Without veneer

I’ve just come from having brunch in Balaclava. Went to a groovy cafe typical of the area, and of inner-city Melbourne in general. The coffee was good, the breakfast menu extensive, creative and expensive, and the crowd there generally cool, fit, attractive inner-city types with a sense of style. It’s pretty much the scene I’ve inhabited the last 20 years. I know it backwards, and fit into it without thinking twice.

I was with a woman who owed me a favour and so offered to buy me a coffee. I could easily have declined, but went just to do something. The woman I met with is intelligent, but not far short of the diametric opposite of me – an ex-goth writing her academic thesis on feminist themes in fantasy novels. Easily distracted she would stop to chat warmly to strangers about their baby or dog or shade of lipstick, whereas I’m the private type who might wink at someone across the room but otherwise wouldn’t dream of prying into other people’s conversations. Too look at us even it’s clear we’re from different worlds, fey feminine, complete with hat, a plump woman against my tall, boots, jeans, unshaven, wind tossed masculinity.

Perhaps the tone of this post is indicative of where I’m going with this. Our conversation was interesting in many parts, and intelligent. Our politics are similar though our attitudes vary. We agreed on some and debated other points. I don’t know if I woke up that way this morning or if it was something in her that brought it out of me, but I found myself the casually confident, brutalist male. I spoke in straight lines, disinterested in the frippery that often obscures clear communication. Opinions that I might have couched more diffidently at other times I came out with straight today. My language was effective and without gloss. I wasn’t rude at any point, I listened and considered her opinion, and engaged with her differing opinions, but when I spoke it was with a blunt efficiency.

I was aware throughout of how I must be coming across. I imagined how she might speak to me to her friends afterwards, well he was friendly enough, and intelligent, but… The waitress, she of the curiously coloured lippy, was another I found myself referenced by. Who I was is who I am, but only one of the I am’s that exist in me, not the most forthright perhaps, but not far. As always at such times, and often otherwise, I felt myself a physical entity, the heft and weight of physical being – the muscle and bone, the set of the jaw, personality manifest in a three-day growth, direct eyes, long, tousled hair. It’s a virile sense of self I think of as being very much a part of my generation. I sat there at the front bench in the window overlooking the street, broad shouldered in the sense I felt I had not enough room. I tried to work within that space, brushing against my neighbours. Conscious of remaining polite and friendly throughout, I was aware also that the face I was presenting, the persona I had assumed for the occasion, could so easily be reduced to a male stereotype – the confident, opinionated, and swaggering alpha male…

I was aware of not being my charming self. To be charming is to give your entire attention to a person. The opposite is also true. I was not charmless – I listened dutifully. But the conversation was as much within me as it was with her. My words and manner of speaking them were an echo of self at that point as much as they were a response to her conversation.

I wasn’t unhappy with how I presented, but at the same time disliked the thought that there was no nuance in it. They would go away thinking that is who I am. Why should I care? And do I? Well, yes and no. I felt it more with the waitress, someone who on the surface I share much more with. I felt observed in her eyes, felt us as a mismatched couple assessed and measured. She was friendly and engaging, but at the same time – and this is likely all me, and so very telling – I felt an oddity. That I didn’t like.

I’m in a very practical mood. I think as I talk right now, directly. It’s all mathematical, with a dose of virile male ego tossed in.

It’s funny, yesterday I was beat at something. I found it hard to contain at first. Why compete? I asked myself after. Why take up the fight when you know you can lose? I ask that a lot, and the answer is always the same: because it’s there. It took hours for me to shake the sense of defeat. It was clearly ridiculous as the stake was so tiny in the first place. I knew it was ridiculous, there was a sardonic shake of the head at the situation even as I felt it burn. It’s all of a piece though, that small loss yesterday in context of the much bigger, losing battle I am fighting.

I can sit here writing this, knowing this. I’m above looking down. I could change how I am I guess, but it seems to me that who I was today is the man made by the situation I am in – no time for the irrelevant.

Donna called me last night and in the course of a long conversation I told her I had a woman visit me last week with whom I had sex. She wanted to know more. I gave her the bare outline. I hadn’t planned to have sex, in fact had said it wasn’t going to happen, but then it did anyway. That’s a typical story. Donna asked questions. Who was she? How’d you meet her? Do you like her? Does she like you? I answered as I could, with few words. The woman likes me, I answered, too much. She knows I don’t want a relationship. I’m always up front. I like her, but not in that way. I said nothing that wasn’t true, in fact made my position clear, but still it happened. Was it right or wrong? No, it was sex.

Donna felt herself become outraged on behalf of the ‘sisterhood’. Why did she have sex with you then? she asked. Because she wanted to, I told her. Because she didn’t want to leave without being close to me. Because, I figured, she thought she could change my mind. Cue the outrage. You know what women are like, Donna said. I do, I said, but I’m not going to take responsibility for that. I’m well past the age where I apologise for being a virile male. She’s an adult, I said. You’re an adult. I’m not your father telling you what you should or shouldn’t do. And it’s not as if I manipulated it. I’m honest to the point of being blunt. It just happened, as it does mostly. So the conversation went. Donna relented in the end, laughing, recognising something of herself in the tale.

This is what it boils down to I think. I’ve reached an endgame. It unsettles me a bit. I feel a little too blunt and brutal. I like having this inside me, but prefer it beneath a veneer of charm. It’s like a caricature of maleness. It is though, because at the end you see things stripped of the veneer. You realise without thinking it that the veneer is no more than a surface civilisation that makes no difference to the brute truth beneath. In such a time you see directly because you must, and find yourself responding in the same way. I’m fixed hard on finding a way, and that’s it.


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