How Not to Survive

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21

After my little house call to the Levinsteins I run out of ideas about what to do with myself, so I kind of just look at my feet and start walking. The weather’s starting to turn crap and I can feel tiny flecks of rain against my face, like even the sky’s decided to spit on me. I don’t care. I just keep on going, not bothered about the direction or the time or anything else. Somehow when I next look up I’m at Embankment, and so I cross over the footbridge and over to South Bank, where I wade through the mass of tourists gawping at a supersize Ferris wheel to lean against the wall opposite the RFH and look down at the Thames, along with a whole bunch of other battered-looking people who’re either homeless or jobless or manically depressed with nothing better to do with their midweek afternoons.

I look into the murk below and suddenly start to be overwhelmed. It feels like every single thing I touch turns bad, like I’ve thrown away whatever I had going for me. I can’t quite work out how it happened either. I have this total sense of displacement going on. It’s weird, but it’s like I don’t know who I am anymore. When I was a teen I was always getting into trouble, and yet no matter how bad the shit got I always had this secret sense saying to me that it was going to be OK, that as soon as everybody stopped telling me what to do and how to do it I’d show them all just how perfectly alright I could be all on my own. I never had any doubt that once I was in charge life would get a lot less complicated, and I could start to chill and stop worrying about having to conform to all these expectations and stuff around me. But that’s not how it’s panned out, since it seems like now there’s more expectations than ever, and like I was better off before, back when I still had people to answer to, and when if I did something wrong at least I could palm the blame off on them for not being better role models or looking out for me enough or whatever.

The more I stare at the turd-coloured water beneath me the more it hits me, and suddenly I have this weird dizzy sensation, like the whole world is rushing at me. It feels like it would be so simple to just lean over a bit more and like, throw myself in – and whoosh, all the hassle and annoyance and recurring crap, miraculously all gone. I mean, I’m not exactly planning to go through with this, really – not consciously anyway. But I can kind of feel my feet lifting up and my body tilting forward, like it’s experimenting for me to work out just how easy it would really be.

Basically I’m totally on the brink here. And as I look into the Thames sludge thinking about how I’d only be doing everyone who’s ever met me a wonderful favour, an image of this kid I used to know at school who like, razored open his veins and killed himself in the bath one night pops into my head. I felt pretty fucking terrible after he did it, since once upon a time years before me and him had hung out, and then I’d totally stopped noticing him. I mean, this guy was a complete freak and I had my own issues to deal with back then, but still. I could never shake the feeling that maybe if I’d been around he wouldn’t have done it. And picturing this guy, Fabian, gets me to thinking about Andrew, the only other person I know who’s probably more of a head case than me right now (or at least pretty close anyway). And I get this sickening shot of guilt, because it’s been almost a month and I realise I never texted or called him to see how he’s doing after flaking out on him for his pro-homo meeting.

Of course realising this is really only further reason to remove myself from the planet, but I figure before I go through with it I could still pay him a quick visit and see what’s up. And if he’s like, a) still alive and like, b) still speaking to me, we can always be suicide buddies together or something.

This is how instead of penguin diving off the side of South Bank and probably like, breaking my collar bone or something embarrassing like that, since shit-for-brains reject that I am I’ve managed to forget that the river here is only about half a metre deep, I step away from the wall and head back over the bridge. I could call him, of course, but somehow this seems to be one of those things I need to do face to face. I’m kind of in hands on mode, if you know what I mean. I’m still into the whole doing everything on foot here too, even though I’ve got my Oyster card in my pocket. It’s all pretty fucking retarded really.

It’s getting dark by the time I reach North London again, and the sun is starting to set in a toxic-looking orange cloud. I almost change my mind and turn right round again when I get to Andrew’s house, since after what happened with the last door I knocked on I genuinely don’t know if my psyche’ll survive another bashing should he decide to lay into me for like, not being a better human being to him. But I’m here now and so what the hell? I press the doorbell and wait for what seems like ages until finally the light in the hall goes on and the door is opened by this gremlin in a bathrobe and turban.

I’m like, Woah.

The gremlin glares at me and morphs into Kate in a green face mask.

Hello Jaz, she says, sounding like she’d rather be greeting a gang of die-hard Mormons, What exactly can I do for you?

I’m like, Sorry to interrupt. Is Andrew there?

Cracks appear all over the mask.

No he’s not, Kate manages to say after a bit of a struggle.

I’m like, Do you know when he’ll be back?

Kate draws a deep breath like she’s thinking of returning the raspberry I blew last time I saw her. But instead of doing that she’s goes, No, in this offended way, as if I’d asked if she knew what syphilis felt like.

I’m like, OK then.

She’s like, But if you must know we aren’t living together as husband and wife anymore. We’ve divided up the house, in fact. Andrew’s living on the top and I’m on the bottom... we don’t keep one another’s hours!

