“People only get really interesting when they start to rattle the bars of their cages.” -Alain de Botton
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: Dungeons be damned, Jennifer! What happened to Robin Hood?
Well, he never really went away. In fact, we had been WhatsApping regularly since I left for Amsterdam. We continued our political debate and that conversation evolved into a discussion on a number of things from jazz to autoerotic asphyxiation [naturally]. We sent more songs back and forth to one another, along with video observations, photos and, of course, thoughts on the EU referendum. It was flirtatious, fun and felt completely natural. One of the reasons why I don’t normally drink [and why I’ve never tried drugs] is because alcohol tends to act as a facilitator for people who struggle to be themselves while sober, giving them tacit permission to enjoy the kind of social interaction [or intimacy] with which they might normally struggle.
I say this because, after the liquor left our systems, I wasn’t expecting RH to be so responsive.
At the most, I was expecting an awkward “um…hi” followed by the inevitable steadily increasing time gaps between responses before one of us eventually disappeared into the ether. I had gotten a kiss. As far as I was concerned, I had already bought all the railroads in the [adult] Monopoly game of life.
But it turns out that there was more. In fact, if I’m going to be completely honest, RH was the reason why Sven, Duncan [the Irishman stuck with me behind the bar] and various seedy Dutchmen really didn’t register on my radar at all. I know that sounds silly…I didn’t even know the guy. And I’m a hot-blooded polemicist engaging in all manner of seductive eye-play with a number of willing European men; but the ignorant teenager in me who hasn’t learned shit from her failed romantic endeavors had already met my ideal of male beauty and, psychologically, I had already shoehorned his personality to fit into the mold carved out by his pretty face, soft whiskers and razor-sharp wit.
I had begun to look forward to waking up to witty message that made me laugh out loud. Sometimes we bantered while I was waiting for a connection in an airport. Other times we exchanged Nina Simone songs and I added them to my travel playlist, which, along with Supercat, provided melodies, lyrics, and moods that became the soundtrack to the countless hours I spent navigating mainland Europe.
It was fun, flirtatious and completely unexpected. I had never done the whole travel romance thing before. I now understand why people do it. My Robin Hood fixation added a layer of depth to an ethereal experience. When I think of my comedy performances or the things I ate, I only have the imperfection of my memory to relive those moments. And in time, those memories will change in color, smell and sound to become completely alien to what they actually were. But a romance roots those memories in flesh and blood, things that aren’t transient or imagined. It adds more meaning to those performances and those culinary delights. It slowed time down and increased my travels in depth, in color and in richness. Yes…Robin Hood did for my travels what red wine and black vinegar does for pasta sauce.
I told him when I decided to come back to London and we made plans for the day after I flew back in.
Greverley was beyond excited. I greeted them back at the flat with a couple of bottles of Merlot and some crisps, and we sat around the back patio toasting to me ‘being home’. They devised all kinds of interesting theories on what kind of guy RH was, they theorized about our future wedding and what our kids would look like.
Though, to be fair, that was mostly Greta. Beverley and I had a much more subdued response where, in-between sips of wine, one of us would say “Hmmmm,” give each other subtle looks [a slightly raised perfectly manicured eyebrow] and then psychically convey to the other “Oh I just love her. Don’t you just love her? I fucking…love her.”
The next day I had lunch with Greta and her friend Susie, an equally as inappropriate, cheeky, unapologetic, charming friend of hers who also shamelessly segued into tangents before coming back to topic. She had a beautiful smile and made self-deprecating jokes about her [chosen] people. We sat on the roof of her building in the sun and ate sandwiches and salads by M&S and bitched about contemporary art like complete iconoclasts. It was brilliant. I would have stuck around for more, but I had to go get ready for RH. Greta and Susie wished me luck and Greta fist pumped in enthusiasm.
I didn’t really know what to expect and experience has taught me that reunions often fail to live up to initial meets. We feel more open to being ourselves when pleasantly surprised by intimacy rather than planning for and subsequently demanding it. That’s not how the heart works.
And contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t work by submerging it in copious amounts of wine either. So I was working at a disadvantage when I decided to both A. Be myself and B. Do it while sober. Of course it won’t end well!
…but maybe I’ll get to touch his floppy hair!
The next day, I met RH at Burgess Park for an outdoor music concert.
The last time I had seen him, I was drunk, fruity and escorted home by Luke, my lovable concerned coked-up friend. But it was dark. We made out in the dark. I didn’t regret it, but let’s be honest –there’s always a part of you that thinks “did I invent this person’s level of attractiveness? Does he really look like Robin Hood as a fox, or the Sheriff of Nottingham as a gremlin?”
