Even the street where you live isn’t necessarily safe. She turns the corner, and gets caught out by the usual cluster of tracksuits and stares slouching around by the steps of the off-license. She can’t turn around to go home a different way. That would be attracting extra attention. The only thing to do is carry on walking.
Her body tenses automatically, as if that scrunches her up small enough to slip by unnoticed, like a rat. She should stride by confidently. Give the impression that she’s on a whole other level to them, one so high up that their presence doesn’t even register, but she can’t. Instead, she settles for a glazed expression and focuses on the pavement a few feet ahead.
A distraction technique, to keep breathing and walking.
She passes three of them. Now four.
The last two – and she’s clear. Pace quickens in triumph: almost home, and acceptably human enough for them not to start on me.
One of them shouts “You’re FIT!” and – inevitably – they all laugh.
Her face crumples then hardens, and she carries on up the path. As if she didn’t hear it or like she didn’t care, or is too stupid to know that they’re taking the piss out of her.
What the fuck goes through their minds when they do that? What do they hope to gain? No, wait, scratch that – she knows what they hope to gain: a laugh from their mates. But why is it funny to them? They must know that she knows she’s conventionally unattractive. Therefore, they know that when they call her fit she’s aware that it actually means the opposite, that in fact they think she’s repulsive. So what they’re doing is deliberately reminding her that she’s repulsive.
Yeah, I get it…very funny.
Do they not realise that she stares at her teeth-brushing reflection most mornings and wants to repeatedly smash up the mirror with her fists then use the broken shards to tear that face apart? Do they think people like me enjoy looking like this? That we do it on purpose to disgust them and therefore are fair game for any cruelty they decide to subject us to? Do they even think?
Visibly drooping, she gets out her door key and lets herself into the house, still trying to justify their attitudes. Is it possible that the human species has again been split into several branches, distinguished by the amount of time spent engaged in thought? If you remove things like literature, scientific knowledge, thirst for knowledge in general and replace them with things like reality TV, substance abuse and sex, there isn’t much left to prompt intellectual stimulation. And, judging from conversations she’s overheard, there isn’t any desire to be prompted.
People she passes by in city centres tend to seem less complex than those she is close to, because she knows next to nothing about their natures, their backgrounds, things they enjoy and dislike, things that interest them etc. Making them seem like two-dimensional shadows. She sometimes wonders if a percentage of people actually are 2-D shadows, who think only 2-D materialistic thoughts and engage in 2-D activities with their 2-D shadow friends. Based on the things they spend their time doing, they can’t ever have wondered about subjects like existentialism or altruism, she decides. Otherwise they wouldn’t behave the way they do.
Having no money or guidance isn’t an excuse to take it out on the rest of the world. She understands that Western society views alcohol as the best way to escape depression and boredom and dissatisfaction. That kids learn coping strategies from the environments in which they’re raised, thus if their parents go straight for the booze when they get home from work, and if all social occasions centre around booze then naturally they’ll associate drinking with relaxation and socialising.
Why is it that some people – although they may use alcohol the same way and drink too much of it – realise how sad and pointless this culture is, while other people refuse to even examine it?
What does it say about their lives, she thinks, that we can’t enjoy ourselves without being under the influence of one mind-altering chemical or another? And why do some accept it as being a completely natural state of affairs, and get angry if you suggest otherwise?
It’s not like she’ll be joining MENSA any time soon, or like she’s a figurehead for exceptional intelligence. Upon entering the living room, she grabs an ashtray and lights up. Figures she’s proven this point. But at least I try. She’s exhaling smoke into the pages of ‘A Room with a View’ for crying out loud. Sure, it’s not the last word in high-brow reading, but it’ll fucking do for tonight. It’s sure as shit better than spending her life lurking on street corners, sucking down cheap vodka and having sex behind the off-license. She’d spent enough of her youth living that life. Winter nights after school with her mate Cheryl. Thirteen years old. They’d sit on the swings in the dark drinking cider and sharing a bag of chips.
What, does that make me a hypocrite?
But they never shouted abuse at the dog-walkers who crunched across the deserted gravel car park. They never trashed the little kids’ swings or chucked their greasy wrappers on the floor.
And I’m not still doing it, eight years later. That’s the crucial difference.