On taking off clothes in front of friends

(Or: why I almost never agree to send my manuscript to my friends.)

It’s a bit like offering to take your clothes off and wait, naked, while they smile – politely – having spurred you on with nods and enthusiasm as though nothing else could be more usual for an innocent afternoon.

There are hundreds of books whose first pages I’ve read, or whose first paragraphs I’ve skimmed, before promptly dismissing them for some arguably flippant reason. Maybe I didn’t like the style, or the person in which it’s written. Maybe it was written in the present tense. Maybe I forgot about the main character five minutes after putting it down to make a pot of chai. Maybe I only picked it up in the first place because I needed something to do in a departure lounge other than having my head infiltrated with globular particles of duty-free perfume and I thought the title was snazzy. Perhaps I liked the idea of the book (from reviews, or the blurb, or peer recommendation) slightly more than my discovery of its reality. Either way, it doesn’t mean the book is objectively bad if I stop reading it, it’s just not doing much for me.

Now imagine all those authors (whose names I might not even have registered while balancing veggie sushi and Naked smoothies and vegetable crisps and sneaky aero bars; everyone knows calories don’t exist in airports; why do I never remember to pick up a basket?); imagine if they had all been standing there, shyly watching me as my fingers spread open the first page of their hard-won work, keen for my adoration (twitching; timing it), curious as to whether this book might change my life as they intended (every author hopes their book might change a reader’s life). In each circumstance I’d have been left with the excruciating anxiety of having to offer some positive feedback or an encouraging word (or at least a neutral, sage, response) – perhaps some reason why I might not have felt personally able to carry on reading the whole thing, tempered with some rational approximation or comprehension of its potential popularity. Imagine having to apologise personally to every author in the world whose book you failed to finish.

Switching it around, then, this is not a fate you’d wish on readers who are also your friends; you’d prefer them to be free (free not to notice you desperately hoping they’ll adore you).

To clarify: you might have too large breasts or too small ones or not any at all. You might have broader shoulders than the particular friend prefers, or narrower ones, or large feet. Perhaps you are entirely the wrong genre. You might be paler or darker, or improbably muscular, or slightly podgy in unexpected places. You might simply look slightly, inexplicably, ineffably different from how the person had imagined you might, when you began taking off your clothes; not objectively bad (let’s be clear), just not what they’d assumed you might be like underneath fabric.

Perhaps they thought you’d be quite romantic looking and you are in fact minimal and precise. Perhaps you are more nostalgic than modern, belied by your dress sense and demeanour, or you have well-defined marks or scars or tattoos whose existence had never occurred to your friend. Maybe you’re bonier. Either way, there is an element of surprise.

But they’re committed now (they asked you to take your clothes off, after all – had been nagging for weeks for you to do it) and you’ve finally decided to say ‘oh, fine – what the hell!’ and remove your shoes in a glorious kick and flick (shoes, like prologues, always go first).  And here you both are, a little later, perhaps meeting for the first time after your ill-thought email, sent on a whim with attachment, now standing in some mutual wild-eyed, grinning enthusiastic state, both over-committed. The other person has already decided to say ‘how lovely!’ whatever they have been faced with; you’ll probably never really know what they actually think and things between you might never be the same again.

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