Is someone inevitably more in love with us than we are with them if their five senses are more activated in relation to ours than vice versa? This thought came to me recently after a year and a half relationship with someone whom I think got herself caught in the same patterns of behaviour in relationships as I did. Or at least that is what the psychotherapist proposed when a few months ago, before finally deciding to split up, we had one last try at keeping it all together. If anything, the visits to the analyst allowed us to let it fall apart, accept its collapse.
I realise here I'm in danger of slipping into the cosy - or not so cosy - language of counselling, so let me say that I suspect what I wanted from the therapy sessions was not to make the relationship work, but to create a mutually agreed set of reasons for us to part and still remain friends. Farrah agreed. She said she loved me very much but that she sometimes hated me even more; hated the way that my independence left her feeling like a person so often at a loose end. She wanted to meet someone with whom there was no sense of waiting. How often, she wondered, when we talked to the counsellor, did she feel she was waiting for a returned call, waiting to see if I would turn up for a meeting, waiting to see if I might cancel. It wasn't as if I was especially unreliable - I would sometimes be late but I'd never fail to turn up at all - but that she believed I contained such a sense of resistance to her in my body language, in my commitment to the future of us being together, that she felt each time she saw me it might be the last.
We first met almost two years ago, at a local swimming baths. We were both taking a sauna and got into a conversation that went on for almost fifteen minutes; not long in most situations, but an eternity in an environment where the temperature is so high. After we both suggested we should get out, each of us looked visibly nauseous as we took turns standing under the one available cold shower. I suggested a strong cup of tea was required, and she concurred.
We went along to a nearby caf and, as I entered first, the smell of roasted coffee beans brought back the feeling of nausea, and I proposed we try the caf across the road, where perhaps the coffee smell would be less strong. Often when I've felt sick, certain smells have exacerbated the nausea: coffee, stale cigarettes and beer soaked carpets the most obvious, but even overly sweet bananas, pineapples and coconut. Once, when I was in India, I wondered to what degree I was unable to get well because of the sickness inside me; or whether the sickly smells around me kept on inducing my nausea all over again. I said one of things I liked about living in Britain was its very olfactory neutrality. This was hardly a neutral comment, however, for Farrah was herself from India, and that was the very subject that we started to talk about when we met in the sauna. She proposed that if I felt nauseous in countries where the smells were so strong; she sometimes wondered whether she felt homesick in countries where this strength of smell was missing. I would sometimes wonder when we started seeing each other whether this notion of strong and weak smells seemed to have a metaphoric dimension.
We had arrived at the caf at around two in the afternoon and stayed until it closed at five thirty. I didn't suggest we go to another caf or for something to eat. I'd very much enjoyed the conversation but, during it, Farrah made it clear that she was already seeing someone. However, as we left there seemed to be some reluctance on her part to go, and I sensed whatever relationship she had with her partner wasn't emotionally satisfying her. Perhaps this is merely retrospective analysis, but I recall that as we swapped details, I felt sure she was looking ahead to an evening alone. So was I, but - and this would prove vital to later problems - I would engage in what I would often call 'eventful aloneness': I would go off and read in a caf for an hour or two, pick up a couple of items for dinner, go home, eat and then watch a film. I never knew whether this was my way of staving off loneliness, or whether it was creating a kind of micro-eventfulness. All I knew was that it seemed important to have several nights like this a week.
So we swapped e-mail addresses, but I didn't get in touch for about a fortnight: as I said she was going out with someone else, and anyway, there was a festival on at the Filmhouse that was keeping me busy. This festival wasn't exactly professionally necessary - but it was tangentially so. I ran the one specialised literary and cinema bookshop in the town, a shop that survived less because of its location in a small city - namely Edinburgh - but because of its virtual presence: three quarters of my sales came from the internet. I'd opened it five years ago, and had a couple of assistants who helped me to keep my working hours to a very civilized thirty five or so a week. People often told me before I opened the shop, with money left to me by my father, that to have a business would take over my life, and yet for some reason I've managed to make enough money to employ two assistants part-time, and to stay open six days a week - from ten till six. Sometimes I don't even work thirty five hours. Any feeling that I would have that I was shirking, though, was quickly alleviated by spending so much of my spare time in cinemas, reading in cafes, or meeting up with friends and talking books and films. The whole point of opening the shop was to create a sense of cultural flux in the city: I didn't want to retreat from that flux and become a workaholic.
