lovelife, midlife, screen, words

Deja Bloody View. Did Gwyneth Run Away with Reese’s Spoon, Again?

I know a man who many years ago went on holiday to Greece with his girlfriend. And on the flight out she dumped him.

Two summers later, the man went to Greece on holiday again, with another woman. Heading out on the plane together, she also ended it. (This man wasn’t me.)

I recently told a friend at work of this peculiar tale of lightning striking the same man twice – at 30,000 feet. He was appalled. He said it was the most miserable thing he’s heard in ages. I nodded. But, in truth, the shock waned a long time ago, as the dumped man’s painful experiences alchemised into a quirky anecdote – confirming the basic law of humour, that Comedy = Tragedy + Time. (But was it comedian Steve Allen who said it first, or did Mark Twain beat him to it?)

But why did the girlfriends do the ending at the beginning of the holiday? Was it a mishandled attempt to do the right thing? The guy they ditched is a nice person. Maybe the girlfriends worried the holiday could be misread as a serious step up the commitment ladder – one that they weren’t ready to take.
Although at first my workmate found the story extraordinary, after he’d thought about it a while, he remembered something similar happened to a man he once knew. 

And then I recalled how my sister broke up with a bloke on the first night of a camping holiday with our family. 

She was 17 and he was her first serious boyfriend. It was August, and it rained a lot through the week. Her new ex, normally a straight-edged guy, went haywire, doing uncharacteristic and reckless things. Our camp site was situated in the grounds of a stately home built to look like a castle. One night he led a slightly drunk, 15-year-old version of me, up onto the roof, and we shined our torches from the rickety parapets at campers leaving the shower block in the courtyard below. One camper started to run away from the mysterious light in the sky and my sister’s ex laughed so much he peed his pants.
death of the author, Marlene Dumas

In the early stages of the break up from Vela (she’s ex no 2, the cause of all the recent turmoil), I was made to sleep on the so-called ‘luxury’ fold out bed. Ten years earlier, I’d gone through the same grisly routine breaking-up with ex no1, the mother of Annoying Son.

Some evenings, I look at the cigarette in my hand – evenings, because I only smoke after dark – and wonder if it’s this nicotine addiction that will kill me, or the cumulative toll of the setbacks and break-ups. 

How much does it take out of a person? All of those lonely nights, dispatched from the conjugal bed, exiled to the Siberia of the fold out … Martha Gellhorn described the heart as ‘pierced’ or ‘diseased’ when a relationship goes wrong.  ‘A broken heart is… like poverty… failure and… incurable diseases.’ 

There’s a medically recognised ailment described as broken heart syndrome’, in which the lovelorn experience the symptoms of a heart attack, from enlarged ventricles to closed arteries. The condition mostly occurs with first-tier bereavements, like the death of a loved one. Still, we know and have felt, the burden a serious break-up brings forth. Usually loaded on top of which is a towering stack of practical, stress-making stuff: selling up the home, buying again, losing money, splitting the furniture and dividing up the tea towels, packing, unpacking, searching for the stopcock, the household income halved.
Each night, as I laid the ‘luxury’ fold out on the rug in the lounge, the same hard, strained thought wrapped itself around me: this is the bad time, it’s happening again. 

How could the bad time return like this after almost ten years? All those hours and days, the months and the years, all that time for modifying, tweaking, recasting and reshaping a life into something that would never break or go wrong again. It hadn’t worked. My life had turned full circle in a decade and here I was again, back sleeping on a fold out. But, second time around, my feet were sticking out the end of the duvet, and my toes were cold.
So, there’s really no such things as progress. Miserable John Gray was right after all: the Age of Enlightenment, and its notions of the perfectibility of man, was a sack of balls; we’re not going up, just going round and round in useless, defeating circles.

And my cold toes sticking out the end of the fold out was deja vu laced with a twist of farce.
Black and White Picture of a Ghost Going up some Dark Stairs
presque vu

Meanwhile, a recent story from BBC Magazine is deja vu laced with Hollyweird. The piece describes a man with ‘constant deja vu’, who was so profoundly afflicted that ‘he avoided watching television, listening to the radio and reading newspapers, because he felt he had “encountered it all before”.’ For eight years, the man felt ‘”trapped in a time loop”.’ 

Apparently there are several spin off deja vus.
One variation is presque vu – translated as ‘almost seen’ – which is the sense of being on the edge of an epiphany or realisation – perhaps grasping for a memory, or a half-completed thought just out of reach. 

Follow that thought! is a familiar presque vu. I remember the thought I didn’t follow that time waiting for a train with a girlfriend. She wouldn’t let me see a text she’d just sent. She always used to show me her texts. This one though, she abruptly stood up and crossed to the other side of the platform, where she deleted it from her phone. I decided she was being difficult, a bit prickly, and didn’t chase the thought any further. 

Many months later I found out that she burned the text because it was to a lover. She texted him right under my nose. The thought I didn’t follow was right under my bloody nose.
There’s also jamais vu – or never seen: the sensation that something which should be familiar is alien. A commonplace word suddenly seems strange. This lexical disorientation (also known as semantic satiation) often happens when the uninterrupted repetition of a word eventually leads to the word falling apart before your eyes – losing all meaning.
Déjà entendu – already heard – is when you feel sure you have heard something before, like a fragment of conversation, or a musical phrase. I don’t get entendu  I don’t know if this is because of, or inspite of, having poor hearing. And anyway, who wants to be Gene Hackman in The Conversation?

I was listening to you before Edward Snowden was even born!

A curious sidebar in the science of deja vu is its possible link to vertigo. I wrote previously about a fear of heights and Hitchcock’s film. The lead character’s pathological need to re-stage a failed relationship continues to resonate. I often still find myself revisiting key moments from my time with Vela – brain wilfully re-working past events and re-staging a failed relationship that I wish had gone well.

