Posts Tagged ‘singleness’
I’m moving house. I’m tired of the dripping tap and the leak under the sink, and I’m tired of plumbers who do things like ransack my kitchen bowls to mix grout in. I don’t want needles and broken WKD bottles on my doorstep, and I don’t want to live next to a main road. So I’ve been looking, and it’s been hell.
The first flat we viewed was a cheap studio. It was on a private road, in a grand building with stained glass windows. A stained glass face looked back at me in the bathroom, next to the toilet tank, which was over the bath. In the bedroom, there was a single bed.
“Is it possible,” I asked, “to bring my double bed?”
“Where would we put this one?” The landlord spread his hands in helplessness. The tip, I was tempted to suggest.
“I’m afraid it’s a dealbreaker.” I told him.
“You’re not allowed a double bed in a studio,” he said , “it’s illegal. If the environmental health inspector came round…” I managed to get control of my eyebrows before they rose too far, and I nodded, as if to an excited lunatic or toddler. I edged towards the door.
I knew they were Christians, someone had placed Church pamphlets in the hallway, and these men had the shoes of pamphleteers. Single people, I surmised, must be prevented from fornication by any means possible, including the restriction of space. I didn’t bring up the oodles of hot, sweaty, lesbian sex I’ve had in single beds. The conversation got around to my current landlord, and my flat above a church. “Oh! You know Rev. Awfully-Important!” was quickly followed by, “about the bed, I’m sure we can work something out.” Do Christian contacts legitimate sprawling sex, or do they just provide a guarantee that you’re not going to get up to anything naughty?
In the next place I looked at, a dingy hallway led to a dingy living room, where the current tenant sat in a beanie and hoodie next to the gas fire. The kitchen was a galley overhung by mysterious boxes of wires and the bedroom, looking out onto the road, prominently displayed a conversation-piece fuse box. The shower room was mottled with mould. “We expect it to go very quickly.” Smiled the letting agent.
“I’ll let you know.” I said. I sat outside in the car, and wondered what I’d done to deserve this.
If I was single and wealthy, this would be easy. Single and poor is different. Single makes everything more expensive. If I had a partner, we’d be going halves on a one, two or three bed property, any of which would be cheaper than all of a studio. And they’d be nicer.* The rooms would be bigger, the kitchen would be suitable for culinary activities more complex than heating a tin of soup. If I were in a live-in relationship, not only would I have another contributor to housing costs, but there’s a chance that contributor would have a full time job. A full time job gets you a mortgage, a mortgage gets you somewhere cheaper than a rental property where you’re allowed to put up shelves and paint the skirting boards with polka dots. Suddenly, you’re not looking round dark, mouldering rooms with mysterious stains on pieced-together carpets. You’re looking at somewhere you might actually want to live.
I know it doesn’t always work like that. I know I could be shackled to a man who drinks the mortgage payments, or insists (horror!) on eschewing a proper career to pursue dreams like publication. Nevertheless, pairing up does more than just double your chances of finding at least one stable income. The world is set up for couples, and living alone is an aberration, something that should only be attempted from a position of great wealth and privilege.
Most single people can comfort themselves with the thought that they will, someday, find the person they want to live with. For us polyamorous types, it’s more complicated. Many people simplify it by dividing their love lives into ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ relationships, so that the romance-mortgage-Labrador-children path can be pursued with a designated partner, while the others know where they stand. Those picked as a primary by another partner presumably stand in the gardens of their nice homes, while the passed-over secondaries lurk in their dingy studios. The primary/secondary hierarchy feels, to me, nasty and degrading. I don’t rank my friends by importance, why would I do that to my partners? Whatever it is that we’re doing, whether it’s fucking or sailing or drinking tea, it has an integrity which shouldn’t be belittled by a statement of someone else’s primacy. And so I muddle along, hoping not to stand on too many toes, and being grateful for the accommodations made for me.
But back to housing. The lover already has a house. It’s a very nice house, and I envy him, but he lives in it with his wife. Perhaps some poly families live together in mansions in a big, hippish love-in. All I can say is that even if you like me very much, living with me is a trial. To do it for your partner, you’d have to be a saint. One of the dead ones.
Realistically, I’m on my own. I’m going to pay a high price for my obstinacy in refusing to find myself an unentangled partner. I could look on the bright side and reflect that solo living means freedom, but I’ve seen too many horrible flats recently to feel that’s true. Nevertheless, I’ve picked one, a tiny flat with oddly-shaped rooms and a door opening directly from the living room onto the driveway. And I’m determined to turn this relationship to account, because if there’s one thing I’m bad at, it’s moving.
