Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 11

This is a chapter from my book, The Way Forward. Buy the whole novel now from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
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We did not have sex.

I just want to get that out of the way.

Even if I were to have sex with a man, it would certainly not be with Andrew. He seemed perpetually three days removed from a shower. He had short, heavy black hair with a permanent greasy quality, a long face, a checkered three-day beard that covered splotchy red skin, and large tea-stained teeth that he flashed with a mad-looking grin. When he looked at you with his sleepy eyes, it was always slightly to your left, as if he was staring at your ear or someone directly behind you. Most of the time he looked at the ground, or at his beer, or at a matchbook, or anyplace else where he wouldn't have to make eye contact with a person. He was shorter than me and that kind of skinny where one still looks pudgy. He seemed to slobber when he laughed -- a stuttering, breathy laugh that came from the back of his throat -- which he would do excessively when anyone belched. And he had a thick Northern England accent that was at times hard to understand.

He was a good guy, though. Just not a good guy to have sex with.

Besides, he wasn't very well endowed. I know this because I've seen him naked. If you were that person driving on Southsea Esplanade, the road that runs along Portsmouth's pebbled coastline, on a particularly warm March evening several years ago, you, too, might have seen all that Andrew had to offer. You would have seen him running full speed across the road, his pasty nakedness illuminated by your headlights, followed closely by three screaming Americans. If you hadn't sped off, you would have seen all four of us scrambling down the beach into the dark, freezing water of the English Channel.

...

"Holy shit!" Connor yelped.

We were still only knee deep, but he had lost his step and fallen in completely. He stood there contorting his body and making high-pitched noises while Jared and I chased Andrew into deeper water. When we were waist deep and the water seeped through our jeans to that most delicate of manly areas, Jared and I also started yelping. The water was painfully cold and already my toes were starting to numb.

Andrew made a hooting noise and dove into a wave, but he popped back up with a screech. He wasn't completely gone, then; the water was too cold for him, as well. He spun back toward us. I sloshed forward to intercept him. I was too slow, and, to be honest, had no idea what I was going to do with a wet, naked Northerner once I got a hold of him, so he was able to slip through the gap between Jared and me. He was turned back toward us when he saw Connor closing in on him, in a rage and able to move with a little less delicacy since he was completely wet.

Andrew turned a few circles, slipped, went under, and popped up into the grasp of Jared. Jared wrapped his enormous arms around Andrew, pinning his arms to his side, and lifted him out of the water with a bear hug. Andrew flopped and kicked like a big ugly white fish but couldn't break Jared's hold.

"Don't you fucking kick me, Andy," Jared shouted. "If you kick me, I will fucking drown you, man. I am not shitting you."

Connor caught up and drove his fist hard into the left side of Andrew's face, making a loud, wet smacking sound.

"You little bitch," Connor screamed. "What the fuck is wrong with you?"

Jared turned Andrew away from Connor and shouted at me to step in. Not keen to take a punch intended for someone else, I simply grabbed a handful of Connor's soaking wet sweater and pulled him back.

"I'm fine, Ben," he said, swatting away my hand. "Just… What the fuck is up with you Andrew?"

Andrew wasn't listening. He was giggling and wheezing from the chase that had started a kilometer away. After a moment, he stopped wiggling and nodded toward the sky.

"Is that Hale-Bopp?"

The three of us looked up at a bright object in the sky.

"What's Hale-Bopp?" Jared asked.
"It's a comet," I said. "It won't come around for another 2,400 years. And I think you're right, Andrew. I think that is Hale-Bopp."

Jared set Andrew down and the four of us, standing waist deep in the oily black stinging cold of the English Channel, stared into the night sky. Silence rolled in from offshore. The world was suddenly quiet and peaceful, with just the sound of our breathing slowly returning to normal, and the waves lapping at our stomachs. It was a beautiful surreal moment.

...

Jared Anderson and Connor Anderson were not related, but they might as well have been. Both were tall and muscular, and far better looking than you would expect from two people who did little more than drink and smoke.

