During my own personal and thankfully brief dark ages, girlfriend number three asked if I would like to come out for a drink with a few of her friends. This was back near the beginning of the relationship, and I was still a little puzzled by why she so rarely referred to these people, so I said yes, of course. When we arrived at the pub, thirty or more of her friends were there. Within a minute of my taking a seat, some woman I didn't even know made puppy dog eyes and asked why I had set myself against attending an ISA workshop. This was a set-up, and apparently I had already caused her to have a great big sad.
ISA stands for the Institute of Self Actualisation, which in itself probably tells you all you need to know. I realised that by friends, Marian actually meant people she didn't really know that well, but with whom she shared a common bond of attendance at self-improvement seminars run by this organisation. I wasn't interested and had already told Marian as much, but being Marian she assumed this meant I hadn't understood. Those people I met in the pub that evening all spoke of success and overcoming an assortment of perceived personal failings, but the testimony sounded scripted with the same key phrases used over and over. Marian's supposed friends seemed broken or lost, and I found most of those with whom I spoke abrasive and faintly unpleasant; but worst of all, I sort of felt sorry for them. These people were true losers. I've known heroin addicts with more character.
Last week my wife Bess mentioned that she had received a text message from her friend Laura, or at least from someone I'm going to call Laura. I have something cool to show you, the message read, bring your guys along this Sunday.
Neither cool nor awesome have much currency with me, and I'm not sure I've yet discovered anything described by either word that actually is. Cool might as well mean front row tickets to see Bon Jovi where I'm concerned, and awesome is the word used by some guy who pours beer over his own head. Bess was similarly sceptical, but decided it would be rude to decline the admittedly ambiguous invitation, not least because it meant Junior and Nick - Laura's son - would get to play together. Nick has autism to some degree or other, although so far as I can tell this amounts to his being somewhat blunt, and perhaps more honest than is strictly necessary. Otherwise he seems like a decent kid, and he always has a blast with Junior when they get together.
Sunday came and we loaded Junior into the car, leaving our scruffy little corner of the hood for an address that turned out to belong to a huge, ostentatious house within a gated community. Laura invited us in so we could meet her other guests, pretty much in keeping with our declining expectations. It was a party, of sorts. The side table was strewn with brochures pertaining to cruise holidays and the like, and a kitchen counter had been given over to bowls of Doritos and the sort of corporate sauce-style dipping putty that makes no sense in a city this close to the Mexican border. Twelve or more other guests milled around, each identified by a sticker of the kind proclaiming hello, my name is Noodles.
His name probably wasn't Noodles, and his introductory line wasn't anything like so casual as I'm sure he imagined it sounded.
'Do you like to travel?'
I think he expected a gurgling response in the voice of Goofy, Disney's dog-style cartoon character of whom I'd been put in mind when Junior took to impersonating Mickey Mouse during the car journey. Well goll-eee! I would hiccup, why as it happens I surely do like to travel, seeing as how you come to be aksing and all.
I really wanted to look him in the eye and tell him that I hated travel, but instead I pretended not to hear, and Bess interjected, pointing out that as I was from England, most of my travel was done with the purpose of visiting friends and family.
'Oh, he's from England?' Initially thrown by the information, Noodles was rolling with it, adjusting to the new data. 'Mind the gap,' he chuckled, explaining that you hear this announcement everywhere you go in England. 'Mind the gap!'
For one moment, it felt as though I had been magically transported back to the old country*.
Thankfully, Wendy introduced herself and asked what I did, so I told her I was a writer, because I suppose I am in some sense. She told me that her daughter is writing a novel as part of a degree course, then asked about my book, and we got talking. It turned out we both liked Anne McCaffrey and Frank Herbert. She wasn't a fan of Asimov but I suggested she try Ursula Le Guin, and then she began talking about Doctor Who. I smiled and said that I used to enjoy it, and strategically went to look for my wife.
I realise that no-one believes me, and some may suspect I just say this sort of thing so as to cultivate some sense of superiority, but I like very little television, and I like a great many books. Most television shows I can watch for about five minutes before I start thinking about whatever I'm reading at the time. When I talk about science-fiction I'm talking about novels, and something like Doctor Who is now so far outside of the Venn diagram that it might as well be The Jetsons or The Clangers, but for the fact that The Jetsons and The Clangers at least retain some of their charm.
