Lurid & Cute by Adam Thirlwell is about a neurotic narrator who wakes up one morning in a seedy motel next to a woman who isn't his wife, and the chaotic path that ensues (available April 14, 2015).
The narrator wakes confused in a seedy hotel room. He has had the good education, and also the good job. Together with his wife and dog, he lives at home with his parents. But then the lurid overtakes him-a chain of events that feels to those inside it narcotic and neurotic, like one long and terrible descent: complete with lies, deceit, and chicanery, and including, in escalating order, one orgy, one brothel, and a series of firearms disputes.
Lurid & Cute balances the complexity of an interior world-our hero's apparently innocent obsessions with food, old movies, and all the gaudy, shoddy building blocks of pop culture-with a picaresque plot. This is the story of a woebegone and global generation. And our hero, the sweetest narrator in world literature, also may well be the most fearsome.
1. MADAMA MORTE
in which our hero wakes up
When I woke I was looking upside down at a line of velvet paintings on the wall above the bed. Jesus was standing on his halo beside a very bright Madonna – I mean the religious kind, not the disco version. In between the two of them was a tropicana beach – it was a palm tree, a palm tree, a palm tree, some blue sand. I thought perhaps I liked them, these velvet paintings. I liked the very bright vibe. But also I knew that although I liked the vibe it was not the vibe of my usual bedroom, just as the girl who was sleeping beside me in what seemed to be a hotel room was not my happy wife. It was that kind of problem situation, and while I acknowledge that some people would not feel that this is after all so bad – and that waking beside a person who is not ethically your own is just the usual way most humans enter the moral realm and therefore, kiddo, live with it – still, I could not be so suave. For a long time now there had been problems in the atmosphere – small cracks and fissures, like butterflies emerging in autumn, a light tropicália everywhere and it made me a little afraid. Just as now I felt like my head was somewhere else and I also felt very sick. I knew my phone must be beside me and I knew that I should look at it but I really also didn’t. If at this point you had placed me on a chat-show sofa and asked me how I was feeling, I’d have told you that I basically was feeling very sad. Because I really am no big shot, or hoodlum. I am no player. Always girls have made me shy. In this role of high-speed macho I was about as authentic as the white chicks doing gang signs for photos. It really wasn’t normal for me to wake up and not know how I got there. For me a normal pastime was to be intent on mathematical problems, or models of voting systems – my pastimes, I just mean, were always sweet and meditative. Nevertheless, this new thing went on happening and I was powerless to stop it. My head was definitely very bad. In Brasilia they were coming off their night shift, in Tokyo they were having a first whisky sour. Four thousand miles away there were drones just very noisily hovering in formation above the mountain passes and valley gorges, and down here on the quiet earth a girl who was not my wife was lying there beside me. Her name was Romy, and she was one of my favourite friends. She was blonde and when you saw her in a bar her hair was this gorgeous listless mass to one side of her neck but now I had this inner knowledge that she wasn’t a natural blonde. She almost had no hair between her legs but it turned out that the hair that was there, a tuft, was definitely dark. That’s what I tried to concentrate on while the light began to fry the nylon curtains and Romy continued to sleep. Because even if you’re bewildered or sad you have to carry on. I remember one bodhisattva phrase – keep cool but care – and that phrase is never wrong. It’s most certainly a rule to live by and such rules should always be treasured. I hope that if I prove one thing in the writing of this account it’s the importance of rules for living, which is perhaps why in this story of my moral life I have decided to begin with this episode of blood. It was I think the place where my usual categories disappeared. I got up and dressed and stood there just considering how I was going to go back home – I mean in what state and with what explanations. But it was also very early. It was both way too late and also very early so I thought for now I would start with getting myself some breakfast, because sometimes the only correct way to act is to take care of the ordinary things. You have to think things through in stages. So I walked out into the car park and along to the hotel restaurant where I sat myself down. From the booth in which I sat I had a very bright view. It was nothing special. Insects rotated slowly in the green dawn, they just kept developing from nowhere, from the bright and granular air. My car was in the parking lot outside our door, and beside it there was what looked like a Caddy Hearse but I ignored it. And maybe this was a mistake – to ignore what other people might consider a definite sign. If you’re used to the unfranked letters arriving at your house, or phone calls where a man asks if he’s got through to the chapel of rest, I mean if you’re alive to the mafia ways of telling a man he’s marked or savaged or doomed, then maybe it could be said that I made a mistake. Had I known then what I know now, had I been able to understand the full ranges of terror I would come to know, the gore and ballistics, had I been able to perform the kind of loop-the-loop this manner of talking now allows me, I might well have argued in this way. But I always missed the obvious. I don’t know why. Other people appreciated the ordinary things like shopping-centre car parks and cafe parasols, or whatever – the coffee-machine coffee. But me, no. I was much better at my own ruminations. It was very bright and very sad inside this restaurant. The radio was talking to itself but I had nobody to talk to, so I sat there in my booth with a view of the empty signscape and read through the laminate menu. I waited. I looked out the window. I kept looking at my watch and then the landscape for ten minutes: my watch and then the landscape, my watch and then the landscape. I really don’t like waiting. Finally a waitress emerged from the kitchen. Her name was on her breast pocket. This name was Quincy. In another font, another badge was wishing me a nice day. And it was a nice day, no question. It was CGI nice, if you had not woken up in a state of oozing anxiety.
— I was waiting ten minutes, I said.
— You said what? said Quincy.
— I’m not making a formal complaint, I said. — I just think you should know that I came in I think ten minutes ago. It’s really nothing.
— Uh-huh, said Quincy.
I don’t think she really cared but at least I’d tried to help. I ordered my vegetarian breakfast. My style of eggs was sunny side up, to use the outmoded term. The colour of my juice was orange. I did want the hash browns. I ate my fries with gusto. I added the ketchup and mustard. And when I’d finished, having dragged some toast across the red-and-yellow plate, I rubbed my glasses clean with a wipe that Quincy had provided for my fingers. It was kind of her because people’s hands are often covered in germs. It’s always good to be conservative. The wipe made my glasses smell pure but they now also stung my eyes. I looked out over the horizontal electric lines, then the horizontal lines painted on the tarmac. Then I looked out over the vertical road signs. The world was as empty as that. I felt very trapped and very sad. Although of course in retrospect I was nowhere near as sad as I should have been because in retrospect Fate was about to juice me even more than it already had. Fate was all around me, like the crimping on a beer-bottle top. But then, it’s never obvious at what point you can use this language of in retrospect or too late, for although they seem like normal phrases they conceal much more than is useful, so that one major problem with living is that at every point of dejection you generally think you have reached the lowest depth, and so like everyone I tended to imagine that this frazzled state in which I found myself was the very worst state possible, just as when indeed I was inside something much more damaging to my ideal as debonair and open-hearted, as inside whatever ride of death you enter at the funfair, a ride in which I came to know grotesqueries and savagery I never imagined I would need to consider, at that point I no longer cared about this previous knowledge at all. Whereas here, in this hotel, I was stricken.
