Read an Excerpt
Once, I convinced myself I was in love with Ray, my other best pal. He's a pop star. It lasted almost two weeks, smack in the middle of August. At first I thought it was the strident London heat that was making my head pound. The fact that I always felt too hot when I was with Ray in his house, I put down to the radiators that still hummed in his room, long after winter had handed in its notice, sick of being overworked and unloved. Ray couldn't stand to let it go and left the heat on low, as if to entice February back. He knew it wouldn't happen, but it was a tradition for him, like leaving a place for Elijah.
I loved that about Ray that the summer terrified him, made him feel he had even less space on this earth than usual. What with all the flowers and bumblebees and picnic goers, he feared he would become invisible, lost in the Versace patterns of the season. In winter, with the trees stripped to their Helmut Lang basics, he felt he had less to compete with. The chill suited him. He knew he looked best with a nice biting north wind holding his wavy dark hair behind him, like bridesmaids carrying a train. It also allowed him to dress up as Russian aristocracy, in a long, swinging coat and black leather gloves.
Ray is adopted. He was raised by a kind, dull couple in the countryside and he has not kept in contact with them or the countryside. He hates parks, trees, and plants in bloom, and summer because it encourages them all. It makes no sense to turn up the radiator to combat the summer, but it was his warped idea of defiance and he stomped around the flat cursing all eighty-one degrees and watching Woody Allen videos.
Ray thinks he may be Italian or Greek. From the mass of hair that springs from his head, I think he may be right. Thirty-three years old and he still has the thickest, darkest hair of any man I've met. Hair loss is the most fundamental worry of men throughout the Western world, and I get the impression Ray almost resents not having that additional fear. For Ray, anxiety is freedom. He's always whining, "Am I fat? Am I fat?" And most of the time, he's just stocky. But in some photos he does look like he's just slaughtered a pig and eaten it whole. When I first met Ray, he was running five miles a day and his body was ripped. He's stopped running lately and has gone a little to seed.
Like I say, I wouldn't have noticed that I was thinking of Ray romantically, except one Saturday, when he ripped off his T-shirt in the kitchen, exasperated at the lazy, gluey heat sticking to his armpits. As he balled up the damp cotton in his fist, I caught myself sneaking a look at his chest. Before, I would just look at him changing. It was the sneakiness that got me. He began to look different and I began to put on eye shadow before I saw him.
I had just got back my essay on D. H. Lawrence. I loved his books, but the only way I could express how much I loved them was by comparing Lady Chatterley's Lover to the video for "Uptown Girl" by Billy Joel. Car mechanic falls in love with uptown girl, does synchronised dance routine to impress her. Billy Joel/Mellors, Lady Chatterley/Christie Brinkley same thing. Basically, I'm a snob and a terrible person, but, like Manny, I have always liked working-class men.
I think a man ought, if he can help it, to be working class. And men should also be of Celtic descent where at all possible. And ladies should be Mediterranean. My dreams are populated by men who look like Gabriel Byrne and talk like Dick Van Dyke and women who look like Sophia Loren but are dubbed by Helena Bonham-Carter. I don't care if it's their genuine accent or not. I don't see what's so good about being genuine. Clog dancing is genuine. Isn't being fake more of an achievement? At least it takes some inspiration. Like, sherbet dips, they're a special food. Think of all the additives and colouring and grinding that it takes to create a sherbet dip. But carrots? They're just out there, shrieking, "Hi, we're some carrots! Love us for it!" They never have to prove themselves. They are the Gwyneth Paltrow of the food world. They'd make the most stylish vegetable list, even wearing a pink ballgown three sizes too big.
When I got into D. H. Lawrence, I went to the library and checked out three books at once, winking at the librarian and whispering, "Sex," as I took them from her. It was whilst going back over The Virgin and the Gypsy that I started to notice just how common Ray was. Every hair between his brows seemed defined. His sweat began to smell of hard manual labour as opposed to poncing around in Islington wine bars.
Ray and I met at the Tate Gallery, in front of the portrait of Ophelia drowning, which just about says it all. He sidled up next to me. One always thinks one ought to be attracted to any young person by themselves in an art gallery, especially if they're wearing a black turtleneck. When he got up close, I don't think he liked the look of me so much. But he chatted politely anyway. I pretended I didn't know who he was. He pretended he liked that, but I could tell he really didn't.
His pretentious sensory perceptors alerted him to a kindred soul. I was so happy to meet someone more pretentious than me pretentious and succesful. I would be far kinder to him if he hadn't sold so many records and made so much money. The more he sells, the more I taunt him. I like taunting him. It's so easy. One time he told me that people think he looks like Edward Norton. I said, "Edward Norton is much better-looking than you." Ray turned absolutely indignant with rage and bellowed, "NO HE IS NOT!" Which is just not a thing a person is supposed to say out loud, and that's why I love him. Sometimes I think Ray just keeps me around to help him keep track of who he hates.
