Damage Control

Screen shot: Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally (1989)

The difficulty with saying ‘no’ to someone to whom we have already said ‘yes’ is that he is bound to think there was something unsatisfactory about the first sexual encounter. Having already lost our immortal soul, something more than a simple ‘no’ is required in situations where we are badly compromised. We must conduct ourselves as if the world were a more spiritual place than it actually is. We must be painstakingly considerate of others – especially those whom we must disappoint.

When one accepts another date with a man (or a woman) who has every reason to believe that we are already conquered, one cannot feign surprise when he or she makes a move to wrap up the evening in physical congress. Once you have let down your guard and allowed strangers to cross your moat you are bound to find it a hassle to get them out of your castle. A second date with a conquering hero will undoubtedly be interpreted as a sequel to the first, perhaps even the beginning of a long-running serial in which one will be expected to ‘break a lance’ with the horny knight whenever he’s inclined to joust. Saying ‘no’ to a man bulging with expectations is never easy, but saying ‘no’ to a man who has cast us in the feature role of his X-rated dreams (note who gets to be writer and director) requires consummate tact to prevent a tactless consummation.

You cannot say or imply that the sexual encounter which you allowed to take place on an earlier occasion was a mistake, or a waste of time and that you don’t intend to go through the bother again. You must find an excuse for saying ‘no’ that does not cast even a thin shadow of derision upon his human frailties. You can plead temporary insanity (‘I don’t know what came over me, I can’t think what I was doing…’) or you can drag in your conscience to play one of its occasional roles (‘I realize that what we did was wrong, the fault is entirely mine – such an incident must not occur again’). You should be aware, however, in having to make these excuses, that you have passed from the stage of birth control to that of abortion, for in saying ‘yes’, even once, to a man, you have planted a seed in his mind that his actions are acceptable to you, perhaps even desired by you, and now you are frustrating those hopes. While bringing a man’s illusions to an end at an early stage is ultimately kinder than allowing them to grow into some monstrous misunderstanding, the responsibility for terminating his expectations is not to be shrugged off.

Quentin Crisp
Manners from Heaven (1985)

Screen capture: Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Bon Voyage

Painting by Paul Gustave Fischer: In the Train Compartment (1927)

Apart from railing against the enforced inertia of train journeys, people utter no panegyrics about the scenery through which they pass; they only have hideous tales to tell about fellow passengers. These stories worry me because I have always felt that when we say of a stranger that he is tedious, it is ourselves that we criticize. Only a lie is boring.

On a long train journey we ought, therefore, to present ourselves to the other people in our coach as a wide-open, indestructible vessel into which the acids of truth can safely be poured. We should become for the time like psychoanalysts, making those sitting opposite feel that nothing they can say will shock us or provoke scorn. Travelers are often advised to take a long book on their journeys, but who would devote his attention to a book which will always be at hand when he can turn the dog-eared pages of a total stranger whom he may never meet again?

A little old lady sitting opposite me in an otherwise empty coach said, “…and then, after twenty-five years, my husband died.” I was just about to look gravely at the floor between us when she added, “and oh, the relief.” I would travel from Moscow to Vladivostok to hear a remark like that.

Quentin Crisp
The Wit and Wisdom of Quentin Crisp (1984)

Painting by Paul Gustave Fischer: In the Train Compartment (1927)

Strangers Are Easy

Photo: Albert Finney and Diane Keaton in Shoot the Moon

[George and Faith, an estranged couple, are in bed, lying next to each other after making love. She talks about how much she used to love him and then:]

FAITH: Just now for an instant there – I don’t know – you made me laugh, George – you were kind.

GEORGE: You’re right, I’m not kind anymore.

FAITH: Me neither.

GEORGE: You’re kind to strangers.

FAITH: Strangers are easy.

From Bo Goldman’s screenplay Shoot the Moon (1982)

Photo: Albert Finney and Diane Keaton in Shoot the Moon

On Being Yourself

A scene from 'Pleasantville' (1998)

Dressing as I did did not make me ‘happy’ necessarily, but it unified me – and that is what we must all do with our lives. There are always penalties up to any age for presenting the world with a highly individualized image, but if it is the genuine you and not some affectation (a distinction which, I realize, may take years to sort out) then you must be what you are, honestly and bravely, with all the taste and intelligence you can muster. Life will be more difficult if you try to fulfill yourself, but avoiding this difficulty renders life meaningless. To arrive at the end of your life thinking, I never did anything I really wanted to do…must be one of the most profound miseries the human soul is capable of feeling – and one for which there is no last-minute cure or consolation.

Quentin Crisp
Manners from Heaven (1985)

Screen capture: A scene from Pleasantville (1998)