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Mistress of Bricks
Counterintuitively, my surname, Italia, has nothing to do with the country of Italy. It’s a common Indian Parsi name that probably originated in a corruption of the words ita walla (literally ‘brick man’) and perhaps signifies something closer to the English Mason. It’s always seemed oddly appropriate to me, though, because of my tendency to be—as a friend once put it—about as subtle as a tonne of bricks. “Did you know that I liked you?” I recently asked a man with whom I was unsuccessfully flirting. “It could only have been more obvious if a squadron of planes with banners declaring your interest had flown by my door,” he told me. That’s me: Squadron Leader Italia reporting for duty, ready to drop a cargo of assorted masonry into your front garden.
If I really want something, I generally find it impossible to hide my intense longing to obtain it—even though I know that people are often more generous to those who are less obviously needy. The job candidate who seems to have many other offers to consider is a more appealing prospect. The lover who might just be interested is more intriguing. If you want to be in a relationship, you won’t find one, I’m often told. You’ll attract more people if you seem content to remain single.
But I am still the little child tugging at my mother’s arm as we approach the supermarket till, stretching grubby fingers towards the gobstoppers, liquorice shoelaces and sugar mice, whining “please, please, please please”—while, perhaps, just perhaps, if I had been a good, quiet little girl, trailing patiently behind my mum as she took sliced bread and apples and tins of baked beans down from the shelves, I would have been rewarded with a lollipop.
I would have surely passed the Stanford marshmallow test, as I was a hoarder of sweets as a child, preferring to squirrel them away for future consumption. But I would have failed a test that involved charming the researchers into doling out a second marshmallow, rather than begging for one.
It’s perhaps because of my brickbat approach to the world that I have always been attracted to geeks, nerds, software engineers and similar men, most of whom are probably on the autism spectrum, and who are impatient with or unskilled at the subtler social niceties. Since I’m not bound by the Goldwater Rule, I will refer to them as autists here—though I’m obviously not qualified to make any actual diagnosis.
A friend once referred to my ex-boyfriends as “your collection of beautiful introverts,” but I think he was only half correct in this. In fact, I see them as falling into two categories. What I’ll call Type A autists are often bubbly, childlike, deliberately naïve, unapologetic in their zaniness, chaos agents who see high-functioning autism as a superpower (think Sheldon from Big Bang Theory, without the selfishness). Type B autists, by contrast, are reserved, awkward, shy, self-conscious and view their neurodiversity as a handicap (think Leonard).
What we see here are diametrically opposed approaches to a central problem: when to ask for things explicitly and when to wait to be invited; when to rush in and when to fear to tread.
There are clearly situations in which it is best to be assertive in expressing your wants and needs. In some scenarios, making a request is in itself an act of generosity—people love to give gifts, they like to feel helpful, they enjoy contributing and if you’re explicit about what you want, it relieves them of the pressure of trying to guess what would be most appreciated. “Give me a task,” friends will often say, when they want to join in with cooking, gardening, clearing out the shed or any other activity that can be laborious when you’re doing it your own, but becomes easy and fun when shared. Life is full of gifts and opportunities masquerading as requests: “Peter, you sing the tenor line”; “I’d love you to show me round the botanical gardens”; “now lick me right there.”
Of course, there are also things that it’s awkward to ask for, but it’s worth the risk of offending people for the chance of getting what you want or need. But what causes me personally the most confusion and awkwardness is that vast subset of things that I desperately want, but which I know it would be not only gauche but counterproductive to ask for. The Type A autists in my life have often breezed right past those barriers of convention. “Would you be my girlfriend?” my last boyfriend (very much a type A) asked me early in our acquaintance. I was delighted by the straightforwardness of this, the way it allowed me to bypass all the anxious second-guessing, all the forwarding of WhatsApp messages to my female friends for a group exercise in close reading—the entire nervous waiting period before a relationship becomes official.
I would love to be one of those women who attracts men with her ineffable mystique. It would be so delightful to simply draw people in with my aura of Bond girl insouciance, to make them feel, “Ah! the mysterious Iona! I know nothing about her and I’d love to discover more.” But instead, I tend to share my inner monologue in a way that would make Lorelai Gilmore look taciturn and my flirting is about as subtle as the attentions of a golden retriever when someone is eating a bacon butty. So I generally attempt to disguise the fact that I have a crush on someone by flirting outrageously with all and sundry, on the principle that the best place to hide a body is in a graveyard.
A lot of the political conflicts of the Culture Wars stem from people demanding pity or respect—which fall into that category of things people desperately want but which can only be granted freely. To try to force others to feel those things is counterproductive. It doesn’t matter whether you are asking others to see you as a woman (despite your unmistakeable Adam’s apple and five o’ clock shadow) or to respect your Christian values (and endorse religious tenets they don’t believe); whether you want them to believe all women or to see divorced men as a victim group; whether you want most people of your preferred sex or sexes to be attracted to you, despite your morbid obesity, or demand that women who like taller men date you, although you are 5’5”. We all deserve fair treatment and respect as human beings and as much kindness as is compatible with justice and sanity. Everything beyond that, however—from professional standing to sexual favours—cannot be demanded as a right, but only received as a gift.
I have a lot of sympathy with those making pointless demands. I felt for the frontman of the group Royal Blood, as he berated the audience at a recent concert for not cheering on his band with sufficient enthusiasm. My intense fremdschämen as I watched him stomp off the stage in a huff, flipping the bird at the concertgoers, was based on kinship. I, too, am the heroine of my own story; I too want people to applaud me and am often baffled as to how to make it happen. Here I am singing, guys! Why won’t you clap? It’s tempting to take the shortcut of just demanding, love me! But no one has ever loved on demand—and if they could, their approbation would be worthless. I remain a fool, rushing in without regard to consequences, leaping all over people like a Labrador, so eager to be petted that I leave everyone covered in fur and drool. But I aspire to greater wisdom in this matter.