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Nostalgia

 

I recall the last two things I said to her were perhaps that she was right: that I wanted to be single and to live alone. We had been together for two years and had split up after a trip round Mexico. It was shortly after we had returned that she said she didn’t want to see me anymore, saying that the trip made clear to her that I didn’t really want to be with her, that I wanted to be alone. Yet all her specific criticisms seemed much more to suggest that she was bored with me, or rather with my habits. Whenever I had something to say she felt she knew where it was coming from and what it would be about. Whenever I was hungry she felt sure that it would be some whole-food restaurant that I would try to propose. She said, as we argued as quietly as possible in the large flat I was sharing with three other people, that I didn’t know how to change. She reckoned I was on some path that had no deviations. She felt I needed complete control. Not that she thought I was jealous or possessive in any conventional sense of the terms, but that I seemed to want to map out my actions so clearly in advance that she felt caught within them. I lacked, she thought, the capacity for compromise. I explained that for me compromise was a failure of will; it was an unwillingness to accept agency in our own lives. She said that when there were two people trying to make a life for themselves, compromise was necessary. I’ve never believed this assumption, and still don’t. Her comments echoed those of two previous girlfriends whom I still very much kept in touch with, and perhaps did so because they hadn’t changed me. Rosanna said if I ever changed she just might get interested again.

So we split up and she quickly started seeing someone else, and though Rosanna and I would occasionally see each other on the street, and speak a few awkward words, we never arranged to meet, even though we would promise each other the next time we met that we would. That we would go for a drink, or a meal, or pop into the other’s flat.

It would have been about two and a half years after this break-up when I finally moved, and though Rosanna may have believed the length of time it took me to find a new flat was an act of procrastination, I always felt it was an act of passive instinct, I thought I could stay for years in my old flat as long as I knew that when the right flat appeared it would be mine. There were certain things I insisted upon in this flat in my mind. It was like a form of nostalgia, but with the longing for a home in the future and not in the past. It would be top floor, south facing, with sanded floorboards, near enough to my old flat which was next to a beautiful patch of green called the Meadows, where people would lie in the sun, play football, walk dogs and generally make it a very active social area. I also hoped it would have plenty wall space for books and it would preferably have gas heating and cooking facilities, as well as simple, minimal wooden furnishings. It would be reasonably cheap, at no more than five hundred pounds. It would also be very much a one person flat, so I didn’t mind if it was quite small: a kitchen with a four person dining table, a sitting room with a couch and a couple of chairs, and a bedroom with a double bed, wardrobe, chest and drawers and room for a desk were all that I was asking for. Too much, perhaps?

Every month or so I would look in the Edinburgh property guide and see various flats between four hundred and fifty and five hundred pounds, and maybe ten per cent of them sounded like they were worth looking at. In numerical terms that meant three or four flats, which I would dutifully go off to see, and promptly leave with a feeling of disappointment. Perhaps many of them were perfectly acceptable flats, but they all completely failed what someone might call my Platonic ideal: as if the reality of the flat was always going to be secondary to the flat in my mind. But I said to myself if I can find a place equal to my ideal, then it could vindicate something within me much more completely than if I took a flat that didn’t meet with any or with very few of my expectations and I just settled for compromise. Was that not the very thing I insisted to Rosanna that I would not accept? One flat I went to see was pleasant enough, situated in the Morningside part of town, which meant a mile and half to the town centre, which would have only been a minor setback, but it was also fully carpeted, and was on the third floor instead of the fourth. Another had sanded floorboards but was on the ground floor; another was top floor but with carpets and clunky furniture that took up too much space in an already small apartment. And so on.

That was until about nine months ago, when I was casually leafing through a copy of the property guide and I came across an advert that promised little but offered a lot. It was a top floor, compact one-bedroom flat next to the university and next to the Meadows. Potentially perfect I believed, and so I went off to see it. And pretty much perfect it was. It met all my expectations; I took it straight away and moved in a month after that. For that month before moving I gave my old landlord notice and quickly set about removing junk from the flat that I had over the years accumulated. All I wanted to take were my books and some clothes. Basically work tools and the clothes on my back. I bought new shelving and a friend helped me put it up, and so though it was a compact apartment the wall space was well-utilized and I managed to avoid a feeling of being cramped.

But of course that would only remain the case if I were to stay single. When I first showed interest in the flat the owner said that it was a lovely space – but only really for one person. I concurred, and after I took it, and in the initial stages after moving in, I wondered whether this was the first time in my life I so completely announced my single-status, embodying it in bricks and mortar.

Friends would pop round and say it was a lovely flat; perfect for one. Occasionally girls would come back, too, and leave the next morning as if slightly stifled by its air of aloneness. When they arrived they seemed almost seduced by the books and an air of bachelordom, but by the next morning when they left I felt sure they possessed a sense of relief at leaving my little world. Or maybe that was just my own relief. I hated for a girl to stay late into the morning. My ideal was that we would wake about ten, she’d jump into the shower while I made breakfast, and then after breakfast she would leave. We would sometimes arrange to meet again, but only if I felt she understood my need to be alone.

