It was probably for almost a year that I had been interested in the same woman, and if someone were to enquire why I had never asked her out the answer was simple: during the entire period of time she had been seeing someone else. Susanna had started going out with him only a few weeks before we had met each other, and though the attraction, so I had believed, was mutual and strong, obviously no less so was the relationship she had started to develop with her partner.
Susanna and I first met well over a year ago at a party in her flat: it was a flatmate's birthday, and I knew the flatmate, Ellen, because she worked in a second hand bookshop I would often frequent. As I dropped in one afternoon and bought Katherine Mansfield's The Garden Party and we talked a little about books as we would often do, she asked if I wanted to come to a sort of garden party she and her flatmates were having that weekend. She gave me the address (it was a basement flat she'd just moved in to) and as it wasn't too far from my own, and as I had nothing arranged that weekend, I thought I would go along. She had said to bring company, but as on so many other social occasions I decided not to do so.
There were reasons for this, and I often believed that it was better to feel a little uncomfortable initially, so that I could feel entirely comfortable for the rest of the evening. If I took someone along simply not to feel lonely when I arrived, I also would then feel an obligation to that person for the rest of the night. Parties for me were not about obligations, but creating opportunities: I wanted to be as unfettered as possible - even existentially, if you like, unattached. That is, though I never lied, I always liked the idea of being as in control of my own revelations as possible, and so often I've found in social situations our existence isn't self-revelatory, it is leaked out steadily by others. Occasionally when I go out to parties in the town in which I teach, in Stirling, people have come up to me and said, "Roger tells me that you teach philosophy" or "Sarah said you've written interestingly on Nietzsche". One of the advantages of living in Edinburgh, whilst teaching in Stirling, I had always thought, was that I could remain more or less unknown in this city: I believed I had retained my anonymity all the better to reveal my self when I felt the moment suited me and not simply others.
So I turned up at the party alone and the person who answered the door looked mildly surprised that I hadn't brought anybody, and maybe no less surprised that I was unfamiliar. She seemed mildly assuaged when I handed over a bottle of wine, and she said that I should come in. I asked her name, and she said Susanna, and she asked me mine: Tom, I replied.
Susanna and I had been talking for about half an hour by the kitchen door when a friend of hers came over and asked where Hans was, and Susanna said that he was in London, that he'd booked the trip months ago. It was after that Susanna talked a little bit about her boyfriend, and I wondered whether she would have told me at all that evening if it weren't for another prompting her: a possible example of the revelation not divulged, nor, on my part, extracted, but instead leaked. We talked some more, swapped e-mail addresses and then moved into the sitting room and after that out into the garden, where we ended up talking separately to other people. I talked for a while with Ellen, and at a certain moment couldn't help but ask her a couple of questions about Susanna. She told me how long Susanna had been with her boyfriend, what he did and what she believed he was like. She offered a picture of a blissful, fresh couple, and I'm not so sure if she didn't do so partly to warn me off, but no less, I believed, to say that while Susanna wasn't available, that she was.
Ellen was plain but Susanna was beautiful, and as I realized I'd been invited to the party not to meet and talk to beautiful women, but to a particularly plain one, I half regretted not bringing a friend. This might make me out to be both superficial and mean, but what I'm offering here is only a description of my feeling at the time. There I was stuck in conversation with Ellen, and what I wanted to do was cross the garden and continue the conversation with Susanna.
I may have created a degree of freedom by going to the party alone, but as in so many situations in life, our initial sense of freedom is quickly closed down by social decency. What I offer here in thought is not quite what I offered in action: I politely talked to Ellen for another forty five minutes and then left the party before midnight saying I wanted to work on a book chapter early the next morning. This wasn't a lie, but if I had been talking to Susanna instead of Ellen the chapter would not have been a pressing concern.
A few days later I e-mailed Susanna and asked if she would like to get a tea or coffee one afternoon. She replied promptly saying that would be really nice, and she pointedly added that at some stage I should really meet her boyfriend. She couched it in terms that seemed justifiable - he worked in analytic philosophy, and it might be interesting to see how our approaches differed - but it also seemed a warning. We were going to meet for a drink and a chat, she was saying, but she was very much attached.
