Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 9

This is a chapter from my book, The Way Forward. Buy the whole novel now from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
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"Your attention please," a woman's voice said over the public address system at Paris' Gare du Nord train station. "For security reasons, don't leave your baggage unattended. Any unattended baggage will be immediately destroyed."

I had slept in the train station.

After leaving the bar, my sense of the dramatic had only been able to tolerate walking in miserable weather for a few minutes before I found myself ducking into a Metro station. I went back to the hotel and sat there, waiting for Allison to come back. I felt pathetic, too tired to be angry. At about 1:30 a.m., I set Allison's Christmas present on the bed with a note:

"Allison,
I am going home. If you want to talk to me, I am at Gare du Nord. I will take the first train in the morning.
I love you,
Ben."

I kept the bottle of wine I had planned on sharing with Allison that night, emptied the wet bar of beer and took a taxi to the station.

"No train tonight," the taxi driver said in English after my attempt to direct him in French.
"But in the morning, yeah?"
"Yes. In a few hours, maybe. No trains now. I do not think."
"I'll wait."
"Américain?"
"Uh, no," I lied. "English."
"Anglais. Huh. Three lions. Your footballers are shit I think," he said, cracking a smile.

I was at the station by 2:30 a.m., the first train left at 06:37. After a few minutes of searching, I was able to find a cold, uncomfortable spot against a wall that had not been urinated on and set myself up there. I pushed down the wine bottle's cork with my pocket knife and drank it in large, stinging gulps, and cried as I waited for Allison to appear, apologize profusely and beg me to take her back. I allowed myself to fall apart. I cried so hard my lungs shook. I punched at my bag, I coughed and gagged. I doubled over, my head pressed against the cold floor and breathing in its dusty smell. I cried until I had no more energy for it.

I dreamt that Allison and I were lying in the shallow section of the creek that ran behind her house.

"Take off your top," I said.
"No. People will see."
"They won't see. Come on. Take off your top."

Allison took off her top; I rolled to my side and kissed her.

"I love you, Allison."
"Because I'm showing my tits in public."
"No."
"Yes. It's all you think about, Benjamin."
"Well, if it's all I think about... you want to?"

I kissed between her breasts, breathing in the mix of her perfume and sweat and the creek. The sound of the water danced all around us and I slid my left hand down her stomach to undo the tie on her shorts.

"Here?"
"Yeah, why not?"

She squint her eyes at me.

"Because I will get cryptosporidium in my fucking vagina. And this water is cold. And I'm lying on a bunch of fucking rocks. And my parents are drinking lemonade a few hundred yards away. Jesus, Benjamin. You just don't think."

I woke suddenly when the empty wine bottle rolled from my hand and clinked against the floor. It was a little past 5 a.m. Two soldiers looked at me impassively. Each man carried an assault rifle, a handgun strapped to his waist and a large knife at his thigh. They each had three hand grenades hanging from a bandoleer across their chest. Hand grenades? In what defensive scenario do you use a hand grenade in a train station?

I reached into my bag, grabbed a Heineken and cracked it open as I wiped the sleep from my eyes. I stood up with a grunt, slung my bag over my left shoulder and walked toward the ticket counter.

"Bonjour," I said as I passed the soldiers, and raised my beer to them.

...

I spent the first 30 minutes of the train ride to London in the toilet. The alcohol, lack of sleep and emotional overload from the night before had hit me with stomach-twisting urgency about 15 minutes before we were allowed to board. I had already exchanged all my money, leaving me with no way to get in the station's pay toilets. I twisted my body and squeezed my legs and tried desperately to think of something else, and I was at the point of rationalizing soiling my pants ("I've got other clothes in my bag. I can just go to the train's toilet and change. But then what do I do with my dirty pants? Put them back in the bag? No. I'll have to throw them away. But these are good pants. I like these pants,") when boarding began. I shoved my way on the train, threw my bag in my seat and locked myself in the toilet.

The toilet smelled pink; if pink has a smell -- baby powder, roses, a bottle of the cheap perfume high school girls wear. The décor was actually orange and blue, but the smell of pink was overpowering.

In college I had to read James Joyce's Ulysses, and according to my Cliffs Notes, two of the main characters in that novel associate writing with relieving themselves. I have always wondered if Joyce really intended for people to make this connection. Maybe he had his characters poop because that's what people do. Sometimes you just poop; food goes in, poop comes out. In any case, my whole Joycean creative process that took place in the pink-smelling Eurostar toilet was thoroughly unpleasant. I rocked back and forth and fought nausea as my bowels untwisted for several minutes. Fortunately, my stench was no competition for the room's pinkness.

I looked pretty much like I felt. In the toilet's mirror I could see the color had drained from my face, my skin was greasy and my hair matted. I splashed some water on my face and tried to clean up a bit, but it didn't help. I needed sleep. I needed to go home.

I was happy to see my bag was still there when I finally arrived back at my seat. No one had stolen it or mistaken it for a bomb and had it immediately destroyed. I set the bag on the overhead rack, pulled out my third beer of the morning and flopped into my seat. The woman sitting across the aisle raised her eyebrows slightly at me and I smiled. A young blonde-haired girl sat next to her, reading aloud in a beautifully posh English accent that made me feel low class. Listening to the girl read from her alliterative children's book ("Wally the Walrus wore a white waistcoat"), I thought: "I know more words than her, but can't say any of them with as much style."    

I heard the roaring thud of the train entering the Channel tunnel and felt the air pressure change as we descended beneath the sea.

"Are we in a tunnel, Mummy?" the girl asked.
"Yes, darling," the mother said in an equally posh accent. "This tunnel goes underneath the English Channel -- the sea between England and France. When we get out of this tunnel, we'll be in England. In about 40 minutes, darling."
"Back in England?"
"Yes."
"A train that goes underneath the sea," the girl said with a sense of wonder.

The mother then put on headphones and pressed "play" on her CD player. Loud and clear, I heard the straining voice of Michael Bolton. I sank my head into my hands and started to think about Allison. I tried to think about what I could do or say to get her back. I tried to develop a plan. I opened up my journal and decided to draw up a step-by-step method to win back Allison.

Part of me wanted to be able to just walk away, but that wasn't going to be easy. Unfortunately, the emotion you feel toward a person doesn't stop just because they want it to. No matter how politely you ask, a tree won't stop growing; no matter how loudly and forcefully you command it not to, you can't stop a tornado from ripping apart your home; and no matter how delicately someone lets you down, they can't stop you from loving them. When they break your heart it hurts even more. And to make matters worse, more often than not the person who's ripped out your heart and fed it to a dingo is exactly the same person you would turn to in this sort of situation.

"How can we be lovers if we can't be friends?" Michael Bolton queried.

Fuck this, I thought, and scratched out the only part of my plan so far: "Send teddy bear."

I reached up into my bag and pulled out another beer. It was still cold and tasted good as I took a long pull from the can. Then I sat back and sang along with Michael Bolton. I was singing along to "Can I Touch You There?" when I felt the pressure in my head start to ease. WhhhhhhhOOOOOSH! We were out of the tunnel. The car filled with sunlight, and the little girl leapt up on her seat and pressed her face to the window.

"Is this England?!" she shouted.

Her mother nodded.

"England! Oh, it feels good to be back! Sweet England!"

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Strictly recap week 4: Starship Widdecombe

Sense of decorum died in America some time ago. We are like Vietnamese people with lawn ornaments: we don't understand the concept of too much. There is almost never such a thing as "over the top" in the United States. As a general rule, if we can add more, we feel we should.

At some point in the last decade or so, that line of thinking found its way across the Atlantic Ocean and now Britain, too, has its own homegrown mind-fuck television. No longer do Britons have to wait until Eurovision to point at the TV and mumble, "What the?" before swearing off the drink. You can see this in things like "X Factor" (Wagner especially), as well as this week's episode of "Strictly Come Dancing."

Of course, there was that moment when Anne Widdecombe flew through the air. That was iconic. But the show was, in fact, filled with incidents that tore at the fabric of reality. And it was beautiful. Saturday was almost certainly the best episode of Strictly since last year's Blackpool show.

It was definitely the best episode of this series, if not simply because it meant saying goodbye to Peter, who used to play goalie for England, and Erin.

Peter & Erin ~ Charleston ~ 17
In the "let's take a look at their training" video package before the dance Gary Lineker, who sells crisps, popped in to the dance studio to visit his ol' stupid pal Peter, who used to play goalie for England. In the next shot there was Erin, Gary, and Peter, who used to play goalie for England, all jazz-handsy and doing one of the moves from Saturday's dance. Gary was doing it better.
It doesn't matter at what point in the training that footage was filmed because Peter, who used to play goalie for England, never improved. Bruno described him as looking like a penguin stuck in the mud, but he was obviously being kind. That dance was the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Gordon Lightfoot is writing a song about it as we speak.
The only redeeming quality of the thing was Erin's outfit and that strange sequence where we saw her ass for about 20 seconds. It didn't make a damn bit of sense in terms of choreography but it took the pain away.

Ann & Anton ~ Tango ~ 21
Widdy flying. Britain still doesn't have people like Alvin Greene and Jimmy McMillan, but strapping bespangled representatives into harnesses and having them flap their arms as they descend from the mezzanine is definitely a step in the right direction.
As I've said before, I'm happy for Widdy that she is having a good time and she is experiencing what it's like to not be universally disliked. Perhaps it will make her a better person. But, really, this has to stop now. There are no shitty people left in the competition. I don't care how much Anton plays the dancing clown, I don't care if you have Ann come out with flash pots strapped to her feet, if she stays next week at the expense of any other couple it is massively unfair. It would make a mockery of the show.
Oh, wait.

