Boys I Dated Before I Was Rich & Famous
by Rhys Evans
Have you ever been a muse?
A boy, (or possibly a girl, but most likely a boy) will put you on a pedestal and subject you to their reductive fantasies about what you can or can’t be.
They will focus on the tiny details of your life and seek a metaphor in everything from your use of a fixie bike to wearing vintage clothing. What this person won’t find interesting is actually more interesting than this glossy re-working of the manic pixie dream girl trope: the girl with a depressive father who won’t entertain a therapist but will call his only daughter at 3am to talk through his manic episodes; the girl that struggles to articulate how in a heated political moment she’s never found solace in ideology.
As a teenager, I desperately wanted to be a muse. It would have been a form of validation, I suppose. Weaned on filmic images of Francoise Hardy and Anna Karina, a muse seemed like something worth being. I undertook all the necessary steps to cultivate the look: I dressed in black; learned how to smoke; only read Penguin Classics, slim enough to slip in a trench coat pocket, but big enough to peak out for all to see; and haunted second-hand record stores in George’s Arcade before it became a staple of hipster living.
I was prepared for the art and the mysterious boy, but the art and the mysterious boy never arrived.
Yet when I moved to England for university, lo and behold, I became a muse to not one, but two boys. Me! A too-skinny Irish girl who’s level of ambition extended to simply not being in Ireland. Both boys were privately educated and floppy haired; both kissed too quickly and had unhealthy relationships with alcohol.
At first I was flattered to be the beneficiary of Elius’s songs and Ptolemy’s poetry.
But no one talks about the art when the art is bad.
By the time I finally became a muse, I had grown disinterested in the role, in its demeaning nature. The youthful pretensions I once courted were long forgotten; there was nothing romantic about being a muse.
Elius wrote earnest songs which he described as post-modern folk.
(To note: if someone self-describes their creative pursuits as post-modern, back away, sharp-ish.)
An old girlfriend had once told Elius that his stage presence reminded her of Iggy Pop and this had given him a reckless, undignified confidence. He often performed with his top off, proudly showcasing a scrawny upper body, and finished his sets with an extended seven minute cover of “I Want You”, ad-libbing lyrics, testing the patience of the open mic audience. In fact, the organisers would have preferred if Elius didn’t turn up every week. Due to his constant presence, they had shortened the slots given over to performers from fifteen minutes to nine. This meant less time for other participants, but most importantly, less Elius.
Elius was a Dylan fanatic, obsessed to the point that he couldn’t have a civilised discussion about what would later become the subject of his dissertation. I once had the gumption to suggest that Dylan’s lyrics were overrated.
‘Overrated?’ spluttered Elius, his face contorted. He was flayed out on the couch, cradling his guitar, hand caught mid-strum. The typical Elius pose. ‘What am I supposed to do with that, huh?’
‘Nothing. It’s an opinion, not an insult. You don’t have to do anything.’
Elius, I think, was the original mansplainer, the pioneer of manspreading, confident so long as no one interrupted or questioned him. If you did, his arguments began to swiftly crumble. A sadistic side of me began to enjoy seeing my then boyfriend struggle to entertain an actual lucid debate. While still young – barely 19 and a novice when it came to my academic studies and any street smarts I could claim to harbour – the more time I spent with Elius, the more certain I became that I was intellectually superior to him. It was a strange sensation. Before meeting Elius, I felt that I had to work harder than others when it came to voicing an opinion in a seminar, or a heated pub debate. Whenever I did find the courage to say anything, I worried that it lacked the spontaneity of my peers, and therefore some sort of legitimacy; it felt like my arguments required lengthy preparation and thorough research. Because Elius was, in his own words, an outspoken intellectual, most people in his radius assumed a position of inferiority. When I began to prod and needle the undercooked theories he peddled, often rooted in a flippant quote misread or misheard, my university experience changed. Maybe being measured wasn’t so bad? Perhaps it was even the correct approach?
Elius was the kind of person who wanted a revolution, but on his terms; the problem was, with his specific dietary requirements, Elius would be the least equipped of all campus firebrands for revolution if it were ever to come.
Ptolemy was the second boy to decide that I was his muse. I had little say in the matter. The poems, PDF formatted, simply started arriving in my inbox.
For most of our short relationship, Ptolemy’s greatest fear was that he lacked the credibility to be taken seriously as a poet so he focused on becoming a pained artist. Over time, he honed a sullen pallor and revelled in an enforced melancholic disposition. Life was easier for him if he believed everyone was out to get him. He couldn’t accept the compliments that I worked hard to ensure were sincere and meaningful. I was still young enough to think that damaged people, albeit constructed, were alluring, filled with the promise of lust and danger.
