By Amanda Fuller
It wasn’t love at first sight. Not that I didn’t find her appealing, there was definitely something about her. No one would ever call her pretty, but there’s a rough, unconventional charisma, a quirky charm, that it’s easy to overlook, at first.
She has a split personality, you see. Misanthropic and miserable, or welcoming and approachable, depending on her mood, which is difficult to interpret. You only have to look at her to know she has an intriguing past, that you probably don’t want to know about, in its entirety. She doesn’t want you to know, anyway, so you don’t go delving, you just follow her, blindly, into whatever crazy-assed adventure she feels like leading you into at that particular point in time. Before you know it, you’re FUBAR, and she’s not going to rescue your sorry ass, she’ll leave you to it and slope off to wherever the next good time is likely to be.
All in all, she’s a bit of a mess, and she has a reputation for being no good, but when someone falls for her, they fall hard, and when it all becomes just a bit too much, as it inevitably will, they remember her with fondness, and defend her from those who try to judge or criticize her. That’s what happened to me, anyway.
I came over to London from New Zealand on a two-year working visa, to experience a bit of cosmopolitan Europe. I liked the idea of being a stone’s throw from all those other cities―Paris, Milan, Brussels, Berlin. I imagined swanning off every weekend, hooking up with exotic European ladies, smiling selfies in front of familiar landmarks and leisurely lunches in little cafes next to rivers and fountains and art galleries, depending on where I was. I made it to Paris on the Eurostar, and it was okay. After that, though, I never seemed to get around to booking trips to any of those other places. I was in the first throes of a passionate love affair, blinkered, optimistic and stubbornly determined to make things work, regardless of what it might cost me.
It cost me plenty. Our first kiss was in a park in the centre of the West End. I’d somehow gotten in with a group of fellow Kiwis that I’d met on a Meetup site, just so that I’d have some folks to hang around with, until I found my feet. This was a rougher bunch than I was used to, though, and after several hours of knocking them back in the Walkabout bar―not my choice, by the way, but I decided to go along with it that time―I somehow found myself squaring up to a bunch of Aussies along with the rest. The next thing I knew we were all at each other in one of those big parks scattered around the West End. Not being much of a fighter, it wasn’t long before I found myself flat out on the ground, my nose busted, my head ringing, breathing in crazy, ragged gasps. As I rolled over and stared up at the sky, all fuzzy and orange from the streetlights and pulsing in and out with my heartbeat, I started laughing, because this was living. I was a thousand miles from home, and I had that sense of belonging to nothing and everything, that I could go anywhere from here. I rolled over, and literally kissed the hard, prickly turf beneath me. Endorphins bathed my battered body and I felt a surge of something like desire.
The chemistry was undeniable. Many great dates followed, out on the town in grimy bars that stank of stale beer, strange meals of I’m not-sure-what in Chinatown and experimental jazz nights in Hackney and Shoreditch. There were no limits to the things we did; nothing ever grew stale or boring. She had a million and one tricks up her sleeve to keep me interested. I danced in the fountains at Trafalgar Square, took part in a Halloween zombie-thon for charity. I even tried performance poetry on the South Bank. She lured me in with words, with wonder, with what the fuck?
But before long, things started to go wrong. They talk about the honeymoon period being over, but it wasn’t like that for me. I was as in love with her as ever, things were still exciting, raw, and wonderful. But I was starting to lose myself. She got me into things that were bad for me. She tried to change me.
I’m not talking about the drugs and the drinking, crazy though those things were, for a time. I did my fair share, but for most of the time, and at least in the early stages of our affair, I felt in control of that shit. I’m talking about the things that she stole from me. The easy optimism and the way I had of making everyone my friend. The inclination to give other people a break, to help them out whenever I could. The nice parts of myself, the parts that I took for granted, assumed were just part of me and would always be there. I didn’t realise, before I met her, that they were just the parts of me I’d borrowed, or learned, from other places. She taught me other ways, not nice ways. She turned me on myself.