My usual approach is to begin packing the week before. Then, the day before the move, I look around with surprise at my home, wondering where I got so much stuff. I discover that the first boxes I packed block access to other possessions, and that they’re too heavy to lift. I despair of one room and move to another. I think about stopping for lunch, but remember that there’s nothing left in the house but frozen puff pastry and the mung beans that have survived five house moves unopened, so I begin to pack the spices and spill turmeric over my hands. Eventually a friend or lover calls by and pretends to help, but really spends their time berating me about the apparently inefficient or dangerous way I’m filling the car. At some point we give up, unpack the duvet, and fall into bed. The next day, at the other end, tired and hungry, I look at the piles of boxes and begin to assess the damage to my possessions. I imagine a life with an adequate number of bookcases and begin to make alphabetised piles of books which topple in the night.
This time it’s going to be different. This time I’m going to buy a bed before I move in, not make a nest of duvets on the floor and wait until Christmas. I’m already preparing. I increased my stock of teaspoons fourfold this week—the lover’s wife gave me some.
The lover says he know how to do this. He knows where to buy furniture and how to get an awkwardly shaped object down the stairs, he knows how to Tetris a car and measure a sofa. He knows, he says, how to get me to my new home with little crying and most of my things.** Polyamory, leaves me in a very small flat, but if it gets me to my new flat without a tantrum, I’ll sing it’s praises to the skies.
*’Ah!’ you’re thinking, ‘but she could share a house!’ I could, but past experience shows that I’m not a very nice person in the mornings, and I’m untidy and intolerant at all times of day. Also, my income currently relies on having a space to entertain clients in private for up to three hours at a time, and housemates blundering in with take away wouldn’t really add to what I’m trying to achieve.
**In case you’re doubting the lover’s ability, he has already shown himself to have house-inspecting talents far beyond mine. He pointed out in one place, for example, that it wasn’t possible to get in the shower while standing up, and that in any case it would flood the flat downstairs.
I think it was the all-girls schooling. Or maybe my father didn’t read me enough adventure stories at bedtime when I was child. Whatever the reason, I simply can’t make male friends. I think I may give up and become a lesbian separatist or a nun.
It usually goes like this: I’ll meet a man who knows something interesting, or tells amusing stories, or is simply there when I’m alone, clutching a wineglass and canapé hoping, desperately, for someone who doesn’t mind me hanging around. We’ll have a good enough time to make it worth exchanging contact details. We’ll meet again and at the end of one of these meetings, I’ll leave thinking, “It was all in my mind. Of course I can make male friends, it’s easy, look how comfortable we are together!” Little do I know that as I’m thinking this, he’s staring fixedly at my receding backside.
If there’s a feeling of disappointment when, on some future date, I check that I haven’t spilled something on my top and realise that there are only two things he could be staring at, there’s also a sense of hope. Any number of people might like me on spec, but to still find me attractive once you know about the unshaven legs and the Ke$ha albums seems unlikely, if not veritably perverse. So when sex or spanking is suggested* I tend to think, “well, at least he’s heard about the schoolgirl outfits, so he won’t run, screaming, freaked out by the kinkery.”
I have fun—what would be the point if I didn’t?—and feel a few smug moments of pity for others who have to put up with blokes there every night making the bed stinky in order to get what I can have for a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon, if it suits. Then, inevitably, one of two awful things happens: Either he declares his undying love, or he declares that I’ll never be worthy of such adulation. The former generally terminates the friendship. The latter just makes a big mess.
After all, it’s one thing to know that someone thinks you’re fun, worth talking to on the phone and going out of the way to visit. It’s entirely another to be told that you’re good enough to do that with, but not of the necessary material for anything more. That’s perfectly horrid! Suddenly I’m second best (or third best, or fourth, I hate to think! I’ve managed to prevent anyone communicating my official ranking to date). The good times together are sucked dry, it instantly becomes clear that while I was enjoying my friend’s company, he was killing time until someone better showed up. That isn’t a nice thought, even if it’s exactly what I was doing with him.
Fortunately, I seem to be perfecting the process with practice, and it’s definitely speeding up. A couple of years ago it took months for a male friend to work up to a declaration of love. I’ve had two communications of intention not to from men in one season, and neither of them took more than a week. This saves a lot of time and energy, but doesn’t exactly solve the problem.
