Saturday, May 19, 2012

Friday night in P Town

It. Never. Stops. Raining. I am baffled at times that people live in this country. Not that I would expect no people at all -- people will live anywhere. It wouldn't be a surprise to find a few hardy, muddy souls in the caves and hollows of this island. But that there are so many people, that is sometimes confusing.

There are millions upon millions of them. Literally millions upon millions, all stacked up on top of each other and squished together, covering every little bit of space with narrow, pockmarked roads, crumbling walls and litter. This country would be half it size without litter.

All types pass by on the glossy-wet street below. Some stumble off and on the pavement like a silent film drunkard. Young people, seemingly in competition to see who can dress the most ridiculously, wrap arms around shoulders and necks in an attempt to create a kind of multi-legged creature more suited to the challenges presented by an undulating world. Big-bellied, arm-swinging, bald-headed grinning fools lurch forward as if pulled by a rope. Barefoot women with too-thin cardigans held over their heads wave their shoes in the air.

Most people walk without noticing the rain, though it falls hard. It is drunkenness, perhaps. More likely it is Britishness. They either walk as if always in rain, or walk in the rain as always. I can't decide.

A group of men orbit themselves as if following badly drawn concentric circles, eating chips from styrofoam square bowls. They cross the roundabout by its diameter. One drops his styrofoam container right at the roundabout's centre, lets it bounce off his leg and pays it no attention.

Taxis speed past, take the corners hard. Slope-shouldered men's faces are lit blue by the screens of mobile phones. Fat women huddle together. Voices call out. The world is orange and glistening. It is Friday night in P Town. And it keeps raining.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

No one has ever fit so perfectly in my arms as Jenn. You would expect me to say that, she is my fiancee, but it is also genuinely true. My arms wrap around her easy, we entangle into perfect holds. Strange, wonderful submission holds. The cuddle trap.

That I could feel so strongly about her after a year and a half -- still wanting in all moments to hold her close and breathe her in, indeed, wanting her more than ever before -- suggests a longevity to our relationship that is at once incredibly comforting and just a little bit terrifying. Always and forever means always and forever carrying the mistakes, as well as the good times. I am fearful of making really bad ones. Of course I will leave the toilet seat up or spill wine on her favourite dress or awkwardly joke with her brother about his sex life. There will be mistakes. But I fear making big ones -- mistakes that never become funny with time, mistakes that erode, mistakes that somehow act as tiny burrs to ruin those perfect moments when we are wrapped in each other.

It is the first morning of May. May Day. We are lying on our sides, pressed warm and safe and happy against one another, our arms and legs in a tangle. The alarm rings for the third time and I can feel in the muscles along her ribs that Jenn is really going to get up this time.

"OK," she sighs.

And already, at 7:15 a.m., the best part of my day is over.

I bury my head in her pillows and breathe her smell as she gets up and heads to take a shower. There is the sound of her moving around, getting something from the kitchen, the bathroom door closing, and now just the rain. It has rained nonstop since I can't remember when. It seems my feet are always wet. I feel the last time I saw the sun was five months and 5,000 miles ago, when Jenn and my father and I went for a walk along the Minnesota River, though I know that to be factually untrue.

I hear the rain hit the windows and the pavement below and the roof of our downstairs neighbour's almost-certainly-not-built-to-code extension. The rain finds its way into all corners of our 130-year-old building and drips down from a crack in the ceiling to a waiting drinking glass set on the window sill. Drip. Drip. Drip.

My throat is on fire and my body feels weak, aching and shaky. Odd hours, unhappiness and an inability to take care of myself have again conspired to make me ill. This would be deserved if I were coming home from the pub at midnight thrice a week. But my hours are a result of teaching night courses and having to rely on public transportation. My life is a string of minor illnesses. I feel the last time I was really healthy was back on that walk along the Minnesota River. Though I know this, too, to be factually inaccurate; I had a fever on that day.

My world of raindrops and Jenn smell and pillow softness bends time and Jenn is now back in the bedroom. I hear her rubbing on body lotion, rustling through her drawers, her hair dryer.

"Do you want to get a little more sleep, babe?" she asks.

"No," I say. "I want to have breakfast with you."

I roll to my side of the mattress, feel under the bed for the tracksuit bottoms I wear as pyjamas and hold them without moving. I hear the kettle roar and click. Time bends. I hear Jenn scraping butter on toast.

"M'up!" I shout, finally throwing away the covers and searching the floor for yesterday's underwear.