I texted him that I was on the footpath to the garden in which the performance would take place and he approached me from the other end. I saw him before he saw me and I hid behind an enlarged map of the park to adjust my clothes before wandering out from behind…playing on my phone, pretending like I was doing something important. I was doing something important! I was being coy, damnit!
He called my name and I did my best to invoke my middle school drama days to convey surprise. He was unimaginably attractive. Tall, lean, kind-faced, whiskered and floppy-haired. When we hugged, all those preliminary anti-male feelings I had brought with me to Europe in May disintegrated between my feminist fingertips replaced, instead, with warm, gooey infatuation. I didn’t want to let go. I wanted to pinch him to make sure he was real. I also wanted to antagonize him and bait him and make him say something incredibly truculent so that I could convince myself he was a prick and return to Melbourne no worse for the wear.
…unfortunately, he was a complete gentleman. Just my fucking luck.
We went for snacks and I told him about all the trouble I got into in Berlin [more than I detailed in my last blog, by the way…remember, parents]. Then we sat closely together in the garden of Burgess Park and listened to full-hearted singers, song-writers and instrumentalists fill the air with music. First a folksy female singer with a guitar and a voice the sounded like a sad melee. We moved closer to listen to a sitar player from India play melodies which he called homages to evening, romance and stars.
Yes, I know I sound like a hippy. I’m not. I’m a jazz-loving, blues-singing, Chopin-playing metal head. And being a connoisseur of music in all its genres, to me, means abandoning identity politics from time to time and enjoying music not just for the skill or the social struggles they often narrate…but for the majesty.
[That’s easier said than done. How many tradesmen listen to Adele in solitude?…thought so.]
The music was beautiful. And with a bonfire to my left and a gorgeous man to my right, I had never been more aware of the imperfection of my memory as I was that night. I was worried that I’d forget or distort something. I made a conscious effort to speak as little as possible, to make it easier for me to internalize everything around me without distraction.
Even then I said to myself “This won’t happen again. Don’t ruin it by pontificating about the superiority of Danish butter…again.”
Despite the fact that this was clearly a date, and that we were clearly attracted to one another, and being sober [and in person after several weeks of correspondence] introduced a new layer of awkwardness, I ran directly into another challenge I had not expected: his Britishness.
Because I’ve dated Aussies [and one Kiwi] for the past X number of years, I’m used to the heavily ingrained parentage of the Queen mother, but even they seemed like rakish scallywags when compared to someone from the homeland.
He wouldn’t make a move. Robin Hood, true to the legend after which he is named, was devastatingly polite. We joked, we talked, we laughed and ate…but he wouldn’t touch me. We sat there with our hands in our laps occasionally bumping shoulders before recoiling in an awkward game of “Oh, I’m sorry.” I began to wonder if I had hallucinated the attraction altogether and the Legally Blonde Musical melody instantly began playing in my head: “Is he gay or European?”
…and then the sitar player spoke up and said “This next piece…is called romance,” and RH leaned into me to say, “I requested this one.”
I slipped my arm through his, resting my other hand on top of his arm, and leaned into his side, putting my fluffy head onto his shoulder. He instinctively reached around with his other free hand and squeezed my hand in return and I think we both exhaled audibly. He didn’t have to say it, but I heard it nonetheless go through in his head: Thank God…
AND OF COURSE, that’s when the sitar player’s percussionist asks us to clap. OF COURSE. There was no better time to do that. I LITERALLY COULD NOT HAVE PICKED A MORE PERFECT TIME TO START CLAPPING THAN THAT VERY MOMENT.
RH was deflated. “Awww…” he said, and we both pouted, but went along with the crowd. We clapped until he messed up the rhythm, I naturally made fun of him [“You’re terrible, just stop”] messed up my own rhythm, and he naturally imploded by trying not to make fun of me in return. Like I said…British. I didn’t waste time getting back into his nook after giving up on audience participation. I preened myself at his side, and welcomed his arm around my shoulders. I wasn’t wearing much, but the bonfire kept we warm and adrenaline pumped through my veins making me feel extra alert. I wanted to climb on top of him like an insect and peck him on the mouth until his skull cracked open and bled all over me. Instead, I let him hold my hand and I contained by enthusiasm behind a smile that felt like it would split my face in half.
I didn’t even care when it started to rain. I pulled out the mini umbrella from my bag and we sat underneath it while the quartet continued to play. A lot of other people dispersed, but some didn’t, opting instead to take off their shoes and dance in the mud around the bonfire…they were hippies.
RH and I sat there, wrapped up in the arms of the other, beneath my umbrella, peeling bugs off of our necks listening to a stand-up bassist, violinist, percussionist and guitarist make music that made me feel like we were in our own Wes Anderson film. I didn’t want it to end.
