Square route


Square route

What happens when real life doesn’t match the potboiler in your head? One woman finds it’s quite alright

By Cheryl-Ann Couto  April 29th, 2014

One afternoon, many moons ago, my aunt Beryl estimated the real reason for my foul mood. I had just grumbled to her about a romantic prospect that had suddenly and chillingly folded up on itself. Older, raffish Tamilian, dark as the night, cinematically glossy hair, had all the women  at the summer camp where we met arranging and rearranging themselves around him, played the guitar and showed a definite interest in the coolly unimpressed girl who glowered at him whenever she could (me).

Beryl’s attention was already dwindling. As one who had never repressed a single thought in her life, maintained a thoroughly un-secret handwritten journal of dirty songs from her teens (she was 62 then) and worn her spinsterhood like a proud badge in a hyper-traditional catholic community, passive-aggression bored her.

What had the dark stranger done to botch it up, she asked absently. he’d sung the wrong song. ‘Superman’, by Five For Fighting, could she believe it – that middling mess of melodrama you couldn’t go five minutes without hearing everywhere that year. I was appalled, quite frankly, I told her, cold from the cliché. he and his bewitching South-Indian pronunciations were dead to me.

“Hmm,” she said, turning over the issue as we split a sweet bun over sweeter tea (her diabetes could go to hell for all she cared). “It’s a ‘looking London, talking Tokyo’ type of situation,” she pronounced eventually. “What you think you want is not the same as what you want.” Moments later she had lapsed into gentle snores. I felt affronted (I was 17, it didn’t take much) – of course I knew what I wanted! I wanted to meet only 100 per cent original people, to think rare and interesting thoughts and have totally unique experiences. And I would spend my last breath rallying against any tradition that sought to fetter me, oh yes. Rebel and subvert and things! What did the old unmarried crow know about this stuff anyway – my patentable prince would come. 

Only, it’s 11 years later and it turns out that dear ridiculous Beryl, whom the diabetes has long since claimed, may just have had the right idea. I’ve been going over the ledgers and there is no protesting it anymore: I have been living the most boring, niggling version of a double life. There is a decided chasm in the way I think of myself and the way I actually am. Like the weary novelist whose characters came to him in technicolour in the middle of the night – vital, broken, infuriating, resilient, transcendental – only to blur into indeterminate blobs the minute he tried to etch them on paper. It appears I long for all sorts of things in theory and appreciate them in that realm alone.

Take travel, for example. It’s all I’d ever wanted to do since I was old enough to be jealous of my globe-trotting friends (age six). I wanted to know what non-Indian air smelled like. I wanted to taste everything Julian, Dick, Anne and George ever had – blancmange sounded distinctly like halwa, crumpets should ideally be tiny samosas and treacle, if we were being realistic, would be rice kheer, in which case, I would be avoiding it at all costs. Oh, the places I’d go! The curious strangers I’d meet!

When I became a travel writer years later, it was a dream come true – or so I took care to state for the record as often as I could. Because I didn’t like flying, for one – it made my skin itch and my hair limp and left me with tinny headaches. Exotic strangers, I found, were not unlike strangers at home, in that their unfamiliarity made them equally remote to me; it felt redundant to travel the ends of the earth only to seek out expressly what I knew and related to. I felt I didn’t possess the particular intrepidness required to be good at it. I missed my dog and being able to commit to a yoga class; I wanted to pick my clothes out of a cupboard, not a suitcase; I wanted to be able to distinguish weeks from weekends.  

So, after two years, I quit to a chorus of ‘What’s wrong with you?!’ and took up a nine-to-five gig. Now I enjoy reading about the world and imagining it, and get excited the way one is supposed to about the annual holiday.

As for that patentable prince... he didn’t come, although I did go on to have a respectable number of love affairs. The routine date-someone-you-don’t-really-love-for-way-too-long-because-you’re-scared-you’ll-be-alone-but-secretly-hope-something-goes-wrong-which-inevitably-it-does-and-then-you-blog-about-nothing-else-for-five-years relationships. All pretty tame; when they went bad, they went bad amiably, and with intolerable amounts of concern and goodwill. But what to do? Being unreasonable appeared to be the life force of mercurial relationships and I just didn’t have the imagination for it. I tried to become enamoured with bad boyfriends, but they would have no truck with me. (Pro tip: When a bad boyfriend says he’s just a lost soul, it is a cue for you to take him into your arms and sex him out of his funk. Do not, I repeat, do NOT dissolve into laughter and ask him who he’s doing.)

