I wrote this poem around two years ago – the first love poem I’d ever written. It came after a conversation with Pete about how we use the word ‘reality’. So often we attribute it to the things we do – in particular the things we don’t want to do. ‘Oh well, back to reality!’ ‘It’s time she started living in the real world!’ ‘The alarm clock going off again was a real reality check!’ This struck me as a strange truth: isn’t the world of our thought, going on silently and personally inside our brains, the real reality? Isn’t that the thing we are experiencing most of the time: that we wake up with and go to bed with and have to put to one side occasionally in order to attend the far less natural obligations of dentists appointments and meetings with our colleagues?
I’m always resistant towards any way of thinking which strives to make life seem more unpleasant and strict than it actually has to be, and I suppose this falls in with that. Give me the internal reality of books, love and daydreams any day.
Besides that tangent, this is also a sonnet which likens falling in love to the Big Bang. Not that I take myself too seriously, or anything.
Sonnet 212 or Virtual Reality
In over-starched clothes in a blank hotel,
We said the world existed in our heads. My life began (or really got going)
On a rain soaked blanket, a king-size bed.
The Big Bang banged in a makeshift teepee,
foreign bodies binding; new entities.
Elements exploded; bound you to me.
The solid world around us began to
redefine itself; empty cells imbued
with fireflies and lightning, meaning renewed.
Carbon became two technicolor gods,
Dorothy landing in the land of Oz.
The galaxy lives in your underwear;
In a midnight feast; a waiting room chair.
By 8pm Erica and Lee had been talking together in the bar for two hours. This was the longest Erica had spoken to anyone besides her mother for years. Talking was impractical and, although she often spent time socialising with friends and family, it was generally considered unwise to spend too long doing something so unproductive as to sit and talk for hours. Time with friends was, it was felt, better spent swimming lengths or practicing musical instruments together. As positive as The Team attempted to be about the collaboration process, there was no escaping the fact that it left one with a third of the time to pursue personal projects.
But Erica was enjoying sitting and talking without purpose. More importantly, Erica was what you and I might call shit faced. Erica had never been more than slightly tipsy before and was not yet aware of the warm, fuzzy feeling that red wine can give to a person. She attributed her new found sense that everything was alright entirely to Lee. Erica was shit faced and feeling romantically inclined. It was a night of firsts.
“This is a night of firsts.” Erica declared. “This is the first time that I have drunk more than 6 units of red wine. This is the first time I have talked to a man for 2 hours. I would like to ingest more alcohol please and to discuss novel and engaging ideas. We shall be like Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard in Breakfast At Tiffanys, in our dogged and irreverent pursuit of novel experiences.” Her mind was reaching for complex vocabulary to compensate for her compromised clarity of thought. The result was, she believed, most satisfactory. Lee smiled, seemingly endeared to her. He is probably seduced by my complex vocabulary, deduced Erica.
“A fine idea madam. However, as a regular consumer of double digit units of alcohol i must inform you that our purchases will be noted and may ring alarms bells if reviewed. Would you like to make this your first bar crawl, young Erica?” Lee rose from the cosyness of the alcove and led Erica by the hand towards the front door. As he did so she noticed a small, plain white box tucked in his jacket pocket. The box was more distinctive from anti-smoking propaganda than real life but she recognised it nonetheless. As they stepped outside into the cool night Lee caught the line of her gaze. “I spun a good lie to my doctor. Physical addiction and the avoidance of anxiety attacks”, he explained. “Have you ever tried a cigarette Erica?”
The pair glanced around furtively before stepping into a quiet, cobbled side street. Lee shielded a cigarette from the fine mist of rain which had begun to fall and inhaled deeply. He passed it to Erica and she pressed the butt to her lips with affected confidence, the first flush of mischief she had felt since, at nine, she and a school friend had sampled the liqueurs in her parents drinks cabinet. Predictably, Erica coughed and spluttered. If anybody had been able to watch over two time periods at once, they might have noticed uncanny similarities between this action of Erica’s and the exact same action of Erica’s mother 35 years ago. Both had spluttered; both giggled as they returned the unwanted cigarette; both hoped to be kissed by the person who had supplied it.
