Sunday, 10 June 2012

16. Tigers watching from behind the walls

I am standing on a third-floor landing in the crumbling block of flats where Sally lives. The landing is grey concrete. It smells of piss, uncared-for building, and despair. Upstairs a dog is barking in one of the other flats, on and on, and the noise is spiking into my head.

On the wall of the stairwell opposite someone has spray-painted KELLY TAKES IT UP THE ASS! in cheery hot-pink cartoon letters. It's not a rush job. Whoever painted it took their time and thought about how best to convey their message. However, without more information, it's difficult to decide whether the author expects the onlooker to be disgusted or delighted.

I wonder briefly who Kelly is, if she has ever seen this piece of art dedicated to her, and, if she has, what she thinks of it. I wonder what I would think if someone spray-painted ALICE TAKES IT UP THE ASS! on a wall, but since I am not a fan of anal sex and I don't, to my knowledge, know anyone who spray-paints walls I don't consider this scenario very likely. After some thought, I come to the conclusion that if someone felt it was this important to announce my sexual preferences to the world, I should probably try not to get in the way of their artistic vision.

Sally's front door is identical to all the other doors in the building, painted a depressing shade of dark blue, with a small rectangular window filled with glass strung through with wire until it looks like graph paper.

I knock on the door. The dog upstairs starts a fresh outburst of barking.

Sally opens the door and I smell cooking, incense, perfume. Walking into her home is like walking into another world.

The living room is dominated by a umbrella tree which spreads over one wall and across almost the whole ceiling. When it's dark like this and only the small side lamps are lit, the black branches and dark leaves spread over the red and gold wallpaper give the room the feel of a jungle clearing. As if there could be tigers watching from behind the walls.

Sally has spread the small table with an antique, yellowed lace cloth and set it with dishes of sushi and crystal glasses. She will have made the sushi herself, rolling out the rice and nori on bamboo mats in her tiny kitchen. She believes in taking the time to do things well.

Sally's eyes are the same blue as the flames on a gas cooker. Her waist-length hair is dyed dead black and today it spills over the collar of a black velvet dress. Her fingers are loaded with rings. A red glass heart, a silver skull with crystal eyes, an inch-square deep purple stone. Her white skin has the smooth dull sheen of silk inside the rough darkness of the velvet.

Sally's ethos - charity shops, china, taxidermy, fur and lace and black eyeliner - is fashionable now. The objects she used to buy for pennies, finding them dusty and unregarded in flea markets, are now snapped up, cleaned and sold to people with enough money to buy an imitation life-style. Ready-made vintage romance.

She used to look beautiful and strange and now she looks like a fashion victim. But she doesn't care. When the trends move on, she'll still be here. She looks inward, not outward.

We drink wine, and eat, and talk. I find myself talking about Chris. Sally considers, shrugs, pours more wine. "You need to stop taking it all so seriously. It's only sex," she says.

"I take everything seriously," I say.

It's true. I'm intense about everything. It's my nature. The only thing that's changed over the years is that I've stopped feeling guilty about it.

Sally has had sex with a lot of people, while my experience is limited to say the least. Sometimes I think this means she knows more than me. Other times I think we just know different things.

"Are you going to ask him out?" she says.

My stomach does a nose-dive at the thought, but I know I will have to. I'll have to get to know him and see who he is, and then, if I still feel the same, I'll have to ask.

I don't want to. I’m scared. I’m not beautiful. I’m not sexy. I’m not even remotely interesting. What right have I got to even approach someone?

I'm annoyed with myself, suddenly; I want him, but I want him to be given to me without any risk on my part. There is no risk-free enterprise. If you won't put your hand out for food, then you starve. If you don't try and get what you want, then you won't get it.

When I meet people I'm attracted to, I'm simultaneously drawn to and terrified of them. The pull forward, the pull against. My desire to touch against my fear of rejection. My fear of rejection masked as rejection, because it is better for one's self-esteem to reject straight away than to risk once again being told you aren't good enough.

I've spent years trying to teach myself I am good enough, I am acceptable, I am a human being with the same rights as other human beings. One of those rights is the right to love and the right to ask to be loved.

However, both of these are rights I find difficult to exercise.

After the meal, Sally serves me brandy in a gilt-edged china teacup, painted with twining violets. She found it in a junk shop 10 years ago. "It's more than 200 years old," she tells me. We imagine who could have owned it first, who picked it out and where they lived and what they were like.

The hazy gold liquid distorts the violets until they make me think of a meadow underwater.

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