I feel like I’m playing cowboys and Indians, complete with feather headdress and slightly-too-short Princess Tiger Lily dress, when suddenly everyone puts down their toy guns to tell me whether they’re really intending to go to war. While I’m still tied up. I’m usually enjoying our game, but it feels childish to bring that up while everyone is talking about grown up things.
Can you help? I need to discover the following things:
1. How does one distinguish men who fancy you politely from men who don’t fancy you at all? Is there some sort of handshake?
2. What are rules regulating intersexual friendship? Are there taboo topics for the chaste? (I ask this after realising I discussed my knickers which two men last week. I asked the second if it was inappropriate, but he assured me it was a perfectly acceptable topic).
3. How does one assure a man that he doesn’t need to assure you that he’s not getting overly attached, without inadvertently perpetuating the cycle of insult or slipping down the slope towards in infinite regress of reassurance?
Failing that, does anyone know of a nunnery with spaces for irreligious types?
*Or sex and spanking. According to vanilla custom, sex is suggested, and spanking may be tentatively put forward as a possibility after that proposal is accepted. In the kinky world, it’s the other way around, because we know that sex is the really weird, gross, thing.
What is a girl to do when she doesn’t want a relationship, but does want to be spanked? She’s to sit in rooms of people who like giving spankings, and look hopeful. Or in my case, look shy and concentrate on her knitting. Tonight I’m going, alone, to Club Lash. I’ve spent two evenings sewing my Little Red Riding Hood outfit. What I haven’t done, though, is work out how to talk to strangers. This makes it unlikely that I’ll find my Big Bad Wolf.
I spend a lot of time at the edge of groups. The habit must have formed at school, when to escape the queuing and noise of the dining hall I would take an apple to the library and spend an hour with Tennyson. By the time I left school I could recite the whole of The Lady of Shalott, but hadn’t worked out how to unobtrusively join a table of acquaintances. It turns out that in day to day life, there’s more call for the latter.
If setting down my tray is a challenge, imagine how much more difficult it is to strike up a conversation in a fetish club. “Have you learned this week’s Latin vocab?”doesn’t have an obvious kinky equivalent (or maybe it does. If you think of one, do add it as a comment). Standing in the corner at a kinky party I can feel as alienated as I did on the hockey field. Watching someone insert needles into his girlfriend’s flesh, or instructing an acquaintance to lick her boots, I have as little understanding of their pleasures as I did of the girls clashing sticks in the mud—maybe less. I don’t feel like part of the group. I want to do the grown-up equivalent of retreating to the library and burying myself in Tennyson, but since I accidentally gave up smoking recently, I can’t even do that.
I continue conversations with various people on kinky websites, but very few of them go anywhere and most of them fizzle out in due to business or disgust at my correspondent’s poor spelling and grammar. Very few of them lead to friendships or play.
The result is that my forays into kink have been mostly limited to visits to HH. I may not feel like part of his group, but his group isn’t present, and at his house browsing the library seems to be an acceptable activity. The dark side of getting to know HH has been the appearance of his wider circle in my online life (and the pain and suffering, but judging by the photos and the damage, his hand is getting lighter).* Soon after I mentioned his name on this blog, I found myself mentioned on theirs, their comments on mine, and a host of new, interesting people appearing on my Twitter feed. They are friendly and nice. Recently some of them have advised me on feeling safe when I meet strange men from the internet and comforted me during panics at the prospect of purchasing train tickets. You may be thinking that I should appreciate the way everyone is so warm and welcoming in this online world. I do, but I also feel like a fraud.
What would happen if they met me? This voyeuristic reader of blogs and tweets? There are any number of things they could dislike about me in real life, from pre-caffeine grumpiness to an inability to participate in conversations about popular culture. That troubles me less, though, than them discovering that I’m a wimp. All the time they haven’t seen me, I’m able to maintain the delusion that I’m a bit like them. In the same way that I’m able to feel an indefinable sense of fellowship with other shoppers at the organic, vegan supermarket. “You,” I whisper in my mind, “are like me. You take joy in the vibrant colours of squashes, the meaty firmness of tofu and the scratchy fabric of a fair-trade, organic shopping bag.” Kinksters, I’d like to think, find a pleasure similar to mine in the livid reds of cane stripes and the pale shades of vulnerability. That’s all very nice in theory, but the people at the vegan supermarket have never seen me nip across the road afterwards for a box of eggs, and, with the exception of HH, no one knows quite how much of a wimp I am.
