I Feel Bad About My Watch
When I was a teenager — a time which seems simultaneously eons ago and currently ongoing — my dad decided to buy a watch.
There are many social tripwires that come with this action. For instance: I didn’t know then if a watch was something you were supposed to just take a notion to buy yourself, and I still don’t know now. I think maybe a watch is supposed to be purchased by your boss at the end of thirty years of service, or something lovingly bestowed on you on your wedding day by a father in law. It feels, either way, distinctly male. An act heavy with all the symbolism of time and the importance of responsibility and ephemera of life. Either way my dad didn’t have a job and he didn’t have a father in law and so he went into a shopping mall and bought a watch, simple as that.
Here is what the watch looks like: it is big, and gold, and chunky and obvious. The face of the watch is silver and contains three smaller, superfluous watch faces. The links are four to a row and the numbers are huge, gilted roman numerals. I know now what I didn’t know then. The watch is tacky.
It wasn’t tacky to me then. Then it looked like money. I would try it on, pulling the links tight with my fingers and holding it high up on my arm, revelling in how a watch measured for my dad’s wrist dwarfed my frame. When I let my hand flop down, to put my imaginary Birkin on the floor, the watch fell precariously, clunking painfully against my knuckles as they stopped it from smashing against our laminate floor. It made me look thin and careless with my possessions, which were both things I aspired to with a fervor that was almost religious. “This?”, the watch I was play-acting with as an almost-adult used to say. “This is just one of many. It might fall off and smash but whatever. I don’t care. I’m skinny and wealthy and I have cases — rooms! — more to replace it with.”
“Will you give it to me when you die?” I asked my dad. I asked this all the time. I played skinny Nicole Richie arms with the watch and sat beside my dad, both of us smoking indoors, yellowing my bedroom walls, and I begged him to give me the watch. “Will you leave it to me in your will?” I asked. I meant the questions as a joke, and we both laughed and laughed because this was before we were, either of us, grown ups and scared of sickness and accident and death and life.
“Stop that,” said my mum when we played this game, because she was always grown and she knew what it was to be scared.
Then as it always does, time passed and I wasn’t a teenager anymore. I was packing a big suitcase to move away from my mum and my dad and his watch and our house where you could smoke indoors and nobody said anything about it. I wasn’t moving far, but I also wasn’t moving back, which is much worse, I think, than moving far away and returning. My mum was crying all the time. She listened to a Beatles song about a girl leaving home even though she knew it made her sad. She played it on her phone when she drank wine and sniffled, like picking a scab. My dad didn’t cry. “Sure you’ll be back, for fuck’s sake”, he said, pretending to believe it and I pretended to get angry at him for not believing me and we played this dance together because it was easier than going “right, bye, love you”. And then as it got closer to the time, still not saying “right, bye, love you”, he did something even better and he gave me the watch.
I don’t know how things are supposed to be handed down in families. I didn’t know then and I don’t really know now. I know boys who wear chubby gold rings on their pinky fingers and girls who post frantic Facebook updates about being burgled — “I don’t care about the money or the cards or the laptop, but that jewellery was my grandmother’s!” — but these things hold a history that the watch didn’t. I think that’s what inherited things are supposed to be; old and grubby and imbued with a kind of mysticism. Dirty but moneyed. My dad’s watch, now my watch, was gleaming and about five years old and, bar a chip on the thick glass face, in pretty good nick. It didn’t feel historical, exactly. Not that I cared at the time.
Reader, I was ecstatic.
My dad took the watch to a jeweller and had links taken out, enough to make it fit me but not so much that it would sit on my wrist. I still wore it high up on my forearm like I was in The Simple Life. I was Paris — no, wait, I’m Nicole — but boarding a Ryanair jet without paparazzi.
