In the restless of summer of 2012, I was in a fight with London. My family, my roots, my everything was there, but a new day had dawned in my brain rendering it all nonsensical and claustrophobic. I felt like I was haunting the city I’d grown up in. Meanwhile, people kept intoning: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” But I was just tired of a life, a certain type of straight, stable life that I didn’t know I’d chosen, until I was already living it. “You’re the sort of person who…”, “What you really need is…”, “You should probably try…”: That summer, it was all I heard. It was true that I was home, but the “I” was still under discussion.
I got drunk in a bar on Kingsland Road on a Saturday night and made out with my friend’s brother, “to prove that I was a lesbian”. It didn’t work. I could tell, because it wasn’t even convincing me. Making out with boys on a dance floor under the influence of too many gin-and-tonics felt the same both before and after declaring I was a lesbian. Wet and perfunctory, desperate and ineffectual. My friends and their siblings told me they were taking a taxi home and I insisted, drunk and petulant, that I was absolutely fine, don’t be so patronising, I can look after myself. It was nearly 6am.
“All these people, thinking they know me, when I don’t even know myself,” I thought, spinning my nonsense truth. “They’re just cracked mirrors or holograms, trying to show me bits of myself to remind me I exist. But they’re wrong, because I don’t exist. I am a slip of smoke, the alcoholic fume over a glass of gin, molecules of nitrous oxide in a balloon…”
I started talking to a German man. He was interested when I said I was moving to Berlin soon, so I made out with him and told him I was a lesbian too, for good measure.
“WHY DON’T YOU LIKE LIVING IN LONDON IT’S SUCH A GREAT CITY,” he shouted in my ear on the dance floor.
“I’M SICK OF THIS SHIT,” I answered. “IT’S FULL OF ALL THE THINGS I KNOW AND I CAN’T BE MYSELF HERE ANY MORE AND I DON’T KNOW WHERE TO GET THE NEW ME FROM.”
He nodded, as if this made any sense.
“BERLIN IS GREAT YOU WILL LOVE IT THERE,” he said, trying to be nice. But it wasn’t nice, it was patronising. So I stormed into the morning fog, righteously angry but finding myself hilarious.
Two steps down the road, my sober self floated above me, disembodied Reason. Suddenly, I was laughing, hysterically: Why am I writing myself into a narrative of drunk shame and sad, lost confusion? I cackled down Kingsland Road for several minutes before kissing yet another boy at a bus stop, who shouted at me for some incomprehensible reason. (“HOW RUDE,” I thought), getting into a taxi.
“That guy was trying to take me home!” I told the taxi driver, as we sped past north London’s Victorian terraces. “I just met him on the street, can you believe it?”
The taxi driver said he could not believe it.
“It’s quite unbelievable,” I thought.
It’s three years later, in Berlin, and I am on a first date. We are having a weirdly “un-first date” conversation, probably because we have too much in common.
“Sometimes you have to be arrogant, though,” I’m saying. “You have to know who you are. Like, I was coming home from my birthday party recently, and I just found myself, at 8am, staring in the mirror and realising: there’s only one of you. In the whole world.”
He laughs, and I realise I sound wasted and absurd, even though I’ve only had two drinks, but now I’ve started, I have to continue.
“No, because, like, I tell myself all this shit about myself, you know? I worry about how I should be, and try to be this person, or that person, you know?” I babble.
I’ve totally lost him. His Scandinavian sense of normality is not ready for my flickering compass of self-navigation. In Berlin for the weekend, from Copenhagen, he isn’t used to the constant finding-yourself chat that floods this city.
I’m trying to tell him about the realisation that I can’t impress myself, because there’s no one there to impress. Inside my brain, it’s just me. All of those parts are me, so playing one part off against another is just letting the whole team down. I only need to make myself proud: I am all in this together.
Taking a swig of his Club Mate and vodka in the bottle, he’s chuckling at my story, but I’m not sure if he’s laughing at me or with me. Either way, it’s funny, I think. I’m funny.
Scandinavians love the cosy, inside joke of the Berliners’ staple energy drink, beloved of hipsters and startups. When I first moved here, I used to drink Club Mate every day. I used to think it was magic. Now, it never seems right. Too much caffeine, it can make you restless.
I take another sip of my beer and sneak a glance at his face, thinking about how everyone looks so cool when they’re candlelit. A chiaroscuro filter on life: instant drama and intensity. He looked attractive on his Tinder profile. I wasn’t sure if it was sexy-attractive or friendly-attractive. But now, I can see the knife lines of his cheekbones and his incongruously pretty eyes. I notice his teeth do something weirdly rodent, or maybe wolverine, when he smiles. It isn’t unattractive, but isn’t necessarily cute either. Just distinctive, I guess.
“So did you have friends here before you moved?” he asks
“Nope. No one,” I say, trying not to let my pride show. “I just turned up with no plans.”He says he doesn’t think he could do that, which lots of people have said to me when I explain my spontaneous arrival in Berlin, the hustling of my existence into a real life here.
“You don’t know what you can do until you put yourself in a weird position,” I say. He nods, but seems unconvinced.
Normally, I talk a lot, but somehow, he’s outtalking me. I ask him for an embarrassing moment and he tells me about giving a career talk at a university to a group of students. At the end, pleased with his final remarks, he slapped his laptop lid shut with a bang, and shouted “BOOM”, raising his hands in the air with a chest-pump, before walking out of the classroom, at which point he realised he had to walk back in to answer questions from the audience. We laugh, together, at his arrogance, its performativity.