"Veeve, babe. Who's that guy from Good Will Hunting that I hate?"
"No, the other one."
"Yeah, Ben Affleck. I hate him."
What Ray and I have is affection through word association. "Truffaut?" "Me too" "Love you." Reality is matted and ugly and I didn't want to bring any real love into this gorgeous all-surface, no-feeling relationship we have going.
So one evening, the night before he was due to perform at an awards ceremony in Europe, I decided to put a stop to it. I had been thinking about him all through my girls' night in with Treena, all through Treena's lunchtime babble, all through dinner with Manny at the new Chinese restaurant on Greek Street. So I called him a little after midnight.
"Ray, Ray, it's me. Listen, I just want to say that even though you're very handsome, I don't find you at all attractive."
I think I heard him start to clear his throat, so I quickly added: "That red raincoat that you think makes you look really cool makes you look like the killer dwarf from Don't Look Now. When you stand on the outskirts of a crowded party, watching everyone with your arms folded against your chest, thinking you look like an existential hero, everyone else thinks you look like a grumpy troll. Good luck for tomorrow. Bye."
I immediately felt much better. Ray did not come across as his usual brooding love-god self the next day on TV. When he picked up his award for best album, he didn't thank Woody Allen for inspiration or send a Red Indian girl to turn it down. He just said thank you very politely and scuttled offstage. He was wearing a purple, crushed velvet, tightly tailored suit, and you could see in his eyes that the moment he walked onstage, he realised the suit was a mistake. That wasn't like him.
Ray, like all the most attractive people, is a chancer. You sit there taking him apart, saying, "Well, this doesn't work and this doesn't work, so why is he such a sex symbol?" and it's because he's decided to be. And, when a chancer backs down, you have to face the fact that you've been lied to and that you enjoy being lied to, that it took the pressure off the quest to really love, to really feel. When a chancer admits he has taken one chance too many, you realise you could have had the same feelings for a lip-gloss, if you had put your mind to it. And you would want to be with the lip-gloss as much as possible, and sit by the phone waiting for it to call, refuse to share the lip-gloss with others, and fall absolutely to pieces when the pot of gloss is empty.
Pots of gloss wouldn't sing as badly as Ray, like a Laandan Cockernee, even though he's from Surrey. I hate Ray's music. It's soulless soul. He's more interested in telling the world about the contents of his record collection than in actually making a good record. He always gets nervous a month before release and throws on a load of strings. This costs the record company thousands, but he makes them a lot of money. Everyone likes him, from Q readers to Smash Hits readers. The Smash Hits readers are more vocal, so much so that they're threatening to alienate the Q readers.
I don't like any of his records, and even if I started to, I wouldn't let myself until at least five years after our friendship ends. I only start to like a song about five years after it's been a big hit.
Anyone who does not think that "Boys of Summer" by Don Henley is a brilliant record is someone I'd definitely hate. Manny always taught me that the only people I was allowed to hate were Adolf Hitler, Margaret Thatcher, and Jack Lemmon. Hitler because he destroyed our people. Thatcher because she destroyed our country. I don't know why he took against Jack Lemmon so. He'd only say, "Jack Lemmon makes me anxious."
"Boys of Summer" is a song that stops me dead whenever it comes on the radio. It's happened in the back of cabs, in the supermarket, doing the washing up. It makes me want to kill myself, but I never turn it off, and if I can't hear it all the way through, I think I will die, and by the time the last notes fade out, I want to live forever.
"I can't tell you my love for you will still be strong, after the boys of summer have gone."
I think that's such a beautiful sentiment. Love should only last as long as a very expensive and impractical bikini that looks stunning but dissolves in the sea within days. So many pop songs tell of this terrible tiresome love that they want to last forever. But that just makes me think of long-life milk, acrid and fake. Love should be like a movie trailer. Even if the film's a stinker, you get the best laughs and the biggest explosions in the space of two minutes.
Manny doesn't like it. We have been through it and it turns out that he is bothered by the lyric "Out on the road today I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac." Manny says that implies that there's something inherently wrong about being an arty liberal and wealthy at the same time. That's what we are.
We're arty liberals, champagne socialists. My first year was spent in New York. Then, when my grandparents were run over by a limo after watching a Debbie Reynolds musical revue in Las Vegas, Manny inherited a lot of money. Mom collected her half, dumped me, and went on the first of many Buddhist retreats, taking her worldly possessions but abandoning all family connections. Manny took his half and me, and moved us from New York to London to be closer to Ava Gardner, who ended up dying in West London before they could consummate his decades-long imaginary friendship.
