Impostors: Comfortable in Your Own Skin: Extract One
Given free will but within certain limitations,
I cannot will myself to limitless mutations,
I cannot know what I would be if I were not me,
I can only guess me.
He did not regularly climb mountains. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, he didn’t climb them at all. What made this omission so much worse was that he’d also never scuba-dived in the Eastern Mediterranean or flown to Maui in search of the perfect break to ride, and the very idea of hang-gliding or freefall parachuting was enough to bring him out in a cold sweat. And as for bungee jumping! The thought of plummeting headfirst from a rickety rope bridge with only a giant elastic band attached to his ankle simply appalled him. Just why, in any possible world, would he want to do this?
Alechadgone windsurfing once, on holiday with school-friends in Cornwall. But it had not been his idea of fun. The experience had left his shins black and blue; his shoulders weary to the point of exhaustion; his ears clogged with water; and his head dizzy with prolonged exposure to the icy Atlantic currents. He hadn’t even managed to stand up.
Having never hiked in the Hindu Kush or trekked through the Andes, there were no pictures of Alec looking ruggedly handsome in a fleece. Nor could he fill his profile with wistful reminiscences about carefree gap-year days spent bumming around South East Asia or reflect on the moment of quiet triumph he’d felt gazing out across the African savannah from the snow-capped summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. Instead, Alec Mackeson had a job: a job he did not much like —a job that was boring and strenuous and thwarting and futile—a job that marked the death of his dreams of an acting career and was slowly smothering his soul. He’d spent most of his free time in recent years refurbishing an overpriced two-bedroom flat in an unfashionable area of Hove, which had since become his little sanctuary from the daily purgatory of commuting between Brighton and Victoria Station.
But if Alec’s life was dominated by his job, few of the profiles on the dating website said anything at all about work. Those that did merely mentioned in passing the thriving software consultancies they’d built up or the businesses they ran from home, importing luxury goods from Tuscany. But such references were few and far between: no, there were just banks upon banks of smiling, tanned holiday faces, each with two days’ stubble and a curl of chest hair peaking impudently out between the folds of Gore-Tex.
The women were equally terrifying—or the ones that Alec fancied were. They were, naturally enough, all pretty and smiley, confident in their attractiveness, having reached a time in their lives when they Knew Who They Were. They all announced proudly that they Loved their Lives, before coyly confiding they just needed That Special Someone to Make Everything Complete. Oblivious to any kind of existential anxiety, this sense of completion could apparently be achieved merely by Walking in the Country, having Meaningful Conversations and Snuggling Up on the Sofa with a DVD and a Bottle of Red Wine. However, there was one point on which they all agreed: the Special Someone should have to be Comfortable in His Own Skin.
Alec was not Comfortable in His Own Skin—and, truth be told, he did not Love his Life. It was not so much that he didn’t Know Who He Was: it was more that he didn’t much like what he knew. And when Alec settled down on the sofa with a DVD and a bottle of wine, he settled down alone. And he did not stop drinking till the bottle was empty and soothing oblivion washed over him.
At other times, he would sit on the front and gaze out at the slate-grey sea and he would imagine stripping himself naked, leaving his clothes in a neat pile on the pebbled beach, and he would swim further and further out from the shore until the cold saltwater washed away all the filthy accretions of self and he could return to the beach another person altogether, as naked and as innocent as the day he was born. Sometimes, indeed, he would imagine himself swimming out and never coming back.
But he never acted on such gloomy thoughts: the water would be far too cold. And now, as he flicked through page after page of smiling female faces, he felt a surge of strange, unfamiliar optimism. He was gripped by the same intoxicating excitement he used to feel as a small child standing in the middle of Woolworth’s pick ‘n’ mix stalls. There were black women and white women. There were blondes with pretty dimples and Asian women with eyes like shiny black beads of polished glass. There were tricksy little imps with gamine smiles; long-limbed Aphrodites with hair like golden corn; and sexy African girls with braids and wide full kissable lips. Sometimes he got a glimpse of cleavage in a scoop-necked T-shirt or a low-cut dress, and simple induction told him that wherever there were breasts there must also be thighs and bottoms and nipples and navels and all the sugar-sweet feast of female flesh he so greedily craved.
But even as he felt some hot and heady cocktail of hormones whoosh through his bloodstream and his penis stood rigid in eager anticipation, like a dog catching the scent of a rabbit, he was brought back to the fundamental problem. How could he, a failed actor turned office drone, take his place amongst all the kite-surfing, mountain-biking, Andes-trekkingGuardian readers with their suntans and their mirrored shades and their square jaws and their Gore-Tex sportswear? How could he strip off a past of frustration and failure, leaving his old life behind him in laid out in neat piles, or shed his old self as a snake sloughs off its skin?
