I’ve just come from the Munch exhibition at Tate Modern. I went with my ex-boyfriend. We hadn’t seen each other since November 2007. I asked him, standing at the bar of the Members’ Room, how long he thought it had been. He looked at me.
‘It’s been a couple years,’ he said. He read my face. ‘Maybe three. Or four.’
‘Four years and nine months,’ I said. ‘But who’s counting?’
‘Well, well,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘I have stories to tell you.’
After coffee we went to the exhibition. I took the pamphlet the steward handed me at the door and read, as I strolled through the familiar images of heightened colours and obscured faces, that Munch belonged to a bohemian set whose first commandment was ‘Thou shalt write thy life.’
A thrill charged my spine. I looked at my ex-boyfriend and said to Munch, silently and you might think incongruously, amidst the tortured self-portraits and sick-green evocations of illness and despair, (incongruous as I’m basically an artist who wants to write about jokes and sex) ‘Mon semblable, mon frere’.
My ex-boyfriend – I’ve got to make up a name for him, it’s getting tiresome writing m.ex.b, I’m calling him – Silvius. No. Guillaume. No. Joe. He’s Joe. JOE has been the inspiration for two, count ‘em, two stage plays and a screenplay, stories with which I’d spent more time than I had him (we dated for just under two years). And ninety minutes into our reunion, a meeting which involved me seeing, for the first time in my entire life, outside of bad situation comedy, someone take a mouthful of tea and laugh so hard she spat it up over herself, her skirt, the table and the leather seat while Joe calmly handed someone a handkerchief from his pocket so she could mop it up and wipe her face as she continued to make gasping noises, keeling over on the banquette and not caring if she stained the only summer wardrobe she owned – ninety minutes in, I say, Joe had already said half a dozen things I tried to type into the iPad of my mind; remarks and insights and passionate expression of belief - ‘It is not your job to get in your own way; that is other people’s job’ that reminded me why I loved him so much and why the scripts had to be written.
If Munch had known Joe, his picture would have been here.
**I had started writing my life just before I met Joe. I was commissioned to create a one-act for the Bridewell Theatre in 2004, a play that became the first half of Torches - a story about what happens when you sleep with a good friend (you fall in love, cry a lot and escape to Greece for a week if you must know). Both Date With Dillon and Sirens are autobiographical stories I’ve performed as what I called ‘Stand Up Tragedy!’ And in the summer of 2006 Joe and I broke up and the second half of Torches was born. It is now a full-length play about two couples who meet on the 5th November to reunite or part forever, as bonfires go up all over town.
These stories have been performed and broadcast in fringe theatres, small cinemas, and read a few thousand times on line. My first radio play, they told me, reached an audience of 300,000. I clutched my chest and swooned until my producer said that was just very slightly average. And average just isn't good enough.
I have always been hugely ambitious. I have always imagined a world-wide forum for every story I tell. I want an intimate conversation with as many people as possible.
It’s not that I don’t I think my producer and I are on the right track. Chris and I have met commissioning editors at Sky, the BBC (Comedy and Drama), Channel 4 in September, The Royal Court. The Soho is in the offing. That public, intimate conversation is swirling, in the potential universe.
But seeing Joe at the Tate Modern, the site of our very first date in 2004 (a date in which I sat opposite him, knowing after five minutes that we’d have amazing sex) (reader, we did), me still single in 2012 and not yet having the world-wide conversation, drop-kicked me into a vertiginous spiral of feeling that I was very unchanged from the woman he charmed eight years ago and wondering just what the fuck I had accomplished since.http://www.google.com/imgres?num=10&hl=en&biw=1366&bih=665&tbm=isch&tbnid=2zN4mZNABxI2-M:&imgrefurl=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Munch_Ashes.jpg&imgurl=http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/1/14/Munch_Ashes.jpg&w=925&h=795&ei=hro4UK2gBKmN0AXKhYGIBA&zoom=1&iact=hc&vpx=186&vpy=149&dur=887&hovh=208&hovw=242&tx=91&ty=123&sig=106025660298364628340&page=1&tbnh=148&tbnw=174&start=0&ndsp=18&ved=1t:429,r:0,s:0,i:76
When I arrived, they were evacuating the building for a fire alarm. I had a panicky clutch in my chest, ‘Oh no, maybe this is an omen!’ (An omen of what? Joe and I already broken up. And got back together. And broken up; there was no more blood under this bridge) but within ten minutes I was walking up the six flights to the Members’ Room, wondering if I would recognise him. I wondered if I would know him right away or only eventually, after that shocking moment when you think ‘Fuck. I used to kiss you?’ I was happy on the settee, watching what seemed like a parade of Italian-looking men (Joe is American but his last name is Guidicianni), thinking he might not recognise me, when there he was, coming out of the lift, a little wet (it had bucketed during the alarm), but smiling, and walking towards me with open arms.
He looked good. His face entirely unchanged in five years; freakishly young, like he bathes in the blood of virgins or loaned his soul to Beelzebub. In his late fifties, he could pass for early forties. His hair is a bit thinner (‘I am glad that I can still chew most of my own food; not much dribbling either’), a bit more silver but it all suits him and he was in a white cotton shirt that set off the slight darkness of his skin and brown eyes.
He flashed his pass at the desk. He was frustrated that they’d renumbered the floors. Had been six, now it was five.
‘This is why I don’t carry a gun.’ He held open the door to the café. ‘I said “Is it the same altitude? Is it the same number of floors?” Oh yes they said. ‘But now we have a floor ‘Zero’. For the Olympics. It’s better.”’