Gavin & Katya ~ Tango ~ 23
They weren't necessarily under-marked this week unless you view Gavin and Katya's score in light of Ann and Anton's. Even so, Gavin's walking about in a half haka, half constipated squat made for a less than stellar tango. The bit where they sort of faffed about on the stairs didn't make any sense, either. I'm starting to believe that Katya's not really identifying Gavin's strengths, i.e., his strength. He should be throwing her around a bit more.
Suggestions for improvement are probably for nought, though; Gavin has a new rugby club to play for and undoubtedly in light of that he will feel that being dropped from Strictly isn't all that bad a thing.
Best Gavin quote this week: "My biggest fear from last Saturday was being voted off in front of my idol: Peter Andre."

Michelle & Ian ~ Tango ~ 27
Where the hell is the strong black woman? I've been yelled at by a number of black women in my life and know they possess within them the power to crush a man with attitude. Michelle Williams is from Chicago, was in Destiny's Child and sings gospel; she should be able to walk out and own the studio just by looking at it. But instead she bobbles about like Diana Ross' portrayal of Dorothy in The Wiz. It annoys me.
That said, her dance Saturday was probably her best so far. Her being paired with Ian was probably to her advantage. Now, though, Brendan is back and the two will be performing the jive this coming Saturday.
Listen: hear that? It's a big ol' train, my friends, called the Michelle & Brendan Jive Performance Express. It's heading our way. And I'm willing to bet that when it gets here Saturday it's going to wreck like a muggafutha.

Jimi & Flavia ~ Chaleston ~ 27
This is the first year that props have really been allowed on Strictly beyond the capes used in paso doble. At least that's what they claim on "It Takes Two." Though I seem to have memory of Lynda Bellingham with a rose in her teeth doing the tango. I'm sure that's an image I should have put down the memory hole; as mentioned before, Strictly creates its own reality. A reality that is alterable according to need or desire. Strictly is like Karl Rove but far less damaging. So, yes, let's just say that never before have props been used.
With this new found freedom, Team Widd Du Beke (Erin's name for Widdy and Anton) is able to cover a total lack of skill with smoke and roses and top hats and canes and flying rigs and, it is rumoured for this week, a horse.
Jimi, meanwhile, can actually move about the floor a bit, but it seems Flavia would still prefer to tack on plenty of flair for their routines. So, this week they both had little houses they were standing in at the start of the dance. Imagine my disappointment when I realised that they were supposed to be houses and not representations of the TARDIS.
Then they were dancing with canes. Why? Because they could. Do not question the perfectly abbed girl from Naples.
Credit goes to her, though, for doing a Charleston to modern music. The dance is fun, but watching people constantly perform zany, mouth-wide-open, panto-style (mis)representations of the 1920s grows a bit dull. Were I a judge, Flavia's choreographing to Bassment Jaxx would have earned an automatic five points.

Patsy & Robin ~ Charleston ~ 28
Another hot mess from the mad woman and her big gay wingman. There was a tremendous amount of flailing about, very little of which matched the music, and Patsy was starting to run out of energy toward the end (as she explained to Craig: "I'm middle-aged, darling"). But I kind of don't care. There is something to watching Patsy dance that reminds me of when I was a boy and Corbett Meyer and I would ride our bikes down a steep wooded hill near the junior high school. The experience was jarring and chaotic, and each time I did it I was certain things were going to end terribly. But somehow I would survive. And as soon as the thrill-terror ebbed enough for me to unclench my teeth, I was pushing my bike back up the hill to have another go. Hooray the Karen and Jack of Strictly; hooray Patsy and Robin.

Felicity & Vincent ~ Tango ~ 29
Vincent is clearly going to try to work into every dance some part where Felicity bends at impossible angles. Since props are all the rage this year, perhaps he could have her work her way out of a large metal coil. Or she could emerge from a suitcase. Although perhaps that would be insensitive to Gareth Williams' family.
What I don't like is Vincenzo's constant sexing up of Felicity. I know that's his gimmick, but it creeps me out. More dignified lady; less old whore.

Tina & Jared ~ Charleston ~ 29
Wee Spotty O'Brien was rocking this dance. There were bits where she was kicking higher and showing more energy than Jared. Meanwhile, having displayed restraint for so many weeks, Jared managed to work in one of his trademark heel slides. (Freedom blades!) Add to that the little WonderWheel moment and it left me feeling that perhaps Tina and Jared were under marked.
Meanwhile, have you noticed that Jared doesn't talk much when in Tess' area? I think he doesn't understand her accent. Or, perhaps, being Mormon, he is focusing all his energy on repressing the monsoon of sexual thoughts that no doubt are a natural part of standing close to Tess.

Kara & Artem ~ Charleston ~ 32
Kara's outfit. Oh.
I mean. Oh.
My blog is blocked by a number of workplace filters, incorrectly labeled as pornographic. If I were to expound upon my thoughts of Kara Tointon in her outfit Saturday, the restrictions would be totally deserved.
Did I mention that I love her?
I think a strong case could be made for the argument that my future wife and the Russian chap actually performed the best Charleston of the night. Certainly it was the most authentic. Rather than being wacky-zany-krazee, my future life partner v2.0 performed with the kind of disaffected sass you would actually expect of women of the 1920s. She looked the part, as if something from a French jazz age poster. You could imagine her with a glass of absinthe and cigarette in long holder, breaking the hearts of all the tuxedoed fellows showering her in gifts.
The music helped, too. Using Squirrel Nut Zippers' "Put a Lid On It" made it feel authentic but contemporary.
Watch Kara & Artem's dance, yo. It was class.
Especially the bit where Artem flips Kara over and plays drums on her ass. Very classy.

Pamela & James ~ Tango~ 34
Stop it with your incessant pseudo psychoanalysis of every fucking dance, Pamela. And why aren't you being more of a whore? What happened to the James Jordan who had Zoë Lucker prowling the stage? Though, maybe I don't want to see that from Pamela -- Miss Piggy in the full throes of lust. But I'd like to see something more. Technically their dance was sound but it lacked anything to make me feel its score was well-deserved. Pamela and James are a bit like Felicity and Vincent in the sense that I often forget they are part of the competition.

Scott & Natalie ~ Tango ~ 35
This is the way it often happens in Strictly: most of the couples progress along at a reasonable pace, getting a little better week by week, while two couples get locked into a battle of who can be more awesome. Those two couples at the moment are Scott & Natalie and Matt & Aliona.
I'll clue you into an aspect of the sadness of my life. When I watch Strictly, I have at my side a glass of port and a bowl of popcorn... and a notepad.
Yeah, I take notes on this shit. That's how badly I have Strictly fever. Is it any wonder that I'm single?
Anyway, on my notes from Saturday I have just two things written under Scott and Natalie's names:
- Damn!
- "Scott, you tango beast!"
The second item, of course, is a quote from Bruno. The first item is my response to the dance. It was quality. To be honest, I don't understand why it didn't score higher, because it had no flaws and through almost all of it you could have easily taken Scott for a professional dancer. Perhaps they lost points for music choice, which made me think of those damned De Beers ads.
The highlight, however, came after the dance when Natalie and Scott ran up the stairs to Tess' area. Mmmm, Natalie running up stairs....

Matt & Aliona ~ Charleston ~ 35
Matt & Aliona are the Chuck Norris of Strictly; they can win a game of Connect Four in only three moves. Every week they come out and make the other couples look stupid by comparison.
Matt Baker is what's right with Britain. He did flips in week 1, yo. He did that diving-onto-Aliona thing in week 2 (who wouldn't, though?). He sped through a quickstep without even looking like he needed to take a breath in week 3. So, in week 4 what does he do? Slaps on a circus strongman moustache and rides a fucking unicycle, bitches!!
That's what I have written on my notes from Saturday: "Unicycle!!!!"
Below that I have written: "They kick so much ass!"
Watch their dance and you'll agree. It is filled with awesome: the unicycle, Matt's strongman pose, his managing to make a slip look like part of the dance, the wobbly legs thing, the hurricanrana move, her reeling him back, his flipping her up onto his shoulders and continuing to dance, the WonderWheel move, even playing with Aliona's dress at the end. And indeed, the skimpiness of Aliona's dress. All of it was pure awesome. Things like that are the reasons I am so addicted to Strictly.

Elsewhere:
- Brucie commented on Alesha's dress, saying it looked like she was wearing a snake. He failed to draw attention to the gigantic ring on her right hand, though. Which looked like a jelly donut.
- Have you noticed that there is always banter between Anton and Tess? I suppose they're just developing that presenter chemistry for when Brucie finally keels over.
- Crikey, Tess was gorgeous in the results show. As I've said before, I'm certain the cost of one of her dresses could cover my rent for a year, but she certainly gives value for money.
- John Barrowman has signed on to dance in some sort of Christmas special. Yes! Yes! Yes! The levels of camp on that particular episode of Strictly may cause some sort of power outage or open a rift in time and space. It will be a glitz version of the Large Hadron Collider. I can't wait.

Who's going to win:
This week, despite my undying love/lust of Kara and Natalie, my money's on Matt & Aliona to win, in a final with Kara & Artem and Scott & Natalie.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 8

The Way Forward: Chapter 8

This is a chapter from my book, The Way Forward. Buy the whole novel now from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
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We went to a jazz club that had been suggested to Allison by a friend, and set up to spend our evening at a cozy table on the balcony, where we could see the band. I sat quietly and fortified my courage with two liters of 1664 -- there was something I had to do -- while Allison told me of all the news from home.

