Writers are spiders. They suck the living-juice out of everything around them, digest it, and shit it back out as irony. Writing is all about taking miserable things and turning them into beautiful stories about miserable things.
We turn over every wretched thing that we find, to see if it’s sad and precious and beautiful and tragic enough to use. Like a ballerina’s bound feet, Van Gogh’s ear, or everything about Michael Jackson, something must be broken first before there can be something good. 1
Misery makes art. I’ve always been terrified that I don’t have enough misery stored up from my teens and twenties. Because by your mid-thirties you don’t want to still be miserable: you want to convert the misery of your youth in to cash in the form a large advance that you can spend on pensions or creche. Like you’d always dreamed.
There’s a betrayal inherent in writing. It’s easier to deflect that onto a group that can’t respond or don’t matter – acquaintances of the distant past, politicians, you parents. Sometimes I wish more people around me had died so I wouldn’t feel guilty about plundering their lives for personal gain. Not enough deaths! I tell myself. That’s what’s been holding me back.
Sometimes, you must go hunting for weird things and seek adventures exciting enough to feel something, but that aren’t actually emotionally debilitating. Or worse, that would make you happy enough not to want to write. What you want is something that’s a vaccination against actual emotions. Just a little hurt, so you get the idea of it. But not like, actually have it happen. Some sort of safe disaster. A minor earthquake. A small asteroid. A mild cancer.
Like when I went to Chicago for an internet date.
Internet dating, in general, is a little like a lotto ticket. Not that you might find a winner - don’t be a tool. That’s not going to happen. It’s because when you buy it, you get to spend the whole week pretending you’re a millionaire and imagining all the good deeds that you’re going to do with your money. And how fucking even you’re going to get with your enemies.
Same thing with dates. You always think that this one is going to be the one. And like the inevitable, almost unnoticed disappointment of still being impoverished after your numbers don’t come up, the date happens, then quickly slides into forgotten abstraction. The date becomes an also-ran for a song-of-the-summer from sometime in the aughties that you can’t quite remember the melody for. She had dark hair – or maybe blonde. And her name was… I want to say, Suzy? We went for cocktails, or possibly the zoo.
But Chicago Girl was going to be different. I mean, it had all happened so perfectly that it couldn’t not be. It was Real Life, just like in the movies.
Becky was everything that I could could possibly have been looking for. She was lithe. She was quick. Smart. So smart. Of indeterminate ethnicity. Something Haitian. Something German. She was hip. She was American. And she found me. She found me. Out of the blue, she emailed me one night, to say hello. Ask me who I was, and did I want to be friends.
This is the point where you’re all, “I know where this is going”. You think that this is some second-rate Catfish piece. Firstly, Catfish hadn’t come out at this point, and second of all, of course I thought she was fake.
I replied to the email, and I was friendly, but not too friendly. A little circumspect. Like a no-friends kid who gets invited to a popular kid’s birthday party. He suspects, no he knows, that this is a cruel joke, it’s just that he can’t see the full terrible design of it yet. But maybe it’s not… right?
We Skyped and Becky existed. She was as beautiful as she was on her internet profile photos. She crinkled her nose when I made fun of her. And she was intimidatingly sexually adventurous. We got to emailing daily. The conversation was chaotic and scatter-shot and utterly charming and I said fuck it, and booked flights.
At the point that Becky and I started emailing, internet dating still wasn’t a big thing in Ireland. It had the same sort of disreputable, sleazy undertone as nudie beaches or tag rugby. It was outrageous that, after a few emails, I was ready to run off to Chicago. But only if you’re using a pretty tame definition of outrageous.
In the run up to the trip, with my ego distended, I comfortably inhabited the role of a gallivanting Lothario. At parties friends would bring up Chicago Girl with a, “Wait till you hear what this guy is doing,” and I’d happily trot out the story on demand. It was like wearing a loud and ostentatiously elegant suit. You’re going to earn resentful admiration, but people will also think that you’re a bit of a prick. Fair trade off maybe. Sure, everyone around me thought that I was about to get murdered, raped, scammed or humiliated in some order or another. But that’s what friends are for - to look out for you and mock you till you bleed.