Afterwards, we walked through the park arguing about rugby. An American living in Australia who cheers for the All Blacks intrigued him one minute, and my lack of patriotism infuriated him the next. I taunted him with it. My free, classless approach to sport [and politics] was antithetical to his Britishness. While I normally have to work just a little bit to upset people, his outrage came so naturally! I mocked him and his disapproval made me feel alive!
I didn’t kiss him until his skull cracked open, but this was just as good.
…I hardly noticed that we had arrived at his place until he invited me up for a cup of tea.
Sometimes these stories end here, at the doorstep of someone’s place, after a night of music and rain and committing the feeling of someone’s hands to memory.
Sometimes those stories end with backbreaking sex…not my back, but you know…somebody’s.
Sometimes, they end with me climbing out of a window onto a balcony, beckoning my would-be lover to do the same and kissing him in the dark before I lose my nerve.
Sometimes they end in all-night conversations where people say things in the dark, fully-clothed, they would never dare to say to each other during daylight. Where full-on confessionals become thumb wars, and the victor falls asleep listening to the heart beat of the loser as his chest rises and falls.
And sometimes those nights end in the same way, as does a night of clubbing in Berlin. When the sun comes up, it’s time to go.
The point is I’m not going to say what happened. I’d prefer you used your imagination. But the best part about being adults is the recognition that intimacy comes in all different forms. Memories are made in all different kinds of ways. And each story has a sliding door of alternate endings. Our story didn’t end there.
As it turned out, both of us are major foodies eaters. I took him through my Instagram showing him my culinary creations. This inspired him, so the next day he took me on a food market tour of South London, specifically Bermondsey, where we delighted in freshly baked pastries, Jamaican street food and smelly French cheese. I was so happy. At one point, he clutched me around the shoulders, told me to brace myself then spun me in the direction of a stall that sold cultured butter by the glob. I actually screamed, and he laughed in such a way that the skin at the corners of his eyes creased making him even more delightful. He put his hand on my back and rubbed it sweetly while I jumped up and down in my flip-flops saying “OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD.”
I bought a block for Greverley. I also bought them three kinds of righteous French cheese, recommended by RH [who spoke fluent French because OF COURSE!] I could’ve kept going, but it began to rain. RH and I ducked into a bakery that smelled like someone figured out how to aerate multiple orgasms and shared a raspberry twist that fell a part in my hands like mist. It began to rain harder so we waited on the front stoop of the bakery beneath my umbrella and kissed. I had to stand on my tiptoes to reach him and I leaned into him as he wrapped his arms around my back. I got a little lost so my feet slipped as the ground got wetter, and then I realized that it was almost over.
A woman came out holding a toy poodle and I squealed, reminiscent of the first time I had met the man in whose arms I now was, at which point RH squeezed my shoulder gently and whispered in my ear “Settle…”
…I just laughed out loud now thinking about it again…
“I’m right here,” he said, slightly agitated by how easily distracted I become with dogs. And he was.
I didn’t want him to be anywhere else.
It was approaching 3 so I knew I had to get back to Greverley’s to get ready for dinner, and RH had to go back to Kent. The rain had lightened up and with it, the spell under which I had [barely] been functioning. Silence descended, though I’m not sure if he noticed or if he was just being polite [you know, British] as I prepared myself for the great come down.
While hopping over puddles and trying not to slip, I reached for his hand. I’d like to think that he squeezed it back and ran his thumb over my fingers because he was hoping I would do something like that and not because he was just being courteous.
But you never really know, do you?
We rode the bus back to London Bridge with his arm around me, and my head on his shoulder. I don’t know how we got onto the subject of my indigenous heritage, but that’s what happened. It was one of those rare moments when the nerves did the talking for me, and I didn’t realize it until I went into a story about the bear claws tradition and I asked myself “Why the fuck are you talking about this, Jennifer?”
I guess I was trying to use language to stabilize my thoughts. So I hid in that illusory permanence, jabbering away, as the world passed by, one bus stop at a time, bringing us closer to the awkward goodbye. We kissed and hugged at the tube station and he told me to look him up when I got back to town.
And I thought “I will.” Why wouldn’t I? I loved London, but with so much uncertainty looming, I wouldn’t know for sure for a few weeks, before booking my return ticket.
That night I went to dinner with Greverley, Alex [from Ightham Mote] and two new people, James and Rosie. We went to an incredible steak restaurant and ate multiple courses of mussels, steak and waygu beef burgers with blue cheese and bacon that smiled at me beneath the bun like it knew exactly what it was doing to me. We ate warm bread with chorizo butter and crunchy chips with chicken salt. They ordered multiple bottles of wine, we shared desserts of spiced apple, salted caramel and buttery pastry and we talked about the upcoming referendum.