Jared was particularly tall, about 6-foot-10, and moved with a lumbering happiness. He was a sort of enormous farm-boy male model, with a special fondness for worn baseball caps and smoking with style. He owned more plaid flannel shirts than could possibly be practical.

Connor seemed to only own one T-shirt -- white -- along with a sweater that he bought at a second-hand shop, and a pair of corduroy trousers. He wore sandals, of course, and carried his things in one of those hemp bags you've never seen in any shop, yet strangely every marijuana smoker on the planet owns. He, too, had a developed routine for smoking: tilting the cigarette into the far right corner of his mouth and shutting his eye as he lit it. He made the same Popeye face when he exhaled. It amused me that someone who smoked as much as he did could be bothered by smoke.

Jared was from northern Minnesota, Connor from North Dakota. The two of them had been friends in college and decided to come to Portsmouth through an exchange program, figuring that a year in Europe would equate to a year of heavy drinking and having sex with countless women dazzled by their American charm.

Their visions of life in England had been partially correct -- they drank a lot. With women, however, their success had been a little less grand. Connor was locked into a very serious relationship with a very serious German girl who had all the attractiveness of a very seriously angry bear. Jared was involved in a tumultuous on-off relationship with a short-tempered young lady from Turkey who had a scar on her cheek from a bar fight.

Jared, Connor and I were friends due to geographical familiarity -- all of us from the American Midwest. And they lived down the corridor from me at Harry Law Hall. I had nothing in common with them, but sometimes you find yourself hanging out with someone because they are familiar to you, and simply because they are there. I sometimes wonder if this isn't the same reason Allison stayed with me so long, or part of the reason I stayed with her so long. But this is an unfair comparison to make. There were no drunken tear-filled nights when Jared and Connor and I eventually went our separate ways. All the beautiful little points of life had bumbled us together like the people in a train car and it was alright by us. We weren't thinking about the different directions in which we would eventually go.

Wherever we were going, Andrew seemed to want to come along. He shared a kitchen with Connor and Jared and had somewhat exaggerated views of the greatness of Americans, which the two were happy to entertain and I was too slow to reject. He tried desperately to win our approval, did Andrew. He was always ready with lame jokes and puns, to the extent that I suspected he studied joke books before going out with us. He was too eager to please and occasionally found himself at the butt of jokes he did not get, but would slobberingly laugh along to anyway.

It was my guess that his desire to fit in was to blame for his now degraded mental state. I suspected he was on drugs. I am very boring that I have never been anything but drunk, so I wasn't certain. He had been agitated for most of the night and his mood would shift from melancholy to wild-eyed laughter. Now at the pub, he was telling his rehearsed jokes to himself.

"What's brown and sticky?" he asked, not waiting for us to answer. "A stick!"

He burst into spitting laughter. He was clearly wearing on Connor's nerves.

"Andy, I think that chick over there is checking you out, man."
"Where?"
"The tall brunette over there," Connor said, squinting as he drew on his cigarette. He was looking at me and Jared and trying not to laugh. "She's been checking you out all night. Go talk to her, Andy."
"Go on, baby," Jared said. "Work that Andy magic. Work the Andrew-doo voodoo on her, man."

Andrew jumped from his chair and started making his way across the pub. That really should have been our first clue. Normally, he would have mumbled something and insisted upon staring at a beer mat. Instead, he was making a direct line for the girl. When she saw him coming, the look on her face alerted anyone within a 15-mile radius that Andrew didn't have a chance. But he kept swimming toward her through the crowd.

We exchanged a round of high fives and Connor thumped his chest in coughing laughter. We were glued to the action, eager to see Andrew's inevitable defeat, when I noticed a largish bloke in the pub balcony. He was wearing the largish bloke uniform of shaved head, dark blue jeans and strangely effeminate button-up shirt -- neatly pressed and un-tucked. His shirt's color was "thistle." He looked like a Care Bear, but one capable of unspeakable violence. He looked at the girl, then at Andrew, slapped a mate on the shoulder (his shirt's color was "lemon chiffon") and the two started making their way to the stairs.