“Perhaps it is my turn to suggest some firsts sir. Do you like to run?” Erica asked the question but didn’t wait for an answer. She tore past Lee and out of the alley, pelting at full speed along the pavement. The Thames streamed past a few metres below her as her inebriated mind elatedly converted the rythmic drumming of her heels on the cobbles into the hooves of galloping horses. She was a jousting knight plunging toward his opponent; she was Ghengis Khan storming into battle with the Turks; she was Erica the athlete and for once she was not, not, not Pretty Jenny.
By the time Lee had caught up with her she was leaning against a wall outside the bar for which she had been headed; her hair was wild from the wind as she ran but her breath had returned to a steady rate. Lee’s had not.
“No, I do not like to run.” He panted. And then he kissed her. It was exactly what she had hoped would happen.
Erica let herself savour the moment for as long as a member of the frantic generation reasonably could. It was nearly nine o’clock after all, and little more than three hours until her evening would be over. She reviewed the line she’d been planning and spoke it, before doubt could creep in and intercept.
“Lee, this has been a night of firsts and I feel that this may be what is known as a hero’s call to adventure for me.”
“That may be the wine.”
“Possibly. But seeing as I have never been drunk or experienced a call to adventure before, how can I know?”
“A valid point madam.”
“In light of this I would like to propose that the adventure that I have been called to is sex with a human man, and that you may be that man.”
“Have you had sex with something or someone other than a human or a man?”
“No, I was just nervous and thought it would be funny to say human man. It is perhaps this social awkwardness that is at the root of my current virginal status. This would be my first experience of sex, full stop.”
Lee’s gaze remained fixed and suggested a combination of excitement and hesitance. Despite her lack of experience in the field, Erica felt confident that this was a sub-optimal reaction to the suggestion. She had been pleased with her assertive directness thus far: it was exactly the approach that she encouraged in her readers. So she decided to continue with it.
“I have gauged that your hesitant reaction is sub-optimal, comrade.”
“Erica… This is an excellent suggestion. I appreciate your directness and I can think of no better way to spend my Friday evening than by assisting you in your hero’s call to adventure. But it wouldn’t be right if, in light of your directness, I didn’t treat you with directness in return. I would also like to apologise for my overuse of the word ‘direct’ in this uncharacteristically long dialogue. I rarely put myself in situations where synonyms are required.”
Erica could not think of anything funny to say so she said nothing. Instead she compiled a quick mental list of all the awful things that may be wrong with her that may lead a plain, drunk man to reject her for sex on a Friday night.
“We… If… If we do… If I do come home with you… It won’t be the first time for me.” Lee was spouting various syntactically inaccurate sentences from which it was difficult to ascertain meaning. The experience was clearly uncomfortable for him.
“What I mean is… I mean it won’t be the first time for me with you. I… We… have had sex before. Only last time… When we last… Last time your name was Jennifer.”
This episode will probably come later in the story but I want to write it now and fuck it, MY BLOG, MY RULES.
In Which Erica Experiences Some Firsts
Erica – not unusually for an average earthling – had no first hand knowledge of the world before her own existence. If she had done, her perspective may have been much broader and one of the things that she perhaps would have noticed was that her ancestors were generally a lot more still than her contemporaries. Her parents generation believed their children had a far more frenzied demeanor, and were generally of the opinion that this habitual mania stemmed from a sense that time was short; that their poor offspring felt the pressure to achieve before their chips were subdued at midnight, and their lives jumped forward another two days. Erica’s parents could not fathom how it might feel to fall asleep on Monday night and wake up on Thursday, with half the week already done. Erica could not fathom anything else.