I got off the Ryanair flight and discovered almost immediately that my prized possession had become a meme. “Basic girl starter pack”, said Twitter. India, Amelia, Ollie, and 2.9k others have retweeted this. “Dead!” “Drag me!” “Omg, how many of these girls did we meet at uni, hahahaha”. A picture of a mint green Fiat 500 (recommended retail price £10,859), brand new Adidas Superstars (RRP £55), listening to female pop stars, grooming your eyebrows, liking your boyfriend, drinking iced coffee, and the watch.
I got off my Ryanair flight and it taxied and when the airport doors opened I entered a parallel world. In some ways, okay, in a lot of ways, the parallel world was a better one. It was a world where nobody ever grew old, or at least, if they did, they had the good sense to do it outside of Zone 6 where nobody else had to watch it happen. Tir Na Nog with £7 pints. It was a world where it was perfectly fine, encouraged actually, to wear trainers at all times and to all events, and a world where nobody was going to call you a dick for wearing a jacket on a night out in winter, even if it didn’t feel half as cold here as the previous world, actually. It was a world where you could smile more, say yes more, forget to look over your shoulder, snort cocaine with disposable income, sleep with men who didn’t know your uncle or where you went to primary school, not call to say you got home okay, lean into political apathy. It was a world invented for people who wanted to bankrupt themselves by slithering out of the person they used to be and emerging someone else, shiny pink and new and unimpressed by everything except how important and cool you are. Take my money. Make me new.
“Okay”, the Otherworld says. “Fine, okay, yeah, we’ll make you new, but look, we’re not doing all the work. Like, you can’t keep saying ‘hings’. You can’t say ‘hingy’. That’s not a real word. We say ‘things’ here. Pronounce it properly. And do you have anything in black? And, Jesus, get rid of that watch.”
The watch wasn’t a huge price to pay for a new me so I dutifully shoved it in a drawer and pretended I had never liked it in the first place. New me followed India, Amelia and Ollie on Twitter and accepted a new set of guidelines. I scuffed my trainers and got a backpack and stopped brushing my hair and downloaded FaceTune and started performatively enjoying basic girl starter pack memes on Twitter. I laughed cruelly at proposal photos on Facebook and started saying ‘aitch’ instead of ‘haitch’. I went to parties in Hackney and Islington where people imitated my voice and told me that “yeah they sort of lived in a collective” and “yeah Bradley’s dad kind of owns the place” and “yeah, I went to private school, but what you have to remember is that we had fuck all money throughout”. “Oh yeah,” I started answering to all of these things, digging my finger into a small plastic bag I’d dipped into my overdraft for. “God yeah I totally get what you mean.”
Reader, I did not and do not get what they mean.
I had one leg in each universe and while the parallel lines they ran on were not very far apart in distance, my groin still ached from the effort. “What’s happened to your accent,” my mum is saying. They’ve just bought a car, the first since I was a baby, and I’m sat in the back on a trip home, sulking over nothing. What is it about being back in your family home, or in this case your family car, which makes you feel simultaneously older and younger than you’ve ever been? “What?” “‘What’ ‘What!’ Hark at her! You weren’t reared on ‘what’ let me tell you –” I’m rolling my eyes and my dad, greyer now, is looking at me in the rear view mirror. “Where’s your watch?” he says. I have the decency to look sheepish. “I don’t like wearing it out,” I mumble. “In case it gets wrecked you know. Like, travelling, and all that. I only wear it on special occasions now actually, you know, just in case.” My dad looks at me in the rear view mirror for a beat too long. “Oh aye,” he says. “Right you are.”
There is a Nora Ephron book I love more than I can explain. It’s called I Feel Bad About My Neck and it’s famous. It’s a book of essays which are ostensibly about being a woman, but actually about truth and lies and life, which I suppose is the same thing. In one essay for instance, where Ephron is listing the ephemera of a woman’s daily routine, all the time-consuming nothingness we do in order to appear presentable to a gimlet-eyed world, she muses that it’s all for nothing, the creams and the Botox and the hair dyes, because after a certain age, it’s the neck that gives it away. She writes: “Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth. You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t if it had a neck.”
