Monday, 25 February 2013

Broken rules and bleeding hearts.

There are rules about how to act in every social situation. They may be unwritten, or contained in tomes nobody owns up to owning but everyone does; they might be whispered in corners or written about in op-eds for swanky magazines, but there are rules governing everything. If you transgress the rules, who knows what might happen? You'll get a sneaky side-eyed sneer, or maybe a public critique, or perhaps the whole of society will crumble and crash down around your ears - and it'll all be your fault, because you didn't obey the rules.

One of the things I'm aware of is how I play by these rules, even when I don't consciously mean to. I'll find myself waiting for hours to receive texts from people, and then - rather than replying instantly, which is my usual course of action - I'll instead leave the message, saved as a draft, on my phone. I won't send it until half an hour, an hour, two hours, have elapsed - to make it seem like I'm just SO in demand, I'm too busy to reply to texts instantly, and you should be glad I bestowed my pity upon you and typed out a few lines of banal conversation. It means I spared you a thought, when I could have just forgotten. Be grateful.

This applies to everyone - friends, family, crushes. I just get scared of being in a position of vulnerability. I don't want to admit I like someone, in whatever capacity, because that means peeling back a little bit of your skin and showing something raw; and once it's out there, anyone can come and prod it, and make you hurt. Better to keep your bleeding heart in your chest, rather than where it habitually rests on my sleeve. Better to wear a coat and stop your feelings from being seen.

When I do come out and say exactly what I mean, I tend to get hurt. And everyone's afraid of being hurt. That's why there's so much bullshit in who is supposed to say what when, where you're supposed to go and what you're supposed to want. If you stick to the rules, you are safe. You're working within an established framework. Even if things go wrong, they'll fuck up within a pre-existing situation.You won't be far away from where you're supposed to be, and it's not that hard to get back in the game, start a new turn, and let all the rules carry you along again.

It's why I feel guilty about my last kiss. It was the end of a first date (with a boy who makes me feel like I swallowed a dragonfly) and we were at Edgeware Road. He had to catch the tube one way, and I the other. He stood on the train, and I on the platform. There was a narrow gap in the roof of the station. We shared a quick, chaste kiss while the thin snow fell through the gap and powdered our hair. The tube departed, and I watched him go, suddenly overwhelmed by the feeling I had been left behind. That was one of the rules of heterosexual, traditional relationships - the girl is supposed to leave first, making the boy wait for her, his breath catching in his throat. It's not supposed to be the other way round.

I crossed the bridge to the other platform, to catch my own train, and had to avert my eyes from all the happy couples canoodling in the cold. Their laughter mingled in front of their faces, a soft-focus mist which could have come from either set of lungs.

I wished, one day, I could be that happy - even if it was only superficial. Maybe in the grey light of morning they would sit next to each other in bed - these laughing, kissing couples - and they wouldn't speak, keeping their unhappiness to themselves, maintaining a facade on the streets of London that they were bright and chipper and in love. But there's a reason you keep misery at home: the only thing worse than public displays of affection is public displays of unhappiness.

And that's just another rule. Keep the dirty laundry to your own washing machine.

If I were that unhappy, though, I would argue in public. I would make a scene, run onto the wrong train on purpose, lock myself in a bathroom and have a public official be called to get me out. I would make old women tut and young professionals avert their eyes in embarrassment and children stare, slack-jawed. If you're going to unravel, you might as well do it somewhere everyone can see. Maybe, just maybe, there would be a sympathetic stranger around to help patch your frayed edges back together and resew your hems. I have faith in the human race yet.

But I also have faith in myself. These rules might have been around for years, but I'm sure I know myself better than some anonymous set of social norms. So I might provoke the ire of traditionalists everywhere, but I will tentatively display my battered heart, and blame only myself if it gets broken. I will text back immediately and watch people leave me behind - because I am stronger than my anxieties, and I trust that everyone I love will come back - it might just take them a while.

Friday, 22 February 2013

An accident of genetics.

I am always surprised when someone compliments my face. “You have fine features,” said the French mother of one of my friends. “You have lovely cheekbones,” said a girl in my Politics class, stopping me on the staircase to impart this knowledge. She said it in a rush, like she had to get the words out before they stopped being true. “You’re gorgeous,” said the first person I kissed. I didn’t trust him then, and I don’t trust them now.

Appearance is all an accident. My face is a mess, a random collection of biology and genetics that spawned from the freak meeting of an egg and a sperm. By all accounts, I should not exist. But by some fluke, I do, and how my face looks seems pretty irrelevant to me.

I stare at my reflection in the window of the train. We’re passing through a tunnel. I’m on my way home from the fourth day of my week of work experience, which is generously called an “internship”. It has been four days of writing blog posts and wondering when I’ll be told to do some admin.

I’ve spent the past two hours at a book panel for the company, listening to assorted people talking about LGBT representation in Young Adult literature. America is the spiritual home of YA literature, opined the only man on the panel, and his four co-panellists nodded and laughed. I liked him. He was camp and had a Yorkshire accent. I wanted to be his friend.

One of the panellists was a student at York University, a third year, and writing a dissertation on LGBT issues in business. She was surprised at my age, said she thought I looked older than her, at 21. It's not my face, apparently - more my confidence, the fact I hold up my head like my brain is full of helium - but I can't help but feel ancient. Betrayed by my own aesthetics.

The chairwoman gave me her email address and told me to stay in contact. I’ll email her tomorrow, once I get to the office, sending her a message from the sluggish Macs that need updating. It’ll make me feel like a proper adult contacting her for work reasons rather than a teenager typing away behind her laptop. 

Tomorrow is also important because I will have a date. The first date of my life which is a real, proper date, where I was asked out with the specific caveat that it was a date and I said yes. With my two ex-girlfriends, we never saw each other one-on-one; it was always as part of a group, where it was easier to pretend that our relationships were based on actual feelings rather than a shared interest in webcomics and a habit of texting late at night.

There was one other time I went out with a boy, but I'm not sure it was a date. He was hardly a boy - a foot taller than me, 23, with a job in publishing. We ate Chinese food in Camden and discussed how Tolkein presented evil, and I pretended like I'd read Lord Of The Rings and knew what he was talking about. That was three weeks ago, and I'm still not sure if it was a date. We put one kiss on the end of texts to each other.

We were meant to go bowling, me and this new date of mine (“of mine” – so selfish – like a person is a possession, like I already own a piece of him) but everywhere has already been booked. I imagine we’ll wonder round London instead, trying to make small talk that means something big. I will want to hold his hand, feel something warm and solid against my frozen fingers. If we don’t get dinner I’ll scream.

I’ve somehow fallen into the habit of not eating lunch this week, instead just snacking on biscuits and endless cups of tea throughout the day. It’s too cold to leave the office in search of food, and I have to walk half a mile every morning from the train station up a gentle incline anyway. Today the wind was blowing in my face, forcibly thrusting the scent of North London’s rubbish into my nostrils. I couldn’t breathe.

I’ve lost three pounds since Friday. It’s like I left them under my pillow – I haven’t noticed their absence.

If I mentioned my weight to my friends, I can imagine them complimenting me. “You’ve lost weight!” they’d say (when they mean "mass"), approvingly, followed by, “You look good!” as if those things were logically sequential. As if by losing a tiny part of me, I’ve somehow improved. Really we ought to applaud each other when we gain weight, knowing that there’s more of them to hold onto. Is a 143-pound girl realer than a 140-pound one? There’s certainly more of her, more atoms banding together in the shape of a person. Does quantity equate to reality?

My iPod has stopped playing, but my earphones are still in. To everyone around me, I am in my own little world. I could be listening to anything, Bach or Beyonce or Bright Eyes. Like Life by Lorrie Moore sits open on my lap, but I have stopped reading because there’s a quote I want to put on my Facebook page when I get home, about how guns are boys’ things because they boom, the way boys wished they boomed when they orgasm. Maybe I’ll tell that to my date tomorrow. Maybe he’ll laugh. More likely he’ll look at me quizzically, wondering why he asked me out. He studied biochemistry at university, where an unexpected result probably means you did something wrong.

The train leaves the tunnel. My face remains in the window, pale and drawn. My hair is bleached blond, murky at the roots where my natural brown is growing back through. Perhaps I should let it grow out, get long, fall to my knees in princess waves I can use to wrap myself up. Perhaps I’ll shave my head down to a soft dark fuzz, getting rid of all the dye and artifice.

The face looking back is still mine, but I’m seized by the notion that one day it won’t be. One day I’ll be on the train home from a job I hold as an adult, commuting to and from some shabby flat I can barely afford to rent, and my face will have been taken from me, worn smooth and featureless by a few years of mediocre labour at a mediocre job.

We arrive at my station, and I stand up. Nobody seems surprised when I drop my phone, and have stoop to pick it up. They’re too busy thinking of their own faces, their own emails and waistlines and dates.

On Monday I’ll be back at school, I tell myself. I will be back in a bubble where I can talk about dating and jobs as abstract concepts rather real things which really happen. Being a grown-up can wait. My face has some youth left in it yet.