Nothing sexual or romantic. They both have plenty to say and insights to pool concerning the complex, but comical, but exasperating, but confusing, but loathsome, but beautiful game of online dating. He says they shouldn’t be doing this.
Talking about exes and dating. It’s a cardinal rule, right, that you should never discuss dates on a date? And no exes either.
She waves this away. Says, Well, this is all pretty meta anyway.
Meta! he thinks. Meta! just about keeping his head from recoiling. He does not like this word. Meta is cerebral. Meta is heady and theoretical. He doesn’t lust after theory. Theory doesn’t cuddle up in bed. He very much likes the look of this woman, plus she’s clever, and quick. He already wants a second date, and more dates to follow. He hankers after a future that’s carnal, not self-referential.
So, now the meta’s out the bag, how do we charm her down from this lofty perch, for matters more earthly and earthy? He thinks on it. He even cogitates. Then ponders some more. Nope, nothing’s coming through the fog. He has no idea, he is stumped. Just keep talking and hope on? At this moment, this is a story of ‘male chutzpah’ (the conversation) versus ‘imposter syndrome’ (the fear that conversation is all he’s got). It is possible that once ago (maybe) he knew how to flirt, but plainly no longer. He wonders where he mislaid his flirty assets as he leaves the table, abandoning her, off to take his turn with the bathroom. (Hopefully his won’t be a marathon.)
He asks if she’ll still be here when he gets back? This line becomes a running joke over the first few dates. He feels bad because via humour he’s planting the seed – deviously, manipulatively acculturating her to his reality of toilets and deafness. That much of a catch.
The single cubicle is long and has a tall mirror. He checks his reflection to find his T shirt has become hitched to the waistband of his trousers, creating a kind of shelf that suggests a large-ish belly, when really he doesn’t have that. He fixes it straight away but this is very disappointing from his clothes.
When he gets back to the table she’s sitting there wondering what kind of green she’d call her coffee cup – the coffee cup he distinctly remembers as blue (or maybe grey). These difference will only become apparent much later, as for now they discuss their kids, their summer holidays, some of the things they like to do. He tells a story that references his partner of eight years (Ex No2), then kicks himself for excessive ex mentioning. He swiftly reverses out the back-end of the anecdote and ploughs forwards into another story, this one concerning his son. From here she asks several questions about parenting. When he mentions that his son doesn’t live with him as much these days, not like when he was growing up, she asks if the change in living arrangements had been hard.
No, he was ready for the change, it was time.
I mean, was it hard for you?
Of course he knew what she meant. Yes, it was difficult.
The light dims momentarily. She sees the pulse on the side of his throat. She thinks he looks sad. (‘Everyone who thinks is unhappy,’ wrote Sergei Dovlatov.) He tells her becoming a parent changed him emotionally. She says becoming a mother made her a grown-up.
They agree it’s time to go. With neither in the mood to schlepp round a crowded gallery, they decide to stroll downriver. He rises from the table at speed, then spins back round to grab his bag – pirouettes in the way of Zidane – and for the first time she thinks of him as physical. As they head toward the stairs she says, I bet you walked all the way up here today, didn’t you?
And I suspect you didn’t?
Lift. But I still got lost. Is it healthy to walk down stairs?
Why do you ask?
I think it’s the sort of thing you may know.
Going down any flight of stairs is a legitimate form of exercise, if you don’t use the rail. He says, An unassisted descent helps stabilise the core.This is contrary to a former partner, by the way, who was an exercise fiend and claimed that due to the laws of physics walking down stairs doesn’t count.
She thinks this is now four exes.
Of course, by ditching the hand rail, you may fall and die. But you will be a trim corpse.
When they get outside it is even hotter. They drift east on the crowded and baked walkway. With so many people coming at them, they get bunched together, almost touching. (But you were standing there so close to me/like the future was supposed to be.)
They walk past a young woman wearing a thick black puffa and black wool hat, sitting in the sun, staring at her shoes, as he leads them off path, away from the river, then down a shady route. In the quiet they discuss the weirdly boiling summer. He says these weeks of heat made him feel strange, not just lifeless, but anxious for no specific reason. She asks why anxious and he doesn’t answer properly so she tells him about her heatwave and what a challenge. She explains for personal reasons she doesn’t do well in hot weather. Then says she doesn’t usually tell first dates this kind of stuff.
He likes that she’s confiding. It’s a good sign, he decides, as they continue beyond London Bridge, wandering by chance into a sleepy hospital courtyard. The Italianate quadrangle is made of white and grey stone and is quiet and empty with a bunch of dark crows patrolling the scorched grass.