Then last year, I found The One. Not by serendipity or petitioning tea leaves, but by simply showing interest in each other. He didn’t turn out to be a Pashto lyricist or a herpetologist. Just a nine-to-fiver like me who made me laugh from the belly, and was nice to his parents and animals. He’s a textbook-good boyfriend, too: picks me up from airports, calls my mother just to chat, acquaints himself with the security guard of every new building I move into, makes sure my house is stocked with mosquito coils so I don’t get malaria. And still manages not to be a bore.

He has introduced me to upsetting Korean slasher cinema, pep-talks his plants as he waters them, treats music as a lifeline and writes embarrassingly beautiful poetry. He also regularly tells me I’m wrong and will fight me till we’re both so mad it can really only lead to one thing: HEH. The natural progression from here should have me alight at Marriage County, on the outskirts of Babyville, all within the next five years.

By rights, I should be heaving into a paper bag right now (everyone around me is), questioning every decision I’ve ever made and feeling ashamed of the number of times I’ve thought how nice it would be to be a privileged housewife. I remember when being different was a full-time job. Now it appears ‘traditional’ is my default setting.

My 17-year-old self would be horrified. I haven’t lived up to my quirky, contrarian, cynical potential. She’d want to swap me for a better future – Lena Dunham perhaps. I don’t blame her, either. I watch the porky star go starkers in every other frame of Girls while finding a genius combination of words to bring us her seventh existential crisis of the day and I’m bewildered and jealous. My last vestige of hope for an artfully imperfect life – a post-coital doob in bed with a guy who quotes Bukowski and cheats on me with impunity while I figure out how to make rent – are fading. I may be doomed to a life of balanced breakfasts, being spooned to sleep and holidays planned months in advance.

What a catastrophe this would be if it didn’t make me quite so happy.

One afternoon, many moons ago, my aunt Beryl estimated the real reason for my foul mood. I had just grumbled to her about a romantic prospect that had suddenly and chillingly folded up on itself. Older, raffish Tamilian, dark as the night, cinematically glossy hair, had all the women  at the summer camp where we met arranging and rearranging themselves around him, played the guitar and showed a definite interest in the coolly unimpressed girl who glowered at him whenever she could (me).

Beryl’s attention was already dwindling. As one who had never repressed a single thought in her life, maintained a thoroughly un-secret handwritten journal of dirty songs from her teens (she was 62 then) and worn her spinsterhood like a proud badge in a hyper-traditional catholic community, passive-aggression bored her.

What had the dark stranger done to botch it up, she asked absently. he’d sung the wrong song. ‘Superman’, by Five For Fighting, could she believe it – that middling mess of melodrama you couldn’t go five minutes without hearing everywhere that year. I was appalled, quite frankly, I told her, cold from the cliché. he and his bewitching South-Indian pronunciations were dead to me.

“Hmm,” she said, turning over the issue as we split a sweet bun over sweeter tea (her diabetes could go to hell for all she cared). “It’s a ‘looking London, talking Tokyo’ type of situation,” she pronounced eventually. “What you think you want is not the same as what you want.” Moments later she had lapsed into gentle snores. I felt affronted (I was 17, it didn’t take much) – of course I knew what I wanted! I wanted to meet only 100 per cent original people, to think rare and interesting thoughts and have totally unique experiences. And I would spend my last breath rallying against any tradition that sought to fetter me, oh yes. Rebel and subvert and things! What did the old unmarried crow know about this stuff anyway – my patentable prince would come. 

Only, it’s 11 years later and it turns out that dear ridiculous Beryl, whom the diabetes has long since claimed, may just have had the right idea. I’ve been going over the ledgers and there is no protesting it anymore: I have been living the most boring, niggling version of a double life. There is a decided chasm in the way I think of myself and the way I actually am. Like the weary novelist whose characters came to him in technicolour in the middle of the night – vital, broken, infuriating, resilient, transcendental – only to blur into indeterminate blobs the minute he tried to etch them on paper. It appears I long for all sorts of things in theory and appreciate them in that realm alone.