Shortly before we broke-up, Ptolemy decided that one way to appear authentic was to identify as bisexual, as if the moniker would provide him with the bohemia he sorely lacked.
We were in Ptolemy’s dreary student house. A curlicue of mushrooms had sprouted up in the damp bathroom. The stains on the threadbare sofa had merged to form indecipherable colours. There was a frayed Scarface poster on the wall.
(Note to self: never date a boy with a Scarface poster in his house.)
‘Ada, how would you feel if I told you that I was bisexual. A bisexual male.’
‘Umm, I wouldn’t care,’ I replied, surprised by the turn our conversation had taken.
‘Ada, I have had relationships with men. Sex, all of it.’
‘Wow. Sex?’ I replied, drolly.
‘That is correct.’
Ptolemy looked at me, stunned. It felt like he expected – and wanted – me to reply to this statement with a homophobic slur, as if I was one stubbed toe away from such venomous language.
‘So you don’t care that I’m a bisexual male?’
‘But I’ve lied to you. About my interest in men and women.’
‘You don’t care. Not even a little bit?’
‘No. Because I know you’re not. I wouldn’t care if you were. But you’re not.’
Ptolemy was distressed.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Do you think I could claim to be a bisexual without ever, you know, being attracted to both men and women?’
‘Without sex and all of it?’ I retorted.
‘Yes. Yes, all of it.’
‘No. Not really. It’s offensive to people who are bisexual. Can’t you see how contrived it is?’
‘I have nothing,’ said Ptolemy, solemnly. ‘I am spent. Truly.’
‘How so?’ I asked, uncertain about how soon was too soon to leave after dinner. Sleeping with Ptolemy had become a chore. He was always on top, head buried between the side of my face and the pillow, pounding away silently. No dirty talk. Ptolemy thought it was demeaning to women. Oh how I wanted him to demean me: call me a cunt, call me a slut; anything had to be better than this.
‘I don’t have an angle. I don’t have any authenticity. Don’t you understand?’
‘No, not really.’
‘The problem begins with my name. This ghastly, pretentious name. Everyone assumes I was educated privately because of it. I only went to a grammar for chrissake. When my work begins to gain recognition, which it will, people won’t be interested in what I have written. They’ll only want to focus on this patched together biography of who they think I am. I need to create a character. I need to find a way to bypass questions about my privilege.’
‘And by pinning your hopes to bisexuality, this will somehow enhance your credentials?’
‘Jesus, Ptolemy. Do you realise how ridiculous you sound?’
‘I was toying with bisexuality or depression. Possibly both. Anything to make me seem less secure and middle-class.’
‘You’ll be shocked to discover, Ptolemy, that there are many depressed bisexuals who would term themselves middle-class.’
‘Oh don’t be so flippant, Ada. No one actually admits to being middle-class.’
I tried to convince Ptolemy that all he needed to worry about was whether or not his writing had the chops to affect someone – a stranger, a potential reader – already out there in the world seeking new poetry, who didn’t care about grammar schools and straight men pretending to be depressed bisexual poets.
Joseph, my ex-boyfriend whom I must live with for two more weeks until our lease expires, is currently producing a podcast about our relationship. After three non-creative years, the break-up is giving him the fuel and drive that he felt he didn’t have when we were together. Perversely, I find myself feeling happy for him. He may not be very talented but at least the podcast is a project that he finds fulfilling and takes up most of his spare time.
When we met in our final semester at university, I did not realise that Joseph’s creative pursuits would become the embarrassing part of our relationship; the thing I didn’t want my friends to know about, like larping around in historical re-enactments or someone who embraced conspiracy theories about 9/11.
With the backing of his latest squeeze, Harriet – yes, Joseph is living with his ex and dating; yes, he has brought her back to our flat; and yes, her perfume lingers on our formerly shared bed sheets – Joseph decided to discard an embryonic fictional memoir to pursue podcasting. All the names, myself included, remain unchanged.
He wants the series to be authentic.
It is an odd sensation to hear about myself in the third person; the only relief is that so few people listen. The podcast, titled The Morning After My 20s, renders our relationship as a series of arguments, passionate love making sessions in cold bedsits (and, oddly, public spaces – parks, beaches, a museum – which I never recall happening), house parties, and endless poems written on used envelopes.
Seeing our relationship divided in to a succinct narrative becomes almost a therapeutic experience, although I’d never tell Joseph this. The act of listening to a detailed examination of our time as a couple speeds up the post-break up dirge. I can see that there was nothing unique about our relationship: our memories, our stories are no different to any other young couple that met in university. Love clouded our collective judgement. For a while, it was enough. It provided a back-up when our other ambitions unravelled. We were not living the lives we wanted or expected, and felt little contentment, but we were in love and that was important.