The daters cutaway from their walking sequence to a medium close-up on a bench tucked away out of the sun. The pair turn towards each other, legs almost touching, for a classic two shot. Their profiles fills the frame, with his left side facing her right side. But she’s not always sure about her right from left and remembers it the other way round.
|where is your head?|
In the peaceful hospital garden, they breathe deeply and slowly, and with the change of pace speak more thoughtfully, becoming absorbed in a deeper conversation concerning the unconscious. In this moment, some circumlocution seems unavoidable, as he tells her, if he’s being honest – he accepts this is difficult, because she’s a therapist, and all that – but, to be game and truthful, he’s not sure, not one hundred percent, that he can accept, in full, the idea of an unconscious.
He dips his head. Yes.
She tries not to look horrified. She listens to his query and considers her words carefully. She tells him that in her view Freud can be read in an active and interpretive mode, that his ideas are not so much science, but art, or perhaps poetry; and poetry can often express meaning through the conjuring of myth. He sighs as he admits that the idea of myth is seductive. He looks at her steadily and with curiosity as she speaks and knows by now that he is deeply attracted. But the attraction doesn’t mean he’s just buying the unconscious. Therein they have their first difference – only took him two hours to locate.
Perhaps it is our differences not the match-ups that make us more compelling. Or is this not so? ‘Our research has shown that friends tend to resemble each other,’ reports Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University, ‘a phenomenon known as homophily. Now it seems we have proof that it also applies to romantic partners… For a relationship to last… you really need to be interested in the same things and have the same attitudes to life – otherwise you just end up arguing all the time.’
So his blatant alterity, the state of being other and different on the subject of the unconscious self, oozing divergence by questioning the existence of an inaccessible part of his mind teeming with unacknowledged drives – what should he do about it, this rank state of denial, sticking out like a disagreeable stump? He could cave on the spot. Say, you’re right, how can I resist you, it must be true. Embrace, or at least copy her conviction on the subject; and in this replication confirm desire as mimetic. After all, ‘The highest capacity for producing similarities is man’s,’ wrote Walter Benjamin.
Instead he considers a better way of connecting their dilemma to its fix. That the manner in which his date has turned Freud into a tale of poetry and myth – an agreeable bundle of ideas, to which he responds enthusiastically – extracts a sense of compatibility out of an apparent difference; thus confirming their homophilic tendencies. Which means they won’t ever have to disagree about psychoanalysis again. Doesn’t it?
In the months to come they enjoy recurring discussions on the unconscious – back, and forth, Yes, No – remaining at variance. The debates are always good tempered. (She even offers him a reading list.)
But that was for the winter. For now, they sit in the hospital grounds discussing therapy. She tells him about transference, becoming absorbed as a small husk floats down from the lowest branch of an overhanging tree, landing on the outskirts of her hair. As he watches the husk settle, he wonders if he should do something. Although he continues to listen attentively, inside he wrestles over the correct course of action concerning the new addition to her locks. Rather pointlessly wrestling as in fact he’s already decided to take action – reaching across at the same time of warning that something is attached there; asking if he should take it out, just as he begins to remove the intruding item. She says, Yes, but he’s already done it. And both in his heart and head he knows that he’d transgressed by purporting to seek while not actually gaining consent.
He owns up immediately. Not through honesty, but because his duplicity is too visible. She smiles at his confession as the conversation opens up around consent. He tells her a story. He says it isn’t appropriate perhaps, then reports how not so long ago he spent the night with a woman who stayed over at his place, but declined to have sex on the grounds that they’d both been drinking. She wasn’t drunk, and me neither. She maybe had two glasses of wine. She’s no boozer. But this was enough for her to feel uncertain if she was fully consenting. He wonders if she was too cautious, over-zealous, or sensible. We slept together, nonetheless, but we didn’t sleep together, if you see what I mean.
Wow, she says, But most people would never have sex if this was the law. There’d be no babies!
He replies, But yeah, and yet this is sort of the law as it currently exists.
She says, Oh. She considers for a moment and tells him this is an idea that she needs to reflect on further.
He says, Well, it is a complex matter. He tells her that anyway he did eventually sleep with the woman, in the full sense – the next time they got together.
