Copyright © 2017 Emily Willis
It was about this time that I decided to swim across the river. (Vile really when you think about the pollution). The idea came in the shower: Strong Body. Strong Mind. Perhaps it was the residues of something instilled by the sailor. Or the opposite: the need to break with people.
The first time I jumped in was late autumn. I’d thought it would be cold but this was everything-will-drop-off cold. Strong Body. Strong Mind. I kicked out to the other bank. But even at this narrow channel the current dragged me to the centre. Fortunately, the old lady on the barge about a mile down was very understanding and gave me a towel and a cup of tea.
When the river is like this it spews winter clot-
ted at everything with a claim to reflection. Listen,
I have carried heavy things for you dead things.
I swallow benches no longer benches but playgrounds
for the dark daisies of the deep. I poke
statues’ eyes with reeds so they can witness
themselves disembodied. I drink up the medieval halls,
the riverside bars. I will take that old woman’s neat pile of leaves
and plaster them all through her house, leave a note on the fridge
The trees pay homage, when the river has stolen
its archaeology, hoarding the quotidian colours as quiet
dripping treasures somewhere high up a bicycle wheel
a child’s sock a version of Shakespeare
and that unspeakable thing prized from the birch.
The river accompanied me. Water was feeding halfway across the bridge, submerging the padlocks. I had a flask and a long coat but had to curl my fingers against the Raynaud’s. The river was up to the top step at the end of my road and I was contemplating whether to go home and move my furniture, but wanted to be there to try to calculate the exact moment when he crossed from Tinder to tangible space.
He had social anxiety and had put off the first date for some time. Like me, he lived in the conditional tense. “Does your brain ever feel tight?” He’d texted. “Like swollen? Can you imagine if thoughts had a physical shape? Wrote themselves through our skin? Everyone would have a wall and each day would add bricks to make space for next week’s thoughts. If we were searching for something, a memory maybe, all we’d have to do is walk back along the wall.”
I was disappointed he didn’t materialise so we could continue this conversation. It felt like I wasn’t interesting enough for him to risk the fear. But I knew that’s not how anxiety works. Still, the blankness of my phone was infuriating. I wanted to put a face to the words. A physical face.
I dropped a stick into the water and splashed to the other side of the bridge, but the river was too fast.
I thought maybe he was a great burner of omelettes and we would have discussed how an omelette can only ever be overcooked, leading to carcinogens, or undercooked, leading to salmonella. We’d talk about how useless a non-stick frying pan is without the “non” and how mine as a result of a tussle with an overbearing cafetiere no longer cooked omelettes without holes in the middle and how it might be a good idea to patent this culinary feat dubbed the “bagel-omelette”.
Was this streaming character more immediate than the people passing in the cycle lane to whom I’d never spoken? I think realising his untouchability had a curious sensation of the opposite. A lot of what I have blogged about regarding Tinder is sadness, and although being stood up would (and did) seem that way, the experience was also incredibly freeing. Perhaps I wouldn’t have thought up these stories, had he turned up as someone else; as in Manchester, Tinder opened something creative in me. It was like light diluting shapes, everything slipping into the next.
At the end of the bridge a small terrier appeared and made its way purposefully along the benches, pushing its head between the bars. I wondered if it had seen the stick and what had happened to the owner. It didn’t have a collar. And what is it seeing when it sees its reflection? Another dog to chase?
I thought of the peculiar phenomenon of dog suicide reported at Overtoun bridge. Are dogs confronted with this same paradoxical sense of the unknowable? Psychologists called it “the other ich” or, “the call of the void”, the sudden urge to go beyond which some ignore and others don’t.
When it plunges through its reflection does it understand the air above and the water below?
Needless to say, this was how I acquired Skipper.
I was tempted to call it off. I’d been between archives among pipes and cabinets all day. Whilst there was a refreshing, rhythmic order to letters divided up, it was so nice to be out, veins still dilated against my wrists. The cafés were both languorous and electric, all the colours of the evening streets with the heat falling off them gradually.
Maybe it was the thought of his peculiar glasses, or maybe I was missing the sea, the desire to be faced with something semi-crystalline. But I ran.