My last punishment was a caning for not buying train tickets in good time (although the logic behind this escapes me). I was shaking as I bent over. I was sweating before the first stroke even landed. When it did, I thought I wouldn’t be able to take the rest. I didn’t think I would even be able to take the next one. The pain and the fear were excruciating. During every second it was happening I wanted it to stop. I begged and pleaded when he had hardly begun. The last shred of my dignity vanished with the first swish of the cane. That evening, I counted five lines across my buttocks. Of a meagre eight strokes, only five had landed with sufficient impact to leave a mark. It was nowhere near as bad as my first caning. With shame, I realised that I had made an inordinate fuss. Do I think I can be braver next time? Hardly.
Other people in the kink world appear to have dignity, bravery, and sensible pain thresholds. They may reasonably, if erroneously, expect the same of me, and are sure to be disappointed. It seems safer to lurk at the edges and look in. Is there a community of kinky wusses? If you meet anyone who likes beating wimpy girls, send them over, I’ll be sitting in the corner, wearing a red cape and reading Mariana.
* In the interests of transparency, I should admit that I’d engaged with the blog and twitter feed of one interesting spanking model HH knows before I met him. A friend I know through spiritual and campaigning groups was following her. I don’t like to think about it.
I cried today because I couldn’t start the lawnmower. I don’t know what I did wrong. I put the slidy thing in the right position, beside the lightning bolt, I held down the lever on the handle and I pulled the string many, many times. I discovered on the first pull that the handle on the string hurts my fingers, so I got out a cloth and used it for cushioning. Then I pulled and pulled and pulled. I had three goes today, and during the last one I pulled that string twenty-one times. I think I’ve also pulled a muscle in my right side. The grass isn’t any shorter, though.
It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? I’m twenty-six, I’ve travelled the world, lived alone, got an MA and learned to make passable jams and dresses. I’m a responsible adult. Nevertheless, I can’t mow the lawn.
I’m slightly confused. I recognise I’m not strong or mechanically minded. In fact, when I was fourteen my Design and Technology teacher greeted my mother at parents’ evening with a stricken face and the words, “she’s not thinking of doing DT for GCSE, is she?!” I wonder, though, what proportion of the population is strong and mechanically minded. I don’t have bulging muscles, but I am young and fit. How do older people cut their lawns? I know plenty of middle aged, divorced women who almost wobble when you look at them. Do they live with meadows out the back?
The uncut lawn isn’t the end of the world. At some point my father will come home and do it himself. He’ll be slightly frustrated because he’d asked me to do it, and perhaps he’ll even suspect that I’m feigning weakness to get out of the chore. The matter isn’t helped by the fact that his glamorous girlfriend is a real, honest to god, Independent Woman. When a lass has her own scaffolding, you can pretty much guarantee that she would laugh in the face of lawnmowers. I know that some women escape girly uselessness, I just can’t work out how to do it myself.
I hate it when the misogynists assume that I can’t do things for myself. Being a woman doesn’t mean that I’m weak. It can be even worse, though, when the feminists assume that I’m strong. I’m not. Admitting that I can’t start the lawnmower, or that I struggle to open the garage door, makes me feel like I’m not a proper feminist. I’m not strong enough to be one.
I mentioned in a previous post that I lost my keys a couple of weeks ago, and found myself stranded twenty miles from my locked house. The keys turned up in someone else’s handbag. They had been discovered that very night, as I was searching the dance hall for them. The owner of the handbag wanted to drive back and give them to me. I think a phone call would have done the trick, myself. She did neither, though, because her friend told her, “she’s a strong, independent woman, she’ll be fine.”
I was fine, not because I was strong and independent, but because I had help. I’m not quite sure what “strong” and “independent” meant, in the context, unless they implied “wealthy enough to pay for a hotel and a taxi.” I don’t know when proving we weren’t princesses waiting in towers for knights in shining armour became being totally unreliant on anyone other than ourselves.
Feminists, please give over. Congratulations if you have superpowers, I’m afraid I don’t. All of us, men and women, need help sometimes. Occasionally we even have to be rescued. For now, though, all I want is for someone to show me how to start the lawnmower.
I get tired of representations of single women. There seem to be two options: the desperate, pathetic girl, seeking her one true love, in the style of Bridget Jones; or the strong, successful woman who hasn’t yet realised that fulfilment will come when she meets her man and sacrifices her independence for something better. What binds them? The great, gaping man-shaped hole in a single woman’s life. Men don’t get the same treatment, the assumption seems to be that, for them, single life involves the favourable absence of scatter cushions and the freedom to have sex with a lot of different women.
Life isn’t really a romantic comedy, so I’ll step away from the stereotypes for a minute. A couple of weeks ago a new acquaintance asked me if I had a boyfriend. When I said no, he said, “we’ll have to get you one, then.” I wanted so say “No, we really don’t!” but it would have seemed rude.