Nora Ephron means two things. Firstly, she means that when you get old, you get a turkey neck. It’s an inescapable fact of life that neither Botox nor the Facetune smooth tool will fix. But what she also means, I think, is that we spend our lives trying to hide parts of ourselves from the rest of the world. The bits the world says are ugly or tacky or unsightly, that we should be embarrassed about. We learn to internalise that embarrassment and we pull and prod and alter ourselves not because we want to be altered but because we’re told we should want to. We’re taught that it’s improvement; pulling yourself up by your neck and your bootstraps. It’s also the path of least resistance. Nobody wants to explain the dissonance between their smooth face and their wrinkly neck all day. Nobody wants to undergo the humiliation dressed as compliment as a stranger takes in one, then the other, clocks that you’re not who your face, or your costume, says you are, and cocks their head to the side, impressed and curious. “Oh how well you’ve done to hide,” they say. “But of course, we see it now.”
Nora Ephron did not want to keep having to explain her neck and I didn’t want to keep having to explain the watch. So in the drawer it stayed.
A strange thing happens when you’re pretending to be somebody you’re not for a long time. You start to become disassociated from both the person you used to be, but also who you are now. Rather than painfully straddling two parallel worlds, one gleaming and exciting, the other dull and boring, you stand outside yourself and watch the charade, and then you see how ridiculous and tiring it all is. You see that no matter how many haitches you drop you will not own property or know how to ski. You understand at once that failing to brush your hair and glamourising a performative cocaine habit will not change the fact that your overdraft is maxed out and you haven’t called your parents in weeks. And you realise that distance is not always measured linearly.
Recently I spent an afternoon in the office not doing anything useful to the company I work for at all and instead poring over my old Facebook messages, from a prehistoric time when people actually used Facebook. I expected to feel nostalgic and a little sad, and maybe miss the people I spoke to and loved fiercely five years ago who are strangers to me now. Instead, I didn’t read the received messages at all. I fixated on the sent, the little blue pieces of evidence that betrayed who I used to be, who I was pretending to be, and who the people I loved fiercely who are strangers to me now knew I was anyway, and liked all the same.
Shame is a funny thing. You can swallow it for years. You can keep it balled up and hardened in the pit of your stomach like years worth of swallowed chewing gum. And then all of a sudden it will repeat on you and billow up like noxious gas, choking you at your desk in your office on a Wednesday afternoon and reminding you of the effort and the time and the expense of hiding the things that make you who you are. My tacky gold watch with a chipped face and a busted battery is my estate. It’s my house in the country. It’s my turkey neck. It’s my rings on a tree, telling you who I am and where I come from and how many years I’ve been hanging around, collecting rings of dubious experience. I don’t have to wear it to know I’m not hiding it anymore.
I have now moved eight times in five years. On eight separate occasions I have gathered up all my worldly belongings and lugged them onto a train or into the back of a taxi to move into a damp and overpriced rental flat where the landlords have specified that there should be no DSS tenants and also no pets (sorry). I have never owned furniture and I’ve learned not to accumulate many things. Each of the eight times I’ve moved I’ve embraced — not by choice — more and more of a minimalist lifestyle, throwing away clothes and books and shoes and bags and bedclothes and towels and anything I don’t want to drag to my new damp and overpriced rental flat that’s not my home, never will be my home. The only thing I have consistently taken to each and every one of them has been my tacky gold busted battery glow in the dark chipped face dearly treasured watch. Home is not always a place.
Roisin Lanigan is a writer and editor based in London and Belfast. She works at i-D, and her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, New Statesman, VICE, The Face, The Fence, NYMag and Honest Ulsterman, amongst other places. She is represented by Kat Aitken at United Agents and she is currently finishing edits on her first novel, as well as publishing a short story in the upcoming final issue of The Moth.
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Image Credit: Gold Watch, Duko Stolwijk Art