Two things happened today that made me realise that after six months, I have become a Londoner. Here’s the first:
I’m on a train, the White Man In A Suit Who Works At Canary Wharf next to me has his right arm and elbow lodged painfully into my ribcage. I sigh loudly, hoping he’ll get the message and give me some space. My discomfort doesn’t register; he’s too engrossed in his WhatsApp chats. He adjusts briefly, but it only makes it worse, and I’m shoved against the window. I turn my head, not enough to make direct eye contact, but just enough for him to see that I am Not Happy. I turn back to the window, and see in the reflection he is frowning. I am frowning too, but my gaze is vacant, noncommittal. Maybe he thinks I have menstrual cramps. I shift my left arm across my body, making it really obvious my annoyance is directly relating to his lack of spatial awareness. Maybe he just doesn’t give a shit that he’s all up in my grill. After two painful minutes, the person sat opposite moves, and WMIASWWACW gets up with the most effort I have ever seen in a middle-aged office worker, turns to look at me like he wants me dead (probably does tbh) and lies prone across two (!) seats, spreading his fat legs across the space between us. It’s infuriating.
To avoid this, what I should’ve done is look over at him with conviction, given him a quick flash of the eyebrows, transmitting in less than a second that he is encroaching on my person and kindly stop. He would’ve met my gaze, got the message, and moved his grotty polyester suit away from me. Instead, I made it into a massive thing, deepening my frown lines and raising my blood pressure unnecessarily. I went into ‘fight’ mode. Executed like a true Londoner! Congrats, me.
I’ll come to the second event a bit later.
Humans, being the complex creatures we are, have evolved with a defect. Somewhere between leaving the tree canopy for the last time and becoming exclusively land-dwelling, something went badly wrong with our wiring. We stopped thinking of things as being in three categories (should I fear it, can I mate with it, can I eat it) and began mentally exploring the grey bits in our brain that deals with complex emotions. Some would argue this development in our brains is what distinguishes us from our chimpanzee ancestors, it’s what helped make our brains swell to the size of melons and gave us self awareness. These people also probably think homogeneity is a bad thing. Perhaps it is.
Since moving to London, I have become increasingly guarded. If you know me well, or even a little bit, you’ll know I don’t (can’t) keep my feelings to myself. If I have an opinion, and I suspect it won’t cause serious offence, I’ll be the first to tell you about it, and I enjoy it if you feel differently and tell me so. This also counts for issues relating – but not limited – to how I feel about the weather, your shitty choice of boyfriend, how much money I don’t have, how much of a ball-ache writing a book is, et cetera. I still talk about this stuff, but the way in which I put it across has become rehearsed, there’s no real reason to say it other than it’s what I normally do. I say it because I’m used to giving my feelings about things freely, and I like to communicate – I’m a Gemini after all.
Problem is, I’m losing the ability to be vulnerable. Vulnerable means there is potential for damage, for something to be taken away. In the media, you hear about ‘vulnerable’ teenage girls being exploited by groups of men, ‘vulnerable’ old folk being swindled out of their life savings by rogue workmen. The overriding message is it’s bad to have vulnerability, so best avoid it.
Recently I’ve been watching back footage of myself singing, heavily cringing when I know to expect a particularly wooden arm gesture or unplanned eye roll. The thing is, I’m 27, I’ve lived a fairly interesting life so far, but when I watch myself performing (in the very loosest sense of the word, here), I don’t see anything that, as an onlooker, I’d be particularly inclined to engage with. It’s almost like there’s something tangible blocking the sentiment of what I want to put across. Almost like there’s (gasp!) a wall stopping me from visibly expressing how I feel.
London is hard work. I spend a lot of time commuting every day, which means a lot of time by myself. Introspective. I’m not the most laid-back person, but I take on challenges other people wouldn’t even dream of attempting and learn from them when they occasionally backfire (accountancy). People say they admire this about me, which makes me happy. Still, London is hard work, and it’s draining. There are men lurking, ready to beep and shout obscenities at you from a passing car, people prepared to shove you into the path of an incoming bus rather than make room on the pavement. Men prepared to devote time to getting to know you, take you on an awesome date and drop you the second they sense you’re getting attached. You decide it’s easier to say ‘it’s fine, I understand, you’re busy and anyway who’s to say you were the one, we barely knew each other?’ It’s exhausting. I can feel the drawbridge tangibly retracting.
So what do you do? Adopt the Cool Girl persona. It’s okay, it’s chill. Don’t worry about it. You can’t hurt me. I’m independent, I’m strong, I’ll even walk around Wood Green after sunset (I seriously don’t recommend this). I’ll wear jeans and trainers because it doesn’t attract too much attention and if something comes along that might put me in danger, I’ve got a fairly good chance at running away. This urban uniform keeps me out of danger, and so does taking my heart off my sleeve and locking it away where nobody can get at it.
I’m writing this post because online, you normally show your best self to the world. You add a filter, take the photo from the good side of your face. I’m not always feeling my best self, sometimes I feel like shit and there’s nobody to talk to about it because God knows we’ve all got problems. The older I get the less I want to be seen as some sad, single woman, a verifiable ‘Hot Mess’ like a Millennial Bridget Jones, except I don’t have a one-bed flat in Borough Market, so there isn’t even a positive in that scenario. Part of adulting is cloaking your feelings so that you seem, at least to the casual observer, like you’re coping. I am coping – this isn’t some thinly-veiled attempt at suggesting otherwise – and I largely enjoy the life I’ve made for myself. But I worry I’m losing my ability in performing to emote effectively. I’m not showing enough vulnerability, I’m not giving enough away. In singing, this is crucial. They want to see more than dead, brown eyes gazing toward the back of the room.
If you’re still reading, here’s the second thing:
‘Have you ever been heartbroken?’ asked my singing teacher earlier this evening.
I made a half-hearted reply. ‘Yes. I mean, I suppose? I try not to let it affect me.’
‘You need to. You have to really feel that when you sing this song. Let me see it. Sing it again.’
I sang it again. Still nothing.
‘Ok let’s try something else. Did you ever lose someone close to you?’
Now I couldn’t sing because I was crying. But no matter, it was working! My eyes were no longer lifeless, brown circles in my face. It might just have been the blood vessels and tears giving them a slightly shiny appearance, but I was EMOTING!
This story has, at least, a happy ending. I’ve realised I’m having trouble compartmentalising my feelings. Just because that guy I liked didn’t want to see me again doesn’t mean I have to switch off when I’m singing a song about the fuzzy feeling you get at the start of a new relationship. Just because some gross old dude on the train can’t keep his limbs in check doesn’t mean I need to shut down whenever someone tries to take a genuine interest in me. I refuse to let this city stop me from expressing myself, whether that be on a first date (yes, I know I’m a bit much, I’m super fucking nervous and you keep plying me with alcohol) or pretending to be someone else through song. It’s still me at the end of the day – nobody is that good an actor. The eyes are the gateway to the soul, as they say. I’ll do my best to keep mine open.