Manny bought our house for a remarkable price and did it up himself. The four storeys are done out in black and gold, apart from the guest bedroom, which is black and red (the Polanski suite). There are Tiffany lamps on every table and I've tripped over the wires so many times that the shades are beyond repair. There are no bannisters in our house, so we don't do a lot of running. Apart from Treena, who always falls off from halfway down, but never fails to land on her feet.
There are framed photos going up the stairs of Elizabeth Taylor in various stages of husbandry and fatitude. Manny touches the portraits on his way to the bathroom. He always does it, as if they were mezuzahs. Consequently the Place in the Sun-era Liz sits at a jaunty angle and Liz in her white swimsuit filming Suddenly, Last Summer is covered in fingerprints. We always have Elizabeth to turn to. Even in black-and-white, her eyes glow violet. There are moments in your life that no metaphysical poem or prayer or Leonard Cohen lyric can cut through. But Liz's eyes do. They can cut through anything. And, on evenings like these, when our hearts feel tight and the rain beats rudely, an incessant, vulgar splash against the serenity of our sadness, Liz's bosom heaves with us.
In the dead of night, a couple of days before New Year's Eve 1988, I thought I heard Manny pray to her. That was the year he had split up with Miguel. No one ever dumped Liz. Sure, she had a lot of marriages, but she never got dumped. He seemed to pep up not long after their little chat. At Christmas, he leaves a saucer of vanilla-bean ice cream with Hershey's syrup in front of each picture. Manny says we're all going to lose our figures anyway, and if it's good enough for Liz...
She is the Mommy of this house and I have grown up in her image. Not nearly as beautiful, but like a bad Internet printout of her. I have almost-black hair and navy-blue eyes that I try to wish purple. Elizabeth wished herself two inches taller in order to get the lead in National Velvet. My skin is so pale that people would think Manny was feeding me feathers if I weren't so fat. Manny says I am not fat. He says I am voluptuous. I don't feel voluptuous. I feel like a cow and I have recurring dreams about running to do a big leap and then not being able to lift myself off the ground because I'm too heavy. On a good day, I know I'm not fat fat. I'm somewhere between Madonna in the "Lucky Star" video and Drew Barrymore pre-comeback. Or Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8. I have these boobs and this butt that are just separate from me, like they're having a conversation with each other and I'm not allowed to join in. My own body makes me feel like I'm alone.
It doesn't make sense because my mother was totally flat-chested. That's probably why all Manny's photos of her show her wearing some stupid spaghetti-strap hippie dress without a bra. She's super-thin with long red hair trailing down her bony back. I hate hair that goes on that long it's just belabouring the point.
I don't miss her. I never knew her, so there isn't a problem. There are all those men who are totally fucked up about women because their mum walked out when they were six, but I don't feel any of that. It's like being blind if you're born that way, you don't know any different and you don't miss out, but if you lose your sight at the age of thirty-eight, your life is shattered. Besides, Manny, who has taught me to always judge a book by its cover, is the greatest role model a girl could hope for.
Last time my mother came out of the Buddhist retreat, she tried to set up a reunion with me. But I didn't want to meet her. She'd been in a Buddhist retreat for five years. I know she wouldn't have heard of Ben Affleck and that it would just annoy me.
If I'm absolutely honest with myself, which I am when it's three in the morning and I still can't sleep, I do look for mother figures everywhere. Not because I want one. Because I'm curious. Because I can't get my head around it. I'm a tiny bit obsessed by the idea of mothers, the same way I'm obsessed by the idea of a jar that contains both peanut butter and jelly in one spread.
When I'm paying the checkout lady, I think, "Oh, she's a mother," like "Oh, she's a Mormon." It's just something some women are. I see it as a cult. It shouldn't be outlawed, but you don't really want to let them into your house. Most girls are daughters. It's something they have to be, whether they like it or not, another burden when it's already enough work just being a girl, then a teenage girl, let alone a teenage girl who belongs to someone else. Luckily I don't have that. I think I'd feel like a split personality if I had a mom. I would call her Mom and not Mother, which makes me think of Jane Austen, or Mommy, which makes me think of Joan Crawford.
Mom said Manny could care for me better than she ever could and she was right. I think she found herself. Every now and then we get a postcard from an artists' colony in Topanga Canyon, an Israeli kibbutz, or a monastery in the south of France. If I found myself, I'd say, "Well, there you are, Viva, so nice to meet you," and then I'd go back to bed. I don't think about her. I think about pasta in the shape of Hello Kitty, stockings with diamond seams up the back, Marilyn's crumbling cake-mascara, and Liz Taylor's new white hair. I haven't got time for the trivials.
Copyright © 1998 by Emma Forrest