That first time we met up Susanna didn't take Hans along, and as we talked for a couple of hours about our work - she was an interior designer, who had worked on the very caf we were sitting in - I mused over where Hans was at this time. She said that Hans didn't especially like this caf: and she admitted she didn't especially like it either, but thought it might be nice for me to at least see the sort of work she did. As I looked at the broad, rectangular wooden tables, at the equally low slung stools and at the clumsily chunky wooden chairs, at the full patio windows and the numerous spotlights, I couldn't help but think this was the caf equivalent of the fitted kitchen. I said so, and Susanna laughed, saying that was what most people in Edinburgh seemed to want.
What did she want, I asked, and it turned out not something especially different. She wanted everything to be new and fresh, but simply with better quality materials. My idea of a nice caf was the opposite: mostly second hand, with smallish wooden tables, old chairs, and nicely distributed lamps and candles. What I noticed was that while I was attracted to her, I wasn't especially drawn to her tastes. She dressed well I noticed but again not in a fashion I much liked. She fashionably wore skinny jeans, and had the sense of style to wear them with ankle boots wide at the top so that there was no room for the jeans to gather.
Yet over the next year or so we would see quite a lot of each other. On a few occasions I met Hans, but usually only at parties where there were many others milling around, and only on a couple of occasions did we ever sit down and talk philosophy. The conversations didn't last very long, not so much because of disagreement, but rather indifference. As he obviously believed that many of the philosophers I liked offered logically incoherent arguments, so I reckoned that most of the thinkers he was working with could hardly be called thinkers at all: they were logicians where the argument was so much less important than its containment within the realm of categorical reason. As we talked I noticed he never offered an observation or a thought that he could claim as his own, and I couldn't help but find him quite dull.
Yet whenever I would meet with Susanna and his name came up, she insisted he was fascinating, and while I could almost understand why, I knew this had little to do with the quality of his thinking; more in fact with the quality of his abilities. He was, I had noticed, able rather than thoughtful, efficient rather sensitive. Occasionally at these parties he would play the piano if there was one to hand, pick up a guitar and start playing it if he found one in the corner and someone would allow him to play it. He also spoke English, French, Spanish and Italian quite fluently, as well as of course his own native German. So why did I find him so dull, and I also wondered whether if for all my low key attraction to Susanna that she was slightly dull too?
Obviously many would say it was a healthy dose of sour grapes: that because of my own incompetence with languages (a bit of French, a few words of Spanish) my musical ineptitude, and my inability to drag Susanna away from Hans, it was a sensible move to insist that he was dull and Susanna no more than mildly interesting. That may even have been the way that I saw it a few months ago were it not for a couple of incidents more recently, where, I suppose I discovered the dullness was finally within me.
The first of these incidents took place about three months ago when I went along to a party that Susanna had invited me to, only to receive a call shortly before leaving the flat that she wouldn't make it. There would be plenty of people I knew there she insisted, including her flatmates and also of course Hans: it was a party at his place. As I've suggested, I am not especially shy, and I'm happier than most to enter environments where many people are strangers, as long as I have some purpose to be there, or that there were people there I knew just enough to give the impression that I hadn't gate-crashed. I assumed there would be several, and sure enough there was Ellen and a couple of others that I was familiar with, as well as Hans. Yet for much of the evening though I was talking to people, none of the conversations were especially engaging me, and I would half focus on the discussion and half observe other people's behaviour.
It was the first time that I had seen Hans without Susanna present, and I noticed where before I would see his piano playing or his guitar strumming as the activity of a vaguely anti-social person so uncomfortable with language - no matter the near half a dozen he spoke - as I suspected he would retreat into music, on this occasion as he played the guitar on an easy chair several people quite conspicuously gathered around him. As they sat beside the chair on the floor, this time Hans' playing seemed the opposite of anti-social - it seemed even seductive. One girl who looked in her mid-twenties appeared especially charmed, and I wondered what Susanna would have thought seeing her boyfriend clearly wooing another, and also whether this is exactly how he seduced Susanna. This pleasant looking but hardly beautiful man for the first time managed to reveal to me why he might be pleasing to women.