Becky was a story. It had beauty. Yearning from oceans apart. Mystery. The internet. And I was definitely hinting that there was a feral sexual dimension to it too. It was a unique and special thing. Win, lose, or draw, this was going to be a great yarn. And then I went to Chicago. And then I stopped talking about it.
A family, once, were on holiday in Greece somewhere on the Aegean coast. An idyllic place of unparalleled beauty, villainous moped drivers, and tasteless local beers.
Imagine the scene.
The father has taken the kids fishing off the pier and he catches an octopus. Only it’s not an octopus. It’s only got six limbs. It’s a hexapus. The dad takes the thing by the tentacles and whips it, smashing the hexapus against the rocks, killing it. All its arms flop slimy and limp.
And the father, an American, goes to a local taverna and asks the chef to cook the thing up. The chef points at the six-limbed thing, like a bit-part player giving a warning in a Shakespearean tragedy preempting disaster - “The hexapus,” he intones, “is special and I will not cook it.” 3
Raging, not doubt with imperial righteousness, the father ignores the chef, and the chef’s no-doubt disapproving, thick Greek moustache. He goes home and fries up the hexapus and feeds it to his family. Imagine now, the chef entering from stage left to soliloquy about impending doom.
Mentioning his catch later to a biologist friend, the father learns that hexapuses are extremely rare and only one has ever been found on the planet. One. On the whole planet. Ever. The man is distraught. The story gets out and he is pilloried by the media globally – I mean it’s really global. Pick a major trashy internet source; they’re covering it. And a lot of non-trashy sites too. The man is flayed by the internet. Stricken with a new-found sense of his place in the world, he decides that he will dedicate his life and fortune to raising the world’s awareness of this, the most rare of sea creatures.
True story. And this is how writers work. You take something special and then you kill it and cook it and serve it up to eat. We take the cruelest and most human behaviour we can find, revel in the ignominy and shame of it, and hope that the the audience recognises themselves in it. Nuance is the death of stories. Maybe it was not always so. But the time for nuance is gone.
Nuance in the hexapus story kills it. Here’s the truth with a little ’t’.
The father wasn’t American he was a Greek immigrant, living in America. So straight away we lose the ignorant, bullying American angle. He was really familiar with the locals and local customs; you might think it brutal and inhumane, but dashing octopuses against rocks is how locals kill them.
If you’re looking for a basic tool to kill an octopus with, rocks are a pretty good option. And rocks are used a lot for this purpose – octopus is a Greek coastal staple. And yes, the local chef refused to cook the thing.
But maybe he thought it was weird and risky from a health and safety perspective, who knows? There was no internet where they were, so the family couldn’t look up if their find was really that unusual. They just thought maybe the poor fella had lost a couple of limbs in the everyday violent turmoil of undersea life. With no internet, how were they to know?
And the thing is, they were fucking right! The hexapus isn’t a species at all. It’s just an unlucky octopus. It’s either got six limbs because of some genetic defect or because it encountered something hungry with a lot of teeth. It is true, that previously only one hexapus had ever been found before. But the aquarium that studied it threw it back into the sea after giving it a look over. It might have been the same fucking hexapus for all we know. Man catches and cooks octopus, isn’t a Daily Mail headline.
And Chicago Girl ended the same way. The headline is: Internet date ends badly.
Before I flew, she told me that her feelings were growing for me. I was a little older than her. I wasn’t going to trick myself into romance. This trip was a jokey, rakish thing that I was doing for no other reason than because I could. It was a grand adventure nothing more. Fortune had come knocking and I would not be found wanting.
She met me at the airport, her hair wild and curly, her bag heavy with anatomy and physics books for her pre-med classes. She was real and perfect and all of the things that I hoped she would be. But she was other stuff besides.