"Not good. Bad. Wrong," I said, pointing to them.
"Shit," Connor said, stubbing out his cigarette.

And the three of us were wading through the crowd, trying to catch Andrew.

"Gonna need your accent, Benny," Jared said.

I could fake a London accent. Jared seemed convinced that simply by sounding English I could get us out of scrapes where a broad American accent might only make things worse. There was some truth to his theory. Britons think of Americans in the same way New Yorkers think of Kentuckians. That perception doesn't help much if the listener is angry, as the defenders of Andrew's would-be conquest were sure to be. We had never legitimately put my fake London accent to the test; I wasn't wholly confident it was believable. But I didn't have any better ideas, so I started working out in my head how I wanted the words to sound.

We were a good 20 feet away, the largish blokes now on the stairs and Andrew was at his target. Time froze for a just a tiny moment as I watched him grab the girl and attempt to kiss her. He hadn't even said anything to her! He just grabbed her and went straight for the snog. In most situations, we would have cheered this act and proudly taken credit for Andrew's sudden lecherous behavior. But this was not one of those situations.

Noise and time came rushing back and we were moving at hyper-speed. All of the following things happened at exactly the same time: The two blokes leapt over the last bit of railing and scrambled toward Andrew; the girl blocked Andrew's advance by swinging her arms up into his face, starting a nosebleed;  Jared shouted, "Easy, Romeo," at Andrew, trying to sound cool but coming off panicked, and grabbed him by the shirt; Connor pushed through the crowd toward the door, clearing an escape route; and I brought up the rear, apologizing profusely to the people we were pushing aside and sounding a bit too much like Hugh Grant.

"Oh, uhm. Oh, terribly sorry. My friend is quite drunk. As perhaps you can see. Those are my cousins from America. Ruffians. Terribly, uhm, sorry. Very sorry."

There were, in fact, six largish blokes (thistle, lemon chiffon, azure, alizarin crimson, coral, and lavender blush). We learned that once we got outside the pub. When I reached the door -- behind everyone -- I almost immediately wondered why I hadn't simply disappeared back inside. I had actually gone undetected by the offended party and could have avoided the whole thing. Connor now had Andrew by the collar and Jared was holding back two of the blokes.

"Little help, Benny?" Jared said.

Everyone turned to look at me.

"Yes, ah, well. He's clearly on drugs, isn't he?" I said, again sounding too much like Hugh Grant. "Let my mates take him home and I'll buy us all drinks, alright?"

Andrew, blood dripping onto his shirt, started laughing and pointing: "Listen to you, Benjamin. What's that accent about? You sound like a complete tosser! "

"You startin', you fuckin' Geordie?" shouted Lemon Chiffon.

Fantastic. The accent had worked. And that was good to know, but now the blokes thought Andrew -- with his thick Northern accent -- was deriding the whole of Southern England by laughing at my (fake) London accent. We had managed to draw the North-South divide into a simple pub altercation.

Suddenly, Andrew, displaying a newly developed talent for turning bad situations worse, pulled out of his shirt and broke free of Connor. He started dancing away and singing, his skinny-pudgy white body glowing orange in the street lights.

"Keep that shit up, Andy. I'll beat your ass myself," shouted Connor, uncharacteristically losing his cool. "Seriously, Andrew. Come here. You wanna take off your clothes? I'll strip you naked and beat your ass."
"Oh, that's a good idea. Let's all get naked! Like Aborigines," Andrew said.

I started to make the "N" sound for this sentence: "No, Andrew, just put your shirt back on and we can all go home."

But it was too late. His trousers were at his ankles. He kicked off his shoes and started running. On the bright side, it instantly cooled the largish blokes' desire to so much as touch Andrew, let alone pummel him. And it meant that I would not have to buy the blokes drinks -- something I had instantly regretted offering to do as I did not actually have enough cash.

And we got to see Hale-Bopp.

All in all, not that bad an evening.

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