Allison's perpetually unhappy mother lived to complain about things (a trait that Allison seemed to be picking up), and had most recently been complaining about both her neck and insurance costs as a result of slamming her car into a bank. Not a snow bank or the side of a hill, a large building where they put money. How the hell do you run into a bank? I suspected she had done so on purpose after having too good a day.

I received an uncomfortably detailed update on the health of Allison's incontinent cat, whom I had never been fond of, especially after he had wandered down to Allison's parents' basement and hissed at the two of us while we were having sex. And I was brought up to date on just about every meal Allison had eaten since I had seen her last -- she could talk for hours about meals she had eaten. Letters from Allison often read like a menu.

I signaled the waitress for another beer then leaned forward across the table. I pressed hard on my temples for a moment, reached over and held Allison's hand. I decided it was time to say it.

"Allison, listen: I love you."

Every part of her stiffened as if she were one of those gazelles you see on nature programs who have just spotted a cheetah, as if she was trying to pretend she hadn't heard what I'd said and that I wouldn't say anything else as long as she didn't move.

Yep. That's why I hadn't said it before. I knew something was up at the train station -- the way she had looked at me. Her head wasn't tilted, her eyes weren't reading every part of me. She hadn't given me my look. She looked at me instead like a challenge, as if she needed to rotate the tires on a car but only had one jack. Things between us had been unusually rough that day. We always fought, but usually the first day together went better than this. I knew, though, that if I said those words -- "I love you" -- she would have to respond. It would force confrontation.

But now, crushed by her silence, I was realizing she wouldn't say the words back to me, and I felt weak. I didn't want a confrontation anymore. If she wasn't going to say, "I love you," back to me, I didn't want to have to deal with whatever came in its place. We were engaged in a staring competition, and I was the first to flinch. I raised my eyebrow and softly squeezed her hand, begging her with my eyes not to just say something but to say what I wanted to hear.

"I love you, too," she said, slowly, sounding like she was trying to convince herself.

"But?"

Even though she'd said the words, she hadn't said them the way I wanted to hear them.

"But. But nothing. I do love you. I care deeply about you -- I always will. I could never stop caring about you."
"But?"
"But nothing. I told you."
"You're shit at this game," I said. "What's wrong?"

The longest, most terrifying, most painful moments in a man's life come in the pause between when he asks a woman, "What's wrong?" and when she starts talking. The longer the pause, the more he suffers an exponential private hell as his mind works at light speed to try to come up with worst-case scenarios. He reaches a logical worst-case scenario (she wants to break up with me) and an extreme scenario (she is, in fact, a man, has a hideous and disfiguring sexually transmitted disease, and wants to break up with me), then he thinks of all the places he would rather be than waiting for a woman to answer a question he really shouldn't have asked.

Why couldn't I have just been happy with "I love you?" She had said it -- I should have just dropped the issue right there. Why did I have to push her? I was drawing myself into something I didn't want any part of, but couldn't stop. Why couldn't I be back in England or further away -- in a tent somewhere in Iceland -- where I wouldn't be having this conversation?

"Nothing's wrong, Ben. I love you. I'm happy to be in Paris with you right now. Can't you be happy, too?"
"I'm having a ball," I said. Agitation slipped out in my voice; the bitterness in my tone was too strong. "I just want to know what's wrong."
"Don't, Benjamin. Don't start, OK? Don't embarrass me. I'll tell you later."

Oh, no. No, no, no, no. No. I learned in fifth grade, when Erin Caley gave back her friendship bracelet, that when a female says she is going to tell you anything "later," it is going to be bad. Good news is never saved for "later." And telling me not to embarrass her only meant that Allison was going to tell me something that she knew was going to cause me to react in an embarrassing way.

Admittedly, I could have and should have waited until later. I knew that whatever she had to say was not going to make me happy. I knew it was bad. I didn't want to know right then what was wrong, but now my third beer had arrived and my head was starting to swim and I wanted to win. She had thrown down the gauntlet, whatever that means. I couldn't let her control the situation. Her refusal to tell me something was an attack on my pride; she had presented the challenge of extracting information and now I had to know, as much as I didn't really want to.

"It's going to be very hard for me to enjoy the rest of the night if I've got something hanging over me like that. I'll just end up thinking the worst," I said. "Just tell me what's on your mind."

I ran my fingers through her hair, brought her close and kissed her. It was a long kiss, wet, and passionate. For a moment I felt a rush of triumph, as I could tell that my kiss would break her will. I had won. Ha ha. Manly triumph. I moved my right hand to her cheek and stroked it softly. It was wet.

She was crying.

Oh, shit.

Her hand moved to the back of my head and she pulled me in tighter. I felt a heavy sob reverberate through her and into our kiss. She broke off and brought a napkin to her face, and somewhere inside of me I knew where this was going.

"Oh, Ben. You have always been so good to me. You care about me so much and you love me and always treat me so nice -- better than I deserve to be treated."

Fuck. Shit. Motherfucker. Goddamn. Son of a bitch.

I no longer wanted to play detective. I no longer wanted to win. I no longer wanted her to tell me what was on her mind. But it was too late. It was like a winter car accident: your car hits a patch of ice and you see the tree you're going to run into, but there's nothing you can do to stop it from happening. You can pump the brakes, throw it in reverse, or kill the engine, but your car will slide slowly, inevitably, into the tree.

"I slept with someone," Allison said.

It was 11:30 p.m.

...

"I assume this is someone different than the guy you slept with last March?" I asked.
"Than Mike? Yes. That was just a one-time thing."
"And this was not a one-time thing?"
"No."
"How many times a thing was it?"
"I don't know. Forty? Fifty? Who counts?"
"Oh, shit," I said, falling back in my chair. My head hurt. "And when were you planning on telling me?"
"Tomorrow. Maybe. Next week. Jesus. I don't know, Benjamin. This is hard for me, too. I hoped you would understand that. I don't think you realize how difficult this is for me. I do love you, you know that."
"Funny way of showing it."
"It was just one of those things that happened. It was my birthday, and Cord and I were drinking so much Dujac -- it's a wine -- and next thing we know we're kissing and his hands were so… oh, God… and you were far away. And I'm so lonely here. You don't know how hard it is. And one thing just led to another…"

Forty or fifty times.

"Your birthday," I said. "That's why I couldn't get a hold of you that night."

It felt surreal. She had cheated on me before. Coincidentally, it had been on my birthday the first time. Again, I had been hundreds of miles away -- me at Macalester and her at UC Davis -- but she didn't tell me until the summer. My parents were out of town and we had spent three days together at their house, with me pretending Allison and I were married. I made her breakfast in the mornings and we went on walks through the neighborhood after dinner. We had just had sex when she told me. We were lying there in my bed, holding each other's hand and feeling my little desk fan blow softly across our naked bodies. I felt her hand squeeze mine and I looked over and her eyes were filled with tears. It all went downhill from there.

The mental image of how I reacted after being told, standing naked in my parents' garage throwing punches at an old piece of plywood until my knuckles bled, now flashed through my mind. It had taken her months to tell me, but she had cried and cried until I felt guilty, as if I had forced her to have sex with someone else on my birthday. I can't remember exactly how it all played out, but I begged her not to give up on me. Of course it had been hard on her with me still living back home. Long-distance relationships are always hard. And sometimes bad things happen. But you have to be stronger than those things. Right?

Over that summer we put things back together as best we could. In the fall, I restructured my life to be more attentive to her. I wrote to her more often, called her as much as I could afford, and made the 36-hour drive to Davis any time I had a three-day weekend. When Allison announced she was going to spend a year studying in Nantes, I switched majors and elbowed my way into Portsmouth University -- I had been informed that studying a politics degree would all but assure my admittance. Moving to Pompey put me just across the English Channel from her. It wasn't perfect, but I was only 150 miles away as the crow flies. Not being a crow, those miles meant long, uncomfortable hours on buses and ferries and trains, but I saw her about every two weeks -- far more than before.

Now it was all dissipating. I wanted to be angry but the fight just wasn't there. You know those movies where some guy is out doing a space walk and the cable connecting him to the ship snaps? I felt like that guy. Right away, his life doesn't change much. He's still got plenty of oxygen in his suit. But as his last little connection to everything he has ever known and understood speeds beyond his grasp, it has to dawn on him: "Goddamn, I’m going to run out of oxygen soon. In an hour or two, things are really, really going to suck. And there's nothing I can do to stop it."

I couldn't really feel the pain yet, but I knew it was coming.

Wait.

"Cord?! What the fuck kind of name is Cord?"
"You've never heard it before?" she asked, letting me know by the tone of her voice that I was an idiot.
"I've heard it before. That doesn't make it a legitimate name."
"It's a cowboy name. I thought you'd understand that, being from Texas."
"Tyler is a cowboy name. Cord is the thing that runs from a socket to a lamp. It's just a random noun; his parents could have just as easily named him Boot or Saxophone."
"Jesus, Benjamin. Just stop."
"Fine."

I signaled the waitress for another beer.

"And a whisky," I said, making the international symbol for a shot glass with my thumb and forefinger. "WIS-KEE."
"Jesus, Benjamin. I do not want to have to deal with you drunk. OK? I don’t think that's a…"
"Bollocks to what you think. Let me ask you: where do we go from here?"
"What do you mean?"
"From here. Where do we go? What happens next? You've fucked another guy. Do we go through all the same shit again? How am I supposed to react? Are you done with your bloke…"
"Cord."
"I don't care about his name. I don't want to know his name. Are you done with your bloke? Are you going to keep on shagging your bloke and keep me on the side? What happens now?"
"This is what I'm talking about," Allison said. "All this English slang. That's not like you used to be. Where does that come from?"
"I said: are you done with your bloke?"
"Cord," she made her fish face. "I don't know, Benjamin. I wanted to talk to you about this, and about what you want, and about our dynamic. But you don't seem to want to be an adult about it. You don't seem to want to understand or relate to me. I've invested a lot in our relationship and you just want to yell. That hurts me, Benjamin. It hurts my heart."