to discover his transformation
Because I do not like to do things that are wrong. I am totally against it. And one thing that does seem wrong is to wake up in a bed beside a woman who is not your wife. Or let’s say, no, because in fact there are better or worse ways of doing the very bad thing, and in general as I examined this situation with as much scruple as possible, I had to admit that to do this with a woman who was in many ways your best friend was an extra mistake, because I think I would happily argue in whatever saloon you put me in that sex with a mutual friend is probably worse for your adored wife in the hierarchy of wrongs than sex with a momentary stranger. Or at least I would say it was possible – but I wasn’t thinking about these moral issues as methodically as I would have liked, a distraction which is so often a problem in this busy reckless age, because also I had a heaviness in my bowels and it was preoccupying me too. As I walked back to this hotel room where Romy was presumably waiting in some sleepy spaced-out manner, with eyeliner smudged in a way that would no question be appealing, I was suddenly regretting not using the bathroom in the restaurant. Because while on the one hand I didn’t like going back inside the restaurant just to use the bathroom, on the other hand the thought of returning to my room and sitting down and exploding in the small hutch next to where Romy was sleeping … This didn’t please me at all. But then I thought of a solution that made me proud. Before going back to the room, I decided, I would do the necessary checking out, and then silently take my backpack – for I am rarely without my backpack, partly because there’s no end to the possessions I need to keep on my person for luck or voodoo or habit but also it’s just the most useful method overall, I think, for taking objects with you if you’re thinking about your future health – and then steal away. And afterwards I would go and get a coffee in a diner somewhere else and use whatever bathroom they could offer me and that was where I would more charmingly plan how I would return to my wife, Candy, in such a way that she didn’t entirely hate me. This wasn’t obviously usual for me – to leave a girl in bed without saying a proper goodbye. I would definitely admit that it seemed perhaps impolite. But in the end you have to choose among politenesses – and after all, I saw Romy very often. We would have many moments to discuss this and other aspects of our history. And also although I was in a very dark panic there was in me a sense that this manoeuvre did have a macho charm. It’s not easy to admit it but as I stood there at reception, reading a calendar for the wrong month and the wrong year, I allowed myself this grizzled moment of glory. You, I was thinking, are paying for a girl to sleep. OK, she was no narco moll or Latina pop star, but still, it was something. It also occurred to me that if this was definitely happening then I might need more sustained medical attention. I needed more consideration applied to my pills. But that was only a parenthesis. And I would like to also assert at this early high point of pause and idyll that while it had its perhaps reprehensible machismo, this way of thinking, it surely also showed concern, for what can be kinder than not waking someone up when they don’t want to? – and this concern was always something that my mother and father liked me to develop. They liked it when I thought about other people. They had a theory that one should work hard in this life. You are so impatient, booby, my mother said to me on many occasions in my life, like wanting to be more glorious than I am. Why do you never do things slowly? This was how she always talked. Wake up, darling, my mother would continue! If this is what you want, then you need to take your time to get it. What did I do wrong to make you so impatient? You want things always to be the big bright blue sky?
— I do not think this is what this is, I said.
— Of course, she said. — Keep arguing.
I think mothers are the atmosphere in which you have to live and I guess I do like that but it’s also a miniature form of persecution, in the most lovable way possible. But still, I tried very hard to do as my parents would have wanted, which at this point meant considering the less fortunate lives of other people. The man who was at reception this early in the morning seemed a little sad so I thought about him with affection. He had a difficult job, I was thinking, an arduous job, which presumably necessitated answering phones to the people supplying the kitchens, as well as kids calling for a practical joke, and a woman arriving at four in the afternoon needing a room right now, and so on, as well as the preparation of check-in and check-out forms, and the monitoring of the pool maintenance team, and also the use of the credit-card machine. It was not easy at all. His name was Osman, and Osman, I was definitely thinking, seemed to shroud a deeper pain. He turned round to find a stapler or other office accessory and there was a dark scar behind his ear, as if from some bayonet or sabre or machete. Maybe in the heyday of Osman he had once been a fearsome Caucasian warlord, but events had so conspired that Osman was now here: in a chain hotel, taking calls. While at home he kept his videos, perhaps videos where he surveyed his troops, and I hoped that he did, because it’s important to keep some kind of link to your past.
— Have a nice day and come back soon! said Osman.
— You too, man, I said.
I did mean it. A woman wearing headphones was swabbing down the wooden decking outside the rooms. I wanted to give her a gentle smile but she didn’t see me. Then I thought I saw my dead grandmother walking towards me, at least it looked like she looked in photographs. She seemed relaxed. It was very troubling. But when I was closer she was no longer my grandmother. She was nobody at all. So I tried to forget it. I could see the exit route back to something that I could call my ordinary life. It was very close. Inside the room the light was now brightly bleaching the curtains. I tried to turn off the ceiling fan because it was making this blurry kind of noise but instead I only turned on the bedside light. Romy didn’t notice. I walked across to the desk, where my bag was propped. And although I was anxious to make what the pulp fictions must once have called the perfect getaway, I also wanted to kiss her goodbye. I don’t know if that’s pulp, or if it is then it’s a different variant of pulp, the romance pulp, but still isn’t that right – to kiss a girl goodbye while she’s sleeping? Isn’t that what the passionate do? So I walked to the bed, and bent over her. Romy was sleeping on her front, and beside her nose on the pillow there was a thin dark slick of blood.
whose reality he tries to doubt
Everyone thinks they will not be there when someone dies, I mean when someone dies who is not their endless and married love. Everyone thinks that things happen in regular sequences but of course they don’t or not always. Time, as the fakir once put it, has this malicious ingenuity in the invention of affliction. In the end everything happens. Savage combinations are always possible and in fact I’m not sure they’re combinations, so much as aspects of the same thing. This was the knowledge that was being forced on me while I stood there. I was fading in and out. I was like a hologram or optical illusion. Or like a neon sign. I was switching on and off and I was sinister. I looked down. What kind of big shot are you? I was saying to myself. A fucking small one. I looked up. The ceiling fan was still going round and round. That was basically a version of me too. I looked back down at Romy. Yes, everyone thinks they know the order in which things will happen but in fact this is not true at all. And also whether something has happened or not is rarely obvious. I think we tend to overexaggerate the idea that things are real. Or at least I was trying to think how real something was when it was so far entirely private. I mean, do your own mini quiz. When a gorgeous girl tries to kiss you in the back of a taxi when you’re both high on ketamine, do you go home and tell your wife? I do not think so. You keep the gorgeous blonde to yourself as a stereoscope slide for winter evenings and therefore she does not exist at all. Or when your husband knows you do not smoke but you do in fact enjoy a secret cigarette, why do you upset his peace of mind? You find some chewing gum to sweeten your breath and go home as if nothing has happened. And if you act as if nothing has happened, if nothing in your behaviour ever hints that something has happened, then has it really happened? That’s my question. That’s what I mean by nothing happening, or one of the things I mean. At this precise moment this situation was only known to me and so it was maybe not known at all. Although it’s not so easy to really think this when you are inside the situation itself.
with blood all over the picture
The blood looked red to me but in close-up the blood seemed black. It was a red liquid that was turning black or a black liquid turning red. It seemed to be flowing more and more – how to say this? – freely. I think freely is the usual word for flowing. Then I tried to say Romy’s name, but it wouldn’t – my voice. It did nothing at all. I tried to breathe and that was difficult too. It was like my heart was somewhere on the surface of my body. I could still taste the stale egg taste from breakfast in my gullet. In other words I felt very much underprepared, like the nightmare where you are giving a PowerPoint presentation but leave behind your laptop in some stranger’s Chevrolet. I felt definitely ill at ease. Because if you imagine me at a speed-date session being asked to define myself then I’d easily say I was a model citizen. I don’t think that’s exaggerated. My grades in literature were good, my grades in mathematics were spectacular. I read the classical texts. I had a talent for exams. I am aware that not everyone has the opportunity for such talent and I am very grateful for that privilege. Do good, said my mother and father, and you will prosper. Take exams, be diligent. You are a prodigy, they told me! I used to think they had things right but now I really wasn’t sure if this was, after all, enough. It turns out that you can have all the ancestors you want, they can hover in the air around you like candyfloss, but still, they cannot help you in your mania and distress. Inside the room, my thinking was as slow as the way dub music’s slow. I was remembering an article about a boy who went to sleep and woke up to find a girl jumping out the window. I didn’t really want to think that, with variations, that boy was me, but then the only other possibility that was not suicide was that somehow Romy had been afflicted by a seizure or attack. And naturally the whole narcotics business was the main culprit or cause for this in my head, and since I was the person who had supplied these narcotics, this was not something that pleased me very much. But also I wasn’t now so interested in causes, I was more interested in what happens next. I’d never thought of a life like a structure but now it was exactly like that, my thinking, because I was picturing those videos where buildings get blown up, where they just curtsy or dissolve from within. And I didn’t think I could be expected in this situation to know what to do. It seemed beyond the usual life skills an average citizen should possess. I looked out the window. The view outside the window was very still. The bathroom contained two hand towels, two bath towels, a bathrobe and a bath mat. In the toilet bowl some paper from the night before had inflated like a parachute or squid. On the wall there was another velvet painting: the naked torso of a black woman, with shiny breasts and sunglasses, against a turquoise background. While outside, my car was parked, oh outside where there was also sunlight and the sky and everything was ordinary. Clouds gathered. Clouds melted. If I’d turned on the radio I would have heard a voice explaining the effects of the weather system in our city, but I didn’t, because I was running the hot tap, washing my hands. And I was thinking about Romy. For to think comprehensively has always been my genius. I had checked out without mentioning that there was a woman in my bed; I had sat in the restaurant unnoticed for over ten minutes. The neutral observer might therefore, I was thinking, draw the wrong conclusions. And although of course it was possible to do the ordinary thing, the legal thing, to go back to a man called Osman for help and explain, in abject supplication, that I’d found the body of my friend comatose in my bed, but that I was nothing to do with this situation, or only in the most minor way: yes I suppose I could have returned to Osman to discuss the problem of hospitals and police, but the voices in my head were not so normal. The voices in my head, they did their own thing. They tended to prefer I should keep this to myself.
