a ten step plan for a hypothetical bully

If I ever run into my high school bully, don’t worry, I’ve got it all worked out. In my imagination, we meet in a bar, but since there’s no telling where and when it might happen, I’ve outlined a variety of differing scenarios.

If we cross paths on the street, the plan is to evade, then follow on behind, secret service style. Restaurant – tell the maître d’ it’s his birthday and begin drinking copiously. Hospital ward – surprisingly simple, apply microscopic pressure be it psychological, physical, or otherwise. Bathroom stall, you say? You must be kidding. Apologies, I’ve no contingency plan for meeting him with my pants down. Subway platform – the darkest, not that I would, of course. It’s the rage I’m preparing myself for, you see.

Say it happens in a bar, patience will be the name of the game. He’ll be drinking with crew – some guys never change, only ever comfortable when encircled by at least six short-haired, swinging dicks. Needless to say, approaching my high school bully in his natural habitat is off the table, if my plan is to succeed his isolation is paramount.

First thing I do after spotting my high school bully is to choose a friend. Ideally, said friend is sat at my side nursing a brewski, but if there’s no such candidate in my immediate vicinity, I’ll have no qualms reaching out, calling in favors and generally ingratiating myself. Super. Duper. Quid. Pro. Quo. You sort out my old bully, I’ll come around Sunday morning and whip up brunch, recalibrate your computer if you like, scrub your floors on my hands and knees, just so you know the full extent of my gratitude. Friendship’s a wonderful thing, don’t you think?

Once a friend has been chosen, I’ll take out my wallet and hand over the list of instructions. Don’t ask questions, I’ll say, run along and find somewhere quiet to digest the info. I may spin on my heel and walk away for dramatic effect. Here are the instructions:

 

  1. We are now total strangers.
  2. Do not acknowledge me with word, look, or gesture.
  3. Find me outside in smoking area with ‘friend’.
  4. Locate and light a cigarette.
  5. Place lit cigarette on hand of ‘friend’.
  6. Exert downward pressure.
  7. Hold.
  8. Apologize, but not too profusely.
  9. If ‘friend’ becomes confrontational feel free to reciprocate, otherwise walk away.
  10. Thank you. IOU.

(Note: please read three times, memorize if possible, then destroy)

 

As for my part, I’ll play it cool and sympathetic. While he’s reeling from the shock of freshly seared skin, I’ll pass over something to sooth the burn (my own concoction; butter, deep heat, lemon juice). He won’t ask questions, it’s just the sort of thing a faggot like me would keep handy. As we say goodbye, I’ll offer him the full tube, but even if he declines, a final glance at his hand will be comfort enough, a small memento of our evening together.

That’s saying we meet in a bar, of which there’s no guarantee, and like I say these sorts of situations can go any which way. And what about you? Any plans for long-lost bullies, hypothetically speaking?

 

 

 

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violin. candle. bone.

The three of us were sat at a bar table. You were cuddling M and I was wondering how many shots of tequila gave me a pass to the bathroom. By which I mean to ask, is there an optimum number of shots at which point retiring to the little boy’s room signals attending to the bladder and not the gut?

You ordered another round, the squat glasses rapping the table in time to an old rock & roll tune. The cuddle was becoming kissing Twister™ and I wanted to sit in the bathroom, alone.

They say a bathroom tells you everything you need to know about an establishment. The mirror was peeling at the sides, graffiti ricocheted across plywood stalls and once white walls; Jonny hates Meaghan but was forever trapped in a love heart with Lauren, a sticker advertising high-end vodka and a pair of neatly drawn pricks. I shuddered at the flush of a neighbouring stall – I hadn’t noticed the shoes, scuffed, black. Had I been talking to myself? He ambled to the sink and ran the tap – quality ham sandwiches have been made in the time he took to wash his hands.

The door squealed shut. I pulled out my phone and considered setting an alarm, some limit on this hideout of mine. I decided the idea was stupid. Ten feet above me (and slightly towards the sink) I imagined their hands tracing secretive patterns and the almost pleading look in his eyes as her attention momentarily turned to a bottle of beer. The way they carried on, you’d think he was en route to a deployment in Kandahar.

I opened a web page and searched third wheel in other languages. Since I am nothing more than musical accompaniment, Spanish speakers from Chile have me stood tableside with violin. Given love is as natural as breathing, Thai sees me as a bone lodged in the throat. The French and Portuguese have stuck a candle in my hands, presumably since the keenest thought of two lovers is to put me out and start fucking in the dark.