One medical treatment for helping with vertigo can cause patients to have a deja vu. This sort of fits with the story in the greatest film ever made – as it is James Stewart’s ‘vertigo’ that leaves him vulnerable and haunted, and eventually fixated on re-staging a lost relationship – in order to get it right second time around. And it is of course his vertigo which causes him to fail (as he must anyway), with the cursed relationship dying on him all over again.
The cause of deja vu is unclear – but is not due to a glitch in the Matrix. Some studies describe it as a neurological twitch: ‘a momentary “misfiring” of neurons in the brain, which creates false connections.’
This twitch might be triggered by a small detail – one of Barthes’s load-bearing punctums perhaps. It’s likely to be something genuinely familiar in our surroundings – the shape of a shadow, the way a room is set up, even the lay out of coffee spoons – that sparks a false memory. In this way the ‘genuinely familiar’ rebels, becoming a treacherous agent of disruption that transforms the safe into the unsettling.
Deja vu rises and falls with age. The prime time for experiencing them is from age 15 to 25. This makes sense, as the ‘genuinely familiar’ sits well with a young person’s certainties about the world. 

In my 20s, I was very, very sure, of so, so much. My speaking style was affirmative; I didn’t use ers, or ems, at the front of sentences. I was most often near certain I knew what’s what – or that I was going to find out pretty soon – and therefore quite declarative in my speech.
A pair of feet close to a trip wire on the edge of some grass

The ers and ems started when I hit my 40s. In the fifth decade life is more grey and less sure. These are the years rigged with existential  tripwires, with more trapdoors than Tintin or the Famous Five.

Jacket Cover for Enid Blyton's Five Go to Smuggler's Top
watch your feet!

One feature of the uncertain middle years was the way I started to doubt where I lived. I couldn’t be sure whether it was Stroud Green, Upper Holloway or Priory Park? And where did I move to next? Was it South Lambeth, Vauxhall or Oval?

It wasn’t like this through my 20s, when I categorically lived in Streatham, Paris, Hammersmith and Camberwell. This locus uncertainty continues and is partly a belated appreciation of the confusing sprawl of city geography – with its fluxes, cranes, wrecking balls, and never ending mutations. But the blurriness is also perceptual and psychological.
At the cinema, throughout my 30s, I felt nagged by a strange feeling that the actor on the screen was someone else. But who? And where had I seen them before? 

It was a strange perplexing distraction. I tried to rationalise it away,  as a symptom of Hollywood glut maybe – where an industry’s tendency to churn out repetitive vehicles, leads to a bland generic cinema that’s samey, where everything starts to remind you of something else. 

The glut is often compounded by the adjoining cramped career phenomenon, where there’s only so many roles going round,  and actors become interchangeable. And therefore Lori Singer and Daryl Hannah end up sub-dividing careers, leaving viewers open to confusion. Was that Elizabeth Shue or Kim Basinger we just watched? Did Gwyneth run away with Reese’s spoon? Or was it originally Charlize and Rene’s in a part-share? And there’s also the related ‘ethnic’ compress, with Salma and J-Lo required to figure as broad Latin; even though one is from Mexico, and the other from the block.
One day, my spooky big screen confusion followed me out of the cinema, all the way home and onto my TV. But with a twist, as this time the character I saw onscreen reminded me of me. 

It was during an episode of NYPD Blue when I saw a man who had my eyes, my brow and my lips. He was a minor character with a just a few lines, but seemed like a nice guy to me. Something he said didn’t sit right with Caruso though. And when the intense cop returned to ask more questions, my doppelganger betrayed a possible darkside by bolting. He scarpered out the window, down the fire escape, and outran Caruso during an urban chase on foot. Thereafter he was lost in the narrative, never to be seen again.
do I know you?

It was during the same period in my life that I once caught sight of a man on the tube who was my doppelgänger  He was in the next carriage. When he got off the train at Tottenham Court Road station, I got off tooIt wasn’t my stop and I didn’t have a plan. I just knew that I had to follow him. 

But I quickly lost my likeness, as he sprinted up the stairs, while I got stuck behind a crowd of Italian tourists. I watched his head disappear round the corner at the top, with me still stuck at the bottom. By the time I barged my way up, he was long gone, leaving me with three blind corridors to choose from.

Having already broken my journey, I decided to go wild and get a coffee. I walked up the escalator to street level, still looking out for ‘me’ on the off chance. Leaving the station, I walked to a sidestreet cafe I knew, and wrote down what had just happened on a fresh page in my red notebook. It felt like a short story to work on – like something by Cortazar or the start of a novel by Javier Marías. I half remembered films by Rivette that seemed to fit.
Staring out the cafe window, stuck between sentences, and trying to block out the sound of the barista banging the metal filter on the zinc counter, a man, the man, my man, suddenly walked past – right in front of me! He looked in through the window, and I stared straight back. Our eyes locked as we shared a gaze of mutual recognition. 

But our mirror doubletake was brief, as we both realised on closer inspection that we only resembled each other just a little bit. I’d got completely carried away earlier (or maybe my subconscious craving caffeine had carried me away).

The wouldbe doppleganger abruptly broke-off his gaze and continued on his journey without another glance. And I returned to my notebook. 

But I quickly lost interest in the short story idea. After all, the urban uncanny is a well-trodden path. I’m not the only one who finds dopplegangers interesting; and I’m certainly not the first – there’s Borges and Sebald and Nabokov. They also go down well at the cinema.

Saramago once wrote a novel about doubles. Dostoyevsky the same. Melville or Edgar Alan Poe must have covered the same ground, or at least thought about it. Saki, Roald Dahl, Calvino?

It’s getting crowded in here.