Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 15

This is a chapter from my book, The Way Forward. Buy the whole novel now from or

Andrew refused to clarify exactly how the trees were being loud. He simply made it clear he no longer wanted to be in the park. We decided we would take in the waning afternoon on the steps of the Portsmouth Guildhall. Host to such entertainment luminaries as Roy "Chubby" Brown and Australian rock band Thunder (What? You've never heard of them? My point exactly), the Guildhall was an impressive building nonetheless. Impressive to American eyes, at least. The main entrance was an enormous series of steps leading up to a set of elaborate doors and massive Roman columns. If I were scouting a film, I would choose the Guildhall to serve as a sort of royal palace. It was also a good place to sit and watch people as they passed through Guildhall Square.

Andrew and I bought four cans of Heineken each at the off-license and sat high on the steps, taking in the warmth of the late afternoon sun. Andrew was calm. He was still drooling and still had a mad look in his eyes but he seemed to be coming down off his drug high. Well, a bit.

"Do you ever look into the sky?" he asked.
"Not enough, though, Benjamin. No one does. All of this beautiful space just sitting on our heads and hardly anyone ever takes the time to look at it. I've been a few places. I went to Africa. And your America. Florida. I met Donald Duck. I had no idea who he was -- I was rather young -- but he was very friendly, and he and a giant chipmunk signed their names in a book my parents bought for me. In every place I've been the sky is never so big and so close as it is in England. We have a very beautiful sky."

He was right. It's not all rain and misery in England. On sunny days, the bright pale blue of British sky is unbeatable. Strips of cloud tear across it like the contrails of jet airplanes and the sun shines from every direction. The sunlight doesn't peek from clouds, it cuts through with heavenly force. When the sun is shining in England you start to understand all those deeply patriotic and religious songs they sing at soccer and rugby matches. It really is the land of hope and glory, the dread and envy of them all. Why wouldn't those feet in ancient times walk upon England's mountains green?

It wasn't just an issue of good weather. Anyone who lives in a climate that is regularly cloudy or cold learns to appreciate the sun. In Minnesota, where there are seven months of winter and five months of bad ice hockey weather, warm spring days would send us all running from the dorm rooms at Macalester, shedding as much clothing as legally possible. Girls would lie out in bikinis, or just panties and bras -- the open areas of campus became fields of sex. We all walked around feeling as if we were in the midst of a religious revival meeting: Praise the Lord Our God for sun and warmth. People drove down the street shouting out their windows at anyone they saw just because they wanted to shout out in exaltation of good weather. But the sense of energy was even greater in Britain. The sun felt as if it were shining with more intensity; the air felt richer in oxygen. I didn't feel like a part of a religious revival, I felt like leading one. At times it didn't even feel real.

On warmer sunny days in Pompey, I liked to lie in the soft grass of Southsea Common. I would listen to the world around me and stare up and feel almost as if I were flying, or clinging to the very top of the world and that if I jumped up I would tumble all the way back to Minnesota. I didn't tell Andrew this. He was so involved in what he was saying he probably would not have let me, anyway.

"We all look rather insignificant from up there," he said. "Actually, after a certain height, we can't be seen at all. It's just waves of earth, mountains and rivers and farms, lines and curves and patches of color. And the occasional building. That's why I'm studying architecture, you see. I want to make something that people can look at after they can no longer see me. America's rather far away, isn't it?"

There was quiet as he waited for the answer. I had expected him to just keep talking.

"Oh, yes. It's pretty far away, Andrew."
"How far? How far away is your Minnesota?"

I tried to pretend I didn't know exactly how far it was (4,014 miles) and shrugged.

"Few thousand miles, I guess."
"Would you say 4,000 miles?" he asked.

The fingers of his right hand were outstretched and pressing against my chest. He raised his fuzzy eyebrows and flashed a drooling grin; he was having fun interrogating me.

"About that, yeah."
"Four-thousand miles from Minnesota to Pompey, then. Can I ask you a question? Why? Why come all the way here?"
"I came to Portsmouth to be close to Allison. I've told you that."
"The ginger bird? I thought she lived in France. If you want to be close to someone in France, why not go to France?"
"I don't know French. Portsmouth is as geographically close as I can get and still speak English. There's a ferry port here and the university lets me use U.S. student loans."
"That doesn't mean it makes any sense. You go to all the trouble to come here, then you have to go to more trouble just to see her. What makes her so important? Why go through all that?"
"You know," I said, cupping my chest with my hands, "baps, mammaries, hoo-hahs, bumbledybobbins, breasts -- Allison's got a lovely pair."

This is the way males feel we must talk to each other; we can't allow ourselves to talk about our emotions for very long in conversation. I had come to Portsmouth because I was -- or at least I thought I was -- madly in love with Allison and wanted to be close to her. But I couldn't say this outright because I am a guy and I was talking to a guy. It is male code that when talking to another male, one must occasionally make childish references to female body parts. We do this for fear space aliens might be listening in and think we are homosexuals for discussing our feelings. As we all know, aliens only abduct homosexuals.

