I found myself sunk into the depths of my phone one day, making the routine check-up on ex-boyfriends. After I had travelled through a series of links, I ended up on YouTube. I pressed play on a video of a performance uploaded by George, the Canadian model, musician and self-styled ‘poet’ I had dated briefly a few months before.
The video opens onto a room lit by crimson light, the stage empty. The caption beneath states that the performance was filmed ‘live’ in a private-hire venue in the DoubleTree Hilton in Soho. George steps up into the frame, stands in front of the microphone and immediately begins to speak into it, without taking a breath. He is wearing a well-tailored, 60s style brown suit, his hair cut close to his head. In one hand, on which there is a heavy silver ring, he holds a small black notebook. As he speaks, he looks down again and again at his lines, as if he has just put this work together, like it is a spontaneous bringing-together of jottings. From the outset, the poem’s message is clear: he is lonely, he is a misfit. I felt embarrassed on his behalf as the derivative first few lines – about how everyone but him was ‘bumping into things, bumping into each other, cars and cafés’ – followed one after the other.
Then, after this opening set-up, my name appears. The shock winded me. George describes his first meeting with ‘Anna’, someone he had finally ‘bumped into’. His brother, standing behind him on the stage, begins to strum a guitar ominously. With this musical backing, George provides a detailed account of how he had met me, what my flat was like, and how many times we had ‘had sex or made love’ on our first evening together. But his characterisation of me is limp, devoid of depth. He describes my appearance: I have ‘dark shoulder length hair’, and that night I was wearing a ‘short black skirt’ and a ‘black jumper’. Other than that, I am vacantly loyal, puppy-like with ‘nice eyes that looked up’ at him.
When I tell people about my unexpected appearance in this poem, which I present often as a comedy, occasionally as a tragedy, some listeners have told me I should be flattered. They have said that I must have made a real ‘impression’ in order to have a piece of ‘art’ (I use this term very loosely for George’s spoken-word poem) made about me. They have said that his decision to focus on me, to make me his artistic subject, must be a compliment about the force of my personality, or of my attractiveness to him. If the listener is a date, he generally looks quite intimidated, like I would expect him to follow suit. But being an artistic ‘muse’ is an unsettling experience, even more so when you have had your name used without your consent. Watching the performance, I saw myself presented as a character, one that I did not recognise. My identity was taken, retraced very crudely and made to play a role. But this muse is not silent. I want to fill out the trace, draw out the lines and to occupy them for myself.
The story of my encounter with George starts shortly after my graduation. I had, inevitably, split up with my university boyfriend and was living in a faded maisonette flat in Camberwell. My flatmates were two perfect illustrations of that part of south-east London. One was an artist in his forties who decided during my time there that his art had not been ‘controversial’ enough. He remedied this by painting huge, brightly-coloured canvases of women’s breasts. The other was a very sweet art-student-turned-primary-school teacher who loved to party and, as a result, pooed himself more often than one should. In my initial forays into the dating scene, I generally went for a particular cast of intolerably trendy, middle-class, part-creative men (of course, these choices were a total reflection of myself). Once, someone I had just slept with for the first time made me read the last paragraph of his heavily annotated copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road out loud to show me that it was well written. I wasn’t convinced.
I met George, the model, ‘poet’ and ‘musician’, on Tinder. His artistically shot photos showed a long-limbed and angular-featured man who was dressed beautifully. Less attractively, the description under his photos said that he only wanted to talk to ‘other models or girls at the Slade’. The red flags fluttered. Not expecting it to go any further, I ignored them and swiped right. I thought he was very good looking, and, in my post break-up sadness, I was curious whether he would be interested in me. We matched. He messaged instantly to ask me if we could speak over the phone. I thought that this was too demanding a request, so I said no.
A few days later, he contacted me again and asked to meet. I had spent the evening with my work colleagues at a Sherlock Holmes themed escape room, where my boss pushed me hard out of his way in order to solve a numerical puzzle faster. I was already unfulfilled in my corporate office job, and the indignity of this evening put me in a reckless mood. I decided that meeting George might be entertaining, and, at worst, a funny story. So, I said yes. The next day was Friday, and I had a dinner planned. Once it was finished, everywhere was already closed, so with naïve confidence, I invited George to have a drink at my flat.