Her voice quavers slightly, like maybe this is the first time she’s admitted it to anyone. My first thought is wouldn’t it have been a better idea to do it the other way around, what with his ankle, but I stop myself since the face before me doesn’t look like it’s going to be exactly receptive to practicality right now.

I’m like, Oh. That sounds... sensible.

The creature before me’s eyes seem to bulge like she’s having multiple aneurisms, and a bunch more cracks appear in the mask, which could be like, a total metaphor for this woman’s state of mind.

I’m like, So no idea where I might find him then?

More cracks. Woman On The Verge struggles valiantly, but the need to let me have it is just too strong.

You know what? she spits at me, Andrew needed a friend and you could have been there, except that you couldn’t be bothered, could you?! And don’t try and give me some bullshit about the fact that you’re only young, because that doesn’t mean you don’t still have responsibilities! I think you’re an egotistical and self-serving individual, and I wish Andrew had never laid eyes on you!

It’s like, tell me something I don’t know. But she’s obviously finding it quite therapeutic having a go at me and so who am I to begrudge her? I stand there and take it while she delivers some more stuff on this topic, until a large chunk of her mask dislodges and plops down onto the front step, finally shutting her up. She raises a hand to her face and stands there quivering for a few seconds, then the rest of the mask pretty much falls away too and she starts to snivel. It’s pretty hard to watch to be honest, and I figure the only decent thing I can do at this stage is remove myself from her presence.

I’m like, You’re right. I’m a shit. I’m sorry.

I turn and head back down the drive, past the bush Andrew mangled when he leap off the roof. But as I reach the gate Kate screeches out, STOP!

I turn round. Kate pulls her bathrobe around her and runs across the wet drive on her tiptoes.

He’s at The People’s Centre in East Finchley, she goes quickly, There’s a meeting for people who’ve recently... come out. He’s always asking me to go with him, but I can’t face it...

She pauses and wipes her face, which is now this demolition site of green sludge, red skin and tears.

She’s like, It’s just around the corner from the station. You could probably make it if you hurried. If you wanted to, that is.

She gives me a meaningful look and what might just be a smile (it’s pretty hard to tell) and then runs back inside and shuts the door. It isn’t until I’m halfway down the road, running towards the tube station, when it occurs to me maybe that was her doing what had to be done – like, letting her husband go once and for all.


The People’s Centre in East Finchley turns out to be the sort of place I’d normally avoid like the clap. It’s one of those battered old community halls that has billboards up in the front porch crammed full of flyers about the sort of events that make you wonder exactly who the hell comes up with these things – Post-Natal Depression Ballroom Dancing Society, Bicycles for the Elderly Association, the Combat Littering Now! Group, Free Legal Advice for Trans- Men & Women, The Write Your MP Morning, and Understanding Feline Leukaemia etc.

Hi there, I say to this beefy-looking woman that could totally be a bouncer if she wanted, reading a romance novel at the front desk.

Coming Out soc? goes the woman without looking up, Right through those doors, love.

I push the doors open to reveal this large room with a small stage at the far end and a circle of about fifteen chairs in the middle. Over to one side is a table with tea and coffee and biscuits and people mulling around it. Mostly they’re small portly men in glasses of the distinctly non-designer variety, though there’s a couple of younger guys too, as well as an elderly woman and this absolute she-hulk wearing what looks like floral tent, who looks like she could easily take out the Olympic athlete at the front desk if she wanted.

Jaz?! goes this excited voice from behind me.

I turn to see Andrew on crutches and standing beside one of the spectoids, who looks thoroughly annoyed Andrew interrupting whatever he was saying. Andrew hops towards me and then stops like he can’t believe I’m actually here, like in the flesh. He’s grown a bit of a beard and looks like he’s put on quite a bit of weight too, but he looks so pleased to see me it’s actually kind of touching. From nowhere I get this sudden surge of emotion, and without thinking about it I throw my arms open and give him a massive hug, practically knocking his crutches flying.

The guy who was talking to him lets out a disapproving tsk sound.

No contact, he mutters in a breathy voice.

Oops, goes Andrew happily, pulling back, Sorry Benjamin.

The guy ignores Andrew and gives me a withering look.

You’re obviously new, this goes Benjamin goes, all hoity-toity, We’re not supposed to hug or have physical contact until after the meeting in case it inhibits us from telling our stories.

I’m like, For real?

Benjamin looks down his nose at me and announces he needs more sugar before mincing off all disdainfully towards the others. It’s like, Who exactly did this person need to come out to?

What are you doing here? goes Andrew.

I’m like, Kate said you were here... I came because... well, I meant to come before, only – you know. All this stuff happened....

I trail off because it sounds so pathologically lame it’s almost unbearable. But instead of looking at me like he’s wondering why no one’s done the humane thing and put me out of my misery, Andrew’s nodding away with shining eyes.