Something that Erica was slightly more aware of was that her generation was much more attractive than her parents generation. This was a natural consequence of culling the bottom two thirds of the population based primarily on physical traits. This phenomena did not present itself as an issue often since, for most of history, younger people have generally been perceived as more aesthetically pleasing than their older counterparts. The only time that the general handsomeness of her contemporaries was brought to her attention was when she saw a young person that was unattractive. As is the way with most rare and unusual things, being unattractive had taken on a ‘hip’ and exotic quality and had, of late, become a very attractive thing indeed.
Erica was sitting alone in a bar near Embankment station. The bar was famous for cheese and red wine and Erica was enjoying 80% of her daily fat recommendation and 25% of her weekly alcohol ration on her first Friday evening in three weeks. Her attention was caught by a man sat in an alcove a few metres away from her. He was extremely plain and this was, naturally, what had caught her attention. But he was also very still and this was what held it. Careful as she was, one glass of red wine was enough to embolden Erica. She had not drunk any since last Friday – three weeks past – and it took her approximately 140ml of table red to summon the courage to broach conversation.
Erica was, as has been previously stated, very attractive. She had blonde hair which communicated a sense of warmth and youthful innocence, her abs were visible on most days and her body fat had recently been measured with calipers at just over 18%. Erica took little pride in these statistics since they were, in her view, the statistics of Pretty Jenny. It had been a while since Erica had experienced resentment, angst or indeed any heightened state of emotion about this fact. Instead, her teenage sense of injustice had translated in early adulthood to a faint detachment; an anxiety to keep things tidy and not to use anything without permission, as though she were a guest at the home of an old, revered aunt.
But today had been a hard day, and the man in the alcove was looking at her. Erica was tired of playing the role of wallflower.
She rose and walked toward him. She knew that she was attractive and she knew that his looking at her was a subtle social code that it was acceptable for her to initiate conversation. She decided that she would take the plunge and trust that something intelligent and alluring would come to her as she sat down. It didn’t. She lowered herself onto the sofa next to the plain man, smiled politely and looked at the bottle of wine on the table in front of him. There were approximately ten seconds of silence, which her companion seemed to find far less alarming than Erica did. Eventually the chasm became too big and she had to fill it.
“You’ve got a whole 75cl bottle of red wine in front of you but you don’t look like you’re waiting for anybody.”
“Thanks for letting me know.”
Erica waited for him to add a question; a statement of his own; anything to move things forward. Instead he returned to silence. His nose was crooked in the middle and his eyes were sunken and lined beneath a heavy brow.
“It’s just, I happen to know that there are 9 units of alcohol in that bottle of wine. And so I was wondering how you were managing the 6 unit limit with… If you’re drinking it all to yourself.”
The man laughed. There was another uncomfortable silence and Erica was just reaching to fill it when he spoke.
“What’s your name?”
Erica smiled a smile of relief and told him.
“I’m Lee. Can I tell you a secret Erica?”
Erica confirmed that he could. Her role as agony aunt had taught her to respond to personal admissions with warm sincerity.
“This is… This is not my first bottle of wine this evening. It may not be my last. I am throwing caution to the proverbial wind with regards to units of alcohol consumption tonight. Would you like a glass of this finest table red, Erica?”
It was rare, in a society of easy promiscuity and frantic busyness, to meet someone with such a present manner and playful sense of humour.
“Yes but first I must tell you something. Anakin I – I’m your father.” Confusing Star Wars and real life had been her favourite joke as a child.
“Erica… I’m pretty sure Anakin is the father.”
Erica laughed and poured herself a glass of wine. She had never had a second glass of wine before, but tonight felt like a night of firsts.
My name’s Josie and I’m sixteen this May. I’ve been a collaborator for a third of my life now and nothing has worried me too much so far. But some of my friends have started talking about -and are maybe even having – sex. I just wondered what your opinion was on that, when do you know you are ready and is it better to be the first one to have had sex in a collaboration or not?
Thanks so much for getting in touch with such an important question: this one is relevant to everyone who becomes a collaborator and so it’s really great that you’ve given me the opportunity to answer it.