One of the many contradictions of life here is that Londoners simultaneously strive for wellness and moderation, while at the same time determinedly hurling themselves headlong into ill health and excess. It’s a curious kind of doublethink that only seems to exist here, and at first, it’s perplexing to temporary residents like myself. They apparently fail to see the absurdity of chugging down multi-vits, necking wheatgrass shots and pumping weights at the gym during the day, then knocking back twelve pints or a few bottles of wine after work, snorting cocaine off the back of a toilet in a sleazy club and inhaling a kebab on the way home, where they may, if they are lucky, catch a couple of hours sleep before rising, bleary eyed and trembling, to do it all again.
At first, I just couldn’t do it. I was too used to looking after myself, brought up on daily jogs along the river and wholegrain muffins for breakfast; not a processed, pre-packaged sandwich in sight. I was used to a few tinnies every now and again but the relentlessness of this, the determined pursuit of oblivion on a near-nightly basis, well, I just wasn’t cut out for it. My mouth tasted like puke no matter how much I rinsed with mouthwash, my head pounded from morning ‘til late afternoon, and I was losing weight. My body was shrinking, disappearing beneath baggy, pale skin. I just couldn’t bring myself to hit the gym or go running.
Then, all of a sudden, it became easier. It became my normal. I stopped stressing, what was the point? The skinny look was a thing here anyway; everyone you met was in tight black trousers and clingy tops. Everyone was pale, and drawn, and a bit sweaty and anxious. I fit right in. Man, I ROCKED that look.
Until the night I found myself chucking my guts up, for the second time that week, on my knees outside some grimy dive in Shoreditch. Everything hurt. My guts were on fire and I was covered in sweat. It ran down my face like slimy tears and dried to a clammy gunk on my neck, chest and arms. I felt like a frog that had lost its pond. People hurried past me as quickly as they could, with expressions of disgust, contempt or concern, as I reached into my jacket for something, anything, to wipe my mouth with. Somewhere in my inebriated brain, it dawned on me that my fingers should have brushed against my wallet, but they hadn’t. I had no idea whether I had been robbed or, more likely given the state I was in, had dropped it or left it in one of the many bars I had graced with my presence that evening. Either way, it came back to the same root cause; this was HER doing. This kind of thing never happened to me back home. Back there, Auckland looked after me, an ever present, concerned big brother. Sure, he might be a little dull, a little introverted and isolated, but he sure as shit kept me on the right track.
London was destroying me. I was in love, but she was no good for me, she was holding me back, bringing me down, trying to change me, and starting to succeed. She was the woman friends and family had warned me about, the one they said was no good for me, would drag me down, use me up. Everyone who cared about me back home had tried to steer me away from it, suggesting more refined alternatives they hoped might pique my interest. No chance. None of them had her charisma, her quirkiness, her rough, unpredictable charm.
Y’know, that’s my lady. It’s tempting to buy into the belief that only those sound of mind and body can withstand the tumult and the crush, the pushing and the huffing and the shrieks and smells. The threat of disease and damage everywhere, in the globules of gob on the cracked paving slabs just waiting to trip you up, the terrifying traffic, the very air itself. But she prefers to be courted by someone a little rougher round the edges. And if you’re not quite rough enough, not quite the degenerate lowlife that she craves, she’ll make you that way. Or try to, at least.
It might have worked, if she’d had more time. But my visa expired, and I didn’t try to find another way to stay. I knew it was time to go, although the effort of leaving her almost broke me. I’m back home now. The air is pure and sweet, everything is green, lush, and lovely. I’m running four miles every morning and I can’t remember the last time I got past three or four drinks in a single evening, once a week at the most. I’m doing very well, looking after myself, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t pine for her. I doubt she misses me much, there’s always a new bunch of innocents to corrupt. She never looks back. With everything she’s seen and all the other suckers she’s had in her thrall, I guess it was easy for her to let me go.