It was, then, on its own terms, a busy life, a life filled with friendships, art and culture and work I believed in. I was a lucky man and knew it. Sure, since opening the shop a long-term girlfriend had left me, and two short-term relationships had failed, but I believed the former one failed because we were no longer in love, and the latter two because I wasn't looking for anything that was more than a casual affair. They faded out, and I left the situation feeling no sense of crisis, believing they left it with the same degree of indifference. Even at the end of my six years with Sandra I felt relatively little pain. She'd moved back to London, started a well-paid job there, and met someone within six months with whom she's now living. I occasionally think about certain trips we took, and those early late night conversations when we first got together, but I often believe that part of my luck resides in the lack of pain that accompanies these memories.
Did Farrah feel so lucky? After we parted that day, though we'd swapped addresses, I didn't really expect to hear from her again any time soon, and while undeniably finding her attractive I believed in fidelity: for others as well as for myself. I supposed that if we were to be in touch again it should be through contingency or through her actions, no matter if I did, after a week or so after we'd met, add her name to a group e-mail I sent out to somebody I knew was doing a reading at a radical book shop near the university, a reading that was on about a fortnight after I'd sent out the e-mail. As it so happened, though, it was through what I thought was chance but I may now read as a deliberate action that we met up again before that.
It would have been about two and a half weeks after that first meeting at the sauna where Farrah walked into the book shop and, after appearing surprised to see me, said that she was looking for a book for a friend who was visiting her from Mumbai. The surprise was understandable; though we had talked for several hours we hadn't mentioned our respective employment, simply because we had predicated the conversation on the idea that since so many people ask initially what is one's name and what does one do that we would deliberately avoid doing so. It wasn't until we had parted when we revealed our names, and it felt absurd then to ask what each of us actually did. As we sat talking in the caf that first afternoon, we talked instead about experiences we'd had, places we'd been to, film and books we'd enjoyed. Perhaps there were things that I'd said that made it clear I ran a bookshop; just as there were things she said that suggested she was involved in social work, as I would later discover. But that day when she walked into the bookshop there was no reason why she shouldn't have had a look of surprise on her face. Or was there?
Anyway, she said how good it was to see me, explained what she was looking for and, after finding the book for her, I asked her if she received my e-mail. She looked mildly puzzled and asked when I sent it. I said more than a week before, and explained it was a group e-mail wondering whether anybody was interested in going along to hear this writer give a reading. She said that it probably went straight into her junk mail; and that she rarely looked at that account. One of my assistants had arrived half an hour earlier, and so I asked Farrah if she would like to get a tea or coffee somewhere. She said that would be nice; she had the afternoon off. As we walked from the shop which was situated next to the university, I suggested a caf called Coffee and Co. and she asked whether the smell of coffee might be a bit strong, or whether the company might dilute it. It was both a reference of course to our earlier search for a non-coffee smelling shop, but was also, I would later find out - and at the time that I perhaps arrogantly surmised - a reference to me being the company that might be headier than the coffee. In these initial moments, in those first few weeks of our seeing each other, ambiguous statements frequently carried a flirtatious charge, where a few months later that ambiguity was indicative of a feeling of insecurity on her part and exasperation on mine as I would tried to make every comment as concrete as possible.