First of all it’s brilliant to hear that – five years in – you’ve not had any complaints or issues with your collaboration. I know a lot of our younger readers are super worried about those first few years and settling into their body share so it’s so good for them to hear about real life examples of collaborators getting on just fine and proving that the system works!
Ok. You’ve asked to discuss something quite serious and adult so I hope you won’t mind me talking to you like an adult here, Josie.
Now: how do you know when you’re ready to have sex? For my grandparents’ generation the answer to your question was simple; it’s when you’ve got a wedding ring on your finger. For my parents generation the answer was similarly simple and similarly didactic: wait until you’re in love; that’s when you’ll know. You’ll feel ready. Sweet little epithets Josie, I’m sure you’ll agree, but I have some problems with the wisdom of our ancestors. It fails to take reality into account and, I feel, the problems that wisdom caused were twofold:
1) These rules are too idealistic and fail to factor in human nature. Therefore they made the majority of people (who wanted to have sex but hadn’t found a marriage partner or fallen in love) feel weird or like they’d failed.
2) These rules are oversimplifications and were, weirdly, overcomplicating sex by making people question the quality of the sex they were having and whether they really had been in love or whether this was the person they should’ve married etc, etc, etc. Basically,for those guys, sex = worry.
Both of these problems resulted in the same thing: our parents and grandparents ended up feeling confused, uncomfortable and ashamed of the sex they were and weren’t having and the whole thing caused a lot of upset. Part of those feelings (and the advice itself) came from the notion that your body was yours to preserve and to protect and, by extension, sex wasn’t something you should give away. It was like giving away a part of your self.
Things just aren’t like that anymore.
We are lucky enough, Josie, to live in an evolved version of our parents society which appreciates the value of the mind as the source of our selves. We understand now, through the success of collaboration, that the body is just a vessel for a mind. Our ancestors often talked about this notion (‘it’s what’s inside that counts’ etc) but didn’t really live by it. We are the generation that practices what they preach.
So what’s my attitude to sex? It’s don’t overthink it. You think you want to try sex but aren’t sure that you’re ready? Go for it! If it turns out you don’t enjoy it then just chalk it up to experience. What other damage is there, apart from the imaginary damage you’ve been warned about by your stuffy ancestors? You think you want to sleep with three different guys from your school rugby team in one week? Well why not! It’s your life, your choice and if you think it sounds like fun then who’s to tell you you’re wrong?! You want to sleep with a guy from your drama group or football team but worried you’ll be the first of your collaborators? Don’t worry about it. You share a body but the experience of sex is about more than a body (or two bodies)! When they decide to do it for the first time is their choice; what you do when it’s you that’s alive and kicking is your choice, so long as you don’t impact your collaborators negatively (which is all covered in the Ten Rules For Harmonious Collaboration).
Speaking of negative impact, there’s just one important point that I really need to stress to you Josie, and to make sure you really hear it I’m turning to capitals and exclamation marks. YOU! MUST! ALWAYS! USE! PROTECTION! I can’t make this point enough… the only way that you can really make your sex life someones issue other than your own is to catch an STI or get pregnant without prior planning and authorisation. Using a combination of condoms and birth control pills is the only way to make sure that, once you do make that step, you are treating sex with the maturity and responsibility that it deserves.
This is the generation that values mind over matter. If you’ve made your mind up that you’re ready then trust me Josie, that’s all that matters! All that remains for me to say is: good luck and have fun!
This letter had been one Erica had been putting off replying to for a few days, despite her editor pestering her to respond to it. Encouraging promiscuity was one of The Team’s ‘Spring Initiatives’ and she’d been briefed so extensively as to how to ‘pitch’ it that her response had been little more than padding out their bullet points into full sentences.
She would have felt a lot less uncomfortable sending it if she had ever really experienced sex. Sex, so far to Erica, was nothing more than a dull ache that she sometimes felt in the mornings.