“It’s OK,” I say. “We all do embarrassing things!” It’s true, but we all have our own variety of embarrassing. I would never slam a laptop lid shut as if I were a rap star dropping a mic, but that doesn’t mean I’m not an arrogant asshole.
A few months later, when he visits Berlin again, we’re walking along Weserstraße, back from buying houseplants for my balcony, which I’m trying to nest into for the summer. I’m not very good at making the space around me into a home, but he is, so he’s helping me. I’m holding a bag full of flowers and he’s carrying a huge cactus that both of us are excited about because it seemed incredibly cheap for its size. Still, its spikes (“Achtung, poisonous,” the grizzled man in the shop told us) render it inconvenient to carry. Whoever decided cacti should be on-trend really should have picked something more tactile.
We bump into a girl I know, walking her dog, and chat for a minute. The dog sits panting, staring up at us with a cocked head, watching us talk about our summers, parties, where we’re living, mutual friends. The dog sniffs around the base of the cactus and its patterned paper wrapping.
“Your life seems like a TV show,” the Dane tells me, half impressed, half accusatory, looking back at her as we walk away, re-burdened with our verdant accessories. “Like, you just wander around like this, bumping into people? I don’t know. I can’t explain it.”
“Things look different when you live inside them.”
A few weeks later, we’re sitting in a bar in Copenhagen after a huge meal of every kind of seafood there is, because I’ve been taking advantage of my temporary proximity to water and fresh fish, and he’s enabling me. We’re talking about our past relationships. We talk about them a lot –well, mostly he does – he’s just out of a long-term, long-distance, long-everything thing. He tells me about her failings, why they broke up, how he dealt with the breakup, how they got together, what she looks like. If he wasn’t obviously into me, and open to being told to stop talking on occasion, I would find it irritating. Even though he’s relaxed a bit, he still never knows when to shut up.
This time he’s telling me about why they’re not friends any more.
“She wanted to message me all the time, and be that kind of friend.” He sips his gin-and-tonic, flippantly. “‘You’re my best friend,’ she told me.” His voice lilts with remorse, but his face is impassive. “I just didn’t feel like that about her”
“It seems sad,” I say. “You’ve had this great connection with someone and then you just lose all of that.”
He shrugs. I think to myself that he’s probably a narcissist and maybe I am, too. I tell him I’m on good terms with most people I’ve dated; friends even, with some. “That idea makes me sad,” I say.
“When we break up, you won’t want to be friends with me,” I say.
“But what makes you think we’ll ever break up?”
We break up a month later – he’s not ready for a relationship so soon after his ex. I tell him I want to stay in touch, right away, as we hash out the excruciating details of why he can’t be with me over a FaceTime voice call. He tells me he wants to, too, purely out of anxiety for how angry I might be if he says he doesn’t, I think. He has a strong sense of morality, which I feel tricked by.
“OK, I understand,” I tell him. Except I think he’s being an idiot.
“But I think you’re being an idiot,” I say, in my most objective, rational voice, which is my defence mechanism for when I’m feeling vulnerable. I consider putting FaceTime into video just to show him how unaffected I look. As always, the cracks show. I get angry for a moment, but we leave it cold like a business contract.
‘But what makes you think we’ll ever break up?’, floats through my brain as I hang up and head to the bar where my TV-show friends are hanging out, talking about how life is a rollercoaster and we’re all going to die.
In Scandinavia, nothing appears unstable. The neat status quo makes me feel like I’m in Europe’s clean and quiet socialist suburb. The mutual understanding of how people should live their lives seems locked in, as if designated from birth. In Berlin, the U-Bahn smells like damp construction sites, always. The Metro in Copenhagen smells of nothing but transparent clarity. It’s wholeheartedly normal, in a way that makes me want to act weird, weirder than usual, because someone has to bang a gong in a silent room.
In Copenhagen, no one floats around like they’re on a TV show. You’d be spotted in a second, using the air instead of solid ground to hold you. Stockholm, where my ex-girlfriend lives, and where I almost moved to a few years ago, had the same solidness. The concrete moderation, the rightness of everything: it made me physically ill. One day while visiting her, I started uncontrollably weeping with claustrophobia, flouncing down the riverside steps to the photography museum. There are moments like this in Copenhagen, when the waves of same become too much for me.
Since I settled in Germany, it often seemed that I could also find a way to live in these northern outposts of normal. Sure, I could move to Copenhagen and live with a Danish boy who makes me brunch that we would eat on a sunny balcony overlooking rooftops before we go together to one of his parents’ summer houses (they have two, because, in my reality, people in Scandinavia have everything they want).
We could be smiling and pointing at a baby in a buggy who’s grinning loonily, sockets widened in the awe that comes from knowing absolutely nothing. We’d look at each other and laugh and think about absolutely nothing beyond that moment, because we were there, and that is enough. It would be so sensible, and so easy. I would be able to accept a life without existential panic, where everything is designed just for people like me, and I could get along with the everyday business of being alive.
I could have, but it’s too late now. She’s unrecognisable, this sensible girl who could take the solid option: she never moved to Berlin, she never left London, she certainly never went to Copenhagen. I don’t know where she is.
Photograph by Josie Thaddeus-Johns