An honest account of how we shame ourselves for not being that ‘person’ we envision.
How old were you when you realised life was a cruel joke and that you would die alone? I was 22.
It was the first few seconds of 2015 and I was in London, in a flash apartment near Victoria Station. Standing silently at the window, forehead resigned to the cold glass, I watched the New Year’s scene play out in the megalopolis below.
I had been in London since the start of November. My parents were spending a year living there and I had come to stay with them for a few months over the holidays. More accurately, I had come to stay at their apartment, with the expectation that I would be spending most of my time with an old friend who had expatriated to London a year prior. It was with her that I would collect a number of experiences I understood to be fundamental to any worthwhile overseas trip (attending rooftop parties, going to art shows in industrial spaces, going to raves in industrial spaces, buying vintage clothes from pop up shops in industrial spaces). These experiences would be captured in 35mm and would serve as vital evidence for myself that I was having an interesting and meaningful life. So, it was disappointing to hear, a few days before I left Dunedin, that she had decided to spend the summer back in New Zealand. She was my key to the city, and now I was to spend the next few months trying to pick the lock.
There were loud bangs and crackles. Pink and blue light refracted through the empty champagne flute in my hand. And the streets were swimming; people were throwing their arms around each other, taking photos, laughing, shouting along to whatever hit song was playing. I kept staring. Through the gossamer-thin fog of my breath on the glass, I just kept staring.
I spent most of November and December by myself. Early on, I developed a daily routine that revolved around reading for most of the day and then walking the fifteen minutes to St James Park in the afternoon. I would spend the walk trying to extract meaning from the things I was seeing. What did it mean to see black cabs and wintery English gardens behind black iron fences? What did it mean to see Buckingham Palace and people in waxed jackets? What did it mean to see someone eating a Kitkat outside Tesco Express? The harder I tried to attain meaning, the more I felt myself disappearing. Once I had arrived at the park, I would smoke one cigarette and look at the ducks. Then I’d buy a packet of Trebor Extra Strong Mints and eat the whole thing on the way home. To my surprise, this pattern of behaviour drew criticism from both my dad, who saw it as doing nothing, and my mum, who was devastated that spending time this way was preferable to spending time with her. But I didn’t have the capacity to concern myself with the feelings of the only people who would ever love me for who I am wholly and completely, I was in London and had meaning to make.
After a few minutes of contemplation, I came to the understanding that what I was observing was less a celebration of the new calendar year and more a celebration of me not being a part of it. Fireworks exchanged knowing winks in the sky, while car horns called out “do we care that Peter’s not here?” and the exuberant “woohoo”s of drunkards answered, “no lol.”
I did end up going to a gig. I had bought two tickets to see the band Ought, thinking at the time that I would go with my now-repatriated friend. A few days before the show, I messaged the only other person I knew who lived in the city, offering them the other ticket. I received no reply and decided to go anyway. Before going out, I was in my room trying to decide whether it was stupid to wear a cap at night-time, when my mum appeared at the door. “Remember you’re such a friendly young man,” she said. “All you need to do is walk up to someone, smile, and say: ‘Hi, I’m Peter.'” I don’t remember much about the music that night. I remember arriving and feeling relieved that the opening band were already playing. I remember that band introducing their last song. I remember trying not to look like anything in particular, as I watched people chatting during the change-over. I remember looking over at a girl, wondering if she was on her own too and whether this night was the set up for our ‘meet cute.’ I remember loathing myself for thinking this. Most of all though, I remember going out for a cigarette and seeing in the smoking area all three members of the band Happyness. I couldn’t believe it. I had written about them in Critic earlier that year. I would tell them this and they would find it amazing and they would say “Hey, we’re going to a party on our friend’s rooftop and you should totally come.” The smoking area even had an industrial vibe about it. This was it; this was why one goes to London. So, I finished my cigarette, crushed it with the point of my shoe, looked over to the group, stepped forward, turned on my heel and went back inside. I remember staring at the back of one of their heads during Ought’s set. Thinking about it even now, my heart pounds.
Like a series of well-curated social media posts, what I was witnessing felt tailored to bring maximum misery to the beholder. The message was clear: that was life happening out there. Normal life with fireworks and friends and Pitbull featuring Ke$ha. I wasn’t sure what was happening in my parents’ flat, but it didn’t seem like life – perhaps some sort of purgatorial cleansing for the sin of being not-very-cool. I wasn’t partying in a sketchy-and-therefore-cool part of town, I hadn’t taken any fashionable drugs, nor at the stroke of midnight had I shared a kiss with an adjacent stranger. I had failed. Because I wasn’t wanted. Because I was bad. Worse than anybody else.
The thing about a shame tree is that it can get so big so slowly, you might not even notice that it’s there at all, until one day it’s shading out your whole garden.