I spend so much time fighting other people’s expectations that there’s no room for the truth about being single. When someone assumes that a single woman wants a partner, I want to challenge their assumption. When men assume that because you don’t have a boyfriend, you’re likely to be interested in them, I want to detail to them their defects and then point out the woman on the other side of the room whom I’d much rather date (I have never actually done this). I refuse to be filed under “desperate or emotionally stunted,” however hard they try.
The problem with being single isn’t, it turns out, the long, cold, lonely nights. You can buy an electric blanket and wait for spring. I love being single: for several months, now, I’ve been revelling in my clean bed sheets and freedom to do what I want without owing anyone an explanation. I have to say it’s rather nice. The sex is usually better when powered by batteries than by the idiosyncrasies of male anatomy, and there has been a sharp decline in annoying requests for early morning blow-jobs.
That isn’t to say that it’s all good. Society is set up for people in pairs. If I was dating, I wouldn’t be writing this right now, but instead spending my Friday evening watching burlesque cabaret or dancing to Rock and Roll music, both options I had to forgo because I didn’t want to attend alone. If I had a partner, dance workshops would be a few pounds cheaper. If I had a partner, we would, together, be able to finish a head of broccoli before it went off. These annoyances aren’t terribly important. I’m not happy at missing out on a fun Friday evening, but the solution to my problems would not be a lover, but a dance partner who came around to tea. There’s quite a difference.
The real problem with being single is hyper-awareness. It works in two ways. You don’t have the cast iron excuse of being in a relationship, so you have to make sure you never get to the point of needing an excuse for not being interested in someone. That means constantly monitoring them, and yourself, for anything that edges you towards an indication of interest. Conversely, you can desire those indications of interest, and find yourself reading much more into something than was intended.
It probably sounds like I’m being contrary, wanting to put people off and collect evidence of their desire. There are a range of factors at play there. One is that in many cases these are different people; I meet many who I would emphatically reject, some I’d get into bed with, one or two to whom I would serve breakfast. Another is that, while I am happy enough without a partner, it is nice when people step into the role now and again. When there’s no one at home telling you you’re sexy, a few minutes of flirting and the odd compliment can make you happy. Yes, it would be better if the world were not structured in such a way to make a woman value herself according to her desirability to men. Mostly, I do quite well at ignoring what they think, but I’m only human, and I was socialised into patriarchy, just like everyone else.
The problem comes when you’re so hyper-aware of these tiny modulations that it borders on obsessive. Last week a man told me that I had a nice smile. He said it was nice to dance with a tall woman. He commented on my wiggle, and when I enquired whether it was a good thing or a bad one, he said, “it works for me.” I think the clincher, though, was when I bemoaned the fact that I am too tall (and, being in proportion, too heavy) for the moves in which the male partner picks you up and throws you around, and he said “I’d throw you around.” There was something in his tone that evoked actions beyond dancing.
I saw him last night. He requested a dance, but never came to claim it.
Week after week this happens: the conversation I interpret as flirtatious, the build of expectation and the resulting disappointment. I wonder sometimes if the disappointment is inevitable. Does it happen because I’m not attractive, or interesting, or a good enough dancer? The more likely scenario is that there was never any flirting at all, since if most of these men had shown any sign of real intent, I would have run for the hills. Only from the safe place of believing they’ll never make a move can I enjoy their attention. So we go around in circles of real, imagined and simulated desire.
None of my friends, during periods of singleness, has ever mentioned this problem. They’ve spoken about the difficulty of the sexual drought, their feelings of freedom, healing, despair, loneliness, and boredom when they haven’t had partners. I wonder, therefore, whether this obsessive reading of relations with others is a personal quirk or one of those things which everyone does, and everyone feels is too silly to mention. I’d love to know, so please tell me if you do it, too.
One of the things I love about writing is indulging my runaway imagination. It’s not daydreaming, it’s productive visualisation! Another of the things I love about it is the way that my own life can be cut up and stuck back together in different ways to create something much more meaningful (hopefully) than the original experience. The problem, I find, is when the two come together.
I didn’t realise that I could be a writer until I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s autobiography. I noticed that his magic realism was created by relating incidents from his life out of order and without the background information which would make them coherent, and I thought ‘I can do that!’ I don’t have to make something out of nothing; I don’t have to write in a vacuum. I can take characters and situations from my real life, and no one is going to brandish a manuscript at me shouting, “you’re not a real writer. You didn’t create this character, I can tell it’s my Aunt Marg!” In fact, my published friends tell me that Aunt Margs and their friends are excessively pleased to see themselves in print, to the point of deluding themselves that they are the models for characters they do not resemble.