I cut sandal portraits into my feet. Buildings oscillated and the dress twisted into unprecedented shapes.
“Pre-Raphaelites”, he texted.
Art student. 6ft 2. Lover of colour and wanders. Lover.
There were lots of art students in the Pre-Raphaelites. I looked around, remembering the eyes. What a prat I’d make of myself if I marched over and tapped the wrong one.
As it happens, he was easy to recognise. He had a penchant for tweed: it crept into most of his photos, and now he was thoroughly tweeded, even his eyes in that light seemed to have a bit of tweed about them. Perhaps he painted this way alone in his studio flat, fully suited.
I didn’t shake his hand. He only half-turned from Sibylla Delphica.
“You know, Burne-Jones has a monopoly on orange” he said, “you can’t quite look away.”
I looked. The priestess did not look back. One eye was focused in space, like it wanted to swivel round her head, fixing something back.
“Well that’s nice. I like the colours.”
I braced for him to laugh at my glaring lack of knowledge, or the inability to talk about it as if I knew.
Instead, he said “I know this might seem weird since I hardly know you—”
Here was the proposition…
“—I wondered if I could photograph you?”
“I’m doing a project about digitisation. It shows how art crosses into reality and is filtered back out in subsequent eras. So, in Burne-Jones’ Sibylla, look at the laurel, what is she seeing?”
“Well”, I started, ready to debate the positing of what was real and what wasn’t—
“It’s prophecy, but also her reflection. I could put you here, holding your phone. People won’t know if you’re taking a selfie or a picture of me photographing you. Meta! Also, you’re wearing orange. And you’re pretty, that’s why I swiped right.” Still fiddling with the camera. “Oh, and I’ll write ‘Flame’ on you.”
“I don’t know much about art… but it seems that there’s a lot you could exploit to do with gender. Have you read Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema? She follows Springer’s idea that ‘violence substitutes for sexual release’, epistemically for detached viewers and physically for the characters.”
Still flicking. “Yeah, I guess. Not really the aim of my project though. Will you do it?”
I was covered in Flame. I felt him writing it. The heat of the evening framed behind me. The heat of Flame in my eyes. Flash was not supposed to be used.
People were watching. I took picture after picture and he took picture after picture and I felt excited and then angry at myself and then angry at myself for being angry. All the time was Flame in capitals and orange.
“This is fantastic.” He looked up. He really was incredibly beautiful. Sculpted.
“Do you fancy going for a drink? Or, you could come back to mine. I could show you more of my portfolio.”
I felt he’d already used me up, but not in the way I’d expected (planned? wanted?) Rather than highlight the levels of representational violence, the way he’d present the selfie would perpetuate it. People with the proclivity to judge would comment…
It was then I noticed a small plaque commemorating the Suffragettes who, in 1913, had smashed the painting, to protest objectification. Someone in a hat and leather gloves stared at me, dressed for court. The caption read:
Annie Briggs. Lillian Forrester. Evelyn Manesta.
He was still wittering, but his face shifted. I was already running back, room after room, thinking of the poem.
Since she was brought here
Sibylla looks back more often than forwards
watching Apollo through the laurel—
Daphne’s skin snags, a peeling mesh of nerves,
muscles become bone-tight, spittle
sticks the lips into another line by which to tell her age—
Sibylla is called back by hammers
that puncture the womb. Doubling
up, she catches Annie, whose eyes englobe
I only meant to smash the glass…
She sees her wooden, photographed
Through the crack, Sibylla, much dispersed
sheds laurel into flame
The night guard swears he saw
her eyes lock his, the lip twitch
I took some time out after the terrifying events of my last blog. Upon returning I was confronted not as before with the dangers of inadequate information, but rather how personal Tinder exchanges are and the risk of mishandling this information.
I received a message. It said “tell me three interesting things about your life.”
Recently, I’d detached myself from the interactions and watched them with the curious interest of an observer. It was quite liberating. The Nausea didn’t come as often.
“I’m writing a novel. I can map the UK rivers. I managed to get up before 8, so today is a win!” Safe bet: interesting–quirky–funny.
