Love Et Cetera
by Gabriel Blackwell | December 15, 2022
There is nothing sexy about tardiness, I remind my date as she rocks up outside the cinema a full ten minutes after our scheduled meeting time. And yet there is something about her arrival that immediately injects our first encounter with an air of the erotic. Perhaps it is the effusive hug with which she greets me or the kindness of the evening light on her face, but I find it all too easy to forgive her delay. Not only is it in my character to find the care-free attitude this lateness suggests attractive, but I also like to take a smug pride in my own comparative promptness. Unbelievably hot stuff. Oh, and the coat my date arrives wearing is excellent. It is fur-trimmed and cascading; her silhouette cuts quite the magnificent figure as she trips calmly along the pavement. Her conversation is similarly impressive. As we make our way into the cinema, she overwhelms me with an incessant babble of superlatives and clipped vowel sounds. By the time the lights dim, she has already assured me that this will be the best date I’ll ever go on. And, lured in by the glint of her happy smile, I find it hard not to believe this is true.
Unfortunately, there is also nothing sexy about self-mutilation, something that the evening’s choice of film never lets us forget. For projected onto the cinema screen is the sad, strange story of a solemn Irish musician, who, wary of idle chatter gobbling up his precious time, goes to extreme measures to persuade his old drinking buddy to leave him alone. The means of this persuasion are bizarre and graphic: each time the musician is approached by his estranged friend, he severs a digit from his left hand with sheep shears. That this makes for an odd focus for our first rendezvous is clear from my date’s increasing discomfort. She winces at each bloody finger-chop and I, lacking the smoothness of a more seasoned dater, know not how to offer her the assured care of masculine comfort. There is no supportive arm around the shoulder, nor any attempt at calming words in the dark. I am blank. Well, in fact, I am coughing.
In a complete assault on my romantic prospects, I find myself struck down with a nasty head cold. Not only does the game of cough repression become less fun the longer it continues, but there is nothing more unattractive than my strained face trying to prevent yet another loud wheeze from leaking out. Sitting in silence with a total stranger is already hard enough without the persistence of my spluttery outbursts. I can tell my date isn’t impressed. With each of my determined grabs at the soothing crutches of water or cough sweets – I have sadly adopted throat sweets as my cinema snack of choice – she stirs in her chair and offers me a glance of almost maternal concern. It would all seem rather Freudian if it weren’t so excruciating.
However, I enjoy the film as far as it is well-made. And it is well-made. The sharp dialogue induces a few appreciative sniffs from me, and the Irish landscape looks at times both gorgeous and brutally cold. But, when the credits begin to roll, I struggle to see what exactly the point of it all has been. Too much bubbles away under the surface of subtly funny lines, and while this may be clever or haunting or absurd, it doesn’t make me feel. Feel love or hate or excitement or fear, or really anything save the inescapable tickle at the back of my throat. Perhaps this is its purpose. It offers some kind of satire of the emotional outpouring for which its passivity makes me yearn, and yet I am not in the mood for satire. I want something unnuanced and obvious. I am in the mood for love. And, having sat through a film set in Ireland, I am also in the mood for a Guinness.
As we walk out into the darkening night, my date and I seem similarly uncertain about what we have just witnessed. Pleased to be able to converse once again, we merrily dissect the film as we make our way towards the pub. She briefly entertains some interpretative theory that involves the queer reading of a donkey, and I roll my eyes in playful mockery. It’s quite the image of romantic bliss, and we play our parts well: me, the gormless, enraptured artist, and her, my outlandish, charismatic lover. My muse. She talks and I listen. At the bar, we order two pints of the black stuff and split the bill. I’m starting to think I might be on to a winner.
Then my date does something that takes me rather by surprise. She takes a deep sip of Guinness and, before the froth can even bubble off her top lip, she whips one of her teeth out from her gum, snapping it quickly into a little box. It’s precious, she tells me. Can’t risk it going walkabout. Her movements are too dextrous to be disgusting, so I laugh, both out of discomfort and with the definite pulse of intrigue. This woman in front of me really is a stranger. Made up of odd opinions and removable teeth, her life has become suddenly so perceptibly distinct from my own. It flits into my sight for one night only and then, if things don’t go well, flits away again into the darkness. Our date is, therefore, not just a chat but a moment of light, an occasion for cheerful exposition. It is the opportunity to see the strangeness of a tooth being removed and to be made aware that this experience, though alien to me, is a constant fact within another person’s life.
