14 May 2021

Kiss, Marry, Kill

Little in the UK makes me feel more patriotic than waiting for a service from the NHS. I am British now, but once I open my mouth you can tell that my Britishness is something I achieved later in life. I'm put off when random people point this out to me, when everyone, all three of the people I interact with, in a car dealership, when I'm simply trying to buy a new used car, comment on it. I say something annoyed, a long pause before I answer in an annoyed tone that only I can hear, I'm originally from Chicago, which is also a lie in the way broad approximations are lies, but a sufficient lie and the sort of lie that shuts down the conversation most of the time, particularly if I follow it up with something more on task for whatever it is I'm doing with this person: from Chicago, originally, how much longer is this going to take

For as annoyed as I get when reminded I don't sound like I'm from around here, the truth is I still process the world as an American teenager. When I went to buy the new used grey Picasso, I thought about needing to get a car that could account for every possible use that I might require of it, even if I never actually required it, the most American of approaches to car buying I have inherited from my father, who could keep in his mind all of the various things you need to keep in your mind when car shopping. One day I could very well need to tow something, and then camping, the car will need to be able to handle a yearly three-day camping trip over the next six years. Surely more is better. 

This same American mentality becomes awe and wonder when interacting with the NHS, and today as I stood in a queue with hundreds of other British people like me, waiting to do our duty and take the vaccination so we can get on with it, whatever it is, I felt actually British. No one asked me where I was from, and my name and the first line of my address on Victoria Road were in the system like everyone else's name was in the system. I had paid for this with my taxes, but it felt like I hadn't paid for it. Like it had been given to me. 

The vaccination centre was in Harborne's Mormon church, and for as American as I am, I have never actually been in a Mormon stake — stake being the word that they use for churches that I was always told are not actually churches. In the stake turned Covid vaccine centre, there were traces of the Mormon faith, like the picture of Jesus looking like he had been born in Ohio in 1875 and the fact that after getting the vaccine, I sat in a pew, although the man I was sitting with was decidedly not Mormon from what I could tell, unless Mormons have become more accepting of working-class British men with shaved heads with blurred scorpion tattoos on the side. Seated behind me was a woman I recognised as an employee of the local Waitrose — I awkwardly nodded at her and then surveyed the room looking at the younger people who were there for their first jab, thinking, this is what the late thirties looks like, is it? We're still fairly attractive, most of us. 

The American teenage me is, for all his failures, how I idealise myself — when I still believed and played in a band and listened to loud music, rebellious in the way young Evangelical Christians in the States in the late nineties were: I annoyed my parents with my nail polish and baggy jeans, but I was honestly more conservative than they were. There was something imminently marriageable about me, even when I was fifteen. I exuded stability. One night, in high school, there were separate sleepovers for guys and girls in the youth group, and the girls stayed in our house. I stayed wherever the guys stayed, and when I got home, this group of young women had put post-it notes all through my room, with vaguely flirtation messages, like under my pillow, one of them had written, 'Do you dream about me?' or something to that effect. It filled me with giddy, impotent energy, the realisation that someone might actually like me, although I was entirely unsure how to respond and I ended up just ignoring it, without an meaningful attempt to act on what would be in retrospect, my sexual peak. 

A marriageable spirit is not something young men my age were told to have, were told is actually what was what the youth group girls were looking for. It's not the thing we told one another about our own attractiveness and it's something that was rarely ever pointed out to us either, because there was nothing worse than being told you are attractive primarily because you are marriageable. It's not what you want to hear, you would rather have big dick energy, you would do anything to avoid thinking that the main attractive thing about you is your stability: you'd rather be wholly unattractive. Thankfully, I'm not sure how aware I was that this is what was attractive about me to the young women in the youth group. Instead, I was arrogant and probably thought that, although I was fat and generally unkempt, I was funny enough and smart enough and kind enough that women found me attractive. This wasn't true, but it didn't matter in my experience because I landed in a long-term relationship with someone I felt I didn't deserve and things more or less worked out until my neurotic stability couldn't compete with actual sexual magnetism. It became painfully clear that marriageable eighteen-year-old men are like war bonds that haven't matured and the lull in my attractiveness through my very early twenties was unlikely to resolve in sexual experiences and a revolving cast of women so much as grey Picassos that I would buy on a whim and need to live with for a decade or two. 

In Japan, however, my Christian stability came roaring back as an even more rare and desirable trait in the right circumstances. There were almost none of us, and mixing the entitled sense of gaijin power with biblical knowledge and Christian fervency, I had a renewed sense of over-inflated self-worth and a false belief that somehow, despite the obvious, maybe I actually was attractive, maybe women did want to sleep with me. I remember another foreign guy, less religious than me, expressing disbelief that I had become engaged to Yoko, someone he perceived to be well out of my league in every imaginable way. This made me feel a kind of alpha energy that was almost immediately replaced by fear because I knew he was right and these thoughts only made me scared that history would repeat itself and she would realise her mistake and that would be the end of it. 

This misreading of the world is common in how young arrogant white men assume that everyone sees the world through their white twenty-three-year-old eyes. In fact, it wasn't my sexual magnetism driving the relationship, of course I had no sexual magnetism. I had terrible posture, an elementary school level of Japanese, and a part-time job as an assistant teacher at a private high school, this wasn't something I needed to worry she would find out, it was blindingly obvious, it was who I actually was. No, the whole point was that this lack of attractiveness, the lack of sexual magnetism is itself the feature of marriageable men, not a bug. It's what makes us stable, it's what makes us marriageable. The less interesting, the less magnetic, the better. Marrying attractive, magnetic men would be a recipe for disaster. 

The vaccination took without any trouble and I left and drove the new used Picasso to work, to my new office at Newman that I don't have to share with anyone because I got a competitive grant, again the sort of thing marriageable men excel at. I took off my shoes and turned a Zoom conference in the background, someone talking about distressing data, and re-read a message thread of an argument. Sixteen-year-old me would be impressed, I suppose, with all of this. The office and the foreign country, yes, and speaking passable Japanese, even though your wife will remind you that you're not fluent — you will have a wife, I know you're worried about that, you shouldn't be, you need to relax, but yes, you'll have a wife. And a car with a moonroof and your own teenage daughters. You'll have a nice guitar that you won't play very often. You'll have written several books. You still can't relax. You should try to relax a bit more.