He was Greek, a naval soldier and had studied history. I made the mistake of mentioning I played tennis for my college, and he suggested we go fell-running. Joint running inevitably involves someone adjusting their pace and I envisaged him chatting away and me hulking phlegm, mobility scooters overtaking.
I developed “plantar fasciitis” and was unable to go… suggesting instead a short walk around the walls.
It was busy with tourists and we had to climb onto ledges to get by. He knew a lot. “…originally built as a roman fort in 71AD, turned from wood to stone in the medieval era…” I loved watching his face, that of anyone who is passionate about something.
I was distracted from his tour by jazz. Trills bled into failing light and crept along the trees. It sounded like Stan Tracey’s Starless and Bible Black from Under Milk Wood. It reminded me of when I used to play. I looked through the thin apertures designed as cruciform arrow slits. Squinted my eyes until everything was watery.
“Shall we follow the jazz?” I asked.
He grinned and said why not.
We picked through remains of daffodils. The sax grew louder and more sombre. A few cars turned slowly in the street and moved off. The notes twisted through alleys, emerging in front of the cathedral, where someone was sitting on a bench. What at first looked like a saxophone was a terrier sitting on the old man’s lap. The music had stopped.
My date preferred it that we didn’t find the saxophonist and I understood that it would remain for him in this way magic, some kind of ideal.
On his windowsill was a row of very convincing plants which surprised me given his love of the outdoors and all things organic.
—He was never there to water them and didn’t like to watch things die.
That summer was hot; late August we came down the tow path in the rain, which was welcome, the kind which drips down your neck and gets into everything. The wheels flung up sycamore seeds and I felt the miniature helicopters stuck to my ankles. I cycled slower approaching the house.
There was no softness to him: even his toes were strung with muscle. And it made me self-conscious about, well, all of me. The first time, I had the urge to punch him in the stomach and see if my knuckles broke.
But my own body had hardened into something strong enough to weather his unforgiving.
This is what was said. Feeling was weakness. He would be away for 8 months. What was the point in being faithful to an idea? For him personally, his job was not a job, but a mindset. It enabled survival in conflict. But in the conflicts of the small and quiet surrenders sweated out beyond the straining of the body, what then? He rolled over and showed me his “job” look.
I made him leave then. (And sent a torrent of texts which I now regret.)
He’d been right that it was a thing of ideas; I was dispatched in my own way to writing things and when I got angry with his suggestion that the conversation might end up on some forum maybe I was a hypocrite. I wanted him because I wasn’t done writing him and my only fear about the forum was the taking of things out of context, the fact that it wouldn’t be my telling. I scoured the internet, split between Action–me and Sleep–me. I thought about the plant I hadn’t had chance to give him.
Last night, she took the alpine phlox
which had lost most of its heads,
grasping either side of the pot like a face
it went dripping across the floor,
the spilling yellow moon was pissing into the wind.
Phlox feeds off water, it quivers
in the waterfall, runs up fells. In the kitchen
it gave the faintest impression of movement
like the river on a dry day.
She returned and said nothing. I heard
scrubbing and drains. In the rising water
her nails were black, she saw the plant, drowned,
its silvery spots staring up accusingly
borne back like the wind in the moon’s face
to soil her.
When I finally went down in the morning the helicopters were still stuck to the shoes, staring up through the skylight.
I’m going to tell you about fear.
It’s so easy to categorise people on Tinder; as I explored in my last blog, in some ways it takes the pressure off. But it’s also easy to cede complete control, to speak to someone because a pop up tells you, coaxes, encourages, or derides. And it’s easy to forget that it can’t tell us who lies and if the lies pose a threat.
Danet in “Text as Mask” writes that online “people explore previously unexplored personalities… [perhaps dark ones] much like wearing a mask at a carnival.” Whilst these people can be completely innocuous in person, the reverse is also true.
It came in through the paisley blind and gave everything in the room rosacea. Must have slept through most of the day. I dressed in what I thought was orange, but out in the sunlight even the dress was red.
Quarter to. The boat was quiet, strung with thick lanterns stretching their limbs. It wasn’t too late to walk back along the tow path and feel Nausea subside. Instead, I did breathing exercises.