It is therefore a great shame that the lives of my date and I seem to have differed only superficially. She describes a familiar childhood of robust education and Moomin-orientated fun, of precocity and very mild schoolyard rebellions. Her stories trace a timeline against which I can almost identically mirror my own. We both have memories from the same places and can each understand the extraordinarily knowing cultural references the other makes. My date even shares my sister’s name: it’s sickening. Hoping to spend an evening with someone entirely new, I have managed only to encounter a more convivial, better-dressed version of myself.
We swig our drinks, and the conversation comes easily. I tell her just how attractive I find kindness (lame), and she tells me that she fantasises about fictional, drug-addled men (cool). I receive a compliment from a fellow drinker on my jacket (cool), and she coerces him into telling her he likes her shoes (lame). I get a bit of a headache (lame), and she smokes like a chimney (cool). It’s all fun and games, for how could it not be – neither of us wants to let ourselves down. We comfortably perform the formal requirements of jovial conversation, all the giggles and wide-eyed looks of curiosity, and sit pleasantly in the fantasy that we are ‘getting to know each other’. For dating is all mere fantasy: over the evening, I present vulnerability only as part of the confident, dateable persona I am trying to carve. I make myself fluid and light, recalibrating the reality of my awkward insecurities into a character that anyone will like – that I hope my date will like too. And she seems to. She listens with genuine interest and talks as if she really does want me to care. But perhaps she is just entertaining the same fantasy I do, making herself similarly malleable to the requirements of the evening, to the ideals she thinks I would expect. And yet so self-assured is her conversation that I begin to doubt this similarity. She knows who she is and is happy for others to take it or leave it. When she describes herself as ‘God’s gift to man’, she defines a present given purely for its own pleasure. And personally, I’m very glad she’s having fun.
Later, as the night air chills, our talk becomes slower and more careful. My date confesses that she has never been in love, that most men dissatisfy her, and that she misses the crazed rush of teenage infatuations. Suddenly, she is being serious, and this honesty wipes the grin off my face. She tells me she wants someone to obsess over, someone to evoke a little passion. That sounds nice, I say, and she stares a blankly. I stand to click the electric heater back on and she asks me if my love life has been just as unfruitful. Sitting back down, I answer with a nod and swill the last few dregs of my pint. I can’t take my eyes off them. Christ! Boring, my date chuckles. Don’t worry. It’ll come. In the future. I’m sure it will.
A few nights ago, I told a friend of mine that I was in love with him and meant it. I was drunk. He was leaning on the wall of his room, and I lay back on the sofa. There was a thin blanket draped over my feet. We didn’t make eye contact so I kept speaking until I realised he hadn’t said anything. He told me he felt overwhelmed, and I put my shoes back on. We still couldn’t look at each other, and it wasn’t until I found myself cycling home that I realised I had left him. The night was very cold and dark and, apart from my heavy breathing, I was silent. In my room I didn’t cry but went to bed and slept. It was sad, but I felt too tired to notice. I haven’t really spoken to that friend since. I’m not sure that I will.
In the pub, my date signals the end of the evening by simply checking her phone and asking me whether I’ve had enough. While this sounds like a terrible rudeness, it is actually an act of true kindness. I can feel an itchy exhaustion growing behind my eyes, and the fact that true love has not yet bloomed is only becoming clearer. A calm silence settles on us, and we wrap ourselves in our coats. As we don hats and scarves, the date sadly transforms, purging itself of any romantic prospect. What could have been the start of something has just become a way of spending an evening, of passing a few simple hours. Of course, there is a quiet happiness in that too. Conversations have been made, drinks drunk, and films watched all for their own sake. As we walk out the door, I realise that our fantasy is dead: it has been replaced by an easy contentment.
I hope everything works out, my date says as we stand on the street, our hands stuffed deeply into warm coat pockets. What’s everything? I ask and she responds, Oh, you know, love et cetera. I offer her the same good wishes and we hug our goodbyes with enthusiastic friendliness. She walks one way and I the other. I don’t check to see if she is looking back at me. I’m not sure that she will. ∎
Words by Gabriel Blackwell. Art by Ayomikun Bolaji.