– The following is an extract from a semi-fictional novel I’m working on. It is based on my experience of taking part in medical trials as a lifestyle and tells the tale of a disenfranchised young man living on the edge of society and finding his place in the world while meeting fellow drifters along the way. It is still a work in progress and one that will keep being developed as I continue living this way and collecting more material for the book, but for now I will post extracts on here. Previous instalments can be found here.
The time had come for Steven to finally leave. Well, that moment had already looked like happening a few times. Each day started the same: we’d be in the kitchen hungover, talking about how he needed to drive up to his parents near Manchester and ‘sort some stuff out’, then one of us would suggest going to the shop and getting a few beers. The next thing we knew we were eight drinks deep and chatting shit about life or society in the latest session. There was only so much more our aging bodies could take and, yes, we had hit the proverbial wall. He headed into his van headquarters to finally back it out the drive and sail off over the horizon, onward to the next episode of existential madness.
“Will catch ya soon buddy, it’s been good. Let me know how it goes on the female front.”
“Don’t hold your breath on that one. You’ll have to let me know whenever you’re back in the area, or when you’re doing another medical trial.”
He then drove off out of sight and I retreated to the darkness of my room. My brain was still a bit scrambled from the days of partying, so I took a few days to recover with some running and meditation. The age thing had started making noticeable effects and hangovers now lasted days instead of hours. Luckily for me, I didn’t have a job to go into. I had heard stories of my friends in ‘proper jobs’ – terrible, haunting stories of them standing in board meetings and giving presentations to prestigious clients while on a gnawing comedown. I figured that was how most Monday morning meetings across the country went – bleary-eyed people with existential dread, trying to be competent while hiding the void in their soul that came from another weekend of drug-fuelled debauchery and escapism. I guess that was another perk of the lab rat life – instead of wanting to crawl in a hole and die in some board meeting, I could want to crawl into a hole and die at home with a bag of doritos and a couple of cats.
After my body had recovered, I considered what I could do to kill the time between the next medical trial. I wasn’t feeling much like writing, and I decided that I needed to do some living to get the words flowing again. Ultimately you had to be continually getting beaten up by life to have things to write about, and I figured there was no better way to do this than interacting with the female kind. Maybe it was Steven’s influence, but my need for a woman had drastically increased (probably it also had something to do with the fact it had been months since I was laid). I considered the best ways to meet a woman after our recent failures in the bars. I had to think of Steven and his stories about the dating apps. I had never used such dystopian technology before – in fact, I was still getting the hang of my first ever smartphone. I saw those dating apps as heinous and dehumanising – things in which you nonchalantly swiped people in and out of your life based on a cursory glance. But the libido makes a man do strange things, including compromising his values and integrity. I did exactly that as I downloaded Tinder and made myself a profile. I threw some travel photos on there, wrote a short and witty bio, and completely avoided the job/work section, hoping I could dodge the fact that I was currently living off medical trials for a living. I did mention I was a writer in my bio and hoped there would be those women out there who saw that as desirable or mysterious. There would be some who might think I managed to make a living off it, and some who naturally knew those who called themselves writers were typically unemployed no-hopers with no practical skills or trades or talents. Either way, I figured it was a conversation starter at least.
I got into the swing of it, mindlessly swiping left or right on the human-beings that appeared before me on my screen. There were a few photos and a couple of sentences to decide whether or not this person was worthy of speaking to, dating, or potentially hooking up with. It did seem strange what our evolution had led us too. I thought of all the animals out there roaming wild plains and trying to impress the other sex with a song or a dance; nowadays the human species simply stared at a small screen and flicked their finger left or right to initiate the mating process. It was a brave new world and I figured that maybe my medical trial career wasn’t so strange after all; maybe in a few years we’d be lying in pods having things inserted and withdrawn from us in exchange for shelter, finance, or stimulation of some kind.
After a while I got some matches. Quite a few actually. Despite my many flaws, I was somehow blessed with the circumstance of being a good-looking guy. ‘Tall, dark, and handsome’ had been used to describe me before. Very often women got lured in by my traditional good looks, only to sprint away like scared deer the second I opened my mouth. With the apps they could only see what I physically looked like, and I could also hide my weird personality behind some well-written and thought-out sentences. This probably explained the attention I got. I even got matches with those women that frequented those posh cocktail bars – the ones who listed reality TV shows as an interest and had bikini pictures of them on a beach in Dubai. I figured I’d never get a shot with these women normally, so I spoke to them to see what would happen. I knew these were women who would be serious about dating – the ones looking for potential future husbands and fathers. Being good-looking was one thing, but most of them would want guys with a career – someone who could provide them with stability and security and who wasn’t shitting into a pot to get their latest rent money. The odds seemed against me in all honesty. Still, I figured it would be an interesting experiment to see if someone like me could manage to date someone like that. It would be the underdog story of the century; the peasant overcoming adversity to be crowned king. The sewer rat hooking up with the cute pet hamster.
