If I could only say what I mean

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I'M AT this Christmas party, drinking Prosecco, getting tipsy, talking to these two men. One of them is small and round with a slightly snide manner. The other is very quiet and handsome, with strange little folds under his eyes and cheekbones som ewhereup around his temples. "Tell me something personal about yourself," he says, after we have been chit-chatting for a while. Is he flirting with me? On the record-player, Bobby Short has just started singing "I Like the Likes of You". I like the lik es ofyou. I like the things you do. I mean, I like the likes of you. "You'll have to be more specific," I say. "OK," he says. "How many times have you been in love?" He smiles a big, slow smile, creating more folds beneath his eyes. He is flirting with me. Ilike your eyes of blue. I think they're blue, don't you? I mean, I like the likes of you.

"How broad is the definition that we're using here?" I ask. The snidey man rolls his eyes. "Let's not get Wittgensteinian," he drawls. But the good-looking one shoots him a withering glance. "As broad or as narrow as you want," he says, turning back to me. Oh, cute and masterful! "Using the broadest definition," I say, "probably around five times." (Damn, does that sound jaded?) "What if you use the narrowest definition?" he asks. "Oh, then never," I say, quickly. "Really?" He laughs. This is an important moment. If he whinnies or giggles or makes piggy, snorting noises, it could ruin everything. But he laughs brilliantly - a sort of languorous, ironic chortle. "What about you?" I say. "Oh, just once," he says. Now, why didn't I say that? Oh dear, if Icould only say what I mean. I mean, if I could only mean what I say. That is, I mean to say, that I like the likes of you.

One of my father's girlfriends used to lecture me on the rules of winning men's hearts. A lot of her advice was about how to perform the more filthy and recondite sex acts (which was of limited use to me at the time, since I was only 11). But she had oneoverarching principle, which has remained with me ever since. "If you want a man to want you," she used to say, "you have to limit his access to you. That way, he'll always be struggling for more." This advice is counter-intuitive, of course: if you like someone, your impulse is not to make yourself scarce, but to create an absolute glut of yourself. Tonight, however, I decide I shall be molto cool, and walk away from the good-looking man before I start to slaver and giggle. I move off and I'm minglingnicely, and all the while he's catching my eye and giving me this nice slow smile of his. Then I see a girlfriend whom I haven't spoken to in months. We sit down on the sofa together and she starts telling me about how she and her brand new beau were woken in bed at eight the other morning, by Madonna calling to ask him his age and what his star sign was. "I was pissed," she says, "but also kind of psyched."

As she's saying this, a man comes and sits down on the sofa next to us. He has a beard and glasses and an unpromisingly earnest expression. "Hallo!" he says. "Hi," my girlfriend says, and then carries on talking to me as if he wasn't there. I feel badly about this, so I smile at him. "What are your names?" he says quickly. (This man knows to make hay while the sun shines.) We tell him. "Zooey!" he says. "That's a great name!"

"Actually, it's not Zooey," I say. "It's..."

"Where does it come from, Zooey? India?"

"No, and it's not Zooey..."

"A lot of people have very interesting names, these days, don't they?" he observes. "I'm just plain old Mike."

"I must get another drink," my girlfriend says suddenly. "Stay here and I'll get it for you," I offer. "No, no," she says, smiling. "You stay here." Then she disappears. "Have you tried the dip?" Mike asks brightly. "It's very good. lt has a nice herb init."

I don't want to be mean, but Mike really is one giant mug of Ovaltine. He's something of a phenomenon, in as much as nothing he says is at all interesting. After a while you start looking forward to the "ands" and "buts" in his conversation - they at least have an element of suspense to them. "I have recently bought a television," he tells me, at one point, "and I have been very struck by what a powerful medium it is."

"Yes, isn't it?" I say, staring round the room desperately. "I mean," he says, "television is pictures and words. That's a very powerful combination." I look at him, trying to work out if he's kidding. "I think you're on to something there," I say.

Suddenly I see the good-looking flirt looming up behind him. Oh, mon brave! Come to save me from Mogadon Man! I hastily put down the handful of curried asparagus that I was about to stuff in my mouth and start to laugh and toss my head about in what I imagine is a pretty, spirited way. Mike blinks at me, from behind his glasses. "Have you got a crick in your neck?" he asks. Oh, piss off, Mike.

Everything turns out OK, though. The good-looking one comes up and talks to me some more, and by the end of the evening I have ascertained that he has spoken to X who has spoken to Y who is going to give him my phone number. Result! I waft home, feeling that all is peachy keen. The next morning, I am still lying in bed when I receive a call from a friend who wants to know how the party was. I tell him all about it and then I say: "Oh, and I met some man called, em... Ethan, I think it was."

"Ethan?" my friend says. "What, the Reagan fanatic?"

"Whatdoyoumean?" I ask. "Oh," he says, "it's just that Ethan is famous for being a rabid conservative and he used to donate huge sums of money to the Reagan election cam-paigns...Why? You didn't fancy him, did you?"

I laugh a hollow laugh. "What, Ethan? Please! Of course not."

"So did you flirt with anyone last night?" he continues. "I woke up with a strong feeling that you'd been flirting."

"Nah," I say, rolling over and reaching for my first cigarette of the day. "They were all a bunch of bozos."