Our dynamic? She started crying again.

"And you are fitting in so well in your little world over there. It's like you don't even need me anymore," she said. "But it's difficult in Nantes. You don't know how hard it is for me here. I am so lonely. I am so challenged. And it's hard to fit in. And Cord understands that."
"Are you faking it? You look like you're trying to cry, and you sound like you've rehearsed this speech a few times."
"Jesus, Benjamin. I'm trying to express my feelings, but you don't seem to care. You don't want to understand my concerns. Can't you understand my situation? Can't you understand?"
"OK. But you understand why I might be just a little upset that my girlfriend is shagging another bloke? Can't you? I'm finding out just minutes before New Year's?"

I was starting to feel out of control. Part of me wanted to hold onto the numbness I felt, part of me wanted to throw a tantrum and part of me wanted to break her down with words. I hadn't always been a better speaker, but I had always been better with words than her -- I wanted to construct logic arguments to make her feel terrible and beg me to take her back. But there is no logic to relationships. Love, or the lack thereof, never does what you want it to. My words were drowning in emotion and I couldn't get them to come out right.

The waitress brought my whisky and beer. In a fit of melodrama, I slammed back the shot and grit my teeth at Allison as it ate away my insides.

"Your timing is fucking great," I growled, pointing at my watch.
"I told you: I wasn't going to tell you tonight, Benjamin. Jesus. And stop using your slang. What is shagging, anyway?"
"Sexual intercourse. Fucking. A bit of 'how's your father?' The old in and out. The horizontal tango…"
"It's not always horizontal."
"What?!"
"Sometimes we have sex standing up."
"The hell? I don't want to hear about your sex life with other men. I don't want to hear about you and other men at all. You're my girlfriend. You are not supposed to have sex with other guys. I'm sure that makes me something awful in your mind, but I am not cool with my girlfriend having sex with other blokes."
"Was your girlfriend, Benjamin. Was," she said. "The way you are reacting to this is only proving to me that I made the right decision."

Now it's a decision? I thought loneliness and too much wine were to blame. She had made a decision -- a conscious decision -- to rip the heart out of my chest?

"It was the right decision to have sex with somebody else -- standing up, maybe hanging from the fucking ceiling in one of those little swings even -- dozens of times?" I asked.

"Jesus, Benjamin. Don't start with your sophistry. You're supposed to be understanding. I thought you cared about me. This is what's happening in my life, Benjamin. If you cared about me, you would care about what happens in my life. Cord is a little shorter than you, so we can get the angle right. Remember when you and I tried it standing up, and it just didn't work?"

"Oh, fuck! What the fuck, huh? I mean what the fucking fuck?"
"What does that mean?"
I didn't know what it meant. I had read it in a book a few years before, and it struck me as an appropriate thing to say right then.

"Forget it," I said, driving my fist hard into my chest in attempt to display my frustration.

The punch made a loud thump and hurt far more than I had expected. I took in a short, painful breath and stared at her. I was trying to act out. I wanted her to feel guilty and start pleading with me to take her back. But I had no control over any of it. My words weren't working. She wasn't responding. I couldn't even gauge how I felt. Confused and not knowing how to deal with any of it, I did what any intelligent male would do: I made an ass of myself.

"Here's something else I picked up in England."

I drank down my beer in one long, gulping fit, like a child draining a glass of Kool-Aid on a hot day. I slammed the mug on the table, gasped for air and extended two fingers at her. I slammed a handful of francs on the table and stood up. My head was swimming and things weren't coming off quite the way I wanted them to. It wasn't very cinematic at all. In a film, Allison would be gripping my arm and refusing to let me go; in a film, the band would have been playing something a little more dramatic and heart wrenching than Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train;" and in a film, my chair would not have toppled over and hit the woman at the table next to me when I stood up.

"Crap. Sorry," I said as I righted the chair. "Tell her I'm sorry, Allison."
"Il est ivre. You're acting like a fucking child, Benjamin."

I looked at her and felt my face go hot with embarrassment and frustration. My throat was tight and my eyes started to water. I sniffed and wiped at my face with both hands. I looked her in the eye and tried to pull something from her. She looked away.

"Just tell me how I can fix it. Give me directions on what exactly I am supposed to do -- a blueprint and a little flowchart explaining the necessary steps to make this all go away."

She was silent. She just looked at the band and sipped her wine. After a few seconds of staring at her staring away, I came around the table and lightly pushed her hair back behind her ear. She looked up at me without turning her head.

"Happy New Year, Allison."
"Where are you going?"
"A walk, I think. I'll see you back at the hotel and maybe we can talk about this more."
"But it's almost midnight. Who's going to give me a New Year's kiss?"
"You don't seem to have any trouble finding people to kiss. You'll do alright. Maybe you should call your bloke."
"Cord is in Nantes," she said, lilting her voice to let me know that I was King Stupid of Stupidonia for suggesting such a geographical impossibility. "And I couldn't call him anyway. I don't have a phone card or anything."

I dug out my MCI calling card and flung it at her.

...

It was snowing when I stepped outside the bar. I took in a long breath and tried to think of what to do next. The cold air shot to my brain and I felt instantly sober and terribly vulnerable to the pain that was starting to creep in. I waited a few minutes for Allison to come running after me. She didn't, and I started walking when I heard the band inside the bar stop playing and ready itself to count down to midnight.

A car of young men drove by and shouted at me.

"Bonne Année!"

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Strictly Recap Week 3: Madness? This is Strictly!

Much to my own surprise I managed to turn in my masters project on time Thursday. In light of that deadline, in a sudden fitful action of rationality, I decided Sunday it would be unwise to allocate any of my time to writing a Strictly recap. I know, madness, right? I'll try to make sure it never happens again. Now that I have the time, however, I can barely remember back so far as last Saturday. So, this recap will be short.

Getting the boot last week were Paul and Ola. I liked his valiant death speech in the results show: "Well, if any of us has to go, I think it should be me."

Paul & Ola ~ Rumba ~ 16
I agreed with Paul; it was time for him to go. He had incorporated a magic trick into every dance and I was starting to fear the point at which he attempted to cut Ola in half.

Tina & Jared ~Rumba ~ Did not dance
Tina missed the show this week because she had contracted chicken pox. The totally arbitrary rules of the show ("[contingency] actions may include, but not be limited to changing the format of the show, including, removing, substituting or adding professional dancers and or judges; and cancelling, suspending or altering voting at any time") allowed her a "bye" and she'll be back again this week.
I've decided I like Tina because on her Twitter feed she referred to herself as Spotty O'Brien and even posted a picture of herself. One suspects many actresses would be too self-conscious to post that picture.

Ann & Anton ~ Quickstep ~ 18
It's no longer funny, Britain. Stop voting for her.

Gavin & Katya ~ Rumba ~ 22
Undermarked. Again. The judges' comments seemed to genuinely piss Gavin off. I was waiting for him to start that punching-people-in-the-face game that he likes to play on trains.
Last week's quote from Katya that I wish she'd say to me: "Baby, hold my leg."
Last week's best quote from Gavin (talking about the rumba): "I have to really feel it. But if I start to feel it, I start thinking other things. I don't know if I want to start feeling that way about Katya."

Patsy & Robin ~ Quickstep ~ 24
Increasingly, mad Patsy and camp Robin remind me of Jack and Karen off Will & Grace. Their quickstep, meanwhile, was a hot mess.

Michelle & Brendan ~ Rumba ~ 24
Michelle seemed to be having a nervous breakdown throughout the show. In one of those "here's the other couples clapping" shots, I noticed she was crying. Turns out Brendan's father had died. Which obviously sucks a lot.
Without knowing that at the time, though, the dance felt really, really odd. Their costumes looked to have been designed by Quentin Tarantino, so I imagined that Brendan was having to get her to perform by promising to score some more heroin as soon as she finished the dance. "Come on, baby child. Just one little dance with yo' sweet daddy and then we'll get you some smack to make it all better."

Jimi & Flavia ~ Rumba ~ 25
Still waiting for that moment when Jimi is legitimately good. It didn't happen last week.

Peter & Erin ~ Quickstep ~ 26
Peter used to play goalie for England and is incapable of thinking about anything else. He reminds me of Jimmy Buzzard.

Felicity & Vincent ~ Rumba ~ 29
Crikey that woman is bendy. She can't do anything else, mind. But I don't know any women half her age who could bend backward from a standing position and touch their head to the floor. She also scores points with me for muttering "ah, shit" under her breath on live television.

Kara & Artem ~ Quickstep ~ 31
They had clearly been spending the week in Awesome Town; their dance was easily the best of the night. Kara did cartwheels and spins and slides on the floor and basically made awesome pour out of my television. She and Artem were woefully undermarked. And I'm not just saying that because I am full-on in love with Kara.
Although, I am indeed in love with her. This week she replied to me on Twitter. I'm pretty sure that means we're dating now.
Best judge comment on the dance came from Craig: "A cartwheel in heels; I've done that myself, darling. I know how difficult it can be."