There is tea and toast and two kinds of jam. Jenn eats muesli, which, if you've never had it, is exactly as appetising as its name. Muesli. It sounds like a Victorian ailment: "Me da' can't work the mines no more. He got the muesli, he does."

Jenn is running late, as usual. I have never known her to operate in anything other than a tornado. She does this with a kind of amiability, though -- chatting about her day ahead, how cute the dog is of the person walking by on the street, what she's going to make for dinner, and our plans to see a movie tonight as she consumes museli in great spoonfuls, occasionally jerking her head to look at the clock. She finishes breakfast before me, kisses me, says "I love you" six times and heads to work. The door shuts and again it is just me and the sound of rain. The radiator. The clock.

I finish my tea, find some ibuprofen to help with my throat and spend an hour or so looking for jobs. I want to work in Bristol. There is no particularly solid reason for this, but for the fact I am so burned out on Wales and, more to the point, my constant applying for jobs in Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and all points between has not resulted in employment despite more than six months of real, actual, not just saying I'm trying but really trying.

At midday I take the train into Cardiff city centre to attend an informal interview at a temp agency.

"How did you find the test?" asks a young woman in a headscarf. "Alright?"

I am lost in trying to decide whether I know her. I feel like I do, but can't guess where from. She looks to be of Somali origin and suddenly I feel a kind of embarrassment as I wonder whether I think I know her just because I am, in fact, a dumb white guy who deep down inside thinks that all black people look alike. I tell myself this is not true and quickly recall the distinctive faces of various black people to prove my point: Carl Weathers, Florence Griffyth-Joyner, R. Truth. I have probably just seen her around town, I decide. Cardiff is not so big and I have lived here six years.

This all takes place in an instant. Her question about the skills test I took a fortnight ago finally filters into my head. Strangely, my brain offers the Welsh phrase "digon syml" as a response and then stalls out in searching for a tactful, intelligent English equivalent.

"Oh, uh, uhm," I say.

"No need to be worried about it," she smiles. "You did exceptionally well. You scored 98 percent."

She asks me questions about what work I'm doing at the moment, my availability, whether I'm willing to travel, and so on. She does not ask me what kind of work I would like to be doing, but I volunteer this information, anyway.

"If it were at all possible, I'd love something commensurate to my experience and skills," I say.

She smiles at me gently, as if to say: "You'll get what you get."

I emphasise my Welsh fluency and my two university degrees and all my years of experience and the fact I am good at all kinds of things, knowing that telling her all this doesn't matter but needing to because there is no one else to tell it to. I have had just one job interview in the last year. She listens politely and writes nothing down.

"At the moment," she says, lilting her voice in that South Wales way of letting you know that whatever follows is going to be disappointing, "we're probably looking at nothing coming up until July. So, don't be concerned if you don't hear from us for a while."


I walk back to the train station, almost getting run over by a bus I didn't see. On the train platform there is an old lady wearing an eyepatch that is decorated with a silver bespangled butterfly. I cannot help but grin. Rain patters on the metal awning and I hear a sea gull tumble-walking just overhead. Trains roar and announcements rattle and brakes squeal and it rains and rains and rains.

Back home, I take off my wet shoes and make lunch. I eat my hamburger sitting in front of my laptop, watching YouTube clips from the previous night's Monday Night Raw. I watch wrestling a lot these days. It is so ridiculous and predictable, it is about the only thing I know will not make me cry.

Afterward, standing at the window and eating an orange, I find myself thinking of the doctor's office down the road. I went in to be treated for depression in January and was put on a waiting list. I am still waiting. I think, too, of the white trash fathers of some of the friends I had growing up in Dallas or Houston. I don't know if they were drunk -- I was too young to identify such behaviour -- but I did know they rarely seemed to be anywhere but the couch. I can remember wanting, even at that age, to reproach them, wanting to say: "You know, I don't ever see my dad in the middle of the day. Because he has a job. He's working."

Their laziness annoyed me. It felt like some kind of weird airborne disease -- the muesli -- that you could breathe in and never shake. I hated being in those friends' houses. Once, when I was a very young boy, my mother had to console me because I had woken up from a nightmare in which I had grown old and amounted to nothing. I feel now that wastefulness, that uselessness is on me. Despite the work ethic of my own parents and my friends and all the things I've achieved, I feel I cannot shake the sapping illness of being a big waste of space.

My throat hurts. I feel ill. I feel old and tired and stupid and far away. I feel like a big mistake.