But that day, as we sat in the window seat of the coffee shop and talked once again about strong smells and homesickness, it was as though the half-said remained so only because something else worth exploring quickly took its place. As she ordered a second coffee, and I had another Earl Grey tea, it was as if we were running out of time: the coffee shop closed at seven - we had arrived at three thirty - and we still had half a dozen topics we'd touched upon but not quite addressed. I felt it would be presumptuous of me to invite her out for a meal when she would surely want to get back to her boyfriend; and yet I was sure she wanted to continue the conversation. I hadn't even yet asked if she lived with him; an ellipsis that was entirely in keeping with the conversational flow - somehow our biographical lives weren't central to the conversation we were having, but curiously peripheral to it. When for example at one stage we were talking about confined spaces, and what might be the ideal living and social spaces between the claustrophobic and the agoraphobic, we found ourselves talking of specific places we'd been to, or where we had lived. But no aspect of the conversation seemed to come from our lives; the subjects led to them.
I did end up asking her if she would like to get something to eat, and, as we ate at a nearby whole food caf cum restaurant, once again the conversation flowed not so much out of ourselves but about our observations on other things as we ended up talking for much of that night. Indeed we talked through till the morning, even though she had work to go to at nine. And perhaps the reason why I remember this conversation so well beyond it being one of our first, is because after a few months, after we started seeing each other, almost all the conversations came from the opposite place: from ourselves and our preoccupations, neuroses and insecurities. How and why did that change?
Farrah was actually, she eventually told me that evening, in the process of splitting up with her partner, whom she'd been seeing for nine months, and whom a couple of months earlier she'd offered an ultimatum: that they move in together or move towards splitting up. After all, she said, they were spending most of their nights together, and it seemed silly for them to be paying rent on a flat each when they might as well share. He seemed reluctant, she said, and presumed this reluctance was a sign of emotional resistance on his part, and so they decided they should split up. When she told me this my perspective was aloof enough to consider both her boyfriend and her own feelings. Maybe, I proposed, he needed his own space; maybe she needed more love. I was of course diagnosing our own future relationship as readily as commenting on the one she was getting out of, but at that time everything could be said hypothetically, lightly. This is perhaps what I expected from all liaisons: an affair in the subjunctive, as if whatever was happening could just as easily not be happening. As I would later realise, at the counselling session, for Farrah it was very much the opposite: the possible relationship quickly become an actual relationship, that she very promptly projected herself into an emotionally engulfing situation. It was this emotional engulfment, I suspect, which made it so difficult for our hypothetical selves to continue: the disinterestedness that initially allowed us to talk about life so abstractly, was replaced by a perverse concreteness. As we sat that day eating at the whole-food restaurant, when we talked about the characters in a particular film, and that at the same alluded in some ways to our own lives, it was as though everything was conversable. Was that really what I was always looking for from life: not especially companionship, but conversability? As we talked after the restaurant back at my flat, as we talked through the night and into the morning, I felt the bliss of conversational freedom. We didn't sleep together that evening, and the next morning after we had breakfast, I walked her to her work, and I went and opened the shop. It is often said sublimation is one of our healthiest aspects, and I would be inclined to agree; though not from an especially moral position; merely from the conversable one.
Yet out of this conversation a relationship evolved, and though we never shared a flat together, we would spend several days a week in each other's company, and stay over at each other's flat every other night. But after a few months we stopped talking the way that we had initially, and entered a period of fallow small talk. We would do things together, but not really talk. I wasn't especially dissatisfied with this, chiefly because I could find the conversational with others, but increasingly Farrah was disappointed by this intellectual absence on my part, and, I felt, started to push our conversations resentfully. She would ask me a question and I would answer it perfunctorily, and she would ask if I would have answered in quite the same way if someone else had asked me. I said I had no idea, and yet I knew that when I was seeing somebody regularly I rarely found myself capable of engaging with much intensity, and it often took a stranger, or someone whom I hadn't seen for a while, to intellectually energise me. It was one of the reasons why I bought the bookshop: to have intense exchanges with people whom I might never see again.