It was at that moment, and only on that occasion, that I could accept that I might have feelings of envy, and not only jealousy. Whether this was due to the way in which he was seducing the girl sitting there, then, or thinking back to how he might have seduced Susanna, I couldn't say. Yet the irony was that these feelings came not from seeing the two of them together, but him alone with another woman.
This probably said much about my personality, and also why I would have been drawn much more to continental philosophy and its problems with the self as individual subjectivity, rather than an analytic tradition concerned with the self in general. This particular type of envious jealousy seemed to have far more to do with Sartre than with Russell.
Later that evening as I was talking to Ellen we both noticed Hans leaving with the girl, and though there was very little that evening to suggest this was going to become a sexual assignation, there was nothing to indicate it wouldn't be either. We both looked at each other, and I asked what she thought. She didn't know she replied; but surely if anything were to happen Hans wouldn't have left with her so obviously. After all, she added, she was Susanna's flatmate. Maybe, I proposed, that was the very point: hadn't some psychoanalyst addressed this very problem - do something so publicly that it consequently can hold its secret?
It was a few days later, and less than a week before I was going away for a month to Mexico, that I met up with Susanna again. She seemed slightly preoccupied, and I asked what was wrong. She said it was nothing, and we talked about our work, my forthcoming trip and then at a certain moment in the conversation I noticed she had steered it towards the party and asked what I made of it. I replied that it was a nice, mellow evening, and that I didn't really find anybody especially engaging, and certainly nobody fresh. She laughed and said that when that happened she knew I was nevertheless more than happy to observe; did I observe anything of interest she asked.
I thought for a few moments and to this day can't really say what my motives were in telling her that I saw Hans leave with another woman that night at the party. As she probed me further I also told her that he had been with her for much of the evening. I didn't at any stage lie, but I certainly offered what I would call a black truth, a truth that in its disclosure could hardly pass for innocent truth telling.
Perhaps I told Susanna because while I didn't expect her at that moment to fall into my arms, perhaps she would do so a month later when I returned from Mexico. Maybe she would think about what her boyfriend may have done, and finish it, and feel she might want to start an affair with me on my return. I still sometimes wonder though whether I told her because I am actually quite direct and honest, and a black truth is still a truth. Often when I am asked for the truth of a situation as I see it I will offer it even to the detriment of conventional professionalism. Occasionally I get asked by students, especially post-graduates, what I make of other lecturers at Stirling. If I like them and think they're good writers I tell the students so; if I think the opposite I will tell the students that too.
Yet I can't pretend the truth that I offered to Susanna was quite as objectively delivered, and I use the term black truth to suggest that there is some hidden motive within that truth. It wasn't until after the trip to Mexico that I could better explore and explain my motives.
I had a month off during the Easter break and still had two chapters left to write for the book that I was working on, the book I had more or less started at the time that I had met Susanna. It seemed to be going more sluggishly than any material I had previously published - two books and a handful of articles - and I thought a change of landscape might help. I'd been to Mexico a few years before while travelling around South and Central America, and remembered a particular hostel I had stayed in at Puerto Escondido.
For the first week I rose before seven, went for a swim, then had breakfast, and got back to the hostel at nine and worked through till one each day. I found myself writing two and a half thousand words every morning, and had almost finished both chapters within that first week. Yet I had hardly talked to anyone. In the afternoons I walked to a beautiful coved beach, swam for a while, and then in the late afternoon came back and read for an hour or two in a caf, before showering and going out and eating alone. As loneliness would overcome me so also would a feeling of what I can only call inner resilience, a sense that what mattered was not needing people but somehow wishing for them.