The conversations started and typically it wasn’t long until the other person managed to steer the conversation towards what career you were in. For some, I was totally honest and explained my unconventional lifestyle, at which point the ‘ghosting’ came – internet dating slang for a person stopping replying to you without any comment. Some were curious though, especially when I told them I had sold books and that the medical trials paid thousands of pounds each time. After a while I got my first catch. I managed to arrange a date with a twenty-five-year-old account executive at some PR firm. We decided to meet at a bar in the West Bridgford area – the area known for being the posh, middle-class neighbourhood that was popular with ‘young professionals’. I arrived to meet her outside; we said hello then went inside to sit down and order some espresso martinis. She already knew some of my story and didn’t waste any time quizzing me about my life. I sat back swirling my drink and speaking openly about it. I told her about the trials and the travelling and the desire to become a great writer. “To write it well, you have to live it well,” I uttered once more – something that was quickly becoming the catchphrase to justify my existence. As I shared with her the mess in my mind, I watched her sit back and look at me with an analytical look. It seemed I was back to that same situation where people looked at you like you were a showpiece at some circus event.
“You’re a dreamer,” she said to me, finally.
“Yeah, and what’s wrong with that?” I replied.
“Nothing I guess. It’s good to dream. But you need to be realistic too.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well,” she started. “You want to not be shaped by the system, to live your own life and do what you love – I understand that and commend you for it – but you gotta keep one foot in the game, you know? You need a reliable way to make money, and some basic security. I’ve seen people end up in serious trouble when they just march against the system not giving a fuck.”
“Really? Like who?” I said.
“There was this one guy I once knew who had a bit of a crisis and quit his insurance job to pursue his passion of film-making. He lived off his savings and devoted most of his time to directing short films, hoping to break into the industry. Within a year he was jaded and depressed and trying to get his old job back, but unable to. He couldn’t keep up his expenses and had to move back with his parents. The recession then hit and he figured out he didn’t actually have what it took to live on the breadline while chasing a dream. Most people need that safety net. Perhaps you should find a way to have a stable career and do your writing in your spare time.” I paused and thought about it.
“Well, I’m not like most people,” I said finally. “I’m willing to live on the edge to do what I love and chase my dream. And besides, I have no idea what else I can do anyway. If I end up in the gutter then so be it; at least I gave it a try. That’s more than most people can say.”
“You say that now when you’re young and full of angst, but seriously you may start to crave a bit more stability. Things about the system you thought were traps, you may start to look at them with desire. You’ll see the value of routine and being able to plan your weeks and months. You’ll want to not worry about where the rent money is going to come from. I’m not saying you should give up your dream to be a writer and do your backpacking trips – I hope you live a life doing what you love, as we all desire to deep down – but just be aware not to be too gung-ho and burn all your bridges. Think about finding the middle ground. I think that’s the best way.”
“Yeah, yeah…” I stalled. I was starting to feel like I was being lectured. Still, it probably was one of the more interesting conversations being had on a first date. “I’ll think about it. But whatever happens, I’ll always be that wide-eyed dreamer running toward what I love. Maybe there is a balance, but you gotta make sure that chasing that balance doesn’t mean you essentially traded your dreams for comfortable mediocrity. I see that a lot; people giving up on themselves and justifying it by calling in ‘growing up’ or something like that. Ultimately, the people who achieved something special were those who had the guts to go all the way in the pursuit of their passions. Yes, that pursuit can take us to the edge, but some of us are born to live on the edge. It’s that edge which sharpens our steel; which puts force behind our fingertips. It’s that edge where our greatest work is done.”
At this point I could feel the eyes of the surrounding people in the bar on me. She sat across the table and also stared at me, undoubtedly deciding there and then that things weren’t going to go any further than a first date. I didn’t blame her.
A few more dates were had as I continued my first experience of internet dating. One was even successful in that I ended up going back to the girl’s place. Typically it was a girl I had no interest in. Well, at least the months of celibacy had ended. There was another one with a girl I ended up making out with; she told the people on the table next to us that there was definitely going to be a second date. I liked her and was looking forward to it. After that, I didn’t hear from her again. I was confused – on that first date she was really into me, wanting to meet up again, discussing which overpriced bar we could visit next. It went from that to total radio silence. I remembered I had told her I was a writer and said the name of my blog. Maybe I was paranoid, but I decided she had visited that blog, read the existential musings that I posted there, and decided I was bad news. Either that or I was a terrible kisser.
The matches and chats carried on until I got speaking to one girl called Rosie. She was a beautiful blonde and worked in the head office for a big healthcare company. I don’t know what came over me, but I decided to be somebody I wasn’t. I went out and I bought some designer clothes and took her out for dinners at fancy places. I told her about how I had just gotten back from travelling and was trying to get back into the journalism field while currently doing some freelance stuff. I felt like a fraud in all honesty, but I figured it was the only way to get close to a girl like that. There was only so much I can fake being a real person though, and one night my house of cards came crumbling down. I had drunk a few too many espresso martinis and I told her the truth about my life. I looked into her eyes and felt some optimism in my heart. She would look past the fact I was a lab rat and allow me to be a part of her straight-laced life just for the sake of my character. But I was wrong. Her eyes slowly dimmed as I watched her mentally pack her bags and run off over the horizon in horror. I didn’t blame her; I had misled her for the sake of an experiment. She was also a young mum and no doubt was looking for a serious partner who could support her. I had wasted her time and I got the text the next day. “You’re really nice and I’ve had a fun time but I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”
So there I was: now twenty-eight, still single, jobless, carless, careless, hopeless. My money was running low for all the dates I had been on and gotten nowhere with. The world was mocking me, taunting me, laughing at me. I needed to retreat from it all. Thankfully the clinic was there waiting for me. I scurried back to it once more, the sewer rat looking to shelter from the piercing daylight of the real world.