It was like cramming an entire relationship into a couple of weeks. Initial excitement and hope and we were just clicking all over the place, then we settled routine, then into boredom and separate lives, then dissatisfaction, and finally resentment and everything that goes after that. It was bizarre ticking off the stages like that in 14 days, but Americans are so impatient as a people.
Becky was an obsessive studier who was studying at a university known for breaking all but the most committed minds. For a brief moment that obsessiveness was turned on us and me being there. And then it wasn’t. She was completely dependent on Adderall. Which either explains why she was an obsessive, or her obsessiveness might explain why Adderall might be something she’d be dependent on. She would work furiously, breaking only to worry about not working enough. Periods of intense focus were followed by periods where her shattered attention span made communication on any level, distracted or obtuse. There was a roving need for productive activity at all times – which for an Irish person is weird. We have a roving need for a bar stool.
She could only think of her next exam. Or yoga, which she was also addicted to. She left me alone for days. And then would appear at the apartment I’d rented because she needed a place to do to her extensive personal yoga routine in preparation for the group yoga class that she was on her way to. Then she would tell me what it meant to her to have me here, that I was her future, and then she’d leave.
I had not been to Chicago for many years. I had spent a summer there just after school and I knew the city well enough. On one of those days when she was off doing things, I went to the neighbourhood that I used to live in. It had changed, but I could recognise some of the trees and features of the streets, even though all the bars and restaurants I knew had been replaced by new ones. I had survived for a summer on a weekly food budget of 10 dollars buying pasta and whatever sauce was on offer that week at the supermarket, supplemented occasionally with canned ‘chilli with meat’ for some protein. I remembered being in love with a girl here, unrequited and intense. And realised that I felt the same way now: deeply rejected and confused. Only this time I could afford small batch single-estate americanos and drink beer that wasn’t Busch Lite.
I had fallen for the idea of her and was crushed that it didn’t match up. I knew – I knew – that she was fucking this up when she didn’t really mean to. She just didn’t know how the real world works. That other people continue to exist outside of the time that you use them. Which was kind of an ironic observation, coming from me.
This was not the story of serendipitous romance. Of a beautiful girl flinging a message in a bottle out to sea with a joyful heart and love finding a way against all the odds. This was the story or a mixed up girl who was stuck. An unhappy thing reaching out because she couldn’t quite figure out how life was done. Caught between abusive fuck buddies and an employer who habitually propositioned her to come to bed with him and his wife. A broken girl looking for someone who could give her something that felt like home, like the movies promise. And that’s what she wanted more than anything. Apart from studying and yoga and being a doctor.
And ‘internet boyfriend’ was perfect for her. An emotional fix, without having to sacrifice any of the actual time that a relationship takes up. And on the long nights when she was alone, and she couldn’t sleep because she’d been necking Adderall all day, a six hour time difference makes it perfect for Skyping someone winding down their day in Ireland.
All those questions about why someone who is young and beautiful and smart and funny would reach out to someone so far away were answered. It was the reaching out that had counted.
Of course, that still begged the question, what the fuck was my excuse.
Like all internet dates, even the ones that you cross oceans for, its promise became unmoored and it drifted. And after all my showboating and grandstanding at home about this trip, I was suddenly desperately disappointed that there was no great romance. There was no great story to tell. Just two people flailing out for connections for different reasons and making mistakes all over the place. I set out to live a story, but actually I was just living.
I had a couple of hours in the morning before I took my flight. I hoped to spend it talking about what had gone on between us. She told me that she loved me and then took a four hour round trip to her psychiatrist to pick up more pills. She left me minding her yoga mat.
I wrote to her on the train from the city to the airport – a poignant letter that on the surface seemed to articulate my feelings, but really was designed just to make her cry. Then I got sick in the toilets in the boarding area. And then I watched the movie on the plane home.
The closer you look at the hexapus, the less special it becomes. And the less you want to cook it.