Brexit had been lurking over my time in Europe like an unanswered text message. Everywhere I went, it was a topic of discussion – from the brothels of Amsterdam to the basement of Cosmic in Berlin. London had cast a dark shadow on itself. While it was still vibrant, fun and a veritable coterie of promise, there was also a corporeal fear lurking just beneath the surface of its carefully crafted façade of sarcasm and wit. People were genuinely afraid of what the results of the referendum would be. They were afraid that it could potentially reveal that their colonial past also painfully lingered in the present, and nobody likes to be reminded of their mistakes, especially when they’ve dedicated an entire culture to feeling superior to everyone else in spite of it.
Still, we thought… “That’ll never happen.” We drank and ate and shared awkward dating stories and made crude jokes and we said over and over to ourselves… “That will never happen.”
I don’t remember the point at which I put my koala mask back on, but it was before we migrated from the dinner table to the bar. I felt numb and weird and uncertain of my feelings. I never feel numb and weird and uncertain of my feelings. I see things in black and white and I spit on the grey with impudence. But I didn’t that night…that night a blanket of uncertainty descended upon me, pushing me into unfamiliar terrain filled with doubt and fear. But I didn’t want to entertain those thoughts. I was still in London. I was still with friends. I was still having a wonderful time. So I did the only thing that made sense in that moment…I put on my koala mask. Because if anything can protect me from confronting the reality of a major international move, it’s a felt marsupial.
Everybody in the restaurant saw it, but nobody said anything. Diners went out of their way to smile, nod and maintain composure at all times. We migrated to the bar because Greta had her heart set on two-for-one cocktails. Alex and I bought each other rounds and beat our chests about the death of Muhammad Ali, ranted about the rise of Donald Trump and Australia’s obsession with being completely unremarkable. We made bets about whether or not the bartenders would crack and say something, but nobody did. One guy’s veneer wobbled, but when I called him out on it [“What? Is something funny? You got something to say?”] he quickly retreated, not making eye contact [apologizing, even!] and Alex and I laughed like demented people.
I spilled my guts between colourful alcoholic concoctions about Robin Hood and my frustrations with Australia and America. I effused over Greverley, their friendship and support and love. I confessed that I longed for a life where I wouldn’t be punished for calling out racism and could live a life without pretense, where being upfront about who I am and what I want wasn’t a social death sentence. It was uppity, snobby behavior – a writer waxing lyrical [drunkenly] to a philosophy professor over gin cocktails in London. Dear God, even describing it makes me want to take myself down a peg. But he was Australian too and understood the strange waiting room in which I found myself, wanting to make a move, knowing what it would entail…unsure of how to proceed.
Nothing got resolved, but I did have an epiphany – I suddenly realized why people go to bars and drink with strangers. I don’t think people do it to forget. I think they do it to remember. I’ve seen a lot of people drink themselves stupid, and not one of them said “Oh it’s good to not remember that one painful/beautiful/infuriating thing that happened 25 years ago. I think I’ll sit here and feel nothing now.” They drink and they start talking about fathers, mothers and lovers long past. They call people still painfully edging across their hearts like slugs and make all kinds of crazy, beautiful, terrifying confessions.
“I love you.”
“I hate you.”
“I’ll never forgive you”
“Can you come over? I want to be with you.”
…and the hardest one of all, “I’m sorry.”
None of that comes from forgetting.
What I remembered that night, drinking with Alex in that koala mask, was how unhappy I’ve been in Australia. I don’t know where it began. I can’t pinpoint an exact moment, but I had been out of my mind with unhappiness. From lackluster work to the impossible task of trying to connect with another human being, to constantly dealing with the dismissive attitudes on racism and bigotry, I realized that I had exhausted the people around me, and I had exhausted myself. In Australia, I felt isolated and misunderstood. Socialising had become an exercise in restraint, where carefully crafted, banal language replaced brutally honest discourse. I was frustrated with trying to decipher people’s codified language, because nobody says what they mean. I was sad a lot, and when I wasn’t sad, I was angry. I worked out a lot and read a lot and spent increasing amounts of time alone. Comedy helped. Comedy was a god send, but it wasn’t enough. Confronting all of that was to ask myself if I had made a mistake in moving there to begin with, and nobody likes to be reminded of their mistakes especially when they’ve dedicated their lives to feeling superior to everyone else in spite of them…
But it wasn’t a mistake, of course. The mistake would have been in not trying.
And now, the mistake would be in staying in the same place.
I left the bar with Beverley. Greta, Alex & Co stayed on. I kept the koala mask on the entire way home. I don’t know how I didn’t trip and fall and crush my glasses. I didn’t take it off until I was in my room.
I’ll pack it in my suitcase. I leave 30 July.