He’s like, Thank you Jaz. It means a lot to me that you’re here. Me and Kate... we’ve split up.

I’m like, Yeah. She said.

Andrew looks down.

He’s like, It’s a good thing.

I try to think of something supportive to say that isn’t going to sound like I told you so. But before I can come up with anything someone calls out, OK everyone! Let’s all gather together shall we?

I sort of recognise the voice, but I’m too busy preparing myself for the ordeal I’m probably about to go through so I don’t pay it much attention until we’re sitting down. Only then when the group leader stands up do I actually look at him and get this total pant-wetting shock.

So how’s everybody doing this evening? goes Mr Fellows.

His eyes pass around the circle, resting briefly on everybody’s faces and acknowledging them before moving on. You’ve got to hand it to him, he should be a politician, or a guru or something, the way he gets this bunch of smacked-arses to smile happily back. When his eyes fall on me they widen and his mouth falls open, and for a second I think he’s going to demand to know what I’m doing there and how dare I inflict my corrupting presence on this group of unsuspecting innocents. But instead he smiles at me too, and gives me a quick nod of recognition before passing onto the next person. I desperately want to say something – like tell him why I’m here, and Oh by the way sorry for being such a cunt to you last time you saw me, but Fellows is already talking again, and anyway it’s obviously not the right time.

Are you all right? whispers Andrew, You look a bit peaky.

I’m fine, I mumble back, still staring at Fellows.

The thing is, it feels just a bit fucking divine to be suddenly faced with the one person who always believed in me no matter what.

Don’t worry, Andrew goes, You can share anything you like, it doesn’t have to be a big deal.

I nod to him and then do this double take. It’s like, share?

As if in answer Fellows starts setting out the agenda of this evening’s meeting – which basically seems to mean we go around the circle and everyone says their name, why they’re here and then talks a bit about their experience of being gay. Before I have a chance to reconsider this whole enterprise Fellows claps his hands to like, officially begin.

First up is the mammoth in the flowery dress, whose chair wobbles threateningly as she leans forward and introduces herself as Suzie. It’s immediately obvious Suzie is, or else used to be, a man. She tells us about this time when she was sitting on a bus and thought she was getting the eye from this sexy bull dyke, only for the woman to stand up at the next stop and spit in Suzie’s face with the words ‘gender-bending freak!’ A big tear slips down Suzie’s face at the memory and everybody shuffles sympathetically in their seats – or at least everybody apart from me. For some reason instead of feeling sorry for old super-sized Suzie I want to tell her she’s totally delusional for imagining she ever could pick up on a bus – hasn’t she ever seen herself in a mirror?

Thank you Suzie, says Fellows in that exact same patient voice he always used to use when talking to me, Benjamin?

We move on to the guy who told me and Andrew off for hugging. In his squeaky girl’s voice he tells us a childhood memory about how he always used to like dressing up his sister’s dolls, but had to do it in secret because he knew people would think he was gay. Then he sniffs and in a sudden outburst admits he still likes dressing up dolls, and sends off for them on the internet, and that he’s sick and tired of having to be ashamed of the fact. Everyone nods like a forty year old playing with Barbies is this totally healthy acceptable activity and in no way a deranged serial-killerish pastime.

Very powerful Benjamin, Fellows concludes, Pat?

Pat is actually not all that bad-looking, in a nerd-chic sort of way. I could almost be persuaded in fact, until he starts going on about never being hugged or allowed to express himself when he was little, and how he always had to act like a tough guy even when all he wanted to do was cry on someone’s shoulder... It’s like, a total sick-fest but once again instead of barfing into their coat pockets everyone’s nodding and looking all moved – apart from yours truly of course, born without a heart.

And I expect everyone will want to give you a hug later on, Fellows predicts to several murmurs of assent.

Next is another weedy guy, Harper, who tells us about coming out to his best friend and how she just said ‘I know that!’ as if it didn’t even matter, followed by the old woman, Nina, who tells us this cryptic story about making a chocolate gateau when she was seven, which probably nobody understands unless she’s coming out as like, a fetishist of cakes. It’s like, What the fuck? I am trying to be supportive here, but it’s basically impossible. Each story just seems sappier and more stupid than the last, and if I was one of these people I wouldn’t want to share this sort of information – I’d want to make sure no one found it out like, ever. The last fucking thing I’d do is come and sit in a circle and voluntarily tell it to people.

I suddenly become aware that the room’s gone totally quiet. Panicked, I look up at Fellows who smiles at me – this old longsuffering smile he always put on whenever he had to deal with yours truly back at school.

Do you have something you’d like to share with us Jaz? he says gently.

I swallow down my panic. Everyone’s looking at me expectantly.

I’m like, Hello everyone, my name is Jaz...