I hope that the more detail Joseph goes in to, the more I will learn about who I have become as a person. With each episode, I expect to locate something that enlightens me, and reveals what it is I need to do with my life.
I am yet to understand what to do with my father, too stubborn to accept that his health is deteriorating; a nonchalant mother that refuses to acknowledge her husband’s illness; and a 23 year old brother living at home ensconced in weed and blind to the gradual disintegration of our family. It is a frustrating truth to realise that I am willing myself to learn more about who I am and who my family are with a close reading of my ex-boyfriend’s podcast rather than simply talking to them directly.
Joseph knows everything about me and I expect to learn something new but I am not.
When I first met Joseph, I was mired in a dissertation that simply wouldn’t come together. My peers seemed more composed then I was, already focussed on their post-university lives: some had bagged eye-catching summer internships at various London media companies; others were destined for postgraduate studies at prestigious universities.
Joseph was a pleasant distraction. Unlike Elius and Ptolemy, he was charismatic and fun and actually seemed to like me. It would have been nice if he was talented and not an angst ridden poet rhyming pop tart with Jean Paul Sartre, sure; I wasn’t asking for much, just art that was okay. Joseph’s poetry was loose and free-form. He claimed that because he didn’t read poetry, it meant he was in a better position to push the medium in new directions. Joseph genuinely thought that he was going to destroy poetry and re-shape it in a new guise. An endearing if somewhat pompous sentiment. The artistic ventures stacked up. Soon, we had graduated, and poetry was supplanted by a burgeoning interest in DJ-ing before Joseph settled on photography, claiming that it was an easy medium to master.
Living together was financially motivated. Romantic, I know. Sharing a room didn’t make us that much wealthier but the small savings we made cooped up in a small double room allowed us to navigate an increasingly corporate, gilded London. The landlord didn’t know there were two people in the room; as far as he was concerned, there were three bedrooms in the flat, and three people living there. I lacked the foresight to envisage a time when Joseph and I would no longer be in a relationship but still living together; unable to break the lease without the landlord finding out we had been lying to him.
Typical London subterfuge.
Our relationship was a millennial arrangement, resolutely digital and littered with noughties debris, yet the podcast seems to take place in a dank, analogue era: the late 70s or early 80s. I expect to hear references to Thatcher, striking bin collectors, and mixtapes made on actual cassettes. Granted, Joseph has garnered some neat details about how we met – the tentative kisses in rooms illuminated by fairy lights (sometimes even candles!); the youthful uncertainty about how to conduct a relationship – but overall I am portrayed as a rather two-dimensional character. Ada and Joseph, are all surface. Even the bleaker moments of our relationship lack any real weight or emotion: his father’s cancer scare; my being rushed to hospital with suspected scarlet fever; the night I discovered that he’d cheated on me.
I wonder if Joseph will locate the same end-point for the relationship as I have: a wedding we attended earlier in the summer – mutual friends from university, Gemma and Rory. It was probably the last time we had fun together. The ceremony and reception were held in Somerset in an ornate house with a large garden. Joseph was best man and I had helped edit the speech. It was sweet and succinct and avoided any crass jokes or rambling anecdotes. We enjoyed ourselves. I was usually apprehensive about traditional gestures such as this. A hangover from my university days, I felt that marriage was simply a fiscal contract, too tied up in religion and legalese to ever be romantic. But that day, I allowed myself to be happy for our friends. Afterwards, the DJ played an eclectic mix: rocksteady, synth-pop; and bare feet, freed from constrictive heels, mingled with loafers and brogues on the dance floor. Joseph danced with the groom’s grandmother, 95, and I smiled. The celebration quietened down in the early hours and liquor was no longer mixed with soft drinks. Children were asleep on parents’ laps and one boy had conked out under a table. There was, briefly, a smell of marijuana. On the journey home the next day, Joseph and I were hungover and quiet. Joseph dosed and I tried and failed to read a Tessa Hadley novel. Most of the other guests were staying on another day in the hotel but I had to get back to London for work. As the train neared Paddington, I thought about the newlyweds. Joseph and I had been together longer than they had. Though it remained unspoken, Joseph and I knew that we would never marry, that I was no longer a muse, that we wouldn’t be together much longer.
Rhys Evans is an Irish writer with a Welsh name based in London. His work has recently appeared in The Honest Ulsterman and The Pittsburgher.
Image: Edz Norton/Unsplash