Please don't hate me, Loz, she wrote in block capitals, you know I always loved you. I assumed the message was in response to something I'd said through the medium of facebook, the popular social networking conglomerate. I couldn't recall making any specific comment from which Marsha might have deduced herself the object of my hypothetical detestation, although that hadn't stopped her before. I'd recently left the words tolerance of morons decreasing as a status message, the import of this being that my tolerance of some specific morons on a particular bulletin board had recently decreased, which seemed roughly self-explanatory to me. I supposed it could have been that which set her off, but then it might have been almost anything.
The messages came around roughly every few months with depressing regularity, Marsha begging me not to hate her and referring to me by a nickname I strongly dislike when used by anyone outside of those five people who get special dispensation by virtue of genuine friendship; and she hadn't even spelled it right, typing out Loz as Los with an S, over and over, like in the phrase los idiotas que prueba mi paciencia, which means most of my facebook friends in Spanish.
I need you to tell me you don't hate me, Los, she would plead, please, I need it...
It's a myth that the heterosexual male is easily operated by means of treats in much the same way as a Cocker spaniel. There may be a few of us who respond to bouncing breasts with Pavlovian enthusiasm, but leaving aside the more helplessly mammotropic representatives of our vast global community, I would like to think that at least some of us have standards.
I discovered my own standards when Amanda Banner propositioned me back in 1985. I was a student, taking my fine art degree and living in a beautiful and possibly Elizabethan farmhouse in the village of Otham, Kent. The rent was twelve pounds a week and I had somehow ended up sharing with three girls which, if nothing else, at least spared me beer drinking competitions and conversations about football. Due to the antiquity of the house, the fifth and smallest bedroom could only be accessed by walking through mine, which I believe I found more awkward than did Amanda, the girl who ended up with a room that may as well have been my walk-in wardrobe. I was nineteen, full of testosterone, and I wouldn't have said no to any advances made by two of my housemates - advances which never came because they had more sense - so typically, it was the one I didn't really like who suggested the possibility of naughty naked nudity.
Amanda was bullish with a slightly upper-class lilt to her accent and a snorting laugh which came loud and with great frequency, somewhere between a horse and Lucy, the nemesis of Charlie Brown from the Peanuts cartoons. After about a month, I realised we would never have anything to say to each other, and then one evening as I lay in bed reading my Marvel comics, the door opened. It being Amanda heading for her own bed, I didn't look up until I realised she had tarried awhile afore seeking the comfort of her rest, as Shakespeare would probably have put it.
'I've been thinking,' she suggested with a sheepish grin that I found terrifying. 'We've known each other for a while and well I—'
'Yes?,' I squeaked, hoisting up the covers like Charles Hawtrey surprised by a randy Hattie Jacques in a Carry On film.
'Well, I like you a lot and I think we get on really well together, so I was wondering,' - I didn't hear the rest as I could already see where this was headed, and my mind was reeling at how the frosty silence I'd been cultivating could have been taken for anything even remotely amicable. I stuttered through something amounting to how I saw her more as a friend, which wasn't strictly true but seemed least likely to add to the poor girl's embarrassment. Amanda took rejection in her stride and within a week had met some guy in one of the pubs in Maidstone, a sort of counter-cultural Ronnie Corbett ten years her senior, and it became my burden to listen to the two of them banging away in my notional walk-in wardrobe, grunting and groaning every other night for a further three or four months. It was annoying, but I took strange comfort from the thought that it could have been me suffering in that room. I felt oddly proud of my restraint, my ability to keep a sense of perspective even when presented with the possibility of free boobs; and the appearance of Ronnie Corbett seemed to confirm my suspicion that Amanda had viewed me as the owner of a penis who was unlikely to receive any better offers, and who would therefore respond to flattery.
Going back about five years prior to Amanda's failed attempt to access the contents of my trousers, I was sat next to Marsha at school. As we entered the fifth and final year of the comprehensive, the line up of forms changed due to certain kids having become either more or less intelligent at the close of the previous term, and in all the chaos Marsha bagged the desk next to mine during registration. She seemed to find me entertaining, and although this puzzled me it was also quite flattering. I mean I thought I was hilarious and probably a genius, but I didn't really expect anyone else to hold the same view. I tended to be painfully shy around girls, but Marsha and her friends were okay, and our little group got on well enough. I would sometimes find myself bemused by her getting the wrong end of the stick, her tending to find lurid meanings in otherwise innocuous remarks. For example, the band I was in, the Pre-War Busconductors had recorded a tape called Little Blue.