Matt & Aliona ~ Quickstep ~ 31
I often refer to the transformative effects of Strictly, that somehow the experience makes a person more dynamic. I have always thought of it as something that affected the celebrities, but it appears to work both ways. Hanging out with Matt Baker is turning Aliona into a likeable person. I am no longer able to hate her. Sure, I still want to see her with her arm up a cow's ass, but now moreso for fetish purposes.
Best quote from Matt last week came from training footage when he messed up and screamed: "Feet! Why won't you do what you're told?!"

Scott & Natalie ~Quickstep ~ 34
Although Kara Tointon and I are so totally going to get married (I already have a nickname for her: "Life Partner Version 2.0"), I hope she understands that at any point it is OK for Natalie to show up and get naked. Oh, Natalie Lowe, you are so dreamy.
I loved the music for their quickstep ("I Wanna Be Like You," off Jungle Book) but don't actually feel the dance was actually better than Kara and Artem's.

Pamela & James ~ Rumba ~ 35
Good, but not as good as it was marked by the judges. Pamela reminds me of Miss Piggy when she dances. In the rumba, then, I found myself saying aloud: "Oh, Kermy."

Elsewhere
- This week Brendan flew back to New Zealand for his father's funeral and will miss Saturday's show. In the beautiful madness that is Strictly, Michelle has been paired with a new partner: Ian 'Jade-Breaker' Waite. They'll be doing the tango, and in training footage it appears Michelle may finally be getting her groove back. I am really looking forward to this. I'm also wondering if perhaps she won't be a little sad when Brendan eventually returns. Ian strikes me as far more likeable.

Who's going to win
This week I'm picking Matt & Aliona to win in a final with Kara & Artem and Scott & Natalie

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Please stand by

I'm in the process of finishing up my masters project, due Thursday, so I've not had time for this week's Strictly recap or any other writing that could be classed as "fun" or "something I actually want to be doing."

Once I've turned in my project, normal blog service will resume as soon as possible.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 7

This is a chapter from my book, The Way Forward. Buy the whole novel now from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
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My dad had put some money into my bank account for Christmas, so I decided to take the Chunnel train back to Paris rather than spend another full day traveling via ferry and regional French trains.

I took an early express train into London, then the Eurostar train from London to Paris. I was there by noon. Just before arriving at Gare du Nord, I stepped inside the toilet to clean myself up. My face was still purple in areas, but most of the swelling was gone in both eyes and I no longer needed bandages. I looked a little rough, but I felt good -- I was excited to see Allison. I brushed my teeth, splashed some water on my face and shook off what had happened a few days before. Today was New Year's Eve -- tonight, with Allison in my arms, I would leave the bad Christmas behind with all the other detritus of the previous year.

Allison was waiting for me at the station. She was leaning against a pillar, reading, and didn't see me walking toward her. She was playing with her earring and pushing out her lips -- making her little "fish face" that showed she was concentrating. I regularly tried to convince myself it was cute, but it actually annoyed the hell out of me. Damn it, though, she was beautiful. Every time I saw her I felt a rush of life. The rest of the world would melt away. I would feel my chest fill with energy. I felt stupid and wonderful. My heart would pound and skip. My arms ached to wrap around her. Nothing else mattered but her and that moment. I didn't care about Christmas or homesickness or school or money -- all of that was gone. I just wanted to feel her close to me, run my fingers through her hair and feel the softness of her lips against mine. She was my drug, my solace, my world.

Her wavy red hair was pulled into a pony tail and hung down to her lower back. She had on her wire-frame glasses and had even put on a little makeup. She wore a green button-up shirt with the collar turned up to cover her slender neck, a pair of tight jeans and the black jacket (I called it her "football hooligan jacket") I had bought her at an Army surplus store in Portsmouth when she had come to visit.

"One fish, two fish; Allie-fish, blue fish," I said when I came up to her.

I lifted her off her feet with a bear hug and spun her. She swatted the back of my head with her book, "Jesus, Ben. You scared me."

But I was unfazed. I squeezed her tight. Her coat was open, I could feel her breasts against my chest, and I took in the smell of her perfume. The aroma sent my brain into a state of electrical overload. It was like breathing in sunshine. It made me feel all at once weak and powerful.

"I missed you," I said, setting her back down.

I pressed my hand into the small of her back and brought her in close, touching her forehead to mine.

"I'm minty fresh. Give me a kiss," I said, leaning in.

She turned her head, leaving me to kiss her cheek.

"You're sick."
"Not anymore. I was cured by a couple from Hong Kong. I didn't know this, but I really like Chinese food. Come here."

She arched her back.

"There's all these people around."
"It's Paris. City of Love. You're supposed to make out in public here -- it's listed as the No. 1 activity in all the guide books. Come here," I said, touching her face with my left hand and guiding her lips to mine.

She leaned in and gave me a soft, quick, close-mouthed kiss, then slipped out of my embrace.

"Come on. Let's drop your stuff off at the hotel."

As soon as we walked into the hotel room, I dropped my bag to the floor and again wrapped Allison in my arms. She was warm and I pressed her into me. Her neck was smooth on my lips and again I took in deep, full breaths of her perfume, getting drunk with her smell. I slid my hands underneath her shirt and felt the softness of her skin. I inched up from her waist and felt her rib cage in the palm of my hands. I felt dizzy and out of breath. I pressed on her ribs; held her in my hands. Our lips met and I felt my head click and spin as I guided her to the foot of the bed and lightly moved my right hand up her spine to the clasp of her bra. Her kiss was soft and perfect. I was lost in her.

"I haven't eaten," Allison said, stretching to the right to keep me from undoing the clasp. "I don't want to have sex when I'm this hungry."

I looked at her.

"I'm just hungry," she said, and gave me a hug.

...

We ate hot sandwiches served from the window of a shop in the Latin Quarter, and I insisted we take them into a bar, where it was warm and I could wash down my sandwich with a half liter of 1664 lager. The sandwich was basically two spiced sausages, split and buried in pomme frites, then stuffed in baguette bread. I was happy and the spiciness of the sandwich went well with big gulps of cold lager. I had actually been pretty hungry, too.

"I'm genuinely impressed with this. I'm surprised the English haven't come up with such a thing," I said, raising my glass in toast to her.
"You're different," Allison said. The tone of her voice was neutral. "England makes you a little different."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I don't know. Just different than you used to be -- back home. The way you talk, I guess. You didn't used to be… I don't know."

There was a long pause. I looked at her. This was one of those Allison conversations where I had no idea what was being said but I knew it wasn't going in my favor. I felt I was being walked into a verbal trap.

"Do you like it there?" she asked.
"Where?"
"England."
"I hadn't thought about it. Yeah, I suppose I do. Portsmouth's an ugly dog of a town, but I guess it just grows on you. Dirty, cold place. But then one day you're happy to be there.
"For example -- maybe you saw them, Allie -- there are guys who walk around town with their trousers rolled up and they have plain white T-shirts and Elvis haircuts, and that's just the way they look. Apparently no one's told them that they look like they're in a middle-aged production of Grease. They just look like that. I have no idea why. That's just the Pompey style. It's hard not to like a town with that sort of thing," I said, laughing.
"Trousers. You say things like 'trousers.' They're pants, Benjamin. I didn't like it there."
"Your opinion is pants. You were only there for one day. And we really only walked along the sea wall. Because you had said that you loved the sea, which, clearly, you did not."
"I do love the sea. I love a nice warm beach and sand and the sun on my face. Not a bunch of fucking rocks."
"You expected to find warm, sunny beaches in England in mid-November?"

We were arguing now. Lately every time we spoke, we were on the cliff of an all-out fight. Most of the time we jumped off that cliff with reckless abandon.

"Jesus, Ben. Don't start, OK? Don't embarrass me here."
"Why? Are you a regular?"

She gave me a face, looked at my unfinished beer, then at her watch.

"Do you want to see the Champs-Elysées? I made dinner reservations for 8 o'clock. So, if we're going to do any sightseeing, we'd better go."

The Champs-Elysées and the Arc d'Triumph and the Eiffel Tower and all the other things we looked at that afternoon were things I had seen just a few days before. I didn't want to see Paris. I wanted to see the inside of our hotel room. I wanted to hold Allison in my arms and kiss her and run my fingers through her hair and lie in bed and not fight. Instead, we saw all the parts of the city that you see in movies and pretended we were interested.

When we walked past Notre Dame, I suggested we go inside so I could show her exactly where I had sat in the cold for five hours -- suffering from the flu -- "worrying that perhaps you had been killed."

"Don't be a fucking child, Benjamin. Jesus," she said. "We had a conversation about this. I told you I had a paper that was due. I warned you that I might not be able to make it for Christmas. I told you that a month ago."
"I don't remember that conversation."
"That's because you don't listen, Benjamin. I'm sorry you don't find me interesting enough to listen to."

Hooray. Once again I had managed to be the world's worst boyfriend without even trying. Things were going poorly and I could not seem to pull them back together.

After we had seen as much of Paris as time would allow, and far more than I cared for, we returned to the hotel to clean up and change clothes. When she stepped out of the shower, I tried again to kiss Allison but she pushed me away, saying she was afraid of missing our dinner reservation. At dinner, I wanted steak frite but Allison insisted that I try something that I can only describe as pink shit and a duck. I tried to pretend I appreciated the wine Allison had ordered, but fine wine is wasted on me. I enjoy it well enough, but it tastes the same as wine from a box, as far as I'm concerned.