So when I’m writing a story I sometimes pick a personal experience, which comes with its own cast of real people who I adapt to my requirements. Similarly, when I need a character, I often cast around my acquaintance for someone who fits the bill. Don’t worry, almost everyone is changed beyond recognition as I tweak and stretch them into who I need them to be.
All of this means that I spend a lot of time daydreaming about people. Add to that this fact: I haven’t had sex since January.
Don’t imagine that I am sad about my celibacy. I’m revelling in fresh-smelling sheets and the freedom to do what I want without having to notify anyone. I’m not even seeking casual sex, since I find myself a much more reliable provider of pleasure than almost anyone else.
That said, as I’ve mentioned in this blog before, sexual deprivation does lead me to notice sexual possibilities a lot more. And I, for the sake of my writing, have given my mind permission to go wandering off down these garden paths.
For example, there is a beautiful woman at my dance class. She is an excellent dancer. She is curvy, she has a pretty face and a tiny waist. She wears tight, tight dresses with low necklines and high hemlines. I don’t know how everyone else in the room is doing, but I have to make a conscious effort not to stare fixedly at her for the duration of the evening. And she’s the sort of girl where looking immediately leads to thoughts of touching.
I don’t know her name. I’ve never spoken to her, and I probably never will. I have, however, put her in a story. I wanted an object of forbidden lust for my main character, and there she was, ready-made and lust-inducing. She made it very easy to write the sex scenes. The only thing I worry about is my inability to look her in the eye. To be fair, it has always been difficult to drag my gaze up that far.
My imaginative investment in my mystery dancing girl has been productive. Sometimes, though, one thinks around in circles for a long time without working out precisely where the idea is going, and it never reaches paper. Such is the case with mystery dancer number two.
I have been told this man’s name more than once and forgotten it. One dances with a lot of men at classes and freestyles, and just to confuse you they change their clothes, sometimes halfway through the evening, and they often pop up at venues where you weren’t expecting to see them. I’ve given up trying to keep track. This man stuck in my mind because I found myself unintentionally flirting with him. The next week he flirted with me, while I tried to look demure. After that, I spent a week fantasising about him.
I don’t mean sexual fantasies. I always think it is a little rude to use real people as mental masturbation aids. A man once told me that I’d “given” him roughly thirty orgasms in a month. Not only did I think the numbers were probably inflated (did the man have no porn!?) and not only did I think that it demonstrated obsession rather than affection, but I also felt just a little violated. This is my body. If we’ve been together you’re entitled to the odd memory-wank, but this is icky. And, I imagine, sticky.
So I don’t mean that I settle down with my toy collection and conjure up images. In fact, it is much worse than that. I’ve invented a whole life for him: A history, hobbies and interests, friends and family members, a career, a taste for beef and beer stew, a best friend’s punky lesbian daughter. He’s taken me for days out at stately homes. He’s refused to come to a strip club with me as research for my novel. He’s invited me to dinner parties where I’ve been terrifically bored all night but made up for it by supplying a great breakfast. We had a terrible fight after I got uptight about the age gap, and he got angry with me for snogging his best friend’s daughter or smoking in his bedroom (it wasn’t entirely clear which, I’d done both), but we reconciled. He’s never taken me shopping, because he hates it so much. All of his bed linen is white.
So in my life there are two people about whom I know a set of real facts and a set of fictional facts. Both are important and relevant to me, but the fiction has a much stronger relation to my everyday life. One of them is already in a story, so I need to remember the fictions and add to them as she develops. The man may never make it onto the page, but he might, so I can’t abandon him yet, and in any case I am sure that he will influence some of my other characters. I don’t want to give him up.
Not only does this mean that I have to be very vigilant at separating the fact from the fiction when I do see these people face to face (enquiring after the health of imaginary family members would look foolish, for example), but I also have to guard against emotional indiscretions. When I saw my older man across the hall last week I felt a rush of affection. Then I remembered that he didn’t exist, so I avoided him for the rest of the night.
Do you find yourself living more in fantasy than reality? How do you maintain the divide? Let me know, just so I can be sure that I’m not fantasising my readers, too.