The boat was empty apart from an elderly man with a grey-ish beard at the window.
“Hello, you must be her.”
“I’m sorry I think you’re mistaken.”
He seemed amused. “I could have sworn we arranged to meet here, last night, when you talked about your interest in water.”
“…that can’t be.” I didn’t have to check my phone to know the date was a 22-year-old, suntanned hipster whose favourite novel was tbc. I remembered him variously surfing and studying (complete with tank top).
He reseated himself and began cleaning his glasses. “All that’s true (except the picture). So, what you have to ask yourself is this: would you have come to meet me if I’d disclosed my age?”
“That’s not relevant. You lied; there’s a difference between omission and actively assuming someone else’s identity.”
“Are you accusing me of shallowness?”
“I am suggesting that Tinder is somewhat ageist. It interests me, as an academic.”
The boat bowed and the gathering engine signalled we were no longer moored.
He gestured to the chair. “Look, we’ve 90 minutes. Why don’t you tell me more about yourself.”
I yanked out the chair. He waited patiently until I spoke, asking him who he really was.
“I’m a professor of renaissance literature.”
“At the university?” I didn’t remember him. But it could have been the other uni.
He spoke then, quickly, like he’d been chewing on something inedible and needed to spit. He’d written a controversial book about “high-level corruption” and had been imprisoned and tortured by an unknown group whose motives he never found out. When finally released he discovered his wife had left, taking everything except the manuscript.
It seemed ridiculous.
But, his urgency, (and the online news article) gave substance.
“In the cell, I had a lot of time to contemplate water.” He looked out the window at the spring showers. He was so close he wouldn’t have seen a reflection, only the coming darkness on the other side.
“The thing about pain, is that it breaks the body. It hates the object that commits it. Personifies it. But at some point, the mind gains power. The object changes. Have you read Elaine Scarry?”
He took another swig and set the glass down, where rain pooled. He pointed. “I like it, despite everything. So emphatic. The moments where it endeavours to start upwards as though it wants to be light and falls…”
He became aware of his nose, hastily wiped the smudge.
I laughed. Perhaps he was lonely. Perhaps this was not a dichotomy of true and false, depth and surface, but an inveigling space where selves are both.
“Did you decide on a favourite book?”
“An impossible question. Recently, I have enjoyed Fifty Shades.”
I spat out my drink.
“I’m not joking. It’s the most feminist novel I’ve read in years.”
“The most feminist novel? You’re a literature professor.”
“It’s about time someone wrote about the pleasures of S and M.” He picked the lime out of his glass and sucked it.
“…Well I guess some people are into that, and good for them.” I looked out the window. I hadn’t noticed us turning. How far upriver were we?
“Yes, some are.” An alcohol rash was spreading over his cheeks.
I wondered how fast the river was.
He had a list. Things that began in a space where pleasure and pain oscillated between consenting open-minded adults, and rapidly moved into darker spaces, culminating in something unimaginable.
As the boat pulled in I jumped, hitting my knee. The bruise flowered on the bus.
When I got there the department was dark and I cornered the staff list, scanning the red lettering. His name was missing. I searched for the article he’d shown me and stared—
“Page not found.”
What is the purpose of Tinder? I found myself thinking as I snatched up my phone for the third time that morning and pressed the little orange flame. As I was merrily swiping away but not messaging any matches, I wondered if this wasn’t just an alternative to tucking up with First Dates and a bottle of Bud?
If I’m honest, treating it like entertainment distracted from the anxiety of actually finding someone. And, thanks to non-existent lunch breaks, the rapid exchange suppressed the knowledge that there were people behind the profiles, moving further and further from the ostensible purpose.
It also appeared to me that for some Tinder doesn’t actually have a purpose other than play and parody. My first conversation went like this:
“Tell me something about yourself.”
“I like cheese.”
“That’s very grating.”
“You’re no gouda this.”
I wondered at the person using my fingers, who’d never been good at puns, and had just entered a pun war.
After a series of similar episodes, I agreed to go out with one and prepared some witticisms on the bus (since they usually come in the shower 5 hours late).