But of course there was one person who never understood this need, and the one person whom I sometimes felt I didn’t want to leave, the one person I believed I could lie in bed with all day. And that might have been why I was so reluctant to call her, knowing that though I wanted to tell Rosanna about my new flat, and the promise I had made to myself the day we parted, was getting in touch with her not only a vindication but also a risk? I may have wanted to show her my new flat and parade my embodied single-status, but I might also have wanted to try and seduce her all over again, and in the process be seduced myself. Were these three or four other assignations, some of them duplicated but never more than twice, merely dress rehearsals for one girlfriend’s return?

It was a few months after I’d moved into the flat that I finally gave her a ring. For months before hand I had worked through all the possible permutations for this call, and all the possible directions in which our friendship could go if we moved towards one. I knew she was the only woman whom I’d ever known that could transport me from myself to a place ever so slightly beyond. I always felt a little beside myself in her company, and what I liked so much about moving into this flat was that it gave me such an overwhelming sense of well-being. In the flat I was very much inside myself. Perhaps I wanted to test what had a greater force: Rosanna’s charms, or my flat’s sense of stability. After all, if Rosanna and I were to get together again, wouldn’t that mean moving in with her, and into a bigger flat?

The first time I phoned I got her answering machine, and decided not to leave a message. The second time I again got her answering machine and this time left a message saying it was me and that I would try again later. She never returned my call and so at about lunchtime the next day I called again, and she answered, fresh and enthusiastic and asked how things were. Things were great I said, I had moved into a new flat a few months ago, and work was going quite well. I asked her what she was doing: she said she was now going into her final year at medical school. Do you have time to meet up, I asked. Of course she said; that would be really lovely.

Maybe I wanted her to be more reluctant, to show at least some of the reluctance I had shown in waiting several months to phone her. She seemed to have no problem making that decision in a matter of seconds. Perhaps I wanted her to go off and think about it, to show some sort of tortuous thought-process in relation to me. But it was Rosanna who had ended the relationship, and presumably had little problem moving on, despite her comment about maybe getting interested again if I changed. I suppose I always wanted to believe when mutual friends told me she was a bit depressed, struggling with her studies or in the middle of a failing relationship, that I was somehow part of that unhappiness; that really she wanted once again to be with me.

And I say this not even sure if I was still in love with her when I had those thoughts; maybe it was merely a form of thwarted ambition as the Russian writer Lermontov once so memorably described it: “I’m no longer capable of losing my head in love. Ambition has been crushed in me by circumstances, but it comes out in another way, for ambition is nothing more than lust for power and my chief delight is to dominate those around me. To inspire in others love, devotion, fear – isn’t that the first symptom and the supreme triumph of power?” Are many of us ambitious but settle for its micro-form – to tyrannize another? This thought though was always the flipside to the other thought – that I was indeed very much in love with Rosanna and continued to be so. But my hope was that it was somewhere in between: that I didn’t still hanker after her, but I did want to see that she was okay; and that I always thought, no matter the arguments and the fall-outs, that she had always been happier with me than with anyone else.

We arranged to meet a few days after the phone call at seven o’clock in a café in which we had actually originally met: though it had changed destination it retained its hippy ethos. I would rarely go, but often friends would tell me they had bumped into Rosanna there. It was her suggestion, and while I would like to have believed she suggested it for sentimental reasons; I suspect it was much more a practical one: it was her regular haunt.

But when I arrived she was already sitting there, and had obviously made a great effort to look her best: she wore a flowing skirt that just about suited the early September weather, a top held together by two straps that showed off nicely her olive skin, and, as always, shoes with heels, to compensate for her lack of inches, though she was hardly tiny, though possibly petite. I was stubbled, cleanly showered and wearing clothes that supposedly suited my complexion – a bottle green T-shirt and a pair of jeans – a complexion nicely and darkly tanned by a recent trip to the South of Turkey with a female friend It was an apparently emotionally inconspicuous trip but perhaps not, and if you’ll allow me a brief digression before returning to that meeting with Rosanna, I’ll say a little bit about Sandra.

Before the holiday, Sandra said that she wanted to celebrate recently parting from her ex, a man who wouldn’t change either, but not especially, she believed, because he was given to the sort of parti pris she thought I practised, more because of social convention. He was someone who wanted to spend several nights a week with his mates, and only travelled to places where he could be sure of a few pints and some British grub.

Sandra and I had met a few years before whilst both post-grads, when she was in the middle of the ten year relationship she had recently exited.Come with me, she said, to Turkey. We went first to Istanbul for a few days before the city’s pollution forced us to the coast, where we stayed for ten days in a place called Cesme. It had a beach, some passable restaurants, and warm people who after a couple of days would always greet us when we passed through the streets of this small resort. They probably all assume we’re a couple, Sandra said, and thought it funny that the most chaste people around weren’t Muslims, but ourselves. As I would lie on the beach I would sometimes watch Sandra going to the sea, her pale skin lightly tanned, her light brown hair getting lighter under the sun, and her figure firm from all the runs and workouts she did while her boyfriend had usually been in the pub. Yet I would look at her with disinterest, like an attractive objet d’art.