A few months ago I resolved to start saying “no.” I think that the part of me that tells potential partners to go away is missing; I’m trying to find it. It isn’t all about sex, you understand. I still haven’t managed to tell my father that I’m not going to read the copy of ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ he bought me for Christmas. I’m likely to assent to a coffee, a meal, or a slow dance, and then realise that I haven’t been wary enough of romantic expectations.
You see, people come along with their narratives of who they want me to be, and I don’t want to disappoint them. They seem so happy when I get it right. Because of that, I’ve played successively the ingénue, the other woman, the struggling writer and the sunny girlfriend. But it has to stop. People get so disappointed when they find out their ingénue is someone else’s femme fatale.
More than a year ago I was sat at a bar in Prague airport waiting for my friends. I’d already spent the flight there playing the idealistic charity worker to a fellow passenger’s successful but jaded businessman. I wanted to start my holiday with a coffee and some quiet time, but a man came in, got a drink and wandered over.
“What are you writing?”
“My diary,” I say.
“Am I in it?” he asks.
“I’m afraid not.” I reply.
“Where are you from?” he wants to know. I don’t want to talk to him, but all the time he keeps asking questions I can’t get out of the conversation without being rude. By the time he’s suggesting that he sets me up in a little flat to be his “private English tutor” I feel like I’ve led him on so much by engaging in conversation that I can’t tell him to take his sleazy proposal elsewhere. I find myself making excuses rather than looking at him disdainfully and stalking off. Sighing with relief when my friends appear, I escape. You may think that these problems don’t arise very often. You’re wrong. I was asked out by three men during a ten minute walk from the tube to my destination in London recently.
The situation in Prague wasn’t too difficult, since only a very small proportion of my social circle can be found there. Other areas are more complicated. I once had a boss who used to ring me in the middle of the night for pointless conversations about the next day’s meetings. I never did find out quite what that meant. A married man asks you to meet for coffee. Do you trust that he’s faithful? Last time that happened to me I found myself in the other woman role before I even realised that his wife didn’t know my name. After that incident I decided to carry a big, flashing sign saying “No, Thank You”.
There are three problems with my sign. One is that I tend to sabotage it. Auto-flirt if triggers when I don’t want to answer the question or feel the need to keep someone at arm’s length. I’m flirted with auto-flirt almost always activates immediately. If you’re an older man with a bit of authority to your presence I have no chance. For me, flirting with such a man represents both conformity and resistance, it is a vehicle for pushing at the boundaries a little, while being rewarded with a bit of approval.
The second problem is that there are a few people I don’t want to wave a “no” sign at. I don’t know that I want to wave a “yes” sign, either, but I’d take the opportunity to find out. There’s a rather nice man I see at dancing, for example, who I’ve thought about more than once. If I began flirting with him exclusively, however, he might realise that I’ve thought about him. It all sounds a bit too risky to me.
My biggest problem, though, is that being hyper-aware of messages means I don’t get to do things that are fun. I don’t get to go for coffees with interesting—if unattractive—people, I don’t get to do the close moves at modern jive for fear of feeling a hard-on pressed against my thigh (yes, that really happened, and it was icky). These seem like silly sacrifices, because I’m sure most men can drink coffee and dance close without a thought to their willies. If you’re male, please let me know if I’m right.
So what am I to do? Declare this a failed experiment and indulge my need for universal approval with playacting and/ or prostitution? Fight the flirting and live with the limitations on my drinking and dancing? Please, if you’re a good girl, tell me how you do it!
The downsides of singledom are many. We singles have no one to drop us off at train stations, to scare away trespassing spiders or to listen to passages from whatever we’re reading right now. There are redeeming points. My sheets don’t smell like bloke and no one has yet commented on the nine pieces of crockery inhabiting the living room. There is one very big downside, though. It is a very long time since I had sex.
Sex unindulged quickly expands in the mind. It creeps into your dreams, so that you wake sweating. It pops into your head at inappropriate moments with inappropriate people. What would that woman’s breasts feel like? Or rather, what would running my hand up from her hip through the curve of her waist, and onto her left breast would feel like? Celibacy is a state in which the leg of the person beside you on the bus, touching yours, or the brush of the fingers of a cashier on your palm as she hands you your change, jolts your mind into unexpected places. Everyone you meet is a potential sexual partner, and your mind has run ahead to the taste of their tongue before they have finished saying “pleased to meet you.” Little details suddenly matter. Her lipstick is too liberally applied, I don’t want to kiss an oil slick. His nails cover black crescents of dirt, I wouldn’t want him to touch me. Then you find that someone is looking quizzically at you as you gaze at his nails, and you hope that he can’t puzzle out what you’re thinking.