Did I wish for Ana? I had seen her wandering around the hostel over the previous couple of days, and she seemed to be staying on the floor below me. Unlike most of the people in the hostel who looked like they knew what they were doing there - even if it amounted to nothing - Ana seemed to have the air of one returning to a place where she had misplaced something. Where most of the others would say a few words as you passed them on the stairs, in the kitchen or at the computer, Ana would always look down.
However, one morning as I was eating breakfast she came and sat not far from me, and she asked if I had ever been to a place called Mazunte. I said I hadn't. She was, I noticed, in her late twenties, perhaps even early thirties, like me, and she had a fine bone structure, with wide eyes, a petite nose and thin, yet sensual lips, but at the same time she appeared tired. She had shadows under her eyes, and she seemed slightly drained, as if this trip wasn't merely a holiday, but a revitalizing exercise. We talked for a while and I mentioned that I would be going to the staircase beach on the edge of town, and if she were interested she could meet me there.
When I offered the invite I did so with little expectation that she would come, and yet by the time I arrived a couple of hours later I had turned the half hour conversation over in my mind on numerous occasions. Though not much was said our talk seemed to me to be full of unanswered questions. With everyone else I had talked to at the hostel in the time I had been there, our chat would end after a few minutes, with no loose ends, no further need for enquiry. Yet with Ana, whose nationality at this point I didn't even know, I felt we had opened up a space that demanded further exploration. Whether she felt the same I had no idea: if she came to the beach I would assume she did; if she didn't then I had hopelessly projected onto a conversation that had been no more to her than all the chats I had been having with everyone else.
She did come, and we lay on the beach, swam, talked, ate lunch in the shade, and drank mate out of a flask that she had bought along. It was almost dusk when we left, and I asked if she would like to go for dinner. Over pasta and wine we talked for the first time about the places we'd been to and realized on at least two occasions we might have actually passed each other on the street: once in Barcelona - we were both there early in September 2001, and also at JFK airport on December 4th 2003. She recalled she was flying on to Buenos Aires on a connecting flight from Montreal; I had flown into New York from Heathrow, and was going on to Mexico City on that first trip. Had we passed each other on the busy Barcelona streets, had we seen each other at the airport? The chance that we had was so small, and the likelihood of remembering so infinitesimal, that I gave it barely any thought except as a nice possibility.
The next morning we decided to go Mazunte, where she had heard the sun sets especially spectacularly. We had lunch, went off to the famous turtle museum in the village, and then swam on and off for an couple of hours, often getting battered by the large waves as we tried to get back out of the water, before looking for a spot to see the sun set. As we looked ahead of us there was a very narrow path leading up to the rocks that appeared as if it would wind round to the other side of the beach and where we would have a full view of the sun setting. As we negotiated with the path that often seemed no more than jagged rocks, we looked across at a curious white rock that for some reason we hadn't noticed before. Later Ana would ask someone why it was white and they said it was covered with bird droppings. At that moment, however, it seemed the strangest thing in the world, an inexplicably white edifice sticking out of the water surrounded by rocks that were of a natural colour.
After about half an hour we made it round to the other side. As we watched the sun set Ana said she wished she had taken her camera; I felt somehow happier that she hadn't, that the moment needn't be mediated; it should be memorable. Indeed it was, as we watched the waves crashing against the shore, the sun setting on the horizon, a blustery wind emphasizing the isolation, and the two of us looking around watching various hippies having their moment with the Sun God.
Afterwards we walked back to the village, got a bus to the main road, and then another bus back into Puerto Escondido. It was a surreally satisfying bus ride, with the bus covered in Jesus icons, Mexican pop music blaring out of the speakers, and with Ana and I the only foreigners on the crowded bus. We both felt like children, returning from a day at the beach. It seems to me, retrospectively, a moment even more memorable than the setting sun.
When we got back to Puerto we got off not at the stop for the hostel but at a stop for the other beach which had a better variety of restaurants. We ended up eating in an Italian eatery that would show the film Puerto Escondido every night. I'd first seen the movie in the late nineties and it was one of the reasons why I first came to Mexico.
