It's an hour until showtime. We've been struggling with synchronized bowing for the last half hour or so. There's a V formation we have to make, but it relies on our dear departed former arts editor Jamie Laughlin, the last speaker of the evening, depositing a stool backstage and running, in her delightful boots, past me so that I can go out last. As the tallest, I must form the point of the V. It's a struggle. I don't know when to bow automatically. I rarely bow in everyday life. Never with other people around.
We're on stage in Hamon Hall, off to the side of the big ol' Winspear Opera House, and seven brave Texas residents are braved to deliver personal talks for Oral Fixations, the local real-life storytelling series. Having built this program from the ground up, director Nicole Stewart is selling out every night of the run.
When we finally all have mastered bending over, we retreat to the Green Room, where we can watch the crowd shuffle in on a wall-mounted TV. A sell-out of some 250, the room quickly fills up. Jamie, who is not a fan of public speaking to put it mildly, is shaking while trying to apply make-up.
I seem to keep signing up for these things that seem like a good idea until the big night. Perhaps I don't have any foresight or imagination. Either way, as the guy third up, I will be stepping behind a curtain to have a microphone pack attached to my butt as soon as the first speaker is done. I hope I don't fart, but then I realize that the microphone pack isn't the actual microphone, so I can probably get away with a sneaky one.
Stepping out onto the stage, the stage-fright friendly lighting bathes me in so much light that I appear to be some sort of holy figure risen from a curtain, only hairier. I cannot see a single member of the audience. I know my wife is out there somewhere. I look down at the page, printed out in handy gigantic font so I don't lose my place, and I begin. This is what I say:
I had been living in Cardiff, Wales for seven years. I was studying for a Humanities PhD, a pursuit guaranteed to make me poor both now and in the future. I moved there with a girl as a teenager. It hadn't been going well for about the last three years. The eventual break-up was acrimonious. Given the last few years of downtrodden misery, I was in no mood to jump into anything approaching a relationship. I was, however, in the mood for... meeting new people.
While some people might be content to lay off for a while, to take some time, maybe get to know themselves again, I was not one of those people. I've never been a huge fan of myself, so I didn't feel like getting to know myself better would cheer anyone up. And so it was I launched into a period of several months that I will tell my grandchildren was their grandfather's "wild time." There were some women, most of them hugely inadvisable. One girl waited until we were in bed together before telling me she hadn't taken her medication for the last week, so she wasn't really "her" right now. Another girl came with her own personal stalker, which led to situations like him sobbing against her bedroom door while both of us were naked inside.
There was this one girl, Rachael. She was different from the rest. Better-looking too. We had a mutual friend. We'd managed to not meet each other, despite being in the same Facebook photos and attending the same events. On our mutual friend's going-away party, the last possible time we could have met each other, we ended up sitting next to each other in a bar. She was an amazing person, in both body and soul. She too had recently come out of an eight-year relationship. She was smart, beautiful, and her taste in music was better than mine. We talked for hours, to the point where people assumed we had come to the party together."
It took me a long while of trying to sweet talk her on Facebook chat (which, obviously, is the tool of the real lothario), before she would agree to meet up with me again. She assumed I was simply trying to be her friend, talking to her every day, which is a very stupid thing for a smart girl to think. At one point I tried inviting her out for a milkshake, which sounds like a date that two nine-year olds might go on. I didn't say I was actually any good at being a lothario. I'm not. I'm kind of a timid womanizer.
Eventually we met up like adults might, at a bar, and she gave into these "charms," whatever they might be. We embarked on a no-strings relationship that we kept secret from our several mutual friends. Said charming and overwhelmingly beautiful girl would mainly come round to my house during the daytime, as I spent my days at home writing my thesis. In fact she would take a lunchbreak to walk the twenty minutes to my house. The second time she came to see me during lunch, she brought with her a bacon sandwich and a KitKat, which meant she had read me like a book.
We developed a routine of sorts, in which once or twice a week she would visit during lunch, we would take it in turns to cook bacon sandwiches, and then we would eat these sandwiches while entirely naked and watching an episode of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Eventually, she bought a bicycle just so she could get to my house more quickly. She called this "Special Bike." We both called these lunches "Special Lunch." Everything about these weeks and months is very special to me. Special Bike, as an aside, was stolen by someone from outside my house. Clearly only an enemy of love would do such a thing.
Talking of love, we barely even noticed that we had fallen headlong into it. After maybe three months she took me aside to tell me she loved me for the first time. The paranoid side of my brain decided she was declaring the end of our no-strings relationship, which illustrates how precarious this whole thing was. One month later, the news came that she had landed a job in Dallas, Texas, the well-paying professional job she had been working towards for eight years of being a student, and would be leaving in three months.
We decided to completely ignore the looming expiry date on our relationship, and instead have her and her son move in with me, as their lease was up. Even though I knew this girl would be leaving in a little over twelve weeks I went to her house, and helped her pack up all her son's toys, her school books, and her clothes. These months are a blur of us behaving in a manner not befitting adults - building forts, eating cereal at 4am, simply refusing to go to work, or whatever it is that passes for work with two graduate students in their late twenties. I played computer games and hung out and talked sports with her son, and we enrolled him in the local elementary school down the road.
Before either of us were aware what was happening, she had a visa and plane tickets. She flew out of the country on New Year's Eve 2010, to start life anew a quarter of the world away. Bereft, a man facing a new year's celebration and the permanent loss of two loved ones, I turned to alcohol. I have absolutely no recollection of any events after 8pm that evening, although I am told I was in a bar. I woke up the following morning on my own couch, with no memory of how I got there, fully dressed with my head underneath the Christmas tree the three of us had decorated together, by now somewhat ragged and old. I would probably never love anyone again, I decided somewhat dramatically.
Upon the realization that alcohol had, as always, solved nothing at all, I did a silly thing -- I booked a flight to Dallas, Texas. A flight my no-strings attached female acquaintance was not expecting me to take. By the time she had landed in Dallas, the ticket was bought. Two weeks later, I got off the plane to meet a woman who, though delighted to see me, was unconvinced that my hangover-fueled romantic gesture had actually solved anything, as I still had to leave.
I spent 89 days, one short of the yearly limit of ninety for tourists, doing everything a couple would do setting up life in a new country. I spent five weeks back in the UK, sleeping on a friend's couch, before it was clear to me that, to use the delightful British phrase, it was time to "shit or get off the pot." I decided to shit.
I bought a ring that day, with the $60 or so I could raise above the cost of a flight, and I flew out to propose to the woman that I loved. After four hours of tense negotiations with the US Immigration Services at the Chicago border, I was allowed in with the promise that I would not return to the United States on a tourist visa for the next two years. The idiots. Little did they know I planned to return on a residency visa.
After five weeks of furious planning, we were married in Las Vegas. We had known each other for a little over a year. Why Vegas? Well, isn't that where all Americans go to marry? We chose the chapel because it was beautiful and not at all tacky, and it would broadcast the wedding live on the internet, so everyone back home could watch it. My new stepson was my best man, and he gave a speech at the modest wedding reception thanking me for being his "new dad."
My no-strings attached journey, crazy as it was, took me five thousand miles around the world, and gave me a soulmate I love and a stepson I adore. I've never been happier in my life, there are no men sobbing outside my door, and my wife accepts that a milkshake is a perfectly sensible date for adults to go on. I wouldn't change anything that has happened to me in the last four years."
This piece was edited by Nicole Stewart, the director, editor, and producer of Oral Fixations
You can find Oral Fixation at:
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