In his performance, George says that he was ‘in a really bad way’ that evening, but that he came to meet me anyway, partly because ‘no one [else] wanted to see me’. He describes walking up to my flat, which, as he recounts, was located on the ground-floor corner of the housing block. He stopped in front of it. Arriving here, he must have had low expectations. I hadn’t wanted to speak to him over the phone and I had been short with him in our messages – given he was a male model, I was expecting him to have a big ego. I also thought that his job in the fashion industry must have moulded his views of women. As it turned out, I was right.
‘I thought she was a bit fatter from her pictures’, he says, and one man in the audience cheers. Apparently unconscious of how sinister it sounds to describe himself staring into someone’s house, he says that he changed his mind when he looked my flat’s ‘big window’ and saw me inside, ‘sitting in the corner of the back of the room’. I didn’t know he had arrived yet.
George tapped his finger on the window. I opened the door and he walked in. I offered him a gin and tonic. At this point in the spoken-word poem, he says that I also ‘gave’ him a doughnut. Not true: he helped himself to my flatmate’s doughnuts. Holding my own drink, I sat on the shiny black leather sofa in the corner of the room, while he paced around, full of nervous energy. As he says in the poem, he had brought with him a candle, which he lit and placed on my coffee table, and a digital sound recorder. Whilst we talked, he held the recorder in his hand and kept clicking it to play back audio. The recordings were either the sounds of the street or, as I later realised, him playing music on the piano. He clearly wanted me to ask about them, so I stubbornly refused to comment. Eventually, he stood behind me as I sat on the sofa and asked if we could kiss. In the poem, he says that after the kiss, ‘she asked me if I was on drugs’. I did ask him this, because I felt he was acting strangely. He had been walking in circles since he got there, breaking off only once to lay both hands on the anaglypta wallpaper, his face three inches from the wall, and to breathe ‘wow’. He recounts me asking, ‘are you on drugs?’ as if it is something to be proud of, an interesting personality quirk, rather than the reality. His behaviour was odd.
Despite all this, I admit that I wasn't put off. Given our previous interactions, I knew that we weren’t well matched, but I had decided to meet him because I found him attractive. More importantly, it made me feel good that he found me attractive. While his interest in me fuelled my self-esteem, the compliments that he paid me were not always welcome. Later, as we were having sex, he said, ‘I want to meet your parents’. ‘Sorry?’ I replied, on all fours, craning my neck around to look back at him. Given that we were in the middle of something, I decided to brush over this – there was far too much to unpack in that statement.
When we talked in bed afterwards, he asked me if I had ever been to Tokyo. He then repeated a few lines of what I later realised was an early draft of the spoken-word performance in which I would feature. George said he had been very lonely while modelling in Japan and had spent most of his time in his small rented flat lying in bed and throwing an orange up in the air, getting the fruit ‘as close to the ceiling as [he] could’. In the video, he repeats this sentence verbatim, but this time with great physical emphasis – on an outwards breath, head tiled slightly back, tongue almost on the microphone – as if the line is very profound.
George left early the next day but invited me to come and see him later. That evening, I cooked dinner for my friends, and we went on a night out in Elephant and Castle. George lived nearby, so I walked over afterwards. He came to let me through the padlocked, chained-up gates of the guardianship property that he shared with his siblings. It was an old school that was demolished shortly after our meetings. His room was a former classroom with a wooden parquet floor and a full wall of white-barred windows. George proudly told me that it was an ‘ex-mental institution’ – a strange boast which was also untrue, judging by the school’s sign outside. In a parody of an arty bachelor’s life, the enormous room’s furnishings were minimal: a large bed in the middle of the room, a step-ladder, a clothes rail and a piano.
Having led me in, George sat down and started playing the piano very loudly. After a while, I asked him whether he was planning on playing or speaking to me. He said that he was going to play the piano first, because talking to me made him nervous. After he finished, we lay in bed. Without looking at me, his eyes fixed on the ceiling, George told me that he had a girlfriend. To this, I said ‘ok’. I didn’t ask any further questions because I was so surprised by this revelation, which took me a while to process. Given his behaviour, I didn’t entirely believe that he had a girlfriend. The whole situation felt quite unreal to me. I had just wanted to have fun with someone pretty.
When I woke up the next morning, George wasn’t beside me. I could hear a scratching sound, so I raised my head from the bed. He was standing fully dressed at the piano and was writing into the same small black notebook that appears in the video, with a quill and ink. I pointed out this unusual writing implement. He said that he preferred it to a pen. Notes scratched down, he tucked into his breakfast. This comprised of feta, eaten with his fingers out of the packet, and a handful of red grapes, which he stuffed into his mouth while squatting on the floor next to the bed, gazing at me. He asked if I would like some too; I declined this offer and left his house soon after.