The more time passes, the more desire grows. You find you’ve made a great investment in fantasy. Sex is no longer just sex, but a holy grail of experience, in which every hunger will be satisfied, rekindled and satisfied again. Sex is mindblowing and comes with a soundtrack.
The problem is that real sex often isn’t that great. Generally, it isn’t significantly better than anything I could do by myself. When I think about the last time I had sex, or the time before, or the time before that, I have to conclude that it was all rather mundane. Of the three, probably only one was worth the time spent, while during the other two I could have been much more enjoyably employed with a good book, or, frankly, a rather dull book. The best of them was an amateur lesbian who carried it through with good looks and enthusiasm more than anything else. So I begin to wonder, why is the reality of sex so far from the fantasy? It is just that Aragon and the composer for Lord of the Rings aren’t available? Well, partially, but I’ve had very good sex with men who weren’t wearing designer mud. I’ve had good sex with men whom I couldn’t honestly call handsome. So where are we going wrong?
Almost all the bad sex I’ve had has been with men. It could be all about numbers, since I’ve slept with more men than women, but I think not. Straight sex, as Dan Savage has pointed out, is cursed by biology. It is meant to be simple, obvious and natural, it has been done this way since the dawn of mankind. That’s great if you’re trying to breed, and not so great if you’re trying to have fun. Lesbians, on the other hand, don’t start off with “Insert A into B” in mind. Nor is orgasm necessarily an end in either sense. The fate of straight sex too often rises and falls with a man’s penis, so that orgasm marks the end of engagement. Not so with lesbian sex: “You had an orgasm? You want another one?” It sounds an awful lot better to me.
This leads us nicely into the other Big (and in some cases not so big) Problem With Men. Willies. Did God ever create a more temperamental creature? You do no more than lean forward or give a man a comforting hug and it’s up. You make the slightest wrong move and it’s down. Men who complained that spending time with me, fully clothed, caused raging erections enduring for hours, have found themselves unable to sustain them when they could have been useful. A girl wonders “what am I doing wrong?”, but then, there are the men who come within seconds of touching you. So which do you try to fix, being so bad in bed that little willy gives up and goes away, or so good that he… goes away? I had to eventually conclude that it didn’t have an awful lot to do with me.
Even if there is something I can do, though, men go out of their way to circumvent me. Any deception will be used to preserve their pride, even at the expense of our enjoyment. In one week two—yes, two!—men told me that they had masturbated earlier and would be unable to have sex. If I had been kissing my way down their chests or tying them to the bed this may have been useful information, but as I was, in one instance, eating dessert, and in the other, running a bath, who can tell what were they trying to say? I decided that they must be expressing a generalised anxiety about being required to perform. The most extreme example from my experience, though, was the man who had come before he’d even taken his clothes off. Poor bloke, it was the first time we had sex, and he must have known it would make a bad impression. So what did he do, come clean and admit it? No! He tried to pretend it hadn’t happened. Sex Tip: When attempting penetrative sex, the woman’s going to notice whether you’re hard…or not.
Not only do these men refuse to make any clear communications about the state of their equipment, they worry secretly about it alone. As far as I can tell, while a woman is thinking “I love you” or “fuck me harder” (according to temperament) a man is thinking “don’t go soft” or “don’t come” neither of which are exactly romantic, and, more importantly, neither of which are about me. What’s even worse is that men claim these thoughts have physical effects, so that we have to participate in a frenzy of distraction just to keep him operational.
If it is so difficult, I hear you say, then why not take a less phallocentric view and consider what else he might do? The short answer is that not many men are very good at it. Women are not that complicated. I’m fairly confident in my ability to make a woman come within a sensible timeframe (whether or not you’re pursuing that as an immediate goal is another matter)but I am constantly surprised by men’s inability to manage it. I could list any number of common mistakes: being too rough, not shaving, not maintaining a rhythm, lapping… but they all have a shared root, which is not reading responses. If a woman yelps in pain and involuntarily wiggles away, you’re doing something wrong. If she groans and clutches her pillow you’re doing something right. Avoid the former, pursue the latter. Simple. No one wants to spend their time saying “up a bit, down a bit, left a bit, right at bit, that’s it. Gentler. Not so fast. Now faster. No, back to the left.” That’s not sex, that’s training.
Am I coming to the conclusion that I should give up on men entirely? Perhaps. The problem is, I do rather like sex with men. In this drought, I certainly think about it a lot. I am holding on to the memories of the few times I have had fantastic sex with men. It has to be possible to find more like those. Send me names. Or Ann Summers vouchers.