After dinner, as we sipped desert wines, a man came by with a large wooden box and placed it on the table. He opened it to reveal a selection of cigarettes, cigars and loose tobacco. The aroma from the box was sweet and inviting. Both the man and I glanced up at Allison, who scowled, and the box was snapped shut.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Now give us a grant


My cousin likes to take part in various competitions to see who can solve Rubik's-style puzzles fastest. Yeah, it doesn't make sense to e, either. But anyway, by extension, he likes to film himself practicing and put the videos on YouTube. I've decided that he's unintentionally created an art film with this video. Watch it with the sound up and you'll hear two people arguing out of view through the first bit. Then the puzzle falls apart and Shane grows frantic in trying to both put the thing back together and achieve the original goal.

It reminds me of the sort of thing that would run on continuous loop at Tate Modern. The little explanatory placard would speak of disaffection -- our solitary place in a crowded world -- fate, and human fear of disorder.

Consider yourself enlightened. Someone please now send us £20,000.

(By the way, Shane is deaf. That's why he doesn't say anything in the videos)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Strictly Recap Week 2: You haven't got a zero

In his book Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby says that one of the things he likes about being an avid Arsenal supporter is the fact that people associate him with the team; when they see Arsenal on television, or learn some random factoid, they think of him. The book being written well before the days of Facebook and Twitter, he took a certain pleasure in being omnipresent in people's lives without having to physically be there.

It appears the same thing is happening with me and "Strictly Come Dancing." I'm not sure how I feel about that. I would prefer people associate me with various manly activities, like one-handed alligator killing. Being single, I doubt very much it helps my cause to have ladies picturing me sitting alone in my armchair, a full glass of port by my side, clapping and cheering at a load of fake-tanned celebrities in sequins and Lycra. But, of course, that is what I do. And because of it, people get in touch when they hear of any sort of Strictly happening.

For example, Annie sent me an e-mail last week with a tidbit from a news story mentioning that celebrities this year are paid quid pro quo. In other words, they are payed by the dance rather than in a lump sum, as before. So, the longer a celebrity stays in the competition, the more he or she gets paid.

It looks like Goldie, then, will be looking for a new source of income (add your own Cash 4 Gold joke here). On Sunday he and Kristina became the first couple to leave the show.

Goldie & Kristina ~ Foxtrot ~ 26
I feel sorry for Kristina. She's been thrice unlucky with celebrities, forced to watch after them with motherly patience instead of being able to show off. Remember the professional dances she would do with Brian Fortuna? She can zip all around in shiny, twirly, fake-boobied magnificence like you've never seen. If she's around next year, I demand she be given someone who might actually stand a chance.
Now she's off the show, however, it means she has more time for getting to know her fans. I suggest she start with me. Specifically, she should get to know what it is like to sit on my lap. And what it is like to be in my shower, when I'm in it. She should get to know me in the biblical sense.
The absence of Kristina aside, however, I'm not sorry to see her and Goldie leave. I said last week I'd be happy to see him out before Ann Widdecombe. His foxtrot wasn't awful, but his constant seaside-pier grinning annoyed me. Wait, I've only suddenly realised what it is I don't like about Goldie: he dances like Mel Brooks.

Ann & Anton ~ Salsa ~ 12
BBC sport presenter Clare Balding dislikes being called a "dyke" but is quite happy to have you believe she's having sex with Ann Widdecombe. There's a mental image you don't want to linger on. Nonetheless, in honour of Clare, Ann shall henceforth be referred to as "Widdy."
Considering how celebrities are paid this season, I think we can say it's clear that Widdy doesn't care about money.
Or dancing.
Watching the show Saturday, I suddenly thought that perhaps Widdy is there as a kind of post-modern sabotage effort to prove the utter stupidity of Strictly. Whereas Clare Balding thinks Widdy would hate being on the programme too much longer, perhaps she would see it as a triumph. Each week Widdy is there underlines the pointlessness of the show. She is not dancing, she is not being sexy, and she is not taking part in "the journey." In a video package last week she took a swipe at a number of her fellow contestants when she said: "I do wish people would stop all this psycho-babble about what it means to them [to be part of the show]."
So perhaps Widdy is in that group of people who feel they are above the masses and that programmes like Strictly are an utter waste of license-fee payers' money and a detriment to the intellectual level of the nation. But instead of writing strongly worded letters to the Times, she's fighting against it by being a part of it -- making a mockery of the whole thing by twirling around aimlessly and still being voted back each week. Perhaps Widdy is an evil genius.
Perhaps not. Whatever "charm" Widdy possesses comes mainly from the fact there appears to be no kill switch to stop certain things thought from becoming things said. So she doesn't strike me as having the ability to think ahead far enough to plot out a grand joke on Strictly. She's just there. And in those rare moments I can get over disliking her, I can see that she at least enjoys being there. Perhaps, despite her best efforts to reject such nonsense, the transformative effect of Strictly is taking place for Widdy, too.
After her dance Saturday, standing before the judges, she said to Craig: "You haven't got a zero, so you might as well give us a one and have done with it."
The audience cheered and even Craig laughed, and amid it all she turned to Anton and said: "Oh, look. I've got him laughing."
And just for a second, I saw the little girl in Widdy. I saw innocent delight at having made everyone smile. And it occurred to me it has probably been quite some time in her public life since she has received positive feedback from large groups of people. Perhaps Strictly is the first time. She is a woman known for being disliked, but in that moment Saturday everyone was laughing with her rather than at her. Maybe, just maybe, Strictly could make Widdy a better person.
It needs to do so soon, however; her dance was awful. If you could call it a dance. Acknowledging that it wasn't really a salsa, Widdy described it as "a jolly hockey-stick stonk." I had to look up the word "stonk" on the internets. I found this. I'm not able to watch that video all the way through -- it makes me cringe. So, indeed, Widdy and Anton's salsa was a stonk; it, too, was hard to watch. However, I liked the bit when Anton ripped open his shirt and Widdy buttoned it back up.
It was obvious Anton had abandoned all hope of actually dancing, though. As any Strictly fan can tell you, lifts are illegal in most dances. But Anton made the executive decision that rules no longer matter. At the end of the routine, he simply picked Widdy up and twirled her around. Craig's scoring of the dance -- 1 -- was fair. Anton knows that Widdy's time on the show rests solely in the hands of those people calling in to vote for her.

Peter & Erin ~ Salsa ~ 17
I feel Widdy needs to go soon, but I'm quite content for two others to go before her. The first of those two is Peter, who used to play goalie for England. In case you had forgotten in the 1 minute and 40 seconds he was dancing and therefore not able to verbally tell you that he used to play soccer, there was a sparkly football sewn into the seat of his trousers. He then wiggled his bum around for everyone to see. A football. On his ass. Because he used to play goalie for England, remember?
It's appropriate that Robbie Williams was the results show's musical guest this week; the dancing from Peter, who used to play goalie for England, reminded me of a lyric of Robbie's: "And when I'm drunk I dance like me dad."
Sue Perkins, however, more accurately described Peter, who used to play goalie for England, as looking like he was "shitting in a rural French toilet."
However you look at it, what he wasn't doing was the salsa. At times I wondered whether Peter, who used to play goalie for England, could even hear the music. It clearly had no impact on his movement.
And the whole thing left me feeling terribly for poor Erin Boag. Unlike her her husband (Anton), Erin isn't quite able to give in to the idea of being a dancing clown. This was obvious from her body language and lack of verbal language. Dancing-wise, she trudged through her routine with Peter, who used to play goalie for England, the way I suppose Rebecca Adlington might approach a swimming race against me. She did all the things she had to -- kept her form -- but there's no way her heart was in it. And afterward she spoke not a word. Look at this picture of them in a backstage interview. That is the face of a stoic Victorian wife suffering her husband's repugnant lovemaking because one must perform one's duty without complaint. Peter, who used to play goalie for England, yammered on about how he thought he was improving, setting himself out as this year's Craig Kelly -- awful and unaware. But Erin just stood there. In front of the judges, in Tess' area, in the results show -- she said nothing. Somewhere in her head, a beleaguered little voice was probably asking: "Where did it all go wrong in my life?"
She and Peter, who used to play goalie for England, were in the bottom two with Goldie and Kristina. I'll bet Erin hates the people who voted to keep her in the competition.

Gavin & Katya ~ Salsa ~ 19
I know I'm all pro-Wales, yo, but Gavin and Katya were seriously under-marked in this dance. True, the rugby star is a be a bit more Kenny Logan than Austin Healey, but he wasn't as bad as his score suggests. The judges more or less gave away that the reason they marked him so low was because of the quality of his dance from the week before. That's understandable, but not fair. They're supposed to mark the dances as they are, not as the judge thought they could be.
Yes, I'm getting indignant about the scoring on a reality television programme.
A.A. Gill once wrote that "nothing in the world has skin as gossamer-fine as a Welshman with a grievance." Perhaps I truly am one of these people.
Anyway, I'm hoping Gavin will soon reach that point in the Strictly experience when suddenly everything starts to click. It's happened several times over the years: a celebrity walks through their first three or four dances and then suddenly starts to get it. I'm not wishing this for Gavin's sake, of course. I just want to see a lot of Katya.
One of the big changes to Strictly this year was moving Tess' "kiss and cry" area from backstage to a balcony in the studio. This means the celebrities are more or less in the crowd, which may or may not be a good thing; I'm undecided. What is good is the fact that after listening to judges' comments, the couples have to run up a set of steps to talk to Tess.
Scantily clad women running.
I could watch Katya take those stairs all day long.