Our third meeting was delayed by George’s recording an ‘album’ in LA, and my holiday in Paris. I hadn’t yet learnt my lesson when I arrived back in London and was curious as to what he would be like on another meeting. I went again to the schoolhouse and this time I met his family. This included his sister, who ignored me entirely when George introduced me, and his brother, who said, ‘oh, this is Anna’. George went out of the room at one point, leaving me talking to his brother, who informed me that Hackney was no longer trendy. Then the brother stretched out his arms, made his fingers into a gun and pointed them at my head. Holding his arms steady, and looking directly at me from his considerable height, he asked if what he was doing made me uncomfortable. Standing with my arms crossed, I said ‘no’, although of course it did.
Later, alone with George, the conversation flagged. He said that he wanted a chocolate bar, but that he didn’t want to go to the corner shop. Suddenly, a bright idea struck him. Perhaps I would like to go out and buy him one, while he waited in bed? I said I didn’t want to do that. We didn’t see each another again after that evening.
Clearly, there was little romance between us. I didn’t feel like George respected me, or even that he liked me at all. But, of course, his performance about our first meeting could not end without some profound reflection, the kind that is always required at the end of a piece of writing. In this case, he offers a spectacular artistic cop-out: ‘All things are invisible. Love is invisible’. He then steps to the keyboard, sits down and starts bashing the keys, looking down in concentration. The video ends.
For a long time, I wasn’t sure how to write this story, to make myself visible beyond the ‘short black skirt’ and ‘black jumper’. This was, in part, because I felt my decisions had allowed him to be disrespectful towards me, for which I felt guilty. Why did I meet him three times? Why didn’t I ask him why he was seeing me, if he had a girlfriend? Most importantly, why didn’t I storm out of the classroom as soon as I saw the quill and ink? It is only recently that I have been able to find the very straightforward answer: I wanted to be liked by this bizarre man. I was young, inexperienced in dating, driven by the need to make myself feel good; I wanted to pursue someone who was beautiful, artistic and interesting. I didn’t want to give up what or who I thought I deserved, despite him not being right, so I negotiated around his behaviour. It was a careful and deliberate dance. I didn’t encourage him, but I also didn’t challenge him outright. My response to much of what he said was the calm, unruffled surface perfected by an early adulthood spent acting the ‘Cool Girl’. As Gillian Flynn writes in Gone Girl, ‘Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want’.
I could analyse how I acted endlessly, but the truth is that I am not the one that needs to explain. The reality is that I didn’t have a role in his story at all. I was the subject of the piece, it was a performance about ‘Anna,’ but it’s not about me.
In trying to trace my character, George left a far clearer outline of his own. The shape that we can see isn’t an original one. His own story goes that he is a lost young man, excluded from life, with no meaningful connections. Stuck in a creative drought, everything passes him by. Then he meets a woman and — finally! — he has something to talk about. This relies on the stalest understanding of the creative process: the male poet writes about his female muse. Such clichéd accounts have been challenged by feminist cultural critics since the 1960s. In Vision and Difference, the art historian Griselda Pollock describes the conventional understanding of the artist is as single, solitary male ‘genius’, who is inspired by the passive, receptive and seductive woman, whose main role is to be ‘looked-at’. Other pieces that George has written repeat this age-old pattern. In a recent poem, one part of a self-published collection shared on Instagram, George addresses a well-known fashion photographer, again, with her real name. He says she is very attractive. George knows this because he describes going to an event that she was at, where he circled around her, assessed her from every angle, but didn’t speak to her. It is a shame he missed his chance, as he would like to know what technique she uses to cut tomatoes.
When I first saw George’s performance, I felt that my identity had been taken from me. I provided the inspiration, but my own feelings and experiences were not present in his poem. Using our meetings to collect— and, worse, to try out— material, George authored a fictional version of me, a persona that was hurriedly scrawled in quill and ink. In his unoriginal story, my only function was to underline the romantic vision of the troubled, lonely and isolated male artist. For him, I do not even have an existence that continued beyond our meetings, one that requires that I should be granted the dignity of appearing under a different name. But, as I know now, the way in which a writer represents others reveals much about themselves. The stories we tell about other people are full of projection. They are also stories about ourselves. I was traced out, but this outline does not contain me: the borders of the drawing are George’s own.
Anna Parker is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge.