Her blue notebook lay open; a promising vista into the subterraneous crevices in the mind of a fellow human being, a stranger whose variant thoughts (and notes of these), orthogonal to mine, might deflect my own thinking onto a different axis. Her notebook was a virtual open invitation, so to speak, and curious cat that I am I R.S.V.P’d and took a peek out of the corner of my eye while pretending to look out the window. Two minutes later she, absentmindedly (or was it?), closed her notebook and kept it closed. My corner-eye reading skills are positively nugatory and I had deciphered nothing; and even though whatever was in her notebook was none of my business, I am pretty sure whatever it was would have been unfathomable anyway.
I was myself in the cafe, sharpening my programming skills, and in the process of creating a class object which for fun I was thinking of naming ‘Prick’ with the class attributes: ‘length’ and ‘size’. Yet I was nervous: why? There better be no one standing over my shoulder! No one else has access to my computer (apart from the NSA via Google cookies) and in any case my penis code would be wiped out as soon as I shut the bash unix shell. Yet I was nervous; the naughty boy playing with his fly, apprehensive an adult would walk in any minute. Interestingly, even innocuous items lying around my flat have to be hidden if anyone’s coming round. Why do we hide things:
- It’s none of other people’s goddamn business [hard to argue but if you’re writing the new ‘Mein Kampf’ maybe it’s our business]
- Shame [people might think us stupid and simpleminded]
- Fear [people might think us deviant and dangerous]
- Protectiveness [people might steal our ideas and, god forbid, become millionaires off our ideas while we remain in penury]
- Egoism [we think something divine has been revealed to us and for us only]
All the written things we hide today will be revealed tomorrow when we die. When one thinks of all the billions who have been before us and all their secrets, little and great, lecherous and noble, high-minded and base: would their lives not have been more delightful and true if they had shared their secret nuggets; would their souls not have carried a lighter burden; would their contributions not have been loftier; their thoughts challenged and refined like fine whiskey? Was it really worthwhile keeping those secrets all the way to the grave?
This sky, my sky was blue with joy all day. How quickly this sky, my sky turned black from exhaustion; worn out from weary obeisance to King Sun whose splendour is glimpsed one half of every twenty four hours. This night, my night of winking stars; stars shimmering behind fuzzy white clouds; stars alive far beyond the constricted perimeter of our solar cocoon. Tonight’s constellation I can only imagine for the universe, my universe, is walled behind the fog that floats below the sky, my sky. I hear the drones of aeroplanes flying above cotton buds pregnant with vapour and I am comforted that at least someone up there is pondering how wondrous it is to be one with stardust. My stardust.
‘Only one thing astonishes me more than the stupidity with which most people live their lives, and that’s the intelligence of this stupidity.”
It’s the second day of the tenth month of the second millennium (and thirteenth year) since Time Zero (AD) and this pudding of a calendar year is rapidly going off. For humans a year is like “oh my god, it’s been like a year!!!” and our bodies age, our careers careen and our graves siren ever louder and grimmer. But let’s face it, the concept of time is a meaningless construct. It feels like ‘only yesterday’ I celebrated last christmas (in cold Chicago) and New Year a week later (in warm California) but I’m hard pressed to name all the exciting things that have happened to me since (a new MacBook, does that count?).
To spend a year on Earth is to spend one month on Jupiter and two days on Neptune and while in my imagination I see galaxies where a ‘lifetime’ is forever and where the dazzling luminary that colours the sky never dims; yet this dreamland is odious to me for I am married ’til death do us part to an evolutionary body that can’t deal with the concept of not sleeping. A place where eyes remain wide open? Oh no. It is good to sleep – in fact I am quite looking forward to a few days hence when I can (and shall) poop for twelve hours in one swoop. Yes, I know Solomon in his famous proverbs was quite severe on sluggards but what did he know of resting tired bones, he being a king and all? If I had three hundred concubines on top of seven hundred wives I think I could also find the energy to stay awake for some extra jiggy jiggy.
The obverse of sleep is not wakefulness but death: when the lights go out and life can go fuck itself. If I’m honest my life is pretty banal most days and so are the lives of the legions that I see boldly rushing to jobs that pay just enough (except for those in the top 2% who are granted the luxury of working from home or from the golf course when they feel like it). Our whole existence is aimed at just that: existing. We don’t get to ride a sunbeam at lightspeed. We don’t get to camp a night on Mars or the dark side of the moon. We don’t get to traverse black holes and live to retell the tale. The closest we get to magic is when babies are born or we come up close to animals we’ve only seen on TV or in books. Or when we dream.