Back upstairs, I thought of introducing my bathroom discovery as a toast, but one look at M’s immaculate nails holding my friend’s ear convinced me otherwise. I took one shot, then another, and wondered if, perhaps, it was time to go.

friend

The first thing I tell people before introducing my friend is how we are fundamentally different. It’s as though I’m worried without preemptive clarification we might become indivisible at near focus. I imagine some would say it’s our accents, two Londoners in New York with words, phrases, thoughts and fashions inevitably entangling. By way of clarification, I often play the antonym game; he’s a guy’s guy/I’m very shy. He’s impulsive/I’m crippled by indecision. He’s on first name terms with a barber/ I avoid mirrors. And so on.

Recently, my friend told me he feels like an adult. The epiphany came in the checkout line of a home goods store. He was poised to spend the most mundane eighty dollars of his life and casting a glance over scrubbies (the smiley-face ones), kitchen towels, dish soap, counter cleaner – all of which he realised had become essential life objects – he sensed the presence of adulthood.

I asked him if the state was permanent or prone to fluctuation. He said it was like choosing your outfit in the morning; a decision that can be taken many ways, some days are meant for suits, others for t-shirts and sandals – you know what I mean, he said very matter-of-factly. Did I sense a quiet dig at my not owning a suit? I suppose sharing a wardrobe has its drawbacks.

I have always thought of adulthood as something internal, a stubborn knot that grows like a night flower in our sleep. I had not considered it some façade, a jacket against the cold. I do not agree with you at all, I long to say to my fundamentally different friend. I think the change is something else entirely, but what then? I think we are losing spontaneity, yes, that’s about the ring of it. How as teenagers our conversations were meandering plotless things, or the come-and-join-us way we had with strangers.

Sometimes, I consider announcing the impending death of spontaneity, a call to drive the spectre of adulthood from the threshold of our friendship. But, of course, there are jobs to go to, dishes to clean. I’ve this urge to clear away the table, draw the curtains, and declare a wrestling match on the living room rug. In my imagining, I wait for you to shower. As you fill the apartment with eucalyptus steam, I separate the blue from the red corner. We are in/appropriately dressed. The room draws close and hot as we thump-knock-bang our neighbours into genuine concern. A little melodramatic, I realize, but there you have it.

carcass.

There is a strange social phenomenon through which a thriving party dissipates in a matter of minutes.

It takes a solitary sorry I have to dash and suddenly out pop the phones and everyone’s tippytappy taxi. If a communal longing to leave hovered over our leisurely Sunday lunch, I failed to notice. The afternoon seemed to be drifting sweetly along, but a single departure and the apartment emptied with the inevitability of a drain.

Perhaps we didn’t buy enough booze.

I am once again king of the sofa. Head back. Feet up. I mute the tail-end of a festive movie, put on some light music and consider the exodus. I wonder if conversation was flat. Mixed messages emanate from plates smeared with blackberries. I wonder if winter is to blame, the need people feel to burrow on home.

I look to the window, the sky bitter purple and not yet five o’clock. I contemplate the half-drunk bottle of Loire valley piss. The roommate is at the girlfriend’s place and I want a drinking partner. I scan a row of discarded cups and proceed to rinse traces of eggnog and what looks like mint (surely not together…). I find the cleanest corner of the cleanest tea towel and dry it off. I return to the sofa avoiding a pile of pillows, the chicken carcass, and a tray of scorched rosemary. I finish off the wine.

In the commotion to flee, someone left a bag behind. Inside I find chapstick, a book promising management savvy, a sad looking apple and a plain black wallet. I open at a random page, your effectiveness in a company is directly proportionate to your ability to leverage yourself.

Prostrate on the sofa, I imagine my body slowly solidifying into a high-strength bar ready to pry open the nearest door, the ripest opportunity. I parse the mantra and wonder how it applies to the soiled contents of this room. Three bowels of ice cream soup are perched on the television. A pool of something rusty is laying siege to the fridge. The table plant is poking out timidly from a canopy of bottles. How might I best leverage my position?

I burned myself while cooking and was running my hand under the tap when my friend approaches, dustpan in hand, and says, that’s why I don’t cook – all those nicks and scrapes. I say nothing. I base the chicken with stock, put a pot on the hob to boil and return the not-yet crispy potatoes to the oven. Boy, did they eat my meat and potatoes.

How might I best leverage my position? I mop and dry the fridge pool, recycle the bottles, but leave a veritable mountain of dishes in the sink. He can meet them in the morning.

chicken.

We are crouched around the oven trying to approximate the size of two chickens. Turned 180° and laid side-by-side, the trays – need vigorous scrubbing– fit the shelf, but require slight finagling.

We take turns balancing the trays against one another, lifting them millimeters off the shelf – we’re not building a pyramid here mate – and then swiftly shut the door. Just a test run. The trays have a slight slope and I imagine the carcasses slowly rolling over and resting against opposite sides of the oven, like disillusioned bedfellows.

Roast chicken dinner, full trimmings, twelves guests at last counting. A generous number of invitations given the kitchen proportions – there’s only one working knife –  and the fact my friend doesn’t cook. All counter space has been invaded by booze, I am chopping, peeling and seasoning in the sink. He stands close over my shoulder, as if we are performing a trust exercise at an office teambuilding. I can hear his intake of breath – got enough greens – he gestures to the mound of shredded cabbage (w/ bacon, how else?) and tent peg-like carrots.

It might be the most adult question of his life. A changed man stands behind me, one concerned with his intake of vitamin B and the calories in a cup of tea – don’t touch milk or sugar any more –. This coming from the mouth that lived off saturated fat and bottled Coca-Cola throughout university.

We went on holiday to Spain and he ate McDonalds four lunches in a row. I remind him of the trip and how each afternoon he’d bring his greasy brown bag to our table as we ate seafood – I still think fish is rank –. I suppose there remains room for growth.

fish.

I spent my first two nights in the city alone in a friend’s apartment. He had left on business, our paths crossing somewhere in New Jersey. Upon arrival, I was to scramble around the bins in search of his keys – try and be discreet, he texted me from an airport bar.

We had not met in several years and I found myself examining the contents of his fridge, fingering his shirt collars, assessing the names on a bookshelf wondering if this was in fact the same man I had known back in school.

He kept tropical fish, three to be precise, each in a separate tank the size of a loaf of bread. He had left a laminated index card with instructions on the kitchen counter:

Instructions for fish 

  1. Fish to be fed one pellet on Tues, Thurs, Sat between the hours of seven and nine in the morning. Any later, don’t bother!
  2. Water to be changed on Sunday (see under sink for liquids and instructions).
  3. The fish rest between three and six in the afternoon.
  4. You are welcome to have guests but please refrain from crowding the fish.
  5. Under no circumstance should you put the fish together. They will kill each other.

Minor problems: jarednoffice@internet.com

Major problems: 917-835-8204

 

My friend’s outward fastidiousness was challenged by the cavorting whims of his aging apartment. He may set out his shoes like dutiful soldiers and have a well-ordered pantry, but at night the apartment has a life of its own. There was an articulated hissing from the bathroom, a gushing sound somewhere beyond the window and the radiator spluttered along apologetically. Floating in a jetlag daze, I felt I was in the bowels of some great machine. I wouldn’t have been surprised to stumble out of bed and find a group of engineers discussing the aerodynamics of the living room.

The second night, in spite of my attempts to induce a deeper state of sleep (alcohol…), I could sense the machine gearing up for work. There was a distant metallic tapping, as though the metallurgy department was testing the kitchen’s pots and pan. Stainless steel with a copper core, excellent conductivity, says one man to another. Not sure about these knifes though… take note of that, the other rests his clipboard against the fridge and scribbles.

I hear the rain coming from beneath the thin gauze of sleep. At first, it plays a light rhythm on the window ledge but steadily it gains intensity. I half-wake to the sound of a car alarm. The street lamp just beyond the bedroom is giving off plumes of steam. I can feel the wind reaching its fingers under the kitchen window and making a whirlwind tour of the apartment. The pipes have begun to stir again, as if recognizing in the storm a sudden opportunity for escape. There are movements on the floor below, a grating sound as someone opens a window, who would do that? I think, and in weather like this! a second voice chimes in.

I offer no resistance to the engine. The commotion builds, the apartment shedding brick walls and crooked piping in preparation for lift off. If I had woken up on the third floor of some leafy street in Cleveland it would have seemed an inevitable conclusion. Instead, I find my friend sat in the kitchen drinking coffee.

You left the window open, he said, eyes unmoved from newspaper, it rained last night. 

Sorry.

Third rate shoes, second rate violinist.

I am sat at the front of symphony hall looking at a row of black shoes. Each and every pair belongs to a violinist. With a sweeping glance, I conclude there is nothing distinctive about the shoe of a violinist. We’re not talking clerks or ballerinas here, this range is extensive. Single strap with buckle. Snub-nosed laceup. Glossy high heel. Velvet smoking shoe. Toeless boot.

The music is swirling, the brass taking off to the crash of a cymbal and all I can think about is shoes. If I was looking to photograph the dramatic facial expressions produced by players of an allegro Elgar variation, you’d have to say I’m in the ideal spot. As it stands, the magic is being flattened by the proximity of on-stage hair gel, the ladder in a woman’s tights, the conductor’s audible panting.

I am out for an afternoon of music with my grandmother. On the van ride home she’ll ask for my opinion on the performance. She’ll want to know about the Brunch concerto and if I think the new conductor is worth his salt. I can’t exactly respond that a number of the second violins had extremely slender calves. But what then? I’m positively fixated, trapped on the tap of her ordinary pump, hoping to glean some rudimentary understanding through her vacuous gaze at sheet music. This is the musical equivalent of reading the same sentence on loop. She has two-tone hair and black lace around her shoulders. I want to know what she ate for lunch. Did she remember her umbrella or had she set out before the rain?

I believe this is what sociologists have come to term ‘the male gaze’.

The first violins take command and she rests the violin gently on her thigh, think Madonna with child portrait. One glance would suffice. Is she envious of those top rank violinists, thinking them pets of the conductor no more gifted than herself? I feel a little defensive, or perhaps she is happy for a break and revels in a chance to really hear the music. Nothing shows on her face, I can’t tell if her approach to spending Sunday afternoons on stage is workmanlike or romantic.

My reverie is punctured by the ripe breath of my middle-aged neighbor. Suddenly I wake in a musical quagmire, the mood something like walking through a damp field in patchy moonlight. I turn to my grandmother, her eyes lowered over the program, her forefinger tracing words. She looks up and offers a thin smile, as if to say this movement’s rather dull, don’t you think dear.

The second violins begin to tremble, slowly lifting us into the light. A field of soft morning sun is stretched out before us, a forest sways gently nearby, grey folds of cloud hang on the horizon. Momentum gathers to the low rumble of timpani drums and I feel oddly confident in our direction. The music, this vision of nature, my staring at black shoes in the front row of a concert hall is exactly as it should be.

The forty-third best chess player in North America

An hour out from New York I fall into conversation with a chess maestro. He’s reading Creative solutions for chess minds. I’m not normally one to stare at the books of others but the trolley knocks my knee on each pass and so sleep is patchy and interspersed with glimpses of his heavy glasses poking out at me.

He’s called Yacob and needs a pen for the immigration card. I don’t have one. We ask the third man, Neil, and suddenly the three of us are bubbling away despite having touched the heights of antisocialism for going on five hours. We might have been sat next to cardboard boxes for all we cared.

Neil had spent ten days driving a perimeter around England. Man…Great Britain, your country, is mad windy. Was I supposed to take responsibility for an English November? Stonehenge was a little lame. Was I supposed to agree that our cluster of boulders has nothing on The Grand Canyon? Neil talks about driving on the opposite side of the road. Headspace. Neil talks about English food. Dank. Neil doesn’t have a pen.

Yacob lurches over me to flag down a passing steward. The overhead button is broken, he says thereby denouncing any number more cooperative tactics he might have chosen. The steward produces a pen from the folds of his apron, smiles, trollies off.

Yacob talks to me as he writes, like bank clerk might with a customer, fills out his passport details without looking. Been with my chess club in Iceland, they invite me every year. Chess and Iceland seem ideal winter partners. Conservative players those Icelanders, it’s all the time spent inside, games go on three-four-five hours, seems longer in the dark. I ask if he ever gets bored. One time in Vegas I ditched a semifinal to play craps. Chess playing in Vegas seems oxymoronic, like the ultimate anti-gamble.

Neil asks for Yacob’s ranking. Yacob becomes bashful. 43. Does anyone actually ‘declare’ goods. Not unless you’ve got some exotic plant or a dead animal in your bag, says Neil. The goddam forty-third best chess player in the world. Only in North America. Only. Reassuring to know chess maestros forget to carry pens. Neil asks for a photograph.

 

phantom downloads

A new cell phone has me nursing a peculiar paranoia. It’s not some fear of the deep state, I’ve no anxiety about government mainframes harboring my data. I assume such details were gifted away long ago, starting with sluggish HTML pages I launched in middle school on now defunct websites. Leave data protection to the experts, I’m concerned by the wandering will of my phone, one keen on surreptitiously changing my screensavers.

In the beginning, they seemed generic stock images, the likes of which you’d expect to find hanging in the lobbies of stale midrange hotels; the silky-smooth waters of a rocky stream (Autumn); the close-up of coffee cups backdropped by an Italian clock tower (L’ora del caffè); a time-lapse of the artic sky touched by wispy fingers of green (Aurora borealis).

But later, the self-downloading photographs began taking on a pseudo-sexual tone -skin revealed without achieving the full state of nudity. The images appear unannounced, I wake to snooze my alarm and find a blonde leggy lady walking through Alpine flowers, or swipe to answer a message and discover a woman in heels standing beside a gleaming Bugatti bonnet – naturally, her handbag matches the car.

Screensavers are personal things, best reserved for pets and friendship and so these phantom downloads have me worried, nervous that moments before locking the device, or upon showing someone the time, – I don’t wear a watch – I might be caught. Caught with the type of photograph a 13-year-old hides in a folder labeled [School Art Project], misbelieving the heavily photoshopped arms and legs of a real-life woman to be very naughty material.

Some nights, before sleep, I delete evidence of cherry blossom trees tastefully framing rural Japanese villages, or resplendent red heads striking elegant poses in parks. But they reappear, unknown minutes, hours, days, later, each image an embarrassing explanation in awaiting.

Blaming my phone seems a weak excuse for someone who has grown up on a digital diet. But truly, upon entering «SETTINGS» I feel lost, like facing the open innards of a grandfather clock with an independent sense of time.

Talking about death with grandmother

I talked with my grandmother about death last week. She is eighty-nine years old this January and it was she, not I, who breached the subject.

“I was talking to Dolly only the other day. You remember my friend Dolly don’t you dear?”

I don’t remember her friend Dolly.

“She was talking about her grandchildren and how if there are any stories they should like to know, they had better ask now. Well, sooner rather than later.”

It was the first week of January in London, feelings of Christmasness slowly fading through days without context. Grey lifeless days, morning and afternoon dressed in the same drab pair of overalls. A fair time to speak of death, perhaps.

We were taking tea, a leisure I share with no one but with my father’s mother, a pot of Earl Grey and brownies sat on an ottoman between us.

“Do you know how I make these?” she said referencing the crumbs on her napkin. I don’t know how she makes her brownies. Could this be one of those stories, the secret recipe of some great aunt smuggled down from one generation to the next?

“The microwave,” she says triumphantly, “it’s so easy. Mix it all together and just stick it in for five minutes. That’s it.”

I have a techno-friendly grandmother. Not to suggest working a microwave is a feat beyond the reach of other, more luddite grandmothers, but it shows her pragmatic side, an embrace of devices that simplify. The desk of her basement apartment is stacked with laptop, tablet, and wireless speakers.

We began emailing during my first year of college — a shame since she has an eye for quirky postcards/a blessing in that I no longer had to decipher her circuitous handwriting. They arrive in my inbox as dense blocks of text with haphazard grammar- finger slips that negate her mastery of the English language. The content, too, lacks her animism and tends to drift between weather, errands and museum exhibitions. In person, on that chill January afternoon, there’s hardly any small talk.

“Have I ever told you about my stich n’ bitch group?” she asks, seemingly applying the Dolly approach to conversing with grandchildren. I have never heard of her stich n’ bitch group.

“We used to meet on Thursday afternoons, it was very informal, one of the ladies would host and you didn’t have to tell anyone you were coming, you just turned up and brought something to knit. Such interesting women.”

She elaborates, drawing out the biographies of fellow stichers, her gaze turning toward the small slanting window through which one spots passing feet on the pavement above. There was an amusing alcoholic who ran off to Europe, a librarian of children’s literature, a secretive woman of old-world money, a formidable banker who received a golden handshake for sexual discrimination.

She speaks unhindered and though I offered the occasional question, it is mere light kindling to a fire that she has well under control. I try to imagine these women sat around the apartment, working mittens into shape, nibbling brownies that grandma leaves on a refreshment table. Would she have been as brazen in revealing her secret recipe with those guests? Probably.

I doubt the apartment has changed much in forty years. Art, trinkets, mementos line the walls, fill the shelves, decorate the floor, all with a tasteful disregard for historio-cultural singularly. Bayeux Tapestry pillows lie on the sofa, a terracotta warrior stands guard by the fireplace (now electric), Noah Ark illustrations watch as you take the stairs from the front door to the living room — though, in truth, the corridors are constrictive and it’s more of a one-by-one situation.

The only change is the stair lift, which grandmother installed last year (not personally!) for her less mobile visitors. She won’t say, but each time I visit I wonder if she takes secret rides, if only because it simplifies.

“And now,” she says almost as an aside, “I am the only one.” She knows there is nothing I can say. Instead, she holds out the plate of brownies, and though I’ve already had two of the exceptionally mediocre microwave creations, I take another anyway.