I was surprised that I had this thought briefly pass through my mind as I first looked at Rosanna, and noticed her own tan. Her complexion was generally quite dark anyway – she was half Russian/half English, but with Tatar blood. Occasionally people would say we could be brother and sister. As I moved to greet her, she kissed me on the cheek and wondered if I were hungry. I said yes, though I’d eaten only a couple of hours earlier, and had a vague feeling of trepidation that always kills an appetite. She suggested we go along to a whole-food Indian restaurant along the road that did a buffet once a week, and this was the night. She asked if I remembered it – we had been there once. I replied of course. Throughout the evening as we talked I realized I remembered many things that were only vaguely recalled by Rosanna, and yet she seemed surprised at herself that she could recall them at all. I believed then that if anything were to happen between us again, it would likely be not because of a shared comprehension of the past, but because she had forgotten much of it. If I wanted to make love with her once more it would be through memory; but if she wanted to make love to me would it be through freshness?

I also of course recognized, as we sat and talked and ate, that if we were to go back to my place this again wouldn’t be an act of memory for her but of excitement and newness. As I brought up the subject of my new flat she would say that she would love to see it, was it as homely as my last place, where had I put all my books if it were so much smaller? I obviously didn’t hold this approach against her; but it did make me wonder whether she was almost predisposed to recover from an affair as I was almost predisposed to remain forever within one. It would seem that if I stayed in a situation for any length of time, I would have an accumulation of situations that left me in love, left me stranded in a feeling of nostalgia and recollection for the other person. If I felt equivocally in love with Rosanna, was it only because I also felt I still loved two girlfriends before her, yet people to whom I also never quite committed?

After dinner, and after we went to a late night café on Teviot Row next to the university, I proposed she see the flat. She said that would be really nice, so back we went, and when I proposed she stay the night, that she of course had to see the flat in day light as well as at night time, she moved towards me and kissed me firmly on the lips. ‘You needn’t be so euphemistic’ she said, and yet I wondered as she lay in my arms sleeping a couple of hours later whether what I’d said was so euphemistic: I wondered whether she had come back because there was something different in my life now.

We didn’t re-embark on another relationship, but we would see each other every week or two. She said she was having an open relationship with someone she was living with, and that though it was officially open she nevertheless thought it would be insensitive to tell him she was sleeping with me. I thought that was understandable, and even quite suitable, for a few weeks into our ‘affair’ I got an e-mail from one of my ex-girlfriends. I had written to her to say that I’d moved into a place of my own, and would she like to visit. She was now based in Berlin and said that yes she was missing Edinburgh – though she pointedly didn’t mention missing me – and she would love to come. She would come in a late October break. I had also mentioned it to my girlfriend before that, who was living in Paris, and she said she’d like to come to. I said she should come some time after Christmas, perhaps for New Year.

And so these events came to pass, and yes, strictly speaking, some might call me a three-timer, for in each case I’ve slept once again with an ex-girlfriend. I’m now convinced that all three of them want from me something very different than that which I want from them. They all I believe want a degree of novelty in their lives, and their only sense of surprise comes from the awareness that it is an ex-boyfriend who is giving them it. I have stopped having one night stands and short term flings for which, as I’ve suggested, I was never suited, and instead moved towards the acceptance of still being in love with three ex-girlfriends and allowing my sense of nostalgia to work in their presence. A few years ago, a friend recently reminded me, I had said to her that ideally I would have three relationships with three women in three different cities. At that moment I had just stopped seeing my ‘first ex-girlfriend’, and I supposedly had said that she would be one of the three.  I knew I would never stop loving her I reputedly announced.

Now all three of them are also in relationships with other men, and you might ask if this makes me jealous. I can honestly say no, because I can still, curiously, feel very jealous over their leaving me for other men originally, but have no feelings of jealousy towards their present partners. I feel for them that I am a holiday, an escape from their everyday lives and that I linger minimally in their memory. They, on the other hand linger, in my memory but less in the recent past, when they return to their partners, but in the distant past. This memory then attaches itself to anticipation – to their next visit – and I feel an astonishing sense of well-being. I also feel a very strong sense that my flat is my own and that none of them are likely to be able to throw me off balance to the degree that I will move out of this comfortable space and this very comfortable life. I could be wrong, but maybe we should define utopia as no more than an extended period of happiness, and if that is the case I believe I have been happier than any other period in my life, and this period has now been going on for more than a year.  Though Sandra had a point when she said it was a pity I was so given to nostalgia – otherwise the notion of any three might have more significance than the three with whom I have memories. After all if and when one of them leaves, who would I have to replace her; since strangers lack the necessary nostalgic element? I half-jokingly said her, and she looked at me with such a sense of pain and possibility on her face, and I felt a surprising surge in my own body, that I wondered whether I was going to end up ruining this utopia, as various memories of Sandra and I on holiday came back to me with some of the power that I have felt concerning my three ex-girlfriends.

 

©Tony McKibbin