which creates small traps and impasses
Her left arm was behind her back and her left cheek was squashed softly against the pillow. It was like a Kodachrome of a kid sleeping or a cherub but it also wasn’t. First, I needed to mop up the blood on the pillow beside her, because it seemed the tender thing to do, and I always try to do the tender things. I don’t think at this point I had finally decided on my total project. I took a bath towel and laid it on the blood. The white terry cloth became maroon. And I was thinking that maybe this was the first time I had ever seen another person’s blood, I mean blood that wasn’t a minor wound or a girl’s period but proper flowing gore. I didn’t want to touch it but I knew I had to. I had this fear of someone else’s blood, like I had the vaporous fear of coming inside a girl without a condom. I don’t think that’s unusual. I took the towel up and tried to rinse it in the bathtub – which meant that I was leaving a tiny trail of blood on the bathroom floor which was tiny, sure, but also gruesome and repulsive. Then, kneeling on the side of the bed, I gathered Romy in my arms, from behind, and gently lifted her chest and it felt wrong, touching her breasts like this, and the paradox was momentarily intriguing but then a cry of horror overtook me. I couldn’t help it. It came out of my mouth much quicker than I knew. I was trembling. I held her there, as if I were performing some slow-motion Heimlich manoeuvre: first gazing at the pillow, which was a mess of polyester and vomit and possibly more blood, a total horror show, then gazing sideways at what once was Romy’s entire expression, but all the expression was gone. I held her there. I bent to her face and her mouth smelled like vomit but also it was warm and that, I had to admit, was a very good sign. If I concentrated very hard I thought that also she was still breathing and I wanted to concentrate on this more, but I couldn’t. Because, to return to you, Mr Chat Show Host, if you want to know what Fate feels like, it feels like this. You are holding a body in your arms, and then you hear a brisk knock, followed by a key card being slotted into place. That’s how it feels. I would possibly argue that maybe it would be nice if just one time Fate used a more original ringtone. So I dropped Romy, gently, to the pillow again, and ran to the door. The maid was facing me, with her headphones in, and carrying a mop and brushes. I didn’t have time to check if I was bloodstained. I probably was. Maybe people don’t care any more. Maybe in the modern world blood is no surprise. But me I was always old-fashioned.
— Housekeeping, she said.
— But I’m still here, I said.
— This room is not occupied.
— But I’m here, I said.
I was trying to sound very hopeful, like I always do. She looked in and I suppose she maybe saw a pair of naked feminine legs. She looked at me. It was just about plausible that I was a mini donjuanish type, or at least I’d like to think so.
— They said you gone, she said.
— We’re leaving, I said.
— Ten minutes. Ten minutes, mister.
It was probably then that my plan became obvious to me, which I still believe was a plan of carefulness. I was thinking that there were maybe two or three things that were true. That I needed to get Romy some medical help, that I needed to do this unbeknown to the hotel authorities, so that possibly it would also remain unbeknown to Candy and my parents, and that speed was very necessary. It was a difficult trio but maybe not impossible. I wanted Romy to be OK and I wanted to return to my ordinary life, or at least the possibility that such an ordinary life existed.
in the manner of many catastrophic myths
I suppose other people have their ways of thinking this through. I know that in such a situation my father would calmly acknowledge the presence of the Devil, for although he is not so devout he has his symbolic moments. For him there is a prosecuting spirit everywhere. I think this is in fact one of my earliest memories, standing in my water wings, waiting for my father to return from shul so that he could take me to the swimming pool. My father very softly and very secretly believes in devils, and while I have never managed to be quite persuaded, as I say this it does occur to me that I often fear many monsters. I call my devils monsters and in the end perhaps there’s no big difference. I remember the ancient mutant monsters in the national museum and they make me very fearful still, those pictures of the green god and his dog-god of judgement, the devouring god with his crocodile head and the single feather of truth. Although at least the dog-god stays down below, in his alabaster hall. Whereas this scene in a hotel room felt more like what happens when the gods decide to lope up their ladder to earth, and when they do, they kill you. Have you ever met a god? It’s like this. They just can’t help themselves. They’re very sorry, the gods, but they are going to fuck you up. Like the child-eating goddess who would very much like to but just cannot, really cannot stop herself from guzzling your little daughter. Or like the gods who once demanded that three temples should be built for them in one night. But dawn, so goes the record, came too soon – and therefore these aforementioned deities appeared and smashed the scaffolding up, like gang-rape footballers.
but nevertheless he does his best
So I began the crazy project of delivering Romy’s body privately to the care of trained professionals. It was kind of the time desperation of being on a Game Boy with the battery run down to zero when you’re poised to triumphantly enter the Hi-Score table. But obviously also worse. It was like time was gone, but also stretched. As gently as I could I dragged Romy, under the armpits, so that her legs flopped onto the floor beside the bed, then lowered her torso to the ground. It wasn’t totally easy but still it was easier than dressing her in her dress again. That was like dressing a difficult toddler, like maybe a toddler who’s overtired and isn’t wanting to leave the dance class. Her arms were difficult and her legs were suddenly longer than seemed possible. Still, I dressed her in a way. But before we could leave I realised that first I also needed to make the room look neat. So I slipped off the bloodied pillowcase, and also the sheet with its vomit and saliva. I think if I could have spoken my voice would have been much lower, a proper bass, like when they put voices in slow motion in the horror flicks, or when the batteries ran down, in the tape recorders from my childhood. I didn’t know what to do with this sheet and pillowcase and the previously mentioned sodden towel. I had a shopping bag but it, I now discovered, was punctured with two holes, and I also had my backpack but if I could avoid it my backpack would not get bloodied and smeared because then I would have to abandon it, which did not worry me for the backpack but for its possible future existence as evidence against me in case Romy did suddenly die. I looked at the bin in the bedroom. The bin in the bedroom was a bucket of stainless steel. But in the bathroom the pedal bin contained an unused plastic liner, neatly folded. With my hand inside, I made it unfurl, like those bags for picking up dog shit. Then gently – maintaining the bag unfurled – I squashed the pillowcase and sheet inside it, and then the bloodied towel, but the bag was now gaping open and the blood was very much visible. So I took the shoelaces from my sneakers. In my worry and terror I couldn’t tug the laces out: the laces stuck, the laces were dirty, and so I scrabbled at the interlacing and was going to cry. Finally two laces hung from my hands. My feet sort of wallowed slackly in my soft shoes. I strangled the bag with my laces, then gently placed it on the floor. And I know that in some way the theft of a sheet and pillowcase and towel was definitely a crime, and a crime that no doubt would be discovered, but it also seemed quite miniature, the kind of crime that just leads to something extra on your credit card – and this was definitely a better crime than the discovery of blood and then the consequential thinking on the part of the authorities. But with the sheet removed I now also noticed that not only the pillow but the mattress had this formless stain, a sort of horrible discoloration. It was like nothing I’d ever seen. I can’t compare it. It’s like trying to compare kapok, or tundra. That’s how simply a kind of formlessness can infiltrate a life. And in these situations I think my mother would always say that you should just do the best you can do because that’s all that anyone can expect, and so I decided that I would try, which meant that I would turn the mattress upside down. But a mattress is bulky. And I am only small. I do mean this. I am no Gorilla Monsoon, or Brutus Beefcake. Whenever I see a personal trainer, which is not often, they tend to regard me with tender awe, the way ordinary people regard ill-fated dwarves, for in the end everyone must consider their place in the endless chain of being. When moving a mattress, therefore, I sweated and heaved. I manipulated the dense sprung mattress so that it moved through a nondescript circle. I curled it up over itself where the mattress stalled, for a moment, on the crest of its sodden wave. Then it collapsed from under itself and flopped to horizontal. I dressed it again in the duvet. Which meant that the problem remaining in the four minutes I had left before the housekeeper returned was to try to manoeuvre Romy’s body out of the door and into my car in a way that looked as normal as I could manage. First I went to the basin in the bathroom and tried to scrub my fingernails, but it seemed to have no effect. I still needed the toilet very much but this was no longer an option. Nothing in this room could ever help me again.