Take travel, for example. It’s all I’d ever wanted to do since I was old enough to be jealous of my globe-trotting friends (age six). I wanted to know what non-Indian air smelled like. I wanted to taste everything Julian, Dick, Anne and George ever had – blancmange sounded distinctly like halwa, crumpets should ideally be tiny samosas and treacle, if we were being realistic, would be rice kheer, in which case, I would be avoiding it at all costs. Oh, the places I’d go! The curious strangers I’d meet!

When I became a travel writer years later, it was a dream come true – or so I took care to state for the record as often as I could. Because I didn’t like flying, for one – it made my skin itch and my hair limp and left me with tinny headaches. Exotic strangers, I found, were not unlike strangers at home, in that their unfamiliarity made them equally remote to me; it felt redundant to travel the ends of the earth only to seek out expressly what I knew and related to. I felt I didn’t possess the particular intrepidness required to be good at it. I missed my dog and being able to commit to a yoga class; I wanted to pick my clothes out of a cupboard, not a suitcase; I wanted to be able to distinguish weeks from weekends.  

So, after two years, I quit to a chorus of ‘What’s wrong with you?!’ and took up a nine-to-five gig. Now I enjoy reading about the world and imagining it, and get excited the way one is supposed to about the annual holiday.

As for that patentable prince... he didn’t come, although I did go on to have a respectable number of love affairs. The routine date-someone-you-don’t-really-love-for-way-too-long-because-you’re-scared-you’ll-be-alone-but-secretly-hope-something-goes-wrong-which-inevitably-it-does-and-then-you-blog-about-nothing-else-for-five-years relationships. All pretty tame; when they went bad, they went bad amiably, and with intolerable amounts of concern and goodwill. But what to do? Being unreasonable appeared to be the life force of mercurial relationships and I just didn’t have the imagination for it. I tried to become enamoured with bad boyfriends, but they would have no truck with me. (Pro tip: When a bad boyfriend says he’s just a lost soul, it is a cue for you to take him into your arms and sex him out of his funk. Do not, I repeat, do NOT dissolve into laughter and ask him who he’s doing.)

Then last year, I found The One. Not by serendipity or petitioning tea leaves, but by simply showing interest in each other. He didn’t turn out to be a Pashto lyricist or a herpetologist. Just a nine-to-fiver like me who made me laugh from the belly, and was nice to his parents and animals. He’s a textbook-good boyfriend, too: picks me up from airports, calls my mother just to chat, acquaints himself with the security guard of every new building I move into, makes sure my house is stocked with mosquito coils so I don’t get malaria. And still manages not to be a bore.

He has introduced me to upsetting Korean slasher cinema, pep-talks his plants as he waters them, treats music as a lifeline and writes embarrassingly beautiful poetry. He also regularly tells me I’m wrong and will fight me till we’re both so mad it can really only lead to one thing: HEH. The natural progression from here should have me alight at Marriage County, on the outskirts of Babyville, all within the next five years.

By rights, I should be heaving into a paper bag right now (everyone around me is), questioning every decision I’ve ever made and feeling ashamed of the number of times I’ve thought how nice it would be to be a privileged housewife. I remember when being different was a full-time job. Now it appears ‘traditional’ is my default setting.

My 17-year-old self would be horrified. I haven’t lived up to my quirky, contrarian, cynical potential. She’d want to swap me for a better future – Lena Dunham perhaps. I don’t blame her, either. I watch the porky star go starkers in every other frame of Girls while finding a genius combination of words to bring us her seventh existential crisis of the day and I’m bewildered and jealous. My last vestige of hope for an artfully imperfect life – a post-coital doob in bed with a guy who quotes Bukowski and cheats on me with impunity while I figure out how to make rent – are fading. I may be doomed to a life of balanced breakfasts, being spooned to sleep and holidays planned months in advance.

What a catastrophe this would be if it didn’t make me quite so happy.