'Is that because it's a bit blue?,' she asked, giggling. I knew the term from television comedy sketches with greasy old men sweating in strip clubs and talking about what they called blue films. I found the association unpleasant, not least because it reminded me that Marsha had reputedly had a boyfriend in his twenties, openly lusted after one of the male teachers, and was of the view that Don't Stand So Close To Me by The Police was a ballad.
The Pre-War Busconductors' tape was called Little Blue because one of the first songs we recorded was a sweary and purposefully ludicrous cover version of the theme to a children's cartoon. I found the misunderstanding unsettling, resenting that even the most basic and stupid jokes sometimes require an explanation which will inevitably undermine the point of telling them in the first place.
Sitting next to Marsha was fun for a while, but the strength of the friendship was probably revealed in our having no contact beyond the school gates. Once the year ended, we never saw each other again. I can't recall a single instance where it had occurred to me that there would have been any point to our keeping in touch, and I presumed it was the same for Marsha. We both had other plans, and very little in common beyond the fact of our knowing each other, and that apparently we both thought I was a genius.
Three decades pass and of course she turns up on facebook, as does everyone eventually. She has, it seems, had a hard life, and says she has been thinking about me for the last thirty years, and that consideration of my amazingness has helped get her through all the suffering and degradation. She tells me she will die if she doesn't get to meet me, and that she always loved me. So far as I can tell, this isn't even sexual, just intimacy taken to an invasive extreme, the sort of intimacy that could strip paint. I really have no answer for any of it. If I'm honest, I find the flattery unpleasant, but if it helps for her to unload, then I decide that the right thing to do is to take that bullet, to smile and pretend she didn't just write four hundred words in the name of clinging insecurity.
She tells me her child has a life-threatening but unspecified illness, and then later that she herself has been given mere months to live. In spite of how it sounds, I believe her, or at least I believe that whatever she's trying to say is based in reality, and that given how it looks, it's just an unhappy coincidence that some medical condition should have arisen concurrent to her mental health becoming dependent on my approval, on my being grateful for, as she says, all she has done to protect me - although I have no idea what that is supposed to mean.
During lucid moments she writes clearly, apologising for the mania of her affection, regretting that it has already driven away other mutual acquaintances of our childhood. She hopes the same will not happen again with us, but even if there were such a thing as an us, we both seem to know that it's inevitable. She has become an expert at the formulation of self-fulfilling prophecy.
We communicate for a year or so, on and off, sometimes just catching up which is wonderful because it's fun to connect with people from the past, to see how things worked out for them; other times it's just bouncing back and forth.
No Marsha, I don't hate you.
No Marsha, I'm not in any personal pain despite having just posted a link to the video clip for Low Self Opinion by the Rollins Band. It's a song that I enjoy. It is not indicative of my state of mind, so please don't be concerned.
No Marsha, that comment was not about you.
Yes Marsha, I do appreciate everything you've done for me, because it's easier to just dish out the positive reinforcement than work out what the hell she thinks she's done for me and so risk the possibility that it will entail terms like vibes or psychic love emanations.
It becomes exhausting after a while, and eventually she catches me at the wrong moment, again asking for confirmation that I don't hate her. I tell her that I don't, but add that I'm getting tired of the same question over and over, and I ask that she kindly desist from continually expressing her love for me as I find it disturbing. I appreciate that she has problems, but problems so great as to depend on the fleeting approval of someone she hasn't seen for thirty years are never going to be set right by words alone.
Days later I discover that she has blocked me on facebook. In many ways it's a relief, although part of me finds it more than a little insulting. The worst thing is perhaps that I still can't really bring myself even to resent her, and hatred would be strange and pointless; my life is neither improved nor made worse by her self-imposed virtual silence, simply because my life is fine as it is and Marsha's crazy missives had very little impact on it either way. All that flattery was, as ever, wasted on me, not because I doubt my own status as the crowning achievement of human evolution, but because I dislike people who have nothing to say, but nevertheless expect me to pay attention whilst they vocalise something resembling meaning but for the lack of actual content. Somebody telling you that you're awesome over and over is not a dialogue, and after a while it becomes insulting because it presumes you to be as stupid as the mammotrope who drools and hoots and slaps his flippers because someone has let him have a go on some boobs.
It's a shame of course. There are plenty of messed-up people out there all requiring approval, often persons damaged through no fault of their own, and if one can spare the time of day or contribute in some way towards making somebody's life seem just a little bit less horrible, then that's a good thing. On the other hand, some problems just won't be fixed with a few simpering words scattered hopelessly across the neurosis event horizon, and sometimes it's more helpful to just shut up and say nothing.
If only I didn't have to keep reminding myself of this.