& disappears from the bloodied scene
I wonder if because this is the era of mass calculations is maybe why I managed the situation. There are so many calorie counts and fitness reps and email checks in the average day that in fact it’s much less strange, this manoeuvring of bodies, than you might think. It’s just a different way of thinking tasks through in detail. I dragged Romy to the threshold. I tried to do this gently but in the end of course I didn’t really. Then I was having to make sure that I could hold her up to about the level of my shoulders and I was regretting suddenly the many hours of news aggregators and YouTube videos. The entire history of my wasted time seemed sad to me, like it turned out to be a menace where no menace seemed to be visible, and I berated myself that, vigilant as I always was for signs of menace, I had not noticed that the true menace was right there, when I had been doing nothing more than just existing. It was daylight and this isn’t an easy condition for introducing a comatose body upright into a car. I was also thinking that in my usual attraction to the taller woman I had possibly overreached myself. But still, the maid was gone somewhere, to call her son or just stand and look at the cars on the motorway while rolling a brief cigarette. No one else was there. For one moment, Fate was off buying itself a burger or apricot juice. I was trying to open the passenger door of my car, and I could see the entire sequence of future events unfold and then it was like those moments in the stories of the saints when the sage who has lived all his life in the desert or maybe forest receives a lunatic bath of light, a deep revelation. I would like to call this vision love, or something like it. It was just as if very sleepily I could feel my wife breathe beside me and again I thought I was going to cry but I gradually didn’t. There were a few dead trees around, possibly palms, and they were making dry clickings; the palmettos were a sequence of old clocks. A brand of butterfly I thought was long extinct seemed to shudder past on a sweltering breeze. I pushed Romy inside, with my hand over her head, very gentle, like a halo. Then a shoelace loosened on the bag that I was holding and the towel became visible, a slack red wet dense smear. I thought that the whole thing was going to fall open and it made me panic but in the most fragile way it paused. I sort of slung the passenger belt over Romy and fixed it and shut the door. And I was walking round the car and was just sort of paused when I started to shake. I couldn’t easily match my hands to what I wanted them to be doing. I suppose, I told myself, this happens. This shit happens. Then I realised that Quincy was regarding me from a cigarette break. Because there’s no reason why a life should not come complete with a laugh track, none at all. Although I say cigarette break but of course I have no idea. She was just standing there, at the restaurant door, and she was starting up this middle-distance conversation.
— Want a cigarette? she said.
— Sorry? I said.
— Want a cigarette?
— I don’t know.
— You don’t know?
— I mean no.
We paused on this obviously not satisfactory conversation. I was hoping it would mean she’d stop but she didn’t.
— What’s your name? she said.
— My name?
It’s sometimes useful to look like me, or at least the way I look to certain people, which is younger than I am – I have this face that’s wide-eyed and also innocent, and this was one of those occasions when it had its useful aspect. So I just stared at her. I let the silence enlarge itself until it began to freak her out.
— Well. No harm done, said Quincy.
And she wandered away in this weird dazed perplexity while I was left in a state of envy or melancholy for her condition as a blissful and morally unstained employee, even if this state of mine was also still totally panic. By which I mean: was it right for me to be so punished? Events will become much worse but still, I think it’s right to posit this question now. All I’d done was wake up – for the very first time in my life – beside a woman who was not my wife. Is this so untoward? I really didn’t think the grand things are real – like murders and death and destruction – it never occurred to me that such things could really happen in a life, and now that something like this was happening it was making me amazed and also confused. Yes, I think it was about then that the first inkling began to occur to me – like the way you see a cat drift through some amateur porn footage and just sit there, it occurred to me as backgroundly as that – that I might be doomed. It was like the moment you look up in the air at some distant passing plane and just think for a sad moment that its engines might possibly be failing. I really did feel that this was unfair. I dislike harm in all its forms. I became a vegetarian because I had a vision of a bleeding cow, stripped of all its skin, and bleeding, and bleeding from the eyes. My favourite meal I ever had was this vegetarian goose dish which I appreciated above all for its noble ingenuity. I am trying to teach myself the banjo. Reading want ads makes me sad. I have no meanness in me. Whereas just make sure, Fate was telling itself, as it contemplated the picture, like a connoisseur, that no level spot of ground isn’t trampled over with blood. I don’t think this is an exaggeration. It fits the facts as I see them. I would have preferred it if Fate had concentrated more on the future of – I don’t know – Aldebaran but it seemed that no, it preferred me. And in response I would like to say that this was in no way fair. Or I mean, no, this is what I was thinking. Elsewhere they are in their black ship somewhere, your enemies, the pirates are floating out there in the port, and drinking champagne. They are in the dark tanker. That is everyone else. But you are here and you are on your own. And you are no longer into the poetry of the Buddhist sages, or movies filmed on handheld cameras or whatever. The whole culture is not the point. It is no longer yours – the culture. Because now, against your will, you have undergone a metamorphosis. I was feeling suddenly empty, like I was the Windsor Plantation that with just one careless cigarette gets suddenly converted and becomes the Windsor Ruins. I was pulling out of the car park in a car whose steering, I was now thinking, was shonky, and needed to be seen to, before something went haywire on the road and then I died, but if this was a problem it was not as much of a problem as the possession of an unconscious girl with whom you may be illicitly in love. And I was saying to myself: Kid, you are currently the least talented gangster in the world. Or, in other words, you were always way-out innocent. Your mother used to say it was your sweetest characteristic. And now look at you.
into another world
And so it happens that someone falls from a window or into the sea and into another world. They just fall and are transported. Like my friend Wyman who one day woke up and discovered that his life had made him superfat without him quite understanding how, so that in his anguish he just cried out in supplication to the Virgin and any other deity whose name he could remember, even though of course there were many reasons why Wyman should be so lavish in his size, reasons which Wyman preferred to ignore – namely the penchant he had for Wuxi-style soup dumplings and disco fries, or a meal consisting of LaMar’s Donuts as a final flourish after three Schmitter sandwiches – not to mention the demise of his legal career and the garish side effects of his various uppers and downers …
an occurrence possibly more normal than it seems
In fact, the more I thought about it, as I drove to the hospital with Romy slumped beside me, and I kept putting my hand to her mouth as if to silence her but really to check that she was still continuously breathing, the truly strange thing is that when you wake up in the morning you do generally find things exactly where they were the previous evening. That’s the deeper freak-out, or at least it should be. Because in sleep or more precisely in dreams you find yourself, or at least you think you do, as the zaddiks of sleep description have observed, in a state fundamentally different from wakefulness, and when you open your eyes an infinite presence of mind, or rather quickness of wit, is therefore required in order to catch everything in the same place you left it the evening before. Waking up, I just mean, is such a terrifying state that it’s a wonder anyone survives it. So easily you could be taken back to high school, or accused of an impossible crime, or discover that your wife seems to be now a shy Alsatian. Not that everyone wakes up every morning as a donkey or beetle but still, everyone will some time – because to wake up as a donkey doesn’t always mean you wake up feeling groggy in your new big flappy ears, or turkified and in possession of six scimitars. It can happen in whatever hotel you pass by every day, with just the merest inflation of a thought balloon – and there you are, in bardo. In fact it’s not even necessary to, let’s say, wake up beside a girl who is bleeding from the nose and unconscious. It can be even smaller than that, I was thinking. Recently it happened to me more and more – I would wake and feel just minutely transformed, simply by waking beside my wife, with a miniature dog between us. I understand, to you this is possibly not so psychedelic. But was I really so wrong? Show me the married man who is still living at home with his parents and neurotic dog, who is putting his clothes in the wicker tub of a laundry basket, as he has done for more than thirty years, so that his mother can once a week take them downstairs to the washing machine, and then tell me if you think it might not be acceptable for this man to be given over to feelings of catastrophe. Not to mention other complications of hospitality which I will come to very soon. At this point it’s only important to consider how this was not the basic situation that my ambition would have imagined for its future self. That’s maybe why every day now I woke up and was just dazed by reality, like any cartoon character who is supine after a fight, with many dingbats circling his bulldozed head.