Paul & Ola ~ Foxtrot ~ 21
I'm quite happy to watch Ola navigate the stairs, as well. But on her own. Paul is the second of the two people I'd be happy to see go before Widdy. I think perhaps that's unlikely, though, because Ola is so likeable. People are fond of the Polish super-hotty and feel a certain distorted sense of twee seeing her lead Paul around the dance floor as if he were a retarded child.
The writers of Brucie's jokes are perfectly welcome, by the way, to refer to Paul as a retarded child. In Brucie's segue before Paul and Ola's dance, he joked that Paul looked like Yoda -- an observation I made last week. To that end, if the BBC would like to give me a job writing Brucie's jokes, I wholeheartedly accept the position. If you let me share a room with Natalie Lowe I won't even ask that you pay me.
Side note: Isn't Paul supposed to be a magician? Why is it that he has absolutely no finesse?

Felecity & Vincent ~ Foxtrot ~ 25
Meh. Their dance was so boring that I had written the whole of this post before realising I had forgotten someone.

Michelle & Brendan ~ Foxtrot ~ 26
At these early stages, with so many dancers to get through, the routines are each 1 minute and 40 seconds long. That's not really so much time when you think about it. But it is apparently too much time for Michelle Williams to be dancing; she spent the first 25 seconds of her foxtrot sitting on a bench while Brendan flung himself about.
And all credit to the perpetually annoying Kiwi, he was really flinging himself about. First he slid down the banister, then he jumped down stairs, ran across the floor, jumped up some more stairs and hurdled a bench. While Michelle watched. Brendan has deployed this tactic before, trying to put enough flash into a routine that he carries the audience votes on his own. He is the Churchill of ballroom: convinced the war cannot be won without him playing a primary role. And I suppose it worked -- he and Michelle got through.
After the dance, Michelle did her usual thing of explaining away her bad performance. This is what Michelle does: she sits and makes excuses. She's a younger, more attractive, black, female version of me. If I had been in a pop group with Beyonce. And sold several hundreds of thousands of records. OK, she's probably not like at me at all. I'll bet she doesn't even notice when Katya runs up the stairs.

Tina & Jared ~ Foxtrot ~ 26
Jared is the fourth of seven children. He was born in Hawaii. He started training as a performer in Utah.
Let's see, here... Big family. Hawaii has a BYU campus. Utah is, well, Utah.
I smell a Mormon.
Yup, he's on the list. If Rachel were here she would be supporting these two by default. And I suppose I wouldn't blame her. The cute little couple are hard to dislike. They are also hard to remember, though. I remember almost nothing of the dance apart from the fact that Jared looked a little uncomfortable through the first bit, as if he were the one learning.
Of course, I was saying this sort of thing about Ali Bastian at this stage last year. She also started out as cute but forgettable. Then, around the fourth week or so, I decided I was in love with her. Ali, who is single again, apparently.
Call me.
Side note: I think you have to give Tina credit for actually taking interest in the whole of the show. After dances, there is usually a quick camera shot of the other celebrities up in Tess' area. Most are sitting on the sofa, perhaps having watched via a monitor, or perhaps not having watched at all. I've noticed, though, that she and Kara are usually stood at the balcony, having watched the dance with their own eyes.

Patsy & Robin ~ Salsa ~ 28
Our Patsy's just not mentally stable, is she? In the video package before her dance she was again having a good cry. Then, later, when she learned she was safe from the bottom two, she had a facial expression that was a mixture of all kinds of emotions one wouldn't necessarily expect for Strictly. It was effectively the same face I would make if I woke up naked next to Ronnie Van Zant.
You know, I'd be like: "OK, Ronnie, it's great to see you, because Lynyrd Skynyrd went to shit without you, but, dude: Firstly, what are you doing in my bed? 2) What are you doing in my house? and 3) I thought you died in 1977."
But when on the dance floor, Patsy didn't do too poorly. She got lost once or twice, and I agree with Craig that her throwing herself at the judges' desk was "slightly unnecessary, darling." But it was alright.
I think I also liked it because in wide shots Patsy looked a bit like Charo in the 1970s. Did I ever tell you about the time Charo pushed my head into her breasts? True story. I'll save it for another day.

Jimi & Flavia ~ Foxtrot ~ 30
I'm still having trouble not picturing Jimi's character in The Guru when he dances. He's doing alright, but I can't seem to get myself to stop feeling that he looks silly. Perhaps it would help if Jimi's facial expression hadn't changed 789 times in the dance. He couldn't seem to decide whether he was supposed to be intense or goofy. The mood of their foxtrot would frequently change from sexy to cheesy and back within a single bar of music.

Matt & Aliona ~ Foxtrot ~ 31
Last year I hated Aliona. But put her with a friendly bloke from Durham and my whole attitude has changed.
A number of the dancers travel out of London in order to train with their celebrities -- to suit the celebrity's schedule. So, for example, Jared spends much of his week up in Manchester because that's where Tina lives and works. Matt's work on "Countryfile," though, means he's constantly bouncing around the whole of Britain. And that means Aliona is bouncing along with him. It endears her to me. I still think she should be required to shove her arm up a cow's ass, but the footage of her in Wellies dancing the foxtrot in a pumpkin patch was admittedly cute. I'm finding that I like these two so much I am now watching "Countryfile" as a side effect. That show is great. Who knew rabbits were an invasive species to Britain? And there is at least one raccoon roaming wild in County Durham! Zounds! Also, I am in love with Julia Bradbury.
Meanwhile, I'm starting to think that unless Matt gets kicked by a horse or some such thing, he and Aliona are likely to find themselves in the final thanks to a combination of skill and likeability. That said, I didn't quite get why he dove on top of Aliona at the the end of their foxtrot. Perhaps he did it just because he could; I certainly wouldn't pass up that opportunity.

Pamela & James ~ Salsa ~32
One of the high points of Saturday's show had to be in Pamela and James' salsa, when she got up from a floor spin and almost toppled over backward. It was brilliant, firstly, because of the comedy "I've stepped on a roller-skate but am trying to look graceful" expression on her face, but also because of her immediate recovery. After the dance she said to Brucie: "I warned him. I said: 'James, you shouldn't throw granny on the floor.'"
My only complaint is that James has yet to bring out the whore in Pamela. On second thought, I'm not complaining.

Kara & Artem ~ Foxtrot ~32
Kara had to overcome tonsillitis to make Saturday's show. She's a warrior, that Dawn Swann. That's why crazy May couldn't kill her.
I wonder, though, if she'll have longevity in the Strictly world. EastEnders actors have a good history of lasting into midseason, but then struggle toward the final hurdle. Off the top of my head, I can't think of an EastEnders performer who's made it into the final four. Perhaps this is because as Strictly drags on to December, the EastEnders actors are busy doing pantomimes. This country's holiday light entertainment industry would go into a tailspin without EastEnders actors. I'm pretty sure that Britain's 68,000 celebrity gossip magazines would also suffer.
Kara and Artem's foxtrot was easily the best of the night. It was so well done that I can't think of any particularly witty sexual comment to make about her. Much to the satisfaction, of Mari, I'm sure, who suggested last week that I focus too much on sex.
I hereby predict that Kara will earn this season's first 10 score (probably from Alesha).

Scott & Natalie ~ Salsa ~ 32
Clare Balding thought Scott and Natalie were dressed as the Milky Bar kid. Sue Perkins said they looked like Ken and Barbie at a gay club. However, thanks to my extensive knowledge of movies filmed in Utah, I know they were emulating Footloose.
Side note: Did you know there is a remake of Footloose, to be released in 2011? Why? It is impossible to improve on anything Kevin Bacon has done; everyone knows that.
Scott and Natalie's salsa tribute to the film was pretty solid. When I first saw them up there on the mezzanine I thought they were going to do that Brendan Cole thing of using the set to distract from lack of dancing. But, no, they went straight into it. Having never seen Footloose, I can't be sure, but I think there is some sort of iconic water tower scene. Is this right? Perhaps Natalie was mimicking that in having her and Scott up there in checked shirts, twirling to "Let's Hear it for the Boy." See? Sexy and smart. I love her.
I'm not sure I loved the dance, though. It was good enough but lacked something. Perhaps the problem is that Natalie wasn't naked. And she wasn't in my living room. Yes, I would have been much happier with a naked, or perhaps chocolate-covered, Natalie -- forget all about Scott.

Elsewhere in the show:
- My favourite line from Gavin this week: "OK, I do love myself. I like being me. I like being Gavin Henson. I'm a happy camper."
- In a video package about Gavin and Katya's training, Gavin was confused as to where exactly to put his hands, to which she replied: "Touch me, you know, wherever." -- I would give all my worldly possessions to have her say that to me.
- For once I don't mean this in a particularly sexual way, but Tess Daly was gorgeous in the results show. I'll bet the dresses she wears could pay my rent for a year.
- Robbie Williams' performance was a bit of TV gold. Perfectly equal parts awesome and ridiculous.
- The results show featured too much "standing around for the sake of building tension" and not enough "Claudia Winkleman saying weird shit." I hope they fix this for next week's programme. Though, the Winkle did get in at least one odd moment. At the very end of the results show, Claudia held her arms up, as if to take Tess into hold for the "Keeeeeep dancing" sign-off. When Tess resisted, Claudia said: "Come on, let's go. It's why I've come here. It's why I've come, Daly."
- Why did they get rid of the dance off? Having the judges pick the lesser evil from the bottom two made sense. If this stupid new system results in Widdy making it as far as the Blackpool show, I'm going to start writing nasty letters to Ofcom.