We met at the fountain. Flipping a coin, I watched it scrape across the ice colliding with its reflection.
There wasn’t anyone who resembled his picture. So I pressed my fingers into the nerve at the base of the thumb and concentrated on not feeling sick.
When I was 13 I had a peculiar experience. I was at a fashion show on my way to get a drink, shuffling down the aisle over people’s feet. Two blokes at the stage pointed and turned the camera. I only just made it, could not stop vomiting. Since then sometimes this little thought surfaces: “what if you’re sick?”
He formed in the ice, wearing a yellow coat. “What a marvellous hat.”
Since it was the Festival of Light, I asked if he wanted to see the Mystery Plays in the gardens. (It was a contemporary production: with interpretive dance and glow sticks).
Apparently he wasn’t bothered.
“I thought you’d be interested. You studied history?”
“Yes, but ironically… It’s only ideology teaching us there’s such a thing as a master narrative.”
A good point, though I’d have made a case for a Post-postmodern reconciliation of time and space, but decided not to enter into that, because I was going to the Plays whether he was or not.
We walked through the centre, past the vendors and shops with their hollowing light.
I didn’t care that the play bore no resemblance to the original. It was majestic. Ribbons glittered and what looked like death masks stalked disembodied between crocuses.
“You know that ‘mystery’ didn’t mean intrigue? It’s ‘miracle’ or ‘craft’; the plays were performed by guilds. Isn’t that interesting? Etymology has connected an artisan craft with a miracle.”
I smiled. Thought of the chilblains throbbing even in walking socks. Became aware of his heat.
“You look like you’re part of the play in that coat.” I prodded the waterproof.
“Then you must join!” Looking around, he plucked a crocus. I tutted.
“You know”, he stopped and bit his lip. “I’m aware I’m a cliché, but I’ve often thought clichés annulled if you point them out so, here I go… The thing is, I just got out of a relationship”,
“So I’m not sure what I want, or, really who I am, or—”
I stopped listening and threaded the crocus through my hat.
“Let’s go drink.”
Sometimes, keys don’t fit the doors for which they’re designed. This is variously infuriating, unsettling, at times hilarious.
On the fifth attempt, they lurched, finding themselves in a heap.
I asked if he would hold down my hat because it was a northern winter. He did, informing me that I was turning the key in the letterbox.
Hats are curious things. It felt more naked than being without. He lifted it like it was made of twigs, and placed it upside down, preserving the edges.
Later, I unfolded myself, hedgehogged, craving coffee. I suspected he’d be gone when I returned. We’d stepped out of language long enough to undress and probably for him it was still a game, just in a different space. And how could it become anything else, if things have no history?
He was standing over there by the drying rack
where before he’d fingered a record, and spoke of dissonance.
—He was clasping it with both hands, as if something
captivating like rain welled there
I want to tell you about my soon to be posted blogs written as an assignment for my MA in Creative Writing at The University of East Anglia.
What will I be writing about?
The blogs will integrate short stories and poetry, a formal merging which I believe more faithfully reflects the fluidity of self and experience.
They will be about the dating app Tinder, engaging with surrounding questions about digital media culture through what I have found entertaining stories to experience and write.
Some of these questions will be:
- What kind of space is Tinder? Real or imagined?
- What is the purpose of Tinder?
- If online dating can be seen as play and performance, how does this affect interaction?
- What are the potential dangers of partial anonymity?
- Are there pitfalls to logging such personal information?
- How does Tinder affect presentations of gender?
- What does it do for creativity?
I was struck when researching other Tinder blogs by the potential not only for confessional accounts but for a narrative arc.
In view of the dynamics between “real” and “virtual”, I’d ask you to question how the blogging form has been positioned as autobiographical and authentic. As with many things in life, “I” tells a version of a story, which may be mostly truth and a little fiction as well as mostly fiction and a little truth.
I hope that as the narratives unfold, your perceptions of Tinder evolve along with me, and that you find something with which you identify. I will post twice weekly beginning Sunday 30th April. All images are courtesy of free repositories such as Pixabay and Morguefile, or my own photos. Comments are welcome and much appreciated!