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No. 17 - Three Pieces
Hello, hello! And to the nearly 30 people who’ve joined us since last time, welcome aboard!
The newsletter’s a little late, because I’d planned to publish something else today. I had an essay all sketched out, but as a tentative first draft stared at me from the digital page, I realized I felt lukewarm about it. It was too safe, too similar to other recent essays.
So I decided to try something a little different.
The following micro-essays might be a tad darker than the usual fare you’re used to from me, possibly because the summer heat is scrambling my brain, or because I’m deep into Roberto Bolaño’s ominous masterpiece 2666.
Still, I hope you’ll enjoy this little experiment!
I don’t remember the first time I left my country. When I was little, my parents and I did a lot of sightseeing. After Communism fell, the world opened up, and they wanted to see it all. They believed travel was integral to one’s education, and looking back, I think that’s true.
It was on a trip to Austria that I received my first lesson in darkness.
I think I was about eight. We went to Vienna to see Prater, one of the oldest European amusement parks. I’d only glimpsed these shrines to entertainment in American cartoons, so when the real thing flooded my senses it felt surreal. I remember roller coasters, a ferris wheel, and a ride with spinning sombreros that made my father instantly sick.
I also remember we never left the hotel after dark. There are pimps and whores out there, I was told, though of course I didn’t know what those were. I pictured grotesque figures in black overcoats several sizes too big for their wiry frames, with sharp knives wedged between their thin lips, lying in wait for a hapless boy to fall into their grasp.
During the day, as I ate sandwiches so big I had to hold them like steering wheels, I wondered where the pimps and whores were hiding. Had they squeezed further into the dark corners of the world, or had they simply gone home to sleep away the light? Did they even need to sleep?
At times I wish I was that child again, a child who could afford to separate monsters from men.
I think I know why children’s stories teach us to love people, and fear monsters. It’s because the world feels safer when you have only the latter to fear.
A boy once gave himself a test. His girlfriend sometimes cut her wrists, so he told her every time she did it, he’d hurt himself too—he’d rub his hand against the margins of his desk until he drew blood. He kept his word, and when next she did it, young flesh met wood again, and then again, and the flesh held firm, and he wondered could he keep it up, until finally a trickle of blood appeared. He proudly showed it to her, and she never mentioned self-mutilation again. He never found out if she’d stopped.
In our first year of college, I shared a room with my best friend. We were about to plunge into uncharted waters, so sticking together felt natural. We’d known each other for twelve years, so it would be like living with family. We could create a home away from home.
That year of living together nearly destroyed our friendship.
The signs were there from the start. The first night, I discovered he was a snorer. The room was so small our beds were close to touching, which prompted many a gay joke, and meant his snoring trumped whatever efforts my headphones could make. There was no way to escape that sound. And soon the problem grew worse. You see, I was a snorer too, especially when very tired, so after a few sleepless nights we began to duet. He’d fall asleep first, keeping me awake for hours with his snoring, and when I finally fell into sleep, I’d wake him up with mine.
Don’t get me wrong. We enjoyed ourselves a lot, too. We’re foodies, and his talent for cooking made dinner a delight. We washed down steaks and hamburgers with country wine from my uncle, and laughed about the stupidity and brilliance of people, and the senselessness of college life. At night, we shared ghost stories so terrifying they disturbed our already precarious sleep schedules for weeks.
But there were other things that bothered me. His discarded clothes lined every surface of the room, to the point where I had no space for my books. And he never washed his dishes, not even when he was by himself.
At our worst moment, I almost punched him in the face.
It was late December. A group of us were gathered in our room, drinking. Out of the blue, my best friend called me out for not having washed the dishes that day. I shot to my feet and went to the armchair he sat in, sprawled like a sheikh. Since he was the one who cooked, washing the dishes fell to me, and that day, indeed, I had failed in my duties. But coming from him, that accusation was the height of arrogance. A few weeks before, I’d gone home to study and left him alone for one week. At the end of that week, he went home himself, assuring me I’d find the room spotless. On my return, the place smelled like a pigsty. I looked in the sink and I saw he’d left a mound of filthy pans floating in toxic-looking water. In effect, he was admonishing me for swatting a fly after he’d killed an elephant.
So I shoved my hand in his throat. It was pure instinct. The room got silent like a cemetery in midwinter. And then he said, I’m joking, man.
We lasted like this until the summer holidays. The following autumn I moved in with someone else, and he decided to live alone. This is how our friendship escaped catastrophe.
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