He was funny about his frustration but I remembered it was this kind of intensity that made me nervous when we were dating. A GUN, already? I am the product of a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture in which you inhale your negative feelings or feel very bad if you express them. Joe had neither of these reservations, which had resulted in pyrotechnic misunderstandings more than once.
But. It had made for great material.
We ordered our drinks. As he expressed his views about bad committee decisions that you wish you could have heard to shoot down in the planning stages, rather than watch die slowly and painfully, about the absurdity of a fire drill I knew, as I hadn’t known when we were dating what was bothering him. He had told me to meet him on the 6th floor, it was now the 5th; he had arrived on time, more than on time, half an hour early, but they kicked him out and he was late. He had made a commitment, honoured his commitment, and then, beyond his control, had not been able to keep it.
His heart leapt out against the externals. He’d done everything he could to be the man who keeps his promise. Not being that man was untenable.
Munch understood. Joe felt kinda like this:
I knew, instinctively, this was true. And wondered why I hadn’t known it when it mattered most, when I was sleeping with him and wanting him to meet my family? Was it another instance of experience being what you get just after you need it?
And then I remembered.
I’d written three scripts about Joe, two stage plays and a screenplay. In every one of those scripts Joe is a huge-hearted, clever, powerful and erotically-motivated man who wants to keep his promises.
I’d written my way into knowing Joe.
Ten minutes later I was spitting tea.
At 4:00 we walked my bike along the Embankment, towards Waterloo and his tube. We discussed dating. He’s recently single (I’m still single, get the distinction?) and remembering his un-partnered self. I told him how I’d been found on line by someone I’d fancied hugely when I was 18, when I’d thought of myself as a greasy schlump with bad skin, only to discover the guy had actually liked me.
‘Well of course,’ Joe said. ‘There are two things you have to know. You have to realise the profound effect you have on people. And you have to go back and readdress that story. The story of the schlump.’
We entered Blackfriars’s pedestrian tunnel, me wheeling my bike behind him. He called over his shoulder, his voice echoing off the tiles.
‘And you can do this. You recreate yourself every morning. You wake up and you say ‘Hm. Which Stephanie am I going to be today?’ It’s a playwright’s job, of course. Not a problem for you.’
I kept my eyes on the crowd, ostensibly to prevent my pedals from impaling children in push chairs, but mostly because I couldn’t look him in the face. I laughed, in a fake way, and confessed that these days I felt slightly less able than usual. I didn’t mention the lack of world-wide recognition and sky-scraping income but thought I could talk about dating.
‘I seem to have a stamp emblazoned my forehead,’ I shouted, threading through a French family of six, all eating ice cream. ‘It says “Are you married? In a relationship? Chat Me UP!”
We emerged into the sun.
‘Every guy who’s liked me for the past 36 months has been involved with someone else.’
Joe kept up his steady roll beside me. He’s not tall which suits a woman whose friends have taken to calling ‘Hobbit’. His shoulder felt familiar, just above mine.
‘Last week four of them checked in,’ I said, sadly. ‘Within 36 hours. Three of them had DREAMS about me.’
(This is true. My astral body is getting a lot more action than any other body I’m connected to at the moment.)
I told Joe this couldn’t be coincidence. I must be putting something out there. A vibe. Something in my less sanguine moments I call ‘The Chump Frequency’.
‘No, no, it’s them,’ Joe observed, loyally unequivocal. ‘Married guys. I have no moral objection, I have no philosophical aversion to what married guys do with women who are not their wives. But it just seems So Hard To Focus. It’s like – you’re at a meal. You’re at a wonderful meal and someone has slapped a nice, juicy steak down in front of you. And you’ve got your knife and your fork and you are just about to bite into this luscious steak and you look over there, over there, and you see, someone has shrimp scampi with linguini and you reach over, you lunge and you shove it in your mouth! and as you’re shoving you look over there, and some guy has ravioli - and you jump up, grab the ravioli and shove THAT in your mouth. And I’m just saying, guys, eat what’s in front of you. You don’t want to be grabbing food off someone else’s plate.’
The day was hot but the river, whipped in small waves, looked cool. We approached the Hungerford Bridge, watching the sun ping off the water. I felt an ease rising under my ribs. The air, the light, Joe’s warmth. The sense that he’d said something of huge importance, if I could metabolise it, or if he could just say it again.
‘Now, this is all here for you,’ he said, waving his hand in the direction of either the Shell Building, the National Theatre or a man in a stall selling bratwurst. ‘You know that right? You would have no trouble, seeing an opportunity and leaping? making like the cobra? You have this effect, you will meet so many men in your world and business, you’re not stuck at home writing by yourself, and god knows you’ve got the goods.’ He looked away and inhaled sharply, remembering our intimacy (which he said I enjoyed at particularly high decibels). ‘Jesus Mary, my left ear still hasn’t recovered. I was sure the cops would break down the door. “Sir, are you responsible for this noise?” “No, officer. Well, yes, officer – “'
We stood near the steps to the bridge.
‘I want you to change your perception. That schlumpy girl, you see? she had it wrong. And next time I see you, I want tales of how you have implemented this wisdom. All right? You change your mind. Let the game come to you.’
We embraced with a promise to meet in the autumn.
It was too beautiful a day to go home so I sat at the counter on the Riverside Terrace of the Royal Festival Hall and watched the red buses, gleaming on the hot bridge. I had the beginning of a feeling, difficult to describe but undeniable and strong, that from now on my plays would be better produced, and probably better known. My focus was shifting, and shifting fast. Joe had given me the key to my own desires. Which is to value them. Value the woman, not a schlump, who has those desires.
A woman he has always made feel valuable.
The ease in my chest rose higher, sped up and turned into joy. Maybe, in an alternate universe, Munch had known Joe. And they’d had tea. So he painted this: