by Harris Anders
Remember those student parties that we used to go to, Eleanor?
Which took place each week, with the same people, more or less?. The same university friends, sometimes colleagues, extended families, associates. Weekly rituals that were intended to give fruitful pause amid the ever rumbling on of the ‘this week, next week’. The banality of this repeated society tempered only by our alterations in mood. Sometimes we remained polite and restrained and so found ourselves talking, quietly and patiently, with the least exciting person in the room, trying not to look over their shoulder, whilst waiting for a lull in the conversation, so that we could be excused.
Or sometimes we drank efficiently and became raucous, and splattered ideas and notions about like three year old children, and made forceful attempts to find someone to sleep with. We needed someone that night, to be in our bed, with our wine -stained tongue. Don’t let us drift off into inebriated half-sleep alone.
We succeeded, occasionally. Remember that woman who looked the colour of aubergine flesh who, unwelcome, distended the interlude by calling us each night? We replied in curt sentences, then single words – yes, no, sure – until we just stopped answering. The next party, we dodged her, noting her sullen glances from across the sticky, kitchen linoleum. Being drunk meant being rejected, or rejecting. It gave us the blurry courage to deal with the casual cruelty or sharp humiliation. Which was worse?
But not all parties are like that. Some are occasions – mottled increasingly thinly as the years pass – marking decisions celebrated for their finality. You’ve made a baby, you’ve gotten married, you’ve been promoted. More responsibilities, more ‘no going backs’.
Indeed, it is at that junction in age, when it dawns on us that all main decisions in our lives have now been made, and we are to live in the consequences. When we go to that big occasion, floating near to our forties, we are going to see those old University friends, and their consequences, worn nervously upon them as suits just beginning to settle on the skin. And maybe, also, lingering about, their older relatives who we recall, and seem just as ever, and that will settle it. Them, with their fully worn in consequences.
We will not have seen each other for years, and we will be unsure about how and why each person has been included on the RSVP. We will wonder who is still close to whom and who still thinks little of us and wonders why it was we were invited. Was it perfunctorily, or out of nostalgia? Or perhaps we were just on some mailing list somewhere? Perhaps the celebrating woman has few friends left – like us – and so we are just being sent for to pad out the crowd?
But we will, for a short time, imagine that it is a gift to us, and that things can go back to the way they were when we were younger, when we believed, luxuriously, in our own loneliness. Not understanding that real loneliness is seeing life around us – the possible places to go, the possible people to see – erode, with seemingly no hope of revival or replacement. Another friend we realised we haven’t seen in years, another night we don’t bother to extricate ourselves from our flat, with its magnolia walls and coffee coloured carpet and canvases of non -specified cityscapes. After 30, we no longer make friends, we just lose them.
We will nervously build up to the first party we’ve been invited to in over two years and place upon – what used to be a banal fixture in a buzz of activity – a heap of momentum. A desperate will to break the now terminal and docile drip of the passing days.
We think, we will see each other and step over our awkwardness and talk as old friends and drink too much and find ourselves, yet again, sharing a room for the night. And you, Eleanor, will forgive me and promise to call, before dragging your hangover to the 11.30 train back to Birmingham.
But of course you don’t live there any more, you must live somewhere else, but I don’t know where that is or what you are doing or if you are married. Maybe one of those names on the list I didn’t recognise will be the person you now share coffee mugs with, who bathes in the same tub as you and walks barefooted over the same carpet, in and out of each day. It won’t be we at all any more, or even you and I, but an awkward, momentary glance, across tops of wine glasses, that lies heavy on me and won’t go away, won’t be alleviated by a later, tentative conversation that warms into reminiscing and then flirtation, and all the rest.
You will have another him that floats near to your shoulders and watches you be deceitfully likeable and in agreement with everyone and everything. Although he may take pleasure in it. He may see it as your ineffable charm.
Yes, and then you will spend the rest of the evening avoiding me and I will suddenly feel foolish for imagining it could be otherwise and have the urge to suddenly go. And you, or anyone else, won’t miss me when I slide out, taking a bottle of the free wine in my satchel. That, at most, you may think later, where did he go? And much later, in your life, whatever happened to him in the end?
It will not be a reviving of something of our old lives;. The things I miss for no other reason than because I have failed to find anything to replace them.
They don’t prepare us for our later years, those who decide how we are to be raised, taught, organised. We go to school and we are linked to each other by our near exact ages. Our classmates become our peers who take each step through life at the same pace. Though our intelligences may differ, we are taught the same things at the same time with the same people. We are told that the uniformity of our clothes is to represent our school, as patrons, but it is more the case that it is to convince us of our continuity with each other, and the world.