Who's going to win:
This week I'm supporting Matt and Aliona to win, in a final with Scott and Natalie, and Gavin and Katya.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 6

The Way Forward: Chapter 6

This is a chapter from my book, The Way Forward. Buy the whole novel now from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
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It was cold and dark in Portsmouth when the lumbering P&O ferry finally settled into port, but I was happy to be back. The air smelled fresh. My head was swimming from the cold medicine I had bought in the duty-free shop and the cheap bottle of red wine I had won in a ship's pub quiz. I bought a four-pack of Heineken in the shop just before getting off the ferry. I find it interesting that Heineken is sometimes considered a high-brow beer in the United States. In England, it was often the cheapest stuff they sold at the liquor stores, and it was even cheaper in a ship's duty free. I already had one of the cans open by the time I got to the customs official. When I saw him, I started fumbling through my things to get at my passport but he just smiled and waved me on.

"No need, son. Welcome home."
"Cheers," I said, raising my can to him.

The double-decker bus to Portsmouth city centre was idling outside the ferry terminal when I stepped out, and I decided to pay the £1 fare rather than walk 30 minutes home in the cold under the weight of my backpack.

"Quiet night?" I asked the driver.
"Yeah," he said. "You're the first person I've had on all day."
"I'm surprised they've got you working."
"I'm surprised they've got me working, too. None of the city buses are running. But I get paid extra for working the holiday and I'm off in an hour. No worries. You're American."
"Uh. Yeah."
"You'll be wanting to ride up top, then."
"That's OK. I'm the only person on the bus. I don't want to be rude."
"Go on. You won't hurt my feelings."

Up top, I stuck out my arms and felt like I was flying through Portsmouth's wet and cold deserted streets. My head spun and I tried not to laugh too loud. The city looked new and oddly beautiful. Shimmering light reflected from the wet streets. Then I began to recognize the route we were taking and felt a rush of excitement as we neared city centre. I thought of my warm bed and my tea kettle and the bag of chocolates on my desk -- all waiting for my return -- and a grin spread across my face.

In the town centre a few perfectly insane people were setting up tents and sleeping bags to queue for the next day's big after-Christmas sales. I tried to think of how cheap somebody would have to sell something for me to sleep rough in the miserable cold, especially when my bed was only four minutes' walk away. But they were happy and laughing, sipping from steaming mugs of tea and wrapped up like Arctic explorers. I actually thought about joining them. I asked a camper in front of a men's clothing shop if he knew whether the shop would be selling Irishy wool sweaters at ridiculously low prices. He said he didn't know, and I headed home.

...

Anne and Tony, from down the corridor, were in the kitchen when I came in to fix a cup of tea. They were from Hong Kong but had adopted Anglo-sounding names. This seemed to be the only concession to British culture that most of the Hong Kong kids were willing to make -- Anne and Tony spoke pretty rough English. Tony seemed to struggle with basic greetings. While the rest of the students that shared the kitchen slapped together simple meals of sausages and beans or Tesco frozen curry, Anne and Tony prepared full meals with dozens of ingredients and filled the kitchen with smells that made my stomach ache with hunger.

"It smells very good," I said, letting my American accent drawl out.

I always felt I was being condescending when I spoke so slowly and clearly to Anne and Tony, but I had noticed I was one of the few people that they would talk to.

"Soup," Anne said.
"Egg," Tony said.
"Egg drop soup?" I asked.

They nodded and smiled.

"Well, it smells great," I said, and turned to go back to my room.
"You look bad. You want some?" Anne said.
"No. I'm not going to take your food. Thank you very much, though," I said.
"You look bad," Anne said again.
"Always too much," Tony said.
"Yes, always too much. Eat some soup."
"No, really. That's OK," I said.

We went back and forth on the soup issue for a few minutes until questions flashed through my head of whether I was committing some sort of major cultural sin by refusing soup. But then I worried that accepting the soup would prove me to be a greedy American who expects everything handed to him. This is what you do as an American in another country -- take every little moment and analyze it to death for fear of reinforcing stereotypes or setting off a diplomatic nightmare.

"OK. If you have any left when you are done, I will have some."
"Always too much," Tony said.

A few minutes later, Anne and Tony were at my door, smiling, with an enormous steaming bowl of what would prove to be the best soup I have ever eaten.

It snowed the next day and the day after that, and Anne insisted on nursing me back to health with more soup and mint teas, and little fried pastries.

...

My room in Harry Law Hall was tiny. But it was home. University life is like that: they give you a 9-foot-by-17-foot cell that is only slightly more yours than a seat on the bus and it becomes one of the most treasured things in your world. I had my bed, my student-issue duvet, my nightstand, my desk, my uncomfortable chair, my gray-carpeted walls (that never made sense to me), my little toilet and sink and shower, my big closet, my shelf, and my stereo. The stereo was the only thing that was really mine. It was the first thing I had bought upon arriving in Pompey -- £85 at Argos. It was the best stereo I've ever owned. And now, in the weakness of illness and the safety of my room, I put on track seven of the The Cure's Wish album and set it to repeat.

The view from my window was pretty uninspiring, most of it taken up by the red brick of the Courts of Justice building across the walk. Workers had erected scaffolding alongside the building in September, but generally opted not to do any work unless I had to study or write a paper, at which point they would find the loudest tool they had and create billowing clouds of brick dust to waft into my room. Now that it was December and my window was closed, they had chosen to put off working for a month or two. The scaffolding stayed until May, and when they tore it away the building looked exactly the same.

I stood at my window, watching snow gather on the planks of the scaffolding. Beyond the courts building lay the ugly square buildings of Portsmouth and then the ugly square buildings of Gosport across the harbor. On a clear day, I could watch ferry ships as they pulled into port; from my viewpoint (I couldn't see the water) the ships looked like office buildings crawling across the city. On this snowy day I could only see down to Mercantile House, about one-fourth of a mile away. It was one of the university buildings. Take the ugliest building you've ever seen, squish it thin, paint it white, and you have Mercantile House.

I heard the crash of beer bottles and looked down across a car park to my right to see Gerry, one of the bartenders at O'Neill's, throwing them in a large metal bin behind the pub. O'Neill's was one of several pubs along Guildhall Walk, which ran just to the east of Harry Law Hall. Gerry, in short sleeves, threw his cigarette in disgust at the snow and stomped back inside the pub.

I hate Robert Smith, lead singer of The Cure. He looks like a fat scary clown. But there is one song that will save him from his rightful place against the wall when the revolution comes. That song is "Friday I'm In Love." Just the first few cheesy chords of that song will set my mind spinning in memory of all the good things about Allison. I can see her smile and that look -- her head tilted and eyes shining -- that told me she was thinking about me. I can smell her perfume. I can taste her skin. And I can feel the warmth of sunshine and the solidity of her kiss. My God, she knew what she was doing when she kissed. I sometimes wonder if she didn't always know what she was doing.

"Friday I'm In Love" was our song. My song for us, at least. It reminds me of the day I knew I was falling for her. It was actually a Saturday. Allison and I were sitting in the back of a green 1990 Honda Civic, being driven home from the Minnesota State Fair by her older sister, Kelly. Against my protest, Kelly's boyfriend, Sierra (what kind of name is that for a male? Who would torture their child with that name?), insisted upon playing the Wish album.

Allison and I were 17 years old -- heading into our senior year of high school -- and we had spent the entire summer together. We went to movies and the mall and a few concerts. Most of the time we just walked along the rocky shallow creek that ran behind her home and talked.

We talked a lot. When I first came up from Clute my Texas accent always got in the way, and most conversations with girls went like this:
GIRL: "Say 'fire.'"
ME: "Far."
"Hee-hee. Now say 'oil.'"
"Awl."
"Ha, ha. OK, what's the thing you write with? You know, it has ink in it..."
"A pin?"
"Not a peeyen. It's a pen -- pEHHn. Ha, ha."

Needless to say, this sort of thing got old quickly and I spent most of my first year in Minnesota teaching myself how to speak without an accent. I fit in alright after a while and I felt pretty comfortable around most of the guys on my soccer team, but I still tried not to talk too much. Most of the time I just mumbled through conversations. Allison opened me up, though. She made me feel as if I belonged there. I had never met a girl who would talk to me as much as Allison. After a few months around her, I felt safe. She made me feel as if I could say anything and it would be OK.

I had never thought about kissing her, though, until that day in the back of her sister's Civic; then I realized I had always wanted to. I was slumped down and exhausted from a day spent in the late-August sun and feeling the cool of the air conditioning finally reach me and looking out at the yellow and orange and pink of the sunset and feeling happy just to take in deep, tired breaths. My right leg relaxed and pressed up against hers. I looked over at Allison. She was also exhausted. It's funny to think of how tired she looked. Not sexy tired, but exhausted -- "ridden hard and put away wet," as my grandfather likes to say. Our relationship began at a moment when neither of us had the strength to move or the strength to resist. She was resting her head against the window and the colors of the sunset shone on her face. She smiled at me. I moved my hand to her knee and smiled back. Robert Smith squealed. I was done. She had me.

And now, in the safety and quiet of my tiny piece of Harry Law Hall, I lay down in bed and relived the moment. Then I fell asleep and dreamt she and I were lying in a creek.

"Take off your top," I said to her.
"No. People will see."
"They won't see. Come on. Take off your top."

We were in a shallow section of the creek that ran by her house. It had been a dry summer and the water was no more than an inch deep. We were 19 years old -- about to start our second year in university, me at Macalester College in St. Paul and her at the University of California, Davis. It had been a long summer. The water was cool against the heat of the early August sun. She undid the clasp of her bikini top and the soft white skin of her breasts seemed to glow in the sunlight. I rolled onto my side and looked at her. Her red hair danced in the flow of the creek. The water pushed against us and I felt as if we were floating away from all the rest of the world. I couldn't see anything else. There was only me and her. The only air I wanted to breathe was hers.

"I love you, Allison."

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