Essay 3: Make Way For Toadvine
We have been living together for one month. We have been dating for one year. This is exactly right and perfect. All is as it should be. I look at the sky and see no clouds. I put my ear to the ground, and no train is coming. No drumming of distant hooves etc. It’s not that I am surprised. I knew from straight away that M. was the best person I had ever met. It’s true that it took nearly ten years for it to dawn on me that I actually wanted to date her instead of just be Incredible Best Friends. This is because I lack the capacity for reflection.
My friend Caitie once described the inner life of someone I was going out with: There is a sash window open inside his head. It is a windy day. A door is banging. Papers are blowing all around. I found this to be absolutely chilling in its accuracy. I also understood that it could have been about me. I never know what I am thinking or feeling. I can go for a whole hour without an idea in my head, like a little baby or a robot. Sometimes I walk down the hill after being in the library all day and laugh at a joke my brother told me a decade ago. It was not even really a joke. He walked into the kitchen eating a tuna mayonnaise sandwich and said, “Riddle me this. Where would tuna be without mayonnaise?” I laugh at this all the way down the hill, and then I get into my car and listen to the same embarrassing song by The Brian Jonestown Massacre on repeat. I sometimes listen to Satisfaction by Eve, just over and over. That was such a good song. I listen to it all the way home, and I do not look back on my day in any meaningful way. I shy away from internal assessment, or indeed assessment of any kind. I worry unspecifically. I agonise over nothing in particular, which is to say that I agonise in the general. My judgment is usually unsound. I fail to see the bigger picture. As far as I am concerned, the bigger picture does not exist. I have very little facility with abstract concepts. I am the only person I know who failed first year, first semester philosophy. I was asked not to continue with Maths after grade 9. I’m sure that these things are all of a piece.
I find it hard to follow movies in which people do anything other than talk. I have never understood what is happening in a James Bond film. I have watched Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy three times now, and it remains opaque to me. I fall asleep every time I try to watch The Bourne Identity, out of fear that someone will ask me what’s going on. I sat through the whole of The Departed believing Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio to be the same person. The main thing that I am is confused.
In spite of all this, I have always known that M. is the best one. It is a constant in my life. She is the cleverest and the funniest and the most good. She has the best stories. I would like very much to climb into her head for a day and just walk around in there, picking stuff up. I would be very careful, sure to put everything back exactly where I found it. But I would look at it all very hard. I have never found a person to be so interesting. The other day she was trying out alarm tones on her phone. There was one where a Christian-rock band plays the opening chords to a mellow but rousing anthem. She dismissed it. This one sucks. There was one that was a kind of a blues song that everyone knows but is unable to name. M. listened to it for a while. She said That’s you, in a big wooden house with a St. Bernard and all these tiny kids around. You all come downstairs for breakfast at the same time. That’s the opening credits of the movie. The last one she listened to was in the vicinity of lounge music. It is called “By the seaside”. She said That’s you and a bunch of cockroaches doing a dance. You are all wearing aprons. The cockroaches have long eyelashes. What I am trying to say is that this is a person with a superior mind. Living together has only reassured me of this. I always knew.
Still, there is a certain bracing novelty to what is going on here. There are a few surprises. The first one is waking up every day and thinking Things are fine here and actually much more than fine. I was sure that the best among us have dread as their constant companion. A spindly dog yipping spasmodically beside them wherever they go. The dog is barking out YOU ARE FUCKED NOW in Morse code. I thought this was the way of things. But now I must adjust my views, or at least shuffle them around in order to accommodate the possibility of everyday happiness.
The other surprise is the amount of stuff. There has been a dramatic upsurge, in both quality and quantity, of household items available for my personal use. All belonging to M. and her family, of course. It is hard to convey how empty the flat would be if we just had the things that I came with. We would have to sleep in a nest of dresses, rustling around like hamsters. We would eat off one plate, with our hands, on the carpet my parents gave me. This would be fine, since if I was running things we would only ever be eating highly portable cheese and tomato sandwiches. We would have no TV or even a small radio, so I would make us play a game where we make a fort out of books. That would be the only entertainment available to us. We would have a desk that once belonged to my grandfather, and we would use it to write letters to our enemies. We would live like monks. But M. arrived at this flat trailing many wagons behind her. Boxes and boxes of household goods. I am making her sound like some kind of heiress. It’s not that at all. She just has much, much more stuff than I do. Non-depressing sofas. Non-terrible pictures, the prize of the collection being a cruel-faced Hawaiian woman looking away from the viewer as if to say I hated you from the outset. Things that go in the kitchen, and things that go in the study. Different kinds of ladders. All sizes of glass jars. A printer and a stapler. It freaked me out at the beginning, I will admit. I got a fright every time I came home and looked at all the things I could use. I spent a solid afternoon putting pencils in an appropriately sized glass jar, and then taking them out again. I lay on the rugs. I put leaves in jugs. The cruel-faced Hawaiian woman looked away in disgust. There was a small but steep learning curve, and now I am fine. I now move confidently amongst the stuff with the minimum of trouble. I cast a benign gaze over it. It is only on rare occasions that I staple things that do not need to be stapled.
The good thing about arriving with almost nothing in the way of household items is that the belongings you do have take on a peculiar shine. They start to seem very special. I would go so far as to say that they glow. Please admire, for instance, my favourite plant. It is a happy little creeper. There is nothing special about this plant except that I feel a deep communion with it. It is the Velveteen Rabbit of creepers, notable only for how much I love and admire it.
Next, I direct your attention to my collection of useless drinking vessels. Here is a cup with a beautiful glaze, but no handle. You can do nothing with it. Here is a cup with a circus elephant painted onto it. Its handle is suitable only for a child’s fingers. Do not attempt to drink anything out of it. I love these cups more than anything else in the whole kitchen. I give them small pats when I open the cupboard doors to take out other, lesser, cups.
Finally, my two notice-boards in the study. There is a photograph of a young Lucian Freud sternly hugging a stuffed zebra head. There is Joan Baez hugging a cat. Brendan Behan with his shirt over his head like Beavis. Joan Baez looking troubled. My grandmother in a field. My grandmother in Jerusalem. A postcard from my parents in Greece. Lucy from Peanuts. Two postcards from Simon. A self-portrait of Gwen John. A David Hockney poster from the 1972 Olympics. An invitation to my oldest friend’s wedding. A photograph of Ziggy, my godson. The full text of A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts. An extract from Blood Meridian, a book that is unaccountably in my permanent top three. The name TOADVINE. The name FORTINBRAS. A note from my dad, sent as part of a package that contained my new license disc. The note says OK, DON’T SCREW THIS LICENSE UP BY STICKING IT ON THE WRONG WAY. There are titles for the stories I wish I could write: “Joni Mitchell thinks she has a disease”, “Nat Nakasa at Harvard”, “Miss Fire Prevention Week.” I look at these boards every day and I hardly ever see them anymore. I find their presence to be reassuring in the extreme.
Let’s say that moving in with M. precipitated the smallest, charmingly mild identity crisis. Let us then further say that the two notice-boards represent the most insistent assertion of selfhood that this flat will ever see. I walk into the study and look at the boards and think That’s me. That’s where I am. For a person who struggles with inner reflection, this is very useful. Some stuff will always be mine.