But was I really incapable of offering this intensity with anybody but relative strangers or occasionally met acquaintances and friends? When the counsellor suggested we both seemed to get into situations that echoed previous ones, mine was a situation where I would offer a certain intellectual and emotional enervation; Farrah's was where she would give and demand emotional intensity. When the counsellor mentioned this it reminded me of that conversation Farrah and I had after we first met, about the difference between homesickness that demanded strong smell and tastes, and a homesickness that demanded their very absence. I wondered at that moment, as we were both spending money really to find a way of parting, whether somehow a relationship itself was too sensual an experience for me, too involving of too many senses, when perhaps I was someone for whom merely sight and hearing were senses enough, and the very senses so readily activated in those first couple of meetings with Farrah.
For the next evening after we had first spent the night together talking, after she had finished work, and I had worked all afternoon in the shop, she popped in shortly before I closed and asked if I would like a quick coffee before she was going off to have an early night. It sort of made sense: the shop was between her work and her flat, and it might have seemed more a gesture not to have visited me than to have done so. Yet when we dropped into a caf not far from the shop, I found the strong smell of coffee almost overpowering. They had obviously just cleaned out one of the machines, and there must have been stale coffee in one of the bins.
But I also wondered if there was also something overpowering about the smell of her body and mine: bodies that hadn't showered since the previous day. I'd read recently that unlike sight and hearing, which merely transmits waves, smells actually leave the body - so much so that supposedly early scientists were surprised that with all these olfactory emanations there was no apparent weight loss. As we sat there tired and semi-silent, Farrah leaned her body against mine and as we took in each other's smell, I felt an ambivalent feeling I've never quite been able to lose in any relationship or affair I've been in.
That evening, after the coffee shop closed, we went back to her place, quickly ate something and went to bed. Touch, taste and smell were added to the sight and hearing of the previous night. But as I look back, now more than three years on, with Farrah very much in my past, and with not even a casual fling in my life over the last six months, I wonder if I am finally a man of limited senses: that I can only very moderately accept the touch, taste and smell of another in my life. I am a man I suppose of two senses, and can live generally and happily within their realm. I never really explained this to the counsellor, perhaps because I see counselling as somehow too psychoanalytic and not sensually analytic enough.
Or maybe I felt that to tell Farrah in that room, sitting with me and another person that she had three senses that frequently repelled me, would have been too devastating for someone I believed was so sensitive and delicate at that time. Especially when, during one of these sessions, she proposed that she had been driving the relationship from the very beginning. It was a comment that made me wonder whether her first visit to the shop was really an accident at all. And maybe I sometimes wonder if I had given her more of the two senses of which I feel I am the master - hearing and sight - then perhaps that would have been enough. If I had engaged her more often in my thoughts on books and films, if I had listened more carefully to what she had to say, and mused over those observations, then my sensually handicapped nature wouldn't have hurt her as much as I'm sure it did. Were her other partners also of such sensory limitedness, I wondered? That was something we didn't discuss, of course, and the counsellor merely suggested that Farrah wanted from life a love consistent with the projection she had given to it. What I wanted I think the counsellor cared finally not to know, suspecting, I believed, that I was an arid egotist incapable of great feeling.
I don't believe this to be quite true, but it might be fair to say that I am a man of great feeling but limited sensual capacity. That could be my great tragedy, or a source of great joy (how many people are there who so desire less sensual experiences in their life than they can get?). It is something I often wonder about as I sit in the bookshop, and see someone intriguing who comes in, asks for a book and with whom I strike up a brief, exhilarating conversation. And was Farrah not one of these intriguing people when she walked into my shop several years ago, after we had talked a couple of weeks before in a swimming pool sauna about the nausea that she herself would so often later invoke in me? Yet I also, think about the fact that she wasn't entirely single when we met, nor really when we first slept together. Perhaps, from a certain point of view, my ethical behaviour was more troublesome than hers. It might have been Farrah who was half cheating on the boyfriend she was in the process of leaving, but didn't she have five senses with which she had to fight? All I had it seems were the two, and perhaps, finally, the nausea I felt towards Farrah was not so clearly a sensory problem, but a moral one also. It was a nausea I perhaps should have turned more often towards myself, and not only as problem of the senses. Perhaps there are various manifestations of our sixth sense, and the ethical might need to be incorporated into it.
© Tony McKibbin