My voice is all frail and stuttery, like I’m battled a supreme case of nerves, or maybe trying to control raging diarrhoeal urges. I’m awarded a few compassionate looks for this, as if everybody gets how hard it is, being my first time etc.

I remember this time when I was about, I don’t know, five years old, I hear myself saying, It’s not a big deal memory or anything...

I trail off. Some encouraging looks. I breathe and continue.

So I was basically out with my mum and dad and it was my first time ever on the tube with them... We were on the platform and they were looking at the tube map and arguing about which was the right line to get or something – they were always arguing back then. Anyway, they weren’t paying any attention to me, and it was blatantly one of those fights that only about who was right, you know – like, period. And was getting pretty personal. I mean, I’m was like, super-embarrassed to be seen with them, and I was only five!

People are frowning now, like they’re not sure where this is going, or how exactly it’s going to link in with being gay or coming out. I’m not sure either. But for some reason, even though I know I sound like a total insaniac, now that I’ve like, embarked, I feel like I have to finish.

I’m like, So the train came in behind us right? And the doors opened, and it just seemed like the smartest and easiest thing to do to get on it and let it whisk me away... So I did. I got on and my folks turned round just as the doors were closing and I got to see their faces all speechless just before the train took off. It was pretty satisfying, leaving them there on the platform behind me, like I was showing them or something...

There are a couple of knowing smiles and Suzie even lets off a bear-like guffaw.

I’m like, Only then I was on this train with no idea where I was going. I didn’t know if I should stay on or get off. I mean, it was fine at first, but then I started to get worried, because of course I didn’t understand the maps or know what came next and... Well I don’t really remember how that resolved actually... I guess they caught up with me somehow. I mean obviously they did because I didn’t end up on a milk carton or anything...

I trail off, unable to believe what has actually just come out of my own mouth, like an ode to the concept of cheese. Everyone’s got their heads cocked to one side, like they’re just dying of empathy or something, and it’s like the grossest fakest most moronic thing I’ve ever seen. I mean, I’m practically choking on my own bile here, and if any of these losers had a shred of decency they’d be doing the same. But the absolute worst bit about this scene, the thing that’s totally unforgivable and makes me want to curl up and spontaneously like, cease, is that I’ve got fountains Niagra-ing out of my eyes so hard I can’t see straight.

THIS IS SO RETARDED! I hear myself shouting, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU DICKS? WHY ARE YOU EVEN HERE – YOU BUNCH OF FUCKTARDS?! WHAT YOU NEED TO DO ISN’T SHARE LAME SHIT ABOUT YOURSELVES NO ONE EVEN CARES ABOUT – IT’S GET OUT THERE AND START LEADING A REAL LIFE!

My outburst is followed by the sort of silence you might get after a gunshot, while all the faces in the circle stare at me like I’m the antithesis to everything they stand for.

God, what a typical self-hating gay’s reaction, pipes up Benjamin, sounding all bored, like it’s so old he can’t even be bothered to yawn.

I stand up fast, sending my chair hurtling backwards and hearing it clatter against the floor behind me.

Jaz? Andrew says uncertainly, but I don’t look at him. I charge at the exit, hating this Benjamin, hating this group of social defectives, hating myself. I barrel through, past the Female Thing on reception and into the cold outside.

I spend a while scrabbling for my cigarettes, only to find that I’ve got an empty packet in my jacket pocket, which annoys me so much I screw it up and throw it at one of the windows. Then I sit down on the wall and grit my teeth, willing myself to stop shaking.

After a while the door opens and Fellows comes out. He peers around all myopically for a few seconds before he sees me. Slowly, like he’s approaching the last Iberian lynx, he comes over and takes a seat beside me.

You know, that actually was a rather good contribution, he goes.

I have to resist this twisted urge to throw my arms around him.

I’m like, Thanks.

Apart from the last bit, I mean.

Yeah. Sorry about that.

I look up and see that he’s grinning from ear to ear.

When Henry told me about seeing you I had the feeling we might bump into each other again. Good to know you’re still... you.

I want to say that it’s good to know that despite everything he’s still him too, only I can’t quite bring myself to spew anymore stomach-churning sop tonight, no matter how heartfelt. But the crazy thing is I’m actually totally happy all of a sudden, just because Fellows is here. Because even though he’s a total tool, he’s also one of the most decent guys I’ve ever known, and it’s really kind of amazing that after all this time he still hasn’t given up on me.

We sit there not saying anything for a long time, and then Fellows tells me he’s got to get back for the second half of the meeting and am I coming? I tell him I think I’ll just sit here for a bit more, and he nods like this is a perfectly reasonable decision on my part.

Just tell me this much, I blurt out as he stands up, Does it get better? I mean, in your honest opinion. Is it really worth it?

Fellows pauses. Then he chuckles.

You’ll have to wait and see, he goes, all mysteriously.

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