He rolled off of me and as his body hit the bed with a dull “thoump” he expelled a breath with a sound that was halfway between a groan and a sigh. I stared at the ceiling, gray in the eternal twilight of my northerly exposed apartment, my mind still in the depths of a post-coital haze, and said, to no one in particular, and for no reason in particular, “Not bad.” He propped himself up on an elbow with a surprising alacrity.
“Not bad! Not bad? I think that was rather good.”
“But not bad means good,” I protested.
“No. Not bad means not bad, which is not as good as good”
I began to protest again, but he cut me off, “Are you going to tell me how to speak English?” This is an argument an American cannot win with an Englishman. He could have been raised by wolves in a cave, or whatever they have over there, raised by hedgehogs under a hedge, I suppose, but he would still get to tell me how to speak English being, as it happens, English.
He could have very well been raised by hedgehogs, for all I knew. I met him two or three days earlier at a gallery opening. I’d been thinking that I ought to get out more and the next little postcard that arrived in the mail, I pinned on my fridge and went. I didn’t know the artists, nor did I know that gallery. After walking around the small space and looking at the work, I was reluctant to leave without talking to someone. The Englishman, I would find out later, was showing a younger friend how to start conversations with strangers. I became exhibit A.
To be friendly, I invited him back to my place to look at my paintings and, somehow, we wound up in bed. Now, he was complaining because I happened to mutter “Not bad.” Good thing I didn’t say, “Not bad for your age,” seeing as he was by far the oldest man I’d ever had, both in absolute as well as relative terms.
We had had reasonably good sex and now he was insulted. He seemed in earnest. I started talking quickly. Perhaps it was because I’d spent too much time speaking French. I was really quite certain that “pas mal” means good. Maybe, I’d gotten my French and English mixed up.
Partly mollified, he flopped onto his back.
What should have brought back this inconsequential memory? A few days ago, I came across a link to an article entitled “Translation table explaining the truth behind British politeness becomes internet hit.” The article is accompanied by a photograph of Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral describing him as the “epitome of British politeness.” As the table would have it, that is very interesting. I, for one, would love to know where all these insufferably polite Englishmen are. Not in New York City, certainly, or at least not in my bed. My own personal stereotype of Englishmen is somewhat closer to the Boy Toy in Melinda Gebbie’s short comic “How Can I Write a Story about Fashion Now That My Boy Toy Is Gone?” In it, the Boy Toy says charming things like, “Me Mum put on ‘er poshest accent for ya. When she get’s used to ya she’ll talk normal” and “Vat’s the one broke a toof barfin’ on a tree ‘n’ vat’s the one me bruvva ‘n’ all me mates got a leg over on.” Well, I guess that says more about me than it does about them.
There was one British euphemism that the table forgot. A few months after the afternoon when I had an argument over the meaning of “not bad,” I would learn that apparently some people think “Hello” means “I’m married, but perhaps we could have a tawdry affair.” He said he thought that I understood. Let’s say, I was a bit disappointed.