especially for a dauphin or delfino
The only thing that’s made me unlike other people is that me I think much more. It was because of such excessive thinking that in my family I was adoringly known as a prodigy. But when you think more than other people, although that difference might seem small, it can end up enormously expanding and you finish with different results. It certainly meant that I felt just slightly separate from the world – whenever I saw an object, the consciousness that I saw it remained between me and it, like a halo, preventing me from ever knowing it directly – and that’s a dismal condition to inhabit. All I’d ever wanted was to get on in the world! – that was the only glory I had in mind. And in this I was only being faithful to the values of my family. I think every family has its myths and ours was that really anything was possible. My mother assured me every day that I could do great things, like she was my astrologer. We were the courtiers of the inner life! I don’t mean that we were super-rich or the owners of vast factories and estates, but we were definitely among the powerful, those with sparkling waters in the refrigerator and unusual fruit from the supermarkets. Obviously as usual on the outskirts of other countries there were wars – small wars, absolutely, but wars nevertheless – in which our armies were involved, but they were far away and so for us instead it was the time when everyone was owning strange pets, not quite possums or small lemurs but almost, and meanwhile it was incredibly chic to eat small pastries imported from various locations, and in every garden people hung those elegant paper lanterns. While me I was a prodigy. I know because my mother said so. In bookstores she told the assistants that my reading age was hyper-advanced, then she bought me histories of the pharaohs and I read them all. In the luminous pharmacies and department stores, people always smiled at me, and I believed very much that when they smiled they did it because they liked me. What happened next was that the money of my parents bought my education at a secluded school, and later a secluded university. Afterwards, because I was a devoted son, I worked in an office in the city. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that everything was very soft and delicious. The juggernaut of meaning, let’s say, was not parked heavily on our lawn. When I married – and we married very young, my wife, Candy, and I – we remained living at home, just as my parents preferred. You see? I always wanted to be a pirate and I think I basically was, if by pirate you mean someone who has everything they want. So OK, I had no eye patch or cutlass, I wasn’t truly a corsair, not in the clothes, but everything I wanted I got. Before school every morning my mother styled my hair with a hairdryer and delicate brush, as a servant might have cosseted the curls of the inbred Habsburg prince in his knickerbockers, the prince with his outsize chin. But if this seems like a basic paradise with fountains and gentle rills I should also add that such happiness rarely remains happiness for long, so that in fact at the moment when you are realising that what you feel is happiness it is probably transforming itself into something much more slithery, whether you know about this transformation or not – the way a demon might extend his slithery arms, or you might open the back door one morning and not notice the cat entering menacingly below your gaze. I was possibly seven when my mother said to me that there was no one who made her laugh more than I did. Would you like to be such a dauphin? I do not think so. It’s lovely to be the only child – it gives you privileges, the privilege of being adored, of being the only one there, and if that happens it does last your whole life, I think, or at least it has for me, nobody can do anything but take care of you, that is the way I was and this is the way I still am, just as also it means that whereas for everyone who has siblings, which is nearly everyone, the issue of superiority is a very important one, the issue of who is better and who is more loved, instead I have always been more equable, serene in my own serenity, as if Buddha had been born right here in these delightful suburbs, just contemplating the monkey-puzzle trees and mechanical sprinklers: yes, all of that is true – but still, to be the dauphin has its disadvantages. My mother drove me to school every day and while we drove I entertained her with my quips. What a weight for a child to bear! That’s why when I talk, I still tend to talk very hyper. To be destined for higher things has this effect. You find yourself in some silent isolation tank, apart from other people – like you’re training to go into outer space and there you are, alone with your dizziness and nausea.
who lately has been anxious about his achievements
But then, of course, everything that once seemed grand in conception soon seems only small, the miniature realisation of a dream that itself was not ambitious enough at the moment it was first conceived: like, for instance, I don’t know, the freeway system in LA with its beautiful intersections – and this dream of my higher glory was no different. I got older, and there was no glory visible. I did not, let’s say, impose. If someone walked towards me, when walking down a street, I was always the one to move aside and into the wet gutter. In the local bars and mescal diners, no one nodded to me or knew me by my name. I was like a trick of Photoshop, the way I tended to be camouflaged by my surroundings. It made every day a trial because in the end it’s important to have a certain sense of self, I don’t think that’s an outlandish proposition. In fact, such outlandish propositions, and other general maxims on the way to live a life, were why in the end one morning when I woke up and once again, as so often, discovered myself in this unreal state which did not in any way match up with my ambitions, I subsequently realised that I could not do this any more. I could not continue wasting or losing so much time. For a long time now I had been meaning to write to a friend in the country. My friend Shoshana had married and moved into the provinces, and subsequently Shoshana was obviously sad. Her husband, she said, did not understand her, and she was imploring me for pity. But me I shied away from the sad, in general. In general, I preferred the glad. I sat down to write to her and suddenly I could not, and for the same reason that I could not write Shoshana a consoling email I also that very day walked out of my office and did not ever come back. How could I write with any consolation if there was no sincerity? That was the question which perplexed me. For in the end if you are destined for greatness it’s a worry if it seems that greatness has passed you by. I was worried that I had never found the true form for all my gifts – and certainly that form was not, as my mother and father assumed, the world of the office and its liquid financial vocabulary. I mean, think about it. In my impressions of the world I am super-subtle. Were I ever to be a superhero, I would be a superhero of thinking.
Let’s not try to analyse everything to death, shall we, just this once?
But what else can I do?
And it was out of consideration for this anxiety that I made the determined decision to respect such inner grandeur and leave the world of work. Or the world of as they say steady work. Instead I wanted to pursue my dream of art. Exactly what form that art would take, I did not definitely know. What I knew was that I needed to resign from this outer world. After all, it was the time for it. Others around me were being made unemployed every day. So why shouldn’t I make myself unemployed of my own volition?
And yet I did have to admit that I could understand why my parents were now concerned. Gradually, I felt it too. I have been a son for ever, it has been my best career, which is why I say with some authority that one problem of being a son is to persuade others of your worth. As the weeks went by, it didn’t seem like I’d chosen the ideal time to begin a new vocation. Each morning with amazement I watched the busy people filling the pavements with their cortados and umbrellas and other accessories. Perhaps as a result of this general panorama I also returned to the hospital for another short period of rest, the kind where they give you pills to restore you to your former self. It always seemed to work and this time was no different. I came back home and while for the moment Candy, abetted by my mother and father, was supportive of my ambition, we all agreed that I should have other ways to spend my time. So to keep me extra busy we bought a dog. The dog had very sad eyes. While Candy went to work in the city, where she looked after the international financial affairs of a charitable and radical organisation, I took this dog to puppy class or also walking in the park. Or I made conversation with the woman beside the road selling fruit from laundry bags. The sky was grey and it was like the sky wanted to keep on raining and so it did. It was a cold but monsoon season. As for me, I suddenly had no salary or status at all. I could understand what our puppy felt like. Although sure, I had my activities. I don’t think I’d realised how much work you could invent for an average day, what with washing and talking to the plumber and developing the dog’s personality. I was hyperactive and a slacker both together – a hyperslacker! And although very little of my time was watching Troma studio trailers or surf videos, I knew that my father wasn’t quite convinced by my concentration. Maybe nor was I. I had developed this problem thing in conversations of getting maybe too emotional. My mode right now was the rant.
— Why, I said to my mother, — does everyone say that rant is such a bad word? Isn’t it good to have high expectations?
— Perhaps, she said. — I just don’t know. You shouldn’t be going making youself so sad.
— Who made me this way?! I exclaimed.
When I woke up every morning now strange beings were advancing. All the thundercats and griffons I had never believed in were yawning and stretching their unwashed wings in the empty air, and in fact they appeared not just when I woke beside Candy in the dawn, but also at other moments when I tried to distract myself – whenever, for instance, I was taking my many drugs to keep me excitable or serene, but also in more healthy places, like when I was on my bike in the early mornings on my way to the private gym and spa complex. For by the way I do think that biking should happen more often – to protect the environment, definitely, but also because it has an old-world charm. And me, as I think I have mentioned, I like to preserve the outmoded things. That time will destroy all things is something that upsets me every day.
harried therefore by a sense of catastrophe
If we posit an ideal heaven, and in that heaven place Candy, answering questions about me, I think she would almost definitely argue that this catastrophe thinking was just an unfortunate illusion of such a mood, my whole dark cafard thing. This melancholic mood she tended to see as the fault of my inheritance.
You slept all together in your parents’ room! You slept beside their bed in a sleeping bag! This is not in fact normal, my darling, my kook.
But after all I was the heir. I existed to continue our major line. So what if the heir was screwy? And so what if our throne was just a carriage clock with foliage engraved on the face, a prayer shawl and an escritoire? As I said, we were not the super-rich. We were the moderate rich and that’s a more delicate form of existence. With such a burden on me, no wonder that I suffered attacks of terror in the night, so that I would sleepwalk and be returned to our bedroom by my father. Always I was warding off disaster – I had many lucky charms that I carried with me, just as in the evenings, when some light was still seeping under the curtains from the garden and the street lights, and in the twilight the orange netting of my soccer goal in the garden was developing into a bruised green, I would sit up in my bed and pray. These prayers were very detailed lists of worries and future problems. I wanted my million gods to concern themselves with my music practice, or sports reports, or perfect my knowledge of verbs in any language on which I might be tested.