Banality is the one certain bane of mankind. And each year we are weighed down more and more by the banality of life trying well-tested tricks for fun: from class A drugs to X-rated sex; from reality TV to absent-mindedly surfing the net. [Actually reading good books is pretty cool; and so is good music; and high quality theatre; and of course intelligent conversation and long rambunctious dinners with good friends settled with excellent wine – gosh there’s a growing list of things that make living worthwhile].
I feel somewhat like those poor souls sent to training courses only to return to the office to continue doing what they always did (and expecting different results) and I shall wake up tomorrow morning with a rotten sense of how much of my time, tomorrow, will be spent doing things that are … trifles, all in the name of a job that looked like a truffle when I started. Unlike Fernando Pessoa whose words I quoted above, it’s not stupidity that I marvel at; what astonishes me more than the banality with which most people live their lives is the intelligence of this banality.
Would to starry heaven that smiling at strangers had a purpose. And before last January there was no good reason to suffer such indignities; who wanted to look at my teeth, planted like Easter Island statues, solitude standing, each on its own plinth, proclaiming: “Ok, here’s my personal space. Y’all stay over there and we’ll get along fine”. Tragedy.
Nine brace-capped months later and once disjointed teeth are now chumming along like conjoined siblings. From this beaming vista I can finally appreciate why snakeoil sales men, with winning smiles, can sell oil to snakes but I fear that my orthodontist, well-meaning and stupendously recompensed I might add, has in fixing my teeth also unmasked me and stripped off the excuse that was my garb; and so here I laugh, frightfully naked. It’s not that I hate strangers (I’m not yet a misanthrope) but I just think strangers haven’t done anything to deserve my sunny breezy smile.
By god, it takes a lot of nerve and fakery to produce an “I’m-so-pleased-to-meet-you” smile. All of that energy and you’re repaid back with a smile that has the familiar U-shape at the bottom third of the face but has been manufactured in a North Korean death camp. Worse, you get back a grin or its cousin, the smirk. Both are what you give to someone you think is a jackass but polite society forbids you speaking without thinking. But there’s something even worse than a grin: being ignored.
It’s no accident then that new people are like boils: uninvited but demanding of careful and worrisome attention and frankly after a day outdoors being nice and smily to strangers I am so relieved to be back home. Home, where the only strangers I meet are the ones I create purposefully in daydreams or that my mind manufactures from the books I read. The strangers that I meet there couldn’t give a fuck if I smiled or farted.
Rain. Not really a deluge (is it ever?) but an indecisive London drizzle. When the gods pour scorn on this city the downpour is like the madman who can’t quite make up his mind whether to cross the road or just stagger in the middle of the carriageway to the curses of car drivers. The night is deceptively cool but not cold; infuriatingly warm but not hot. In other words, it’s here but not there (or there but not here, oh I’m confused), much like my mood tonight. Should I step out or curl up sofa-bound? Should I dance on my toes so not to disturb my downstairs neighbour or could I find a bear-soaked dance floor where I can moonwalk rooted to the spot? With nothing tonight as it seems am I mistaking hallucinations for reality? Is my life real or God’s capricious punishment for past misdeeds? But then I don’t believe in pre- or afterlives. Or God. It’s the wine. What else? I feel, at once, trammelled and unbreakable. Red, the wine. It burns the esophagus as it gushes downwards to the gut where, mixed with the salmon still in the oven, it will bring sustenance and nourishment to famished cells. The bouquet is like London drizzle, neither here nor there. Is it plum or chocolate or peppery spice? Cherries or berries? Ho-hum. It’s Hungarian, that much I’m certain, and it’s not bad.
They both were glad to walk out of the bar. The beer-fueled din, the clangorous eruptions from assorted hubbubs of revelers, the blast of forgettable pop music and the whoops and rumpus of excitable under-forties were all just too inimical to the business of man-to-woman conversation. But where is one to go on a Friday night? Especially as on such nights all the bars on Upper Street spill over, like muffin tops, with punters. She had never liked bars, full of drinking yobbos, preferring instead cosy haunts where girlfriends “catch up” on the latest gossip and news; so the fresh air and relative quiet were rather welcome. He needed a fag. She had started smoking again since they met, feeling rather religiously that couples who smoked together stuck (or more likely, stank) together. They both reached for their packs and matches. He: Marlboro. She: very much Benson and Hedges.
She was the first to speak: “So, come again, why won’t you commit?” The smoke left her mouth as she drew first blood. The ghostly weft of nicotine rose hesitantly above their heads and then upwards to the sky; an imploring sacrificial fragrance to the goddess of love.
He was silent for a moment, pausing deliberately; but not for effect but in deliberation of the best way to proceed. If you were a parent questioning a child you would be convinced that child was about to spin a magnificent and implausible yarn. But he was scheming no lie. Yet for a few moments more his right foot nervously played noughts and crosses with a disinterested pebble. He breathed deeply and began: “Well, I’m worried about the sex,” but then he caught her quizzical eye and the beginning upturn in her lips and quickly added,”But wait, don’t laugh. It is important. I used to be married.”