Bess had been cornered by some face-lifty woman of ambiguous vintage who'd Peperamied herself into a sort of mummified Eva Peron. 'Has he got that accent?' Face Lift asked all agog upon learning of my nationality, then sidled over so as to listen in on me saying things like cheerio, Mr. Darcy and I suppose long live Her Royal Highness.
Bess and I grabbed handfuls of the crisps we had brought with us - potato chips to US readers - and retreated outside to watch Nick and Junior playing together. Junior had devised a new game by combining elements of baseball and football - as in the American version which entails play with an object that isn't shaped like a ball by agency of something other than a foot. Once they were done with this, they took it in turns to shelter within Nick's wooden playhouse whilst the other bombarded the exterior with whatever large, heavy objects they could find. Unfortunately Laura, having noticed our absence, called us inside as the presentation was about to begin.
'We'll stay to be polite and so that the boys can play,' Bess whispered to me through gritted teeth, 'and then we're out of here.'
Everyone found a seat, and our hostess played a DVD, a presentation by some guy who had apparently been homeless, alcoholic, and born without arms, legs, or head, but was now a millionaire. We too could be millionaires, he suggested.
'Well, all right!' A fellow guest in a blue jacket punched the air and hollered, and he really did holler - a word that was absent from my vocabulary up until now - and he pronounced all right as alraaahhht! like the singer of a 1980s hair-metal band. I looked around the room and realised that drinking a Budweiser and listening to Kiss was probably dangerous and Bohemian for these people.
The DVD explained how we could sell cruises and holidays in luxurious resorts to our friends and associates for a massive profit; and it wasn't a pyramid scheme, it was stratified product transference or something. Following the DVD - emphasis provided by short bursts of applause, whoops, and exclamations of sweet! and well alraaahhht! from Blue Jacket - four of the group explained how they themselves had become millionaires thanks to this opportunity that was absolutely nothing like a pyramid scheme. All of them mentioned that they now drove BMWs, which was a little wasted on me as south-east London taught me to associate that particular automotive brand with crack dealers. 'You could be driving one of those babies in just under sixty days,' promised one of the newly made millionaires, rather redundantly in my case seeing as I've never learned how to drive.
The presentation concluded with the identification of three kinds of people. Myself and Bess found ourselves categorised in Group C because we weren't interested in this amazing opportunity and we don't enjoy saving money, according to Face Lift or Blue Jacket or one of the other morons. We gathered Junior, managed to squeeze a brief and thankfully normal conversation out of Laura - who turns out to be quite pleasant when not trying to rope you in on some dodgy scam - and got out of there.
The experience reminded me of that meeting with Marian's thirty or more friends. In both cases, the talk was of success and empowerment as almost abstract ideals, like success was some mystical force that might be invoked by use of certain words and gestures just as a voodoo practitioner summons his loa by strangling a chicken; but there was about these people an inherent sense of desperation. They lacked either the character or imagination to be anything other than what they were, and that was what they wanted more than anything in the world - to be something other than what they were; but then who could really blame them?
During her post-DVD testimony, Face Lift qualified her success by telling us she had gone on vacation thirty-six times, which seemed such a specific number as to suggest that the score had been more important than the experience; and of course it was more important, because all those BMWs, resorts and cruise ships meant she wasn't just a lonely old woman with no real interests slowly turning herself into beef jerky.
I couldn't drive a BMW even if I had one, and when I visit other countries, I generally go with aims other than being surrounded by the sort of people I would ordinarily avoid at home. Like Marian's friends, forever crippled by some imaginary failing that is never quite their own responsibility, there's something faintly obscene about people who already live in gated communities trying to Gollum themselves into becoming Donald Trump. Bess and I live in a slightly crappy neighbourhood with our weird kid and four cats, but we already have everything we need. It might be nice to travel some more, and hopefully some day I'll be able to afford to visit the United Kingdom with greater frequency, but in the meantime if I ever get homesick, all I have to do is close my eyes and say to myself, mind the gap, mind the gap...
*: In the event of it not being obvious, this statement contains traces of sarcasm.