— My problems are psychosomatic! I once said to Candy.
— Psychosemitic, added Candy.
My prayers were very fearful of the world’s approaching disasters. If whatever power was in the heavens would solve these problems or avert these disasters, I would promise the heavens my good behaviour. I do not think I am alone in this condition. I performed some good deeds, others went forgotten, and in this way the undone good deeds piled up. Still, I kept on promising. I was loaded down with unfulfilled promises. The last I still remember was a series of good deeds I promised to do, if it didn’t rain one afternoon. It didn’t rain – but I still didn’t perform the good deeds. And yet I went on praying. What I’m saying is that I was born into my family as previous heirs might have been born into some eighteenth-century library, with all the marble busts of previous luminaries and forefathers gazing down on me with blank concern, even if my own were pedlars from the eastern shtetls or yeshiva accountants. It’s definitely true that my parents scared quite quickly – whether the cause was drug-taking in the young, allergic reactions to nettles, correct dress etiquette for bar mitzvah celebrations in the ballrooms of grand hotels, the traffic systems of global cities to which they had never been. To them the world was fearsome even if that world was where they wanted their son to be, and I suppose it’s therefore only natural to inherit such a feeling, a general tone in which you see things – that everything’s unknown and ever so delicately hostile. I go outside and things upset me very fast. In fact I don’t think that’s so mad when you consider that outside the fascists are enjoying a boom, and everyone hates everyone. But still, perhaps without such phenomena I would have been the same. I was like that figure in the old dialogue, crying out always: Madama Morte! Madama Morte! I gave up therapy because I was scared my therapist would die. Even the dogsitter makes you very sad, said Candy once. And it was true. I suppose it has to be admitted that it’s a problem. But then just think how lonely people can be! Our dogsitter is a lovely man but when I sometimes think of the life he lives, to be with the cats and dogs whom other people love and yet love them in some secret way like maybe a mistress loves a husband – I mean there is something secret and unregarded about his love, when perhaps he loves these animals more than anyone else, but still he is forced to leave them, he is forced to say goodbye in a totally casual way, the way a woman might say goodbye to the love of her life, sitting at a cafe table with some acquaintance from the bureau, as if she can hardly remember his name: when I think about him, I do think that this existence is a sad one. I can’t help it. When I step into the world, all I hear is a catalogue of sighs.
THEN MORE BLOOD
but catastrophes do recede
But also it was true that as often as I perceived disaster it somehow also receded. Mornings over this maritime city often began powdery and blue. Even as I drove to the hospital, Romy’s breathing became deeper and more regular and I therefore thought that, while unpractised in medical signs, surely this had to be better than nothing. It surely indicated life, rather than death. And this habit of life returning was not for me unusual. All my fears were undone by day that I had woven in the night. I liked to fall asleep considering the moment of my death, but whenever I tried to think what it would mean to be able to say the sentence I am dying, as in some baroque tragedy, the truth imposed itself on me that in order to be saying such a sentence it would have to be just ever so slightly in the future to be true, and therefore, at the moment of its saying, not true at all. Madama Morte! I die, I die! You see the basic problem. Everything I ever thought might be irrevocable somehow beautifully dissolved. Just as in the end I left Romy – sedated, true, but definitely alive and out of mortal danger – in the care of trained professionals, and my subsequent getaway from the hospital was very stately and unperturbed. As usual the world was powdery and blue, like a rococo miniature. I was driving underneath the tree canopy and behind those trees were mansions and their many vehicles, gently arranged on the drive. It was the world as I always had known it, when being driven by my parents to music lessons or football practice or the first ever parties of my youth, the ones that ended at dawn with everyone staring at each other calmly in a field, feeling tired. That was how I always lived, out here on the outskirts of a giant city: the world occurred to me as a series of impressions seen from the windows of a car. Previously, there were chauffeurs: in this landscape, we made do with parents instead.
MY MOTHER ON MY FATHER
He’s not a chauffeur, cookie. He’s your father.
That atmosphere probably makes the world overall a very difficult place to enter. If everything is happening with the sound cut out, it probably makes it easier to imagine that scenes can be deleted and rearranged, when in fact they maybe possibly cannot. Further out were the motorways and warehouses and the hypermarkets with their empty parking grids painted onto flat surfaces of tarmac. This was the landscape in which I made my getaway, a getaway which did not resemble any frantic speedchase I had ever seen on screen. Because according to the cinema theory, as recorded in those films with the dash-mounted cameras and synthesiser music, a getaway is where the reflected lights slide up and off the windscreen and you go careering through the zigzags of the street lights of LA – ballooning and bursting security fences, upending squad cars, and all that. When in fact getaways are much quieter than anyone thinks. You just move on out of the hospital car park in the early morning having left a girl at reception, while still worrying a little for the state of your steering, and no one wishes to delay or blame you at all. And I was glad of that because while I would have been happy to have stayed with Romy if she had been in any major danger, like certainly I would have done that and taken the consequences as any other hero or giant-slayer, still if I could avoid those consequences then I definitely would take that opportunity. What I wanted was this unusual situation to entirely and totally subside, just melt like a vitamin tablet fizzing in a glass of water. And in one way it was definitely possible to argue, in the manner of some warehouse supervisor with her clipboard and radio mic, that so far everything had gone very well. On my way from the hotel to the hospital no police or other spies had stopped me. At the hospital itself, there had been no insistence on any exchange of names. This all seemed very promising and like the ideal state was possible. Absolutely, I would be monitoring Romy’s progress and doing everything I could to make her happy. In secret I would visit her with the glossies and other treats, and definitely we would be discussing our history and future. Right now, however, I wanted to reduce my life back down to something no bigger than a tape cassette, or memory stick. Although of course to do this I had a final task and the execution of this task was making me perturbed – for while I may have looked like I was calm, inside me I was as ever like an undertow in the big deep dark sea, like I had grand glowing jellyfish and floating fish skeletons of anxiety. I was trying to imagine the conversation I would have with Candy – because I have these internal gifts of hyper-vision, like I have this gift for imagining other ways in which a scene might happen, even when it has happened, or is happening – and yet somehow it seemed difficult to imagine how precisely I would offer explanations. I could not quite envision it, and this absence of any explanation made me anxious and also a little furious, not only at myself for creating such a problem, but also at the world for always demanding so many confessions. I wish confessions did not ever need to happen. Confessions, it seemed to me, were a total illness of our time.
until blood pauses him once again
Before I could continue in this way of thinking, however, these anxieties were overtaken by a single and present anxiety – and that anxiety was blood. I was bloodied, totally. When I’d parked the car at the hospital I’d looked across at Romy and in that one moment of quietness I noticed that while the bleeding from her nose or mouth seemed to have stopped, which I assumed could be only good, still there was a selection of bloods sort of smeared across her face. And the reason I was now considering this image once again was that the only way of getting Romy into reception, after which she could be tended by doctors and nurses and surgeons, had been to gather her under the shoulders and lift her out of the car, because although she was breathing and conscious she was still very much in a narco state – and as I did this it was once more very obvious that a body was a larger thing than anyone can reasonably be expected to manoeuvre, which meant that in the end we kind of shuffled tenderly and gracefully, cheek to cheek, on the pavement of the forecourt towards the gently opening and closing electric doors. We performed this stunt until a paramedic, who was smoking a single cigarette of leisure, in what I imagined was a state of opiate paradise, very generously – because I know how much such minutes of leisure must be prized, in the middle of a busy work shift among the saws and bones and pulleys and all the other ambulance accoutrements – helped me to locate some stretcher, on which Romy then entered the hospital. But therefore these few difficult moments had meant that there was now blood not only on my cheek where it had rested against Romy’s but also on my hands and teeshirt – and it was this gunk that was now worrying me, in so far as I was overall worrying how it was I could return home to my parents and to Candy, my adored wife, and resume everything that I had left behind. Because while simply not returning until the morning is one definite sign to be explained, this is going to be much more difficult if also you return with blood sort of steeped in your clothes. That’s what I mean by catastrophes being endless. Every time you think the day of judgement has been averted, it returns. And yet, however, you can still avert it, after all.