As he looked at SmileyPuddleJumper laughing mischievously up at the camera, and wondered whether the body type ‘curvaceous’ was a polite euphemism for ‘fat’ or hinted at the pneumatic pleasures promised by a voluptuous figure, he decided that this was something he needed to find out. It was, he concluded wistfully, worth a try—and the sea had looked particularly chilly and he had the beginnings of a cold coming on. And so Alec paid his £32, signing up for a month in the first instance, and prepared himself to be reborn online as ActingPeculiar or Crawling King Snake or Shapeshifter1973. He had yet to decide which.
It was not an easy process. No, it was not easy at all—but then again apotheoses rarely are. He was aware of the risk of spreading his material too thin, so he decided to keep his profile brief and pithy. Wary of comparison with all the Spandex-clad triathletes and mountain-climbing kite-surfers, he made what he could out of his Wednesday-night badminton. By a neatly ambiguous turn of phrase, he implied he was something of an expert whilst simultaneously making light of his accomplishments. The fact that he was actually complete rubbish, and had only started going because he fancied the club secretary’s daughter, did not significantly diminish his attractive modesty. It also helped him to imply that he valued the life of the mind above mere physical prowess. But just to be on the safe side, he went to the front and booked a session with a dour little man in a rubber suit, allowing him to mention casually how he’d ‘just taken up windsurfing and was really looking forward to a new challenge’.
Even more pleasing was the deft transformation he achieved in his career. Even though he’d not so much as attended an audition for five years or more, he managed to suggest, without ever actually stating it, that he was still a struggling actor, waiting for his first big break, and that managing the website was just his day job, the willing sacrifice of a free spirit committed to following his dreams. Fortunately, Alec still possessed some old professional portraits from his acting days, showing him looking brooding and bohemian in a black leather biking jacket. This also had the pleasant collateral effect of knocking a good ten years off his appearance and allowing him to describe his body type as ‘average’ rather than having to tick the box for ‘a few extra pounds’.
He naturally listed his other preferred pastimes as Walking in the Country, having Meaningful Conversations, and Snuggling Down on the Sofa with a Bottle of Wine and a DVD. The dishonesty involved in this account barely disturbed him: he reasoned—not without good cause—that he would enjoy Walking in the Country if he had someone attractive to walk with and that Meaningful Conversations are just the price every red-blooded man must pay for his portion of domestic felicity and a regular romp in a double bed. The latter he euphemistically referred to as Duvet Days, following a coy convention apparently universally understood by The Guardian’s female readership.
His profile posted on the website, he felt the same sense of quiet exhilaration as a writer must feel on the completion of the first draft of a great work of literary imagination. However, his years as an actor told him that this was only the first stage: he must next breathe life into the role, inhabit the part, dedicate himself to living the life of Crawling King Snake with all the self-annihilating obsession of Al Pacino ramping up to become Michael Corleone. It was less a matter of simple deceit, he reasoned, than the kind of artifice that merely stripped away unsightly and distracting contingency. Had Alec been of a philosophical frame of mind, he’d have seen the project as a kind of act of self-definition, implicitly accepting the Sartrean premise that existence precedes essence. As it was, he called it ‘making a new start’ or ‘turning over a new leaf’ or just ‘snapping out of it’.
And he did snap out of it—at least at first. A flurry of e-mails arriving in his inbox tempted him to a little quiet male arrogance, a not unpleasant emotion after all those years of frustration and defeat, and there was a wild thrill in trading messages with so many attractive strangers: he found he could be bold, audacious, flirtatious, funny. He could be sensitive and he could be sexy; he could be gallant and he could be frank. Above all, he could be someone else, miraculously liberated from shyness, self-doubt and dismal reflections on his own inadequacy.
His first date was pleasant and friendly: a quiet drink in an old man’s pub with ShrinkRap: a psychotherapist with a penchant for South American naïve art and the novels of Kafka. His second date (with Little Miss Perfect) was nothing to write home about, but they got along perfectly amicably and agreed they really must stay in touch, before mentally totting up how much money they’d each spent and crossing one another of their lists of possibles. The third date was altogether more successful: now here was a girl with whom Alec would have relished some serious Duvet Time. Indeed, he managed to get a snog and a quick fumble out of her when they met again a few days later for a quick bite of supper and a Meaningful Conversation
Indeed, Alec was planning to progress to the next step and had even chosen a DVD and bought a half-decent bottle of red wine when he received his e-mail from Kate. And once he’d met Kate, he quietly took the DVD back to the library and drank the bottle of wine himself. He politely made his excuses, and hoped Sunny Side Up (a.k.a. Kylie) wouldn’t be too cut up about missing out on an evening snuggling up with him on the sofa, watching Godfather II.