Later, many of us head on to University, if not to learn or to go to parties then certainly to continue on at the same pace. Though we have more freedoms in how we should dress, what books we should read and what meals we can eat, we nonetheless continue to progress through these short years by the same deadlines. The intoxicating presence of society and involvement and new friendships are only a passing entertainment, not a sign of how we ultimately will live in the world.
Because then it changes. We graduate and our peers splinter out across the country. Many, in a disheartening reversal of fortunes, move back to the home towns from which they had believed they had escaped. They set themselves up in an administrative job, marry someone they went to school with and settle down to live a life that did not require the teasing reprieve of an education. Some wander off abroad with an extension of their family’s money and tend to baby orang-utans in Borneo or help build a school in Nigeria. Some, on flimsy savings, settle into a room in London and cleave their feet into the lowest rungs of a corporate ladder.
Splintered out. And suddenly we are no longer walking in the same boots, to the same rhythm: she falls in love quicker; he obtains wealth; she more knowledge; he children, and so suddenly that you and your peers are no longer taking the same steps, at the same time. You are no longer held together by the comfort of a wedded pace.
Martha, the hostess, with all the diplomacy she still believes she is famed for, notices me tinkering about at the outer reaches, tapping the stout cup end of an acid glass of red wine. She has been moving between guests as though to bestow upon them a little revitalising rush of her fertile effervescence. She says, I must speak with Terence, because he lives in Bristol too now, and we used to be such good friends.
We were never good friends. Terence was always the tinkerer on the outskirts. I am new to that particular dimension. At University, now fifteen years since left, I barely spoke but a few pragmatic words to him. Bored, rudely looking over his shoulder, words. Martha, on the other hand, was the subject of a transient obsession.
Terence has an easy manner and a blasé face, peppered now with crow’s feet but still a healthy head of hair and designer spectacles that he is forever shunting up his nose. We talk about the Bristol supermarket riots, rising rents, his taste for computerised music. Terence is a mildly optimistic sort. Maybe he could be my new Bristol friend? Unedifying, but pleasant company, to drink warm ale with into middle age. Terence seems the type to not mind either way.
You married? No, he says, no children, a job as technical writer, an open football club on Sundays. For those men who don’t hold an office job or a steady pack of friends, I suppose. I should come?
Eleanor doesn’t come to Martha’s leaving-to-teach-English-in-China party. I anticipate each intermittent tap on my shoulder to be her, not another old mate stopping by to see how things are getting on, with the same relaxed, utterly unemotional manner that details only obligatory interest. No phone numbers handed over, no meeting up for meals, no re-instigations of the old life.
I think to ask Martha, as she hips by, if she knows where Eleanor is, if she plans to come later? Is it worth waiting on? Martha, piqued by my inability to mask urgency, tells me she couldn’t come. But she is still in Birmingham, working for a digital design company, and did I want her to pass on my email address ? No. I say I already have hers. But it’s really because I know she won’t appreciate being chased.
I’m still the man who she had sex with, to her regret, on two inebriated occasions. One with the added company of a woman the colour of aubergine flesh, who would not let it go with me, as I would not let it go with Eleanor. I’m still the man who would not stop calling, who gambled our friendship on the instinct that if I only pushed that bit harder, she would eventually be moved. I’m still the man whose number she blocked and whose presence she avoided.
Only now I’m older, more tired, and further away. And anyway, it has been so many years. And I don’t want Martha to be the intermediary between me and Eleanor. Martha, the woman I brush up against every few years or so for dinner when she is in town, for no other reason than she finds it impossible to give up on friends. Martha, whose belief in her own unending appeal is scuppered by her caustic manner and relentless self interest.
No, don’t worry Eleanor, it was just a shame to miss her this time around. Martha shrugs, smiles (piteously?) and kisses my cheek. I go to get my coat, feeling foolish for coming all this way. I wonder if Terence feels that way too?
I look for him on my way out, thinking I’ll ask about those football Sundays and give him my number, but I don’t see him on route to the door. I can’t go picking through the crowd to look for him; the man I barely know, who I spoke to for less than an hour, about almost nothing.
The mid summer sun is dipping as I leave. The rush hour train home is clenched with people, and I stand among a small crowd of commuters in the shaking box car between the carriages, lifting the small book I have in my bag, and pretending to read.
* * *