& so he detours to a superstore
For there are advantages to living in the modern world, and in particular the suburbs of this modern world, and one of them is that the suburbs everywhere are an expanse of buildings for shopping. Also these stores are very welcoming, you do not even need to seek them out – instead they announce themselves with the crazy bright joyfulness of a collection of very tall signs, that’s all you need to see to know that soon you will find some business park, or collection of inflated stores. The graphic sign in space – that’s basically the architecture of this landscape I call home. And in these buildings there’s really nothing you can’t discover if you just try hard enough, you only need to enter them with the appropriate strength and determination to succeed. In fact this task is often made easier for you than this might imply because inside there will be men and women who are pleased to help you, who may even approach you with a smile – and it’s definitely true that a smile brightens up any day, that’s just a fact of life. They will come up to you and ask you something like May I help you, sir? And underneath these lights I did think as I stood there locating the aisles for clothes that the best way for anyone to help me would be to ignore the fact that just possibly I had gouts of a woman’s blood on my otherwise also crumpled clothes. But then again, they did – because that’s how they’ve been trained and it’s very useful. That’s what it’s like inside these superstores and I think that they are responsible for some of the happiest moments of my life, whether it was in the toy stores where there were so many games that the innocent kid had no idea what to do with them all, or the hypermarkets with imported food where all the sauces I could ever want were lined up for me, waiting. Because I like sweet things very much, and especially I like the sweet sauces – the red ketchup and the yellow mustard, and other liquids and suspensions – but suddenly there did not seem enough difference between the red of blood and the red of red sauce and so with purpose I moved among the aisles, which is an easy thing to do because these places are like geometry, they are very organised and patterned – as if someone has taken one mini bodega, the type where the window is a flat arrangement of many cereal or cracker boxes or candy, and then multiplied it zillionly until it’s gigantic. Then also the objects talk to you very much – Let me tell you the story of how I am made! they say. Let’s consider ways to be kind to our surroundings– and I appreciated that, the way each object is its own sign. I appreciated the way they had of advising you and hoping for a better world. In that caressing state I bought a grey marl teeshirt and a very blue bright pair of jeans. By which I suppose I also mean that just this once the usual effort to curate the way I looked had to be for a moment abandoned. Because I try very hard to care about my clothes, even if lately, if I wanted new clothes, then Candy had to buy them – and while I know that at this time so many people have unusual household arrangements, still, I did care about this, after all: I did feel that my identity was in doubt. But in the end the desire for style was greater than the desire to be me, because to style yourself, I sometimes think, is the only way of proving to yourself that somehow the future will be OK. But for now the future was this pair of jeans and grey marl teeshirt which could have benefited, let’s say, from at least some quirkiness in the stitching. I left the superstore and returned to my waiting car where I undressed, which isn’t easy when you’re sitting with the wheel in front of you – you have to wriggle and do strange shimmyings which to an outside observer must look comical indeed. Yes, there I was in the midst of an endless grid for absent cars, and as I paused with my teeshirt off that I used to wipe my cheek with the cosmetic aid of the rear-view mirror, I was struck as I always was by that sad look your torso has when you’ve only got jeans on – a sadness I suppose made more sad if you’ve just left a girl whom you care for very much in hospital, but equally you do care about your wife, as much as if not more than this girl who is currently in a hospital bed, and now you are sitting alone in a car park with your wife almost definitely waiting for you, in the company of your parents. I suppose this is reasonable, to find the situation sad. I don’t know if I any more knew. Picture a blue expanse, then double it, that’s where I wanted to be. I had this image of a place that had no humans in it – as if you pinned up a flag or sail against a wall like a windjammer and then let yourself look into it, as into the deep blue disorganised sea. That’s how tired I was, how woebegone – but also I could see the cosmic argument. Even at my moments of great pleasure, always I could sense a coming insurrection and revenge and punishment. Because one thing I do believe is that people should rise up against me. They should overthrow me, like they would overthrow some psychopathic plantation heir. Had I been able to exist in two places at once, I would have carried out the punishment myself.
before returning home & lying to his wife
If this ability to live with her husband’s parents has made you assume that Candy was a quiet girl then I assure you this is not correct. My wife is very cool – and I think it shows in a certain downbeat sarcasm. Her vibe is tough. Candy trained every morning with a punching ball. She had dumb-bells which I could not lift. And I thought then and still think now that this was very cool. That’s basically all you need in the way of a description. She is tall, and her beauty is austere. It is high cheekbone, and delicate eyes. But when she does drunk she also does a kind of lowborn hair-flipping in the kid-from-a-movie manner, which always is good for amusement. Easily she could go to some party in a slap bracelet and rag dress and flats and also some pastel plastic rosaries like she was the queen of the supernatural, a white chick Pamyu Pamyu. She has this smell about her which is like if you imagine the most carnally elegant thing, a sort of lubricant stink that’s also patchouli or rose. For Candy therefore the atmosphere in our house was definitely more old-school than she would have liked. She no more wanted a dauphin for a husband than she wanted recipes from my mother, or to be stared at very quiet by my father, in his ancient pop-star glasses with their yellow lenses. What I’m trying to say is that I had no high hopes for this conversation with Candy. I saw no tearful scene of forgiveness. My only hope was to invent another world. Therefore as soon as I had passed through the fake white pillars guarding our ancestral suburban house, and I was standing there in the hall where Candy was also standing, I began to talk very fast, partly because I think without fast talk we are nowhere always but also because whereas Candy was standing there saying something ordinary like –
Where were you? I had Hiro call you too but he –
I had my own plans for how this thing between us would now be scripted and I felt it was important to immediately begin with the absolute invention. You have to, I think, if you want to succeed in these sometimes difficult situations.
So I was at this party, but I felt just really down so with some other people we went to another party but I left that also because it was making me sad too, and on my own I went to a cafe and just sat there, like in some cafe, and had a coffee.
I didn’t know if I’d wake you and I was just: sort your head out, bro, keep cool.
You didn’t think I’d be awake already if you weren’t home at like six in the morning?
Dude, I truly am sorry. You are totally in the right. I was just like feeling totally I don’t know benighted.
That not a word?
That was how I tried to preserve the plausible and the real and I don’t think it was so bad. I’m not saying at all that this was perfect but in the end there are always limits to one’s inventions. Each invention is followed by another, and that’s very tiring. Next, for instance, she was asking about my change of clothes – for these of course were not the jeans in which I had left the house the night before and she was always sensitive to such things.
I thought it’d make me happier.
Out on the motorway, the twenty-four-hour one.
So you are currently kind of freaking me out right now because –
Because – if you just let me finish – either you are lying like some crazy person or you are in some kind of breakdown situation.
Is it really so bad? Like really?
You know it, no?
This cannot happen for ever.
And it was like the way a wave uses the water in the sea – the way the wave moves but the water doesn’t. That was how Candy stood there and was overtaken by her painful thinking. It passed through her, like a wave. And I felt for her because it’s always painful when you doubt your confidence in other people. If she didn’t actually say anything it didn’t mean I couldn’t imagine what it would have been if she had.
for lies are one way of inventing another world
But I was also thinking that nevertheless it was undeniable that such silence had its beauties. I had noticed this before. In my infancy I liked stealing from my mother. She used to keep a supply of stickers featuring international footballers and other treats in her handbag, as bribes for her difficult son – which then meant that one day I realised that since she bought in bulk she wouldn’t notice if gradually I removed a chocolate bar, or single packet containing the portraits of my favourite soccer stars, the Brazilians, with their single names. Or I realised that even if she noticed she would never mention this out loud. I wonder if always this is what happens in the families of dauphins. There Candy was and she was willing me to find the tone or story that would allow us somehow not to mention my strange behaviour, or examine its real causes, to exist in a world beyond the actual, and I wanted to be worthy of that performance. At last I came out on –
I’m just not happy. I think that’s what this is.