He recognises that the last sentence is superfluous the second it spills from his lips. As she also knows it the moment he closes his mouth. Is that the fifth ex he’s mentioned this afternoon?
|I’m so greedy for your job, your job|
LATER – Still in Bed (Part Two)
He is at this moment positioned on top of the interlocutor of his dreams, this woman with the moon in her eyes, both wrists pinned above her head. Her long tangled hair is filmically thrown across the pillow as a set designer might have arranged it. The pillowcase, which is off-white and has an interesting scalloped border, holds her face and neck and shoulders in suspension, as in this moment she closes her eyes and turns her face toward the window, which is shuttered.
The window might be shuttered. But the blogger is still open. He sees there must be limits to what gets written up. And that it is impossible to speak on his lover’s behalf. He could never know precisely, in detail, how it was for her. ‘Rashness is one of the properties of illness,’ begins Virginia Woolf’s essay On Being Ill; but in seeking not to overshare, or misrepresent the headspace of another, the following representation is partial and largely singular.
Their first time in bed together continues. Their vocalisations cleave to the usual erotic landscape, the grampian terrain of peaks and lulls, rising then falling away before rising again. As he pushes harder, she exhales enthusiastically. Harder, enthusiastic. Harder, brings forth more enthusiastic exhalations – issuing from him as well as from her. And it continues. Harder, faster, quicker, harder, faster, quicker, harder… Until suddenly, he feels the familiar rising sensation as he soars dangerously close to take off. (Or is the correct metaphor landing?) Whichever the trope for orgasm, he doesn’t want one. Not yet. Only a few minutes into shag number one is much too early. (He thinks.) The joy of sex should joyously last for longer. He must slow down, shift angle, adjust the rhythm, pause, without appearing to flag, and perform some emergency brain work. Think un-erotically. Consider a flushed Nigel Farage giving a hate speech. Think of George Osborne. George Osborne in lederhosen. Osborne wrestling with Farage – both of them in green leiderhosen. Think of a heap of CDs being upended into a rubbish skip in slow motion. Picture a bucket of black tar. Imagine snow and ice and tundra and arctic winds.
Okay – dealt with. We have successfully averted a premature landing; which won’t be coming back any time soon. It actually won’t be coming back at all. (This to be discussed later.)
As they cross the river, headed for Liverpool Street, with the first date starting to wind down, he regrets a second time that he knows so little poetry. She wonders at his memory for saying the same thing twice. He frets at the banality of the repeated statement as a grown man shuffles past them with a yellow water pistol in his fist.
Not enough poetry for a man his age, he says. And wonders why now does he feel such a lack, and so keenly that he’s compelled to moan. He senses a deficit perhaps, a rhetorical depletion, requiring the words of others to support his own – expensive words from talented people, probably dead, to keep her attention and vanquish meta, turning talk into go-to-bed.
She asks does he like the changing London skyline as the new generation of high-rise towers draw closer. He shakes his head. (A thousand flowers could bloom.) Ego architecture, he says confidently. Show-off towers. He resists saying penis extensions. And then says penis extensions. The outsize child-like shape of the Gherkins, Walkie Talkies, Boomerangs and Cheese Graters, suggest an overbearing, hypertrophied capitalism – not what Marx meant by the ’emancipation of the senses’. (He says maybe something like this; memory is a tricky business.)
A river speedboat comes close to the bridge, doing circles, chopping up the water. He continues raving at the buildings as overblown gestures, as neurotic sky hogs, the fragile towers of a city on the verge of nervous breakdown. She tells him she sees it differently. London is a city teeming with life, she says, so much life that inevitably it’s always on the make, blaring with noise and energy, as well as surplus capital, and arguably preset to periodically throw up splashy gargantuan trophy towers. He says, Maybe. He thinks it is a clever theory. He may use it himself.
At the train station, the human flow streaming in and out of the drop-entrance fades away as he asks if she’d like to meet again.
She says, Yes. How about you?
Yes, very much, he replies.
|the built environment|
This parting, the conclusion of their date, is underscored using a pillow shot fixed upon a row of brightly coloured flags – yellow, blue, red and orange flags, with the last one green. And after five seconds of flags, dissolve to a static aerial view of an elevated railway line headed out of Liverpool St.
On the journey home, shuttling across the plains of east London, she looks at her phone and then out at the view, wondering who was this man she met this afternoon? What did he share on launch date, selected extracts of a lively mental apparatus, or his real, true, authentic self?