“Uh-oh”. This was news. They had been seeing each other for about six weeks.
“I was married. Her name’s Phoebe and she was from Durham.” He stopped and then corrected himself: “is from Durham.” After convincing himself that indeed his ex-wife was still alive and he hadn’t murdered her in a haze of amnesia he continued. “We were together for five years and at first we had sex all the time”. He pulled contentedly on his fag, emitting a satisfactory ahh. “All the time we fucked, I mean made love, oh fuck it, we fucked and the sex was exhilarating. Fresh and pickled. All over the place we did it and it didn’t matter what time of day or season. We even did it in church at her sister’s wedding pretending to check on the registry room down in the crypt … and can you believe it (she couldn’t, not really wanting to know why her lover was working to make her mad) – while hymns were being sung upstairs we were doing it down below? Oh boy, that was fun.”
He suddenly stopped, ostensibly to let the deafening police siren go by, but in reality he had started to sense that she didn’t like him telling her that he had liked fucking other women. So he resumed more solemnly.
“Slowly however the fire waned. Imperceptibly at first, you know, like when you’re putting on weight, I don’t mean you I mean like anyone, right, you don’t know it because you have a cake here and a Snickers there and you think it doesn’t matter because you’re playing football on Saturday or going to aerobics class on Tuesday and kaboom you’re thirteen stone and you think how did I get here? Well that’s how it was with our sex. it went from millennium fireworks and podium corkers to heart surgery routine precision. “Nurse, will you pass me the bone cutter?” “Here you are Dr Seuss” “How much time do I have Nurse before I cover him up?” “Exactly ten minutes Doctor”. He laughed showing pretty teeth. ‘You could time our sex: ten minutes and it was all over.”
He stopped to look at her. He couldn’t always tell if she was really listening to him or had drifted off into a far off world of nereids and unicorns.
But she was listening. “And?”
“Then she got pregnant. At first we still did it, you know, we called it “humping the hump” or at least I did ‘cause I thought it might bring back the excitement but then she got bigger and tired out and was definitely not in the mood for humping – either from the front or the back. But I was like cool, OK, you’re carrying our baby.”
A glass collector came round looking for empty bottles and they waited for him to go. As he opened the door Kate Perry was bruiting about kissing a girl. Two big black boys also went in chattering about the football derby the next day. ‘But I gotta get laid tonight” one of them emphatically maintained as they closed the door behind them.
“We had a boy and our time was spent getting used to this stranger and cleaning all his shit. I would, like, masturbate, obviously not with Phoebe or the baby around, but in private I watched porn and jerked off. It was like being fourteen again; furtive actions wondering if you’ll get caught. But then blink! and it was like two months and I had had no sex. Not good. Not good at all”. He’d almost finished his cigarette. She was only halfway through hers. “It became unbearable. I wanted a woman: her scent, her warmth, the softness of her skin; moaning my name and all the blah blah that goes with it and then … then we talked about it and for a few months she’d put out for all of ten minutes but I could tell that she wasn’t really there and that is no fun. I need to know that I’m giving pleasure not just receiving it. You know, I can gush as indiscriminately as the next man but if my woman is not putting in hundred percent then I’m not gushing a hundred percent. I’ve never been the wham bam kind of guy.”
“But even that stopped. She was too tired; you know there’s a a young baby and she had a full time job and house chores and it was just too much and she had no energy or inclination for sex.”
Silence; puff; silence; the dull glow of a cigarette being sucked of its last goodness was one of the lesser lights on Upper Street that night. Around the silent two, the young razzle-dazzlers of Islington were just getting started. Her upright silhouette against the brick wall showed off smooth round curves of a woman in her prime. And she was smart too. He’d better not fuck this up.
“I can tell you this one thing, though, a man is not a stone. If he isn’t getting it from you he’s getting it elsewhere. There’s no point saying “but if he loves me” blah blah. I don’t understand women who think if they don’t give sex for like, forever, the man is supposed to do nothing and remain faithful. That’s like ridiculous you know. A man is not a stone. He’s gotta cum or else he goes crazy. C-r-a-z-y. It’s the way we’re made. If a woman wants to keep her man she’s going to have to put out.” He tossed the stub on the pavement.
She put hers in the stub receptacle. “So does that mean we’re doing ok, at least for now?”
He smiled and then laughed. She loved it when he laughed and showed even teeth, stained brown by coffee but still very pretty. “Yeah, we’re doing very ok. And I’m hoping we stay that way.” He took her hand and they walked back into the bar, to the howls of Miley Cyrus and loud forgettable pop music. She couldn’t figure out whether he was telling her not to have a baby. How’s that going to work?