"That's a lot of effort for boobies," Andrew said.
"I really like boobies."
"Are there no other American women with breasts?"
"There are. But, you know, when you find the pair you like you should stick with them. I followed Allison's breasts more than 4,000 miles and probably would have followed them further if she hadn't cut out my heart and shit on it."
"You see? That's just the thing. You don't ever say anything nice about your ginger bird," he said. "Why get so upset over her when you didn't even like her?"
"I don't say anything nice now because she slept with another man. She fucked me over. But I was crazy about her. Part of me still loves her, though, and I suppose it always will."
"Are you sure?"
"That I'll always love her? I think so."
"No. That you ever loved her at all. You have a very shit memory, Benny. I can't think straight at the moment -- the fog won't lift -- but I can still remember your carrying on about this girl. Do you remember me and my friends, Aled and Sanji, carried you up to your room?"
"I suspect you wouldn't. The caretaker came round and had us carry you up to your room. He did that a number of times."
"Well, thanks, Andrew. I didn't know that. You should have told me."
"No need. Yanks are so eager to express their feelings; you probably would have wanted to have sex with me if I had told you. Especially you. You just go on and on. I've sat and listened to you. And I will tell you: I don't think you ever loved your ginger bird."
"I did."
"No. You loved the idea of her: Your Ginger Bird. I know this. I've heard you carry on. You wanted her as a thing -- something you could call your own, like a television. You wanted to possess her so much that you've convinced yourself that you were in love with her."
"You're wrong," I said.

But he wasn't.

Even before Allison had cheated on me the first time she and I would fight. Once, on the way to a concert with a friend, Allison and I screamed at each other with such venom that our friend, in the back seat of the car, started crying. And after every fight I would think to myself: "What happened to my sweet and funny red-headed girl? When did she become so eager to attack everything I say?"

Now I realize she had always been that way. She didn't become a bitch, she had always been one. On our first date she told me she was annoyed by my "thinking that (I) know everything." But I had this vision of what we were and who I was that clouded what was really there. I wanted to be the hero in one of those feel-good films who saw through the bitchy manipulative exterior to the girl inside. I envisioned that she had been made bitter by life and circumstances, and that my charm and patience would draw out the sweet beautiful girl she truly was. But behind the bitchy manipulative exterior was a bitchy manipulative interior. There was no sweet beautiful girl. I was not a romantic hero.

I wanted so badly for those things to be true that I tried desperately to make them be true. Sometimes we wish so hard for things that we are able to ignore truth. When I was a boy, I asked for a robot for Christmas -- one that would follow me around and do all sorts of household chores and even be my friend. To my knowledge, no such robot exists today; it certainly didn't exist when I was 6 years old. And if it had, it would have been completely beyond my parents' financial capacity. Regardless, on Christmas morning I was heartbroken. I can still remember that feeling of being kicked in the chest when I ran downstairs to discover Santa had only left more toys than I could possibly play with, but no robot.

Allison was beautiful, there was no denying that, but she was not the sweet and funny red-headed girl I told myself I was in love with. And her failing to be the person I wanted her to be caused endless heartbreak.

Of course, it took me years to figure this all out. When Andrew and I were sitting on the Guildhall steps, I was still pretty sure I had been a simple victim, guilty only of loving too much. Somewhere inside of me I knew Andrew was right but I certainly wasn't going to admit it. I was silenced by the fact that I had been summed up rather quickly by a guy who thought trees were too loud.

Across the square, some kids were attempting skateboard tricks on the steps to the city offices. We have these kids in America, too. They spend hours flinging their boards into the air without ever landing a single trick, and they never stop. It's almost inspiring -- that level of dedication to failure.

I took a few long gulps of beer, feeling the cold lager against the back of my throat, and let out a chest-rattling belch. Andrew and I laughed, drawing the attention of an office worker walking by. Andrew took an enormous gulp of his beer and let out an equally impressive belch. Thus we emptied our first cans of beer in an effort to out-belch each other.

"I will tell you what I hate about you, Benjamin," Andrew said, cracking open his second beer. "It all worked out didn't it?"
"What?" I said, following his beer lead.
"With the ginger bird."
"She took a shit on me, kid, and left me fucked up for a long time. I'd hardly say things worked out."
"Want to know who I saw walking along the sea wall today -- holding hands with a very cute blonde girl named Claire?"

I tapped my beer can to his in toast.

"Hmm, I suppose it did sort of work out."
"Brrrraaaap," Andrew belched again and giggled.

I leaned back on my elbows, felt the sun on my face, looked in the direction of the train station -- just behind the building to my left -- and felt good. I did that sappy thing of wondering where Claire was at that exact moment, and whether she was thinking of me.


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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes, I'm a groupie.

BTW: You might enjoy Besserwisser. Reminded me a little bit of The Way Forward.