There is of course a problem concerning our true self, specifically as we hover on the threshold of another green world. In this transformative dream-like heterotopia, realm, dell, or vale – where romance causes lovers to metamorphose – individuals are, for sure, in a state of becoming. Romance is a primary marker of human change. We do not simply continue on same as we ever were. In Conneckticut, in the space between what was and what will be, he must partly lose himself as he is reshaped. He should arrive to her apparently real, solid, integrated and reasonably well made – or she probably won’t choose him – while also presenting as flexlike, ductile, malleable as wet clay, amenable to being rejigged, to becoming another version of Him, as we reach out to meet one another, launching the process of partly merging.
That’s the idea, the puzzle, and this is his challenge.
After she’s gone, he crosses back over the river. Sitting on the bus heading home, he spot-reviews his matinee turn and considers his performance mixed. Not an award-winning brand ambassador for himself, too many blunders (the dumb poetry bleats, his nudnik rave on bad buildings), but not essentially repellent, which is your base level requirement on date one.
Plainly, he’s too close to be his best critic. His best critic would be her. He starts composing a thoroughly witty text, in which her task is to evaluate aspects of this afternoon’s production, following a scale of one to ten, and then abandons the idea as too coy and not sharp enough for the likes of her. So, he just sends that he had a great time and she replies, Me also, the hours just flew by!
In the weeks to follow her communication would fluctuate between friendly and reserved, warm and confused. They had well over a month to work through before their debut sleepover. He said, finally, Who are you, what do you want? She said, I’m the cat that keeps coming to your yard.
LATER – The Day After
Next morning, sat in her slanted bed, drinking tea. So much to say, to find out, to get to know. Now they are intimate, he can ask leading questions like, What you thinking? What do you reckon about last night, about us, me? Does she think he’s nice, does she like his nose, his sense of humour, his penis? And yet, and yet, this is what he asks instead, Does she have a cat?
No, I don’t.
He shrugs. I think you’d like one.
She says she doesn’t see a kitten in her life any time soon. As he nods and sips his tea, he remembers a fragment from last night’s dream – a cool, logical scene in a white cube gallery, where an unknown woman told him to stop biting his nails.
They stay in bed until lunchtime. And then he has to leave. He texts her saying she does great sleepovers and they agree to meet again soon. And they will.
As he writes this, it is late summer 2019, and he and Gala have been close almost a year. Next week, they go on holiday. They have much to be pleased about. But as he looks back to last autumn, to that first night in her collapsing bed, he regrets taking evasive action. He was almost there, primed to deliver the romantic tribute. But he had to go stop himself. He could claim it was self-sacrificing, chivalrous, polite, but it was all vanity. Three minutes felt fast and callow. And then later, many months after, she tells him something. She says in passing that so far as her lifetime’s experience goes, men worry too much about stamina. They seem to feel they must go for ages, for hours almost. But really, if it’s lively, energetic, passionate, what’s so wrong with thirty seconds?
I’m teasing. Do you know when I’m teasing? But three minutes?
Right. It’s not a productivity contest.
She shakes her head. No, it isn’t that.
He whips out his laptop. Some surface research reveals an actual term for the length of time a man lasts during penetrative sex with a woman – IELT, Intravaginal Ejaculatory Latency Time. IELT comes with an average duration: ‘Worldwide normative studies indicate that heterosexual males in stable relationships have an approximate five to six minutes median (average) intravaginal ejaculatory latency time (IELT).’
So there it is: three minutes leans towards brief for ‘time spent in penile-vaginal containment or thrusting.’ But who cares, really, three minutes, four, five, ten minutes, it all sounds pretty marvellous next to thirty, forty, fifty, sixty minutes, and still no pennies from heaven.
Through the heady passionate break-out months of their involvement, libidos cranked, very rarely was there any kind of male relief. It’s quite the bitter joke. With desire in abundance, with everything on the rise; in bed with an attractive, attentive, receptive, enthusiastic lover possessing ready supplies of curiosity and patience – yet still no delivery. In Three Women, journalist Lisa Taddeo suggests that the male sex story ‘mostly… ends in the stammering pulses of orgasm… [while] the woman’s [sex story] was often just beginning’. What happens to the male story if there isn’t any pulse, no spasm, no ‘closing salvo of the orgasm’? This is when a blog piece about dating recasts as a story of absurdity under the duvet, a farce of physical and emotional dismay that gradually changes into a tale of revision and ingenuity, of grazing and simmering, of re-ups, and the near triumph of the ill. This wasn’t the transformation of another green world he had been expecting.
Meanwhile, he was referred to a urologist.
Permission for disclosures in this piece was provided by the parties involved
The Green World as a transforming place of desire owes something to Northrop Frye and also Stanley Cavell with Pursuits of Happiness