And I was pleased because at that moment I could see she was relieved. Yes, I could see she was thinking that if we played it at that pitch then she could play it too, like we were in the nineteenth century and I had performed some difficult transposition of a bassoon piece to the trombone, or some such tour de force. I do mean tour de force. It’s often not acknowledged how lying needs such total impresario talent. The problem with lying is that you are told not to think about the truth while you are lying, to believe the lie completely, but what else will you ever think about when you are lying except the fact that you are lying? There’s really nothing else to think about, it imposes itself, absolutely, so that even as you begin your first speech you are considering its shadow speech, in which you tell the truth, and when you are then embarked on your second speech the shadow first speech is still there, but now accompanied by its twin, the shadow second. And that Candy understood it was a tour de force needed no more proof than that she was looking at me with such love. It occurs to me that in my family history there were other such performers, I mean people who could bend the world to their desire, like those hypnotists bend spoons. By this I do not just mean the strongmen like my father, who could found business empires, but also the more devious strongmen like my many uncles, among whom were those who found it useful to present themselves as kooks. And if this coincided with your wife discovering one of your secretarial affairs and preparing to leave you as in the case of Uncle Marvin, or that your wife, in the case of Uncle Milo, wanted another child, or other sundry catastrophes, then this couldn’t be helped. In a similar way therefore in this conversation with Candy I very simply became the person I needed to become in order to make the lying plausible, which was therefore someone whose life was not going so well and who was depressed, which wasn’t after all so difficult because in the end this is not a role that’s unavailable to most people. And in particular it was available to me: being (a) unemployed and (b) often seething at home in my pyjamas with all the rank smells you care to mention. I think you can see how easy it is for such a subject to lie to his beautiful wife, to tell the world that he is in a deep unhappiness when really all along he is also contemplating the picture that is a naked girl bleeding from the face, or that same girl’s face not bleeding but looking up at him with sweat on her nose and above her lips and the light beginning to filter through the curtains as she comes.
Zezette, what’s wrong?
I think I might just always be about to cry? You know? I think I’m maybe I’m unhappy.
With – no, with everything. Not us.
& can happen very casually
Because, to put this another way, it turns out that in the perfect marriage where you are absolutely trusted there is no end to what you can do. For lying only distils its gorgeousness if you are doing it to the person who wakes up next to you every day, who believes they know your inner heart more than they know their own, that’s the perfect person to lie to because only when you lie to someone like that can you create a perfect lie, the kind that opens out new possibilities of other lives and other worlds, as if you’d made a voyage to the moon in your own home-made jetpack. You just do something with panache and anyone who loves you will believe you, if they have no other reason not to – and most of the time they do not. Although the problem with lying is that if what I wanted to do was consign just one aspect of my life to unreality then I think I was mistaken. Unfortunately, it leaks all over the picture. Sure, terrible things may well be often said in conversation but much more terrible can be the way that nothing is said at all. In either case there will be consequences, so that what looked like nothing but silence and absence may well turn out to be a grand event. For on reflection I do have to also admit that it was the particular way that Candy and I constructed this nothing that was in fact important for the future story I have to tell. That there were no consequences in the immediate future turned out to be the darkest consequence of all for the genuine, more long-distance future. It was the way we silenced each other that had the explosive possibilities inside it. And I do say silence. Because let’s say that however cool a person is, very few are the people who definitely enjoy the row and the argument. I am certainly not one of them. If what you want to film is sharpshooting in the bars of silent towns, with shotguns and other props, I am not necessarily the ideal star. Nor can I do the shouting in restaurants thing so very well – those scenes with women who upturn tables and scrawl lipstick on their faces like bloodstains or bad clowns. Such scenes make me scared. In fact, brawls scare me in every form they take. The only other person in the world who dislikes conflict like I dislike it is Candy and maybe this is one reason why we will love each other for ever. We prefer there to be silence between people, even though of course there is no such thing as silence, for even as you move your head or hand in a certain way you are offering communication – which is maybe why there are so many possible art forms, because while film is possibly the greatest if what you want to do is silence and the many truths of gesture, then also you need an art form made of words for all the elaboration of the inside thinking. Just one of the art forms is not enough to do the entire cosmology, the vast interior and the small exterior. And in this case the cosmology was how much truth a man must tell his wife, in the early and suburban morning of a giant city. I would not say I totally yet knew.
You go to work all day and it’s difficult –
Yes, the only problem is that lying has to be managed with care, and for a moment we were careless.
I only do it for us – I mean – I just want you to have your space –
Suddenly this was a more difficult place for me to argue from and so I paused there. But also I did try to make the right sort of noise because I totally agreed with her. She was in no way being cruel and in fact the opposite, which often happens. It was like my mother long ago berating me in some Chinese restaurant for not wanting the salt-and-pepper chicken feet when I had ordered them myself. But there I suppose I can be excused by my youth and inexperience. Almost definitely it was catastrophic harm that I was causing but I don’t know if harm should be the only or even main criterion for judging any of one’s actions: what about for instance glee or marvelling or simply the grotesque? For there it is. Lying is lovely. True, to make that discovery is also very troubling. If you have a desire for moral outcomes, if your aim is the most ideal society possible – and that is always what I try to achieve – then lying has its fearsome aspects. But it just happens very softly and fast, like I’d just discovered that all the leather-bound volumes along one wall of a stately library were false, and then the wall swings slowly open and you walk on through, into another book-lined room. Somehow, I was thinking, it was now a situation that was true and not true, at the same time. For once again Candy regained the acceptable tone.
But maybe do you think you should get a job? Would that be good? Do you think you’re just getting bored? Is it good for you to be around the house all day? I mean doesn’t your mother get you down?
Like a job like where?
I’ve always thought you’d be a good teacher – like a good primary-school teacher and you’d work with kids and I think it’d just be great for you. You’d still have time for other things. I think you’d enjoy it.
I think, no. I think no way.
What’s happening with your work?
I’m not sure.
You think that’s why you’re not happy?
Why don’t you write a horror flick?
A horror flick?
Something with gore –
I want men bleeding from their eyes. Or at least I want something happening. Why doesn’t anything ever happen? Like make a movie about a massacre?
I don’t think you can show it –
I do not.
And so we chattered on. And once again catastrophe had receded, just receded into the blurred and pastoral distances.
even if the gore remains, as a token, or proof
Always I had felt about as moored to the world as that airship was moored to the landing stage on the Empire State Building – and that’s probably to be expected if you live a life where catastrophes are infinitely postponed. To be a stevedore or farmer is no preparation for a life like mine, where the real is more like sherbet. That feeling is enveloping – so that even as I turned and Candy asked what I had on my teeshirt, I was not perturbed. I looked down and with a surging recognition, the way a surfer must recognise the wave that will pull her under and cause the wipeout to end her days, I saw that in my hurry I had simply put back on the teeshirt with which my evening had begun. It was, therefore, a teeshirt with a range of bloodied stains.
— That? I said.
— Uh-huh, said Candy.
— I don’t know, I said.
And once again we paused there. As I said, we are no sharpshooters, Candy and I. We let the pause suspend itself, engorge itself. Because it’s really not so hard, to ignore things. And so it was like – what was it like? It was like that story of the man who passed through Paradise in a dream, and had a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there. And indeed, when he woke up, he held a flower in his hand. That’s one sort of similar story – or no, this is what it was like. It was like the story of that prince in the eastern realms who once upon a time dreamed he no longer lived in his palace but in the city, and was very poor. In this new life of his, he had no servants or cooks. He only had a wife, who went out every morning to work as a sales clerk in some department store. They lived in a house in the suburb favelas of a giant city together with a single hound. His life was shanty town and barrio. And then one morning he woke up and was back there in his palace with his courtiers or flunkeys, while the second hand on his gorgeous watch was perhaps just describing a minutely more obtuse angle –
HIS COURTIERS OR FLUNKEYS
Well wow you just dozed off there for a moment, sir –
but the prince still in his heart knew that something, like definitely, had taken place. What happened therefore next is that he ordered the whole court entourage to go out driving with him in a minor motorcade, and sure enough when the SUVs entered the plastic outskirts of that giant city, with hotels and other details, he recognised a street. Calmly he left his limousine, where in the road a woman came up to him. And she said: Zezette, where’ve you been all this time? Like what, you got arrested? – How should he put it? the prince would say, years afterwards, telling this disturbing tale. – Imagine that you are the enfant terrible who wakes up to discover that he is in fact the creation of some pen or quill or keyboard that he cannot see. That’s how I would put it. It’s not a good feeling at all. But enough of me. What this party needs is more negronis. And so the story ends. I mean, it was like that, sure – this bloodstain: just back to front, or upside down.
Copyright © 2015 Adam Thirlwell.
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Adam Thirlwell was born in London in 1978. He is the author of the novels Politics and The Escape; the novella Kapow!; a project about international novels, The Delighted States, which won a Somerset Maugham Award; and of a compendium of translations edited for McSweeney's. He has twice been selected as one of Granta's Best Young Novelists. His work has been translated into thirty languages. He lives in London.