Maria looked at me, then through me. Something stiffened, petrified inside her. Her features set, as the present became the past in the space of a heartbeat and that was it, she was gone, out the door. Feelings evaporated like spilt milk, the forking paths of our conjoined-futures now closed, cordoned off, no entry. Fucked.
I sank back in my chair, a Thursday night in a half-full pub in Stoke Newington. I swigged at my cider, my vision loose and unfocused as I faced the empty space that had just contained Maria. At the peripheries of my vision I could see a couple, softly enjoying overpriced pub food, stealing furtive glances at my table. Possible whispers teased my ears, snatches of “what did he do, do you think?” and “that was horrible to see”. A dam of anger threatened to rupture inside, I nearly rose to my feet to tell them to get fucked, go fuck themselves with their perfect middle-class pub-meal devouring white wine sipping Guardian reading Liberal voting farmersmarketsorganicproduce keep your fucking beak out who’s business but mine and hers how dare you what do you know about it how dare you judge me etc etc blah blah blah. It passed. I briefly made eye contact with the woman who had been looking at me, held her gaze until she looked back at her bloody burger and salad. She whispered something to her boyfriend, who shrugged.
Beermat over my pint, marking my territory, I stepped outside. Took obsessive care over the rollup that I made, not a single shred lost, proving that I could at least do one thing right, perfectly, with no problems, that I could function as a normal human being. I stood looking out at Stoke Newington Road just before it segued into Kingsland Road. Remembered how, during the last World Cup, the Turkish flag burnt outside a shop that sold my favourite gozleme and borek, Kurdish young men inciting altercation, with success. All I had done was stare as the police sirens screamed up the road, standing amongst old arguments I didn’t understand. Maria was gone. I smoked, watched people enter the 24 hour bagel shop opposite, wondered where she had gone, who she was, what anything meant. An elderly West Indian man stood by me, smoking a Marlboro Red. “Cheer up, son” he said, followed by a hacking cough. Despite myself, I smiled, and said “Nah mate, I’m fine”. I realised how intense and angry my expression had been. He laughed, finished his cigarette and shuffled back into the pub.
I briefly remembered a conversation I had had recently about ‘Ladder Theory’. Pseudo-science, males only able to think in sexual terms whilst relating to the opposite sex, now and forever. Unbearably depressing to think in such terms.
I stood there alone, pedestrians floating by, unfocused. What to do. I dragged my mobile from my jeans, briefly thought of phoning her saying I’m sorry I didn’t mean it we can work it out. I had meant it, however, and we couldn’t. Instead I dialled Jerome’s number and prayed he would be in the area. He had mentioned something about meeting friends in the pubs round here, whispers of a warehouse party in Hackney Wick (or maybe Tottenham?), MDMA or maybe pills, male company, the promise of a never ending night. The phone rang three times. He picked up, pub bustle in the background slightly obscuring his words as he said “Alright geez what you up to?” We made arrangements. I smiled and knew, tonight, I could fend off what was coming, prolong the inevitable, escape.
I noticed some fresh graffiti on the wall to my right. In big bold white lettering, the initials ‘NSM’. The New Sincerity Movement. I had heard the name mentioned by The Poet, I think, or I may have seen similar graffiti along the banks of the Lea. Couldn’t remember. I put these thoughts away as I re-entered to finish my drink, before joining Jerome down the road, to achieve oblivion.
The talk of ladder theory held my mind, thoughts of the game-playing that now seemed to dominate the relationships of my generation, a supermarket syndrome that was destroying the chance of anything sincere, genuine. Everywhere I looked I could see a combination of terror and selfishness; we all now thought that we could do, deserved, better. Crowded and jostled by potential partners on the dirty pavements, in bars, pubs, clubs, parks, the fucking tube. The endless permutations of what could be squeezing the life from what we actually had, right here, right now, fucking everything up, making us view those we genuinely desired and connected with suspicion and mistrust. Of course, playing the field (or whatever people wanted to call it) was OK, it really was, we all have a right not to settle for things that were not right, that didn’t work. The thoughts of the countless miserable relationships that must have existed as long as mankind itself was enough to make a person run terrified from the idea of happy monogamous endings. I was not even sure if I believed in them myself, but part of me really wanted to believe, even as I had ended things with Maria. As the years rolled on would I always be fretting over text-messages, Facebook chat, a misinterpreted digital post that made the mind spin and the gut ache even as that drowning rational voice said ‘Don’t be so fucking stupid’. The thought was unbearable. The liberation of modern sexuality had so many positives that the hidden complications became hard to face. I genuinely wondered if people, even my closest friends, wanted something simpler than what they felt they had to do to be seen as a functioning, independent individual. I wished I had the ability to shrug these things off, wished I never became attached, that I felt OK with the way things were, that I could not care. I was guilty as anyone, though, was never happy with what I had. Fantasy was obliterating reality, diminishing self-confidence and promoting individualism over anything else. There had to be more than this, another way.
As I walked back into the pub, I noticed the couple had nearly finished their burgers. The woman sipped her glass of house white. Her partner swigged from a half-empty pint of real ale. They looked bored. I hoped they were happy.