Later that evening Ana and I made love, and then spent most of our time together for the remaining six days of my trip. For three of them we went to San Cristobal, high in the mountains in the state of Chiapas, and I briefly wondered whether this was a small city in which I could live. It was a university town with two small, makeshift cinemas that showed DVDs through a projector. The selection was good, and one of the cinemas in particular had a caf that looked like it lent itself well to hanging out and chatting about films, art, politics and philosophy. Indeed one evening when Ana and I went to see a film, and when we came out that seemed to be exactly what people were doing. I believed in Edinburgh the caf bars seemed somehow sterile; not designed by people for the purposes of thought, but for the demands of consumption: wasn't that the very type of caf that Susanna had furnished? Didn't the management admit that they wanted people to stay for one drink, a bit of food and then either to go to a film or go home? In this caf it seemed they wanted not only your custom but your energy: they wanted people to enliven it. We would ourselves have stayed longer, but we had to leave to catch the night bus back to Puerto. The following day I needed to get a flight to Mexico City, and then another back to the UK.
It was with chiefly three memories - the setting sun, the cinema/cafe and most curiously the time on the religiously inclined bus- that I returned to Edinburgh, an Edinburgh I believed would be unchanged in my absence. I had not even checked my e-mails throughout all my time in Mexico. Yet while I might have ignored my life, my life hadn't quite ignored me. When I got back to the flat there were numerous messages on my answering machine. Two were from Hans, and four of them were from Susanna, all left over the last few days; there was even one from Ellen. What was being played out on my answering machine was basically the collapse of Han's and Susanna's relationship. The first message was from Susanna saying that she had confronted Hans with what I had said and that though he denied sleeping with the girl, she didn't really believe him. She said she had split up with him that day. The next message was from Hans, who said that he had got my number from Susanna, and that he didn't take kindly to me messing around with his relationship, and would I have the decency to ring him back on the number he offered when I got back. The third was from Susanna, apologizing for giving Hans my number, but that he was very insistent. She said she had no interest in seeing any more of him, and couldn't wait to talk to me when I got back. There was then one from Ellen, wondering why I wanted to destroy their relationship. Then there were a couple of work related messages, asking if I had managed to finish the first draft of the book, and another from a friend, before another one from Susanna saying she had met up with Hans, and that he was very angry with me. The next was from Hans where he said he really wanted to meet up with me as soon as I returned. The second last message on the answering machine was from the day before. Susanna was crying and saying she really needed to see me: Hans had admitted sleeping with the other girl, and she needed someone to talk to. The final message was from Ana, saying she thought it might be nice to leave a brief message welcoming me back home since I might just be feeling a little lonely at home in my flat.
Instead of course I felt more like I'd been met by a squabbling welcoming party, and where before I left for Mexico I might have been ready to engage in this small drama of life, there was something in the eventfulness of my trip to Mexico that made other people's concerns feel awfully small, yet which I had been partly responsible for creating. Perhaps before I left I believed either nothing would have come of my little black truth, or that what would come out of out was a newly single Susanna with whom I might have got close.
What I felt at that moment was the weight of my existence rather than the lightness I'd achieved in Mexico, generally, and more especially with Ana. What I realized also was that this weight was at the same time without any significant meaning. I could have been someone returning to a divorced wife looking for alimony, and kids looking to see me, but all I had to return to were a handful of messages over lovers' squabbles. Had my life really been so without purpose before going away that the best I could do to energise it was with a black truth that might create a bit of space in my life for a new liaison? Compared to the wonderful contingencies of Mexico, what sort of affair could Susanna and I have had? As I prepared to phone Susanna with some trepidation and little anticipation, and thought how much I wanted to phone Ana and thank her for the message, I wondered whether the black truth that I offered before going away was the catalyst for a blacker truth that was telling me what an impoverished emotional life I'd been leading in Edinburgh for quite some time. Maybe what had happened to me in Mexico was nothing more than a holiday romance; but somehow it seemed to contain within